The last time I was at the Axis Club in Toronto, was back in 2015 when it was called The Mod Club. I saw Italy’s Doom masters, Ufomammut. It was the heaviest show, sonically and visually, I have ever seen in my life. It will be near impossible for that “kind” of heaviness to ever be eclipsed in my life. This gives so much contextual irony to Emma Ruth Rundle occupying that same space tonight with instruments–only an acoustic guitar and a beautiful, white grand piano–that foretold of a heaviness that would be equally shattering and beautiful.
Emma Ruth Rundle
Axis Club, Toronto – 6 April 2023
Words: Sunil Singh
Yes. Heavy music is beautiful. It’s why so many who listen to it, especially in a domain that is wide and fearless, feel comforted, connected, and centred in our existence and relationship with the universe. That’s a pretty heavy take, right? Well, that is the feeling that everyone in the audience processed in real time listening to an artist that serenades the beauty of life that is lost, overlooked, dark, fragile, and generally lurks in imaginative crevices that are both ephemeral and eternal.
The mood for the evening was perfectly set by opening act Patrick Shiroishi, a saxophone player based out of Los Angeles. The silence he commanded during his set was deafening and a harbinger of things to come. From just the first few notes, an “ancestral vibe” filled up the Axis Club. With just his instrument and voice, he created huge swings of volume, from barely audible puffs on his saxophone to a wild medley of voice/sound that felt indigenous and sacred. The roar of applause that erupted after he finished his 30-minute set was in stark contrast to the pin-drop silence that, respectfully, yet tensely, existed since the beginning.
Emma Ruth Rundle is simply a spiritual force of nature. While she sings in spaces that are quiet and sombre, her personality is buoyant, funny, kind, and grateful. One of her funniest quips was at the end when she remarked she was going to do “an hour of Melvin’s covers”. Emma Ruth Rundle might be singing more softly and purposefully these days, but her heavy roots extend to some pretty hardcore bands. Just check out her 2019 performance at Roadborn with Thou tearing through Misfits covers of Bullet and Last Caress.
Tonight, however, she honoured an intimate audience of 500 with an edginess that was subtle, demure, and evocative. She came out dressed in a black and white outfit, giving off the feeling she was some soothsayer with some jester-like/Shakespearean Fool character sprinkled in. Her makeup complemented that. I couldn’t help but think of Peter Gabriel in Selling England By The Pound era.
As she has been doing on this tour, she played her entire Engine Of Hell album in entirety and in order. During every song, the only sound was coming from the stage. The audience, obliging Emma Ruth Rundle, was in a hypnotic trance. Only after each song, was there this burst of appreciation and even yelling. This also gave her a chance to be grateful and funny and acknowledge her searing awareness of the moment, which was this show in Toronto.
The show began with Return, a beautiful and haunting piano song that flirts with sparseness so much that it is unnerving and romantically gripping at the same time. Hearing it live can only be described as a gift. Just over five minutes in, I already felt my body drifting towards an ineffable place of serenity that I would not want to surrender. Blooms Of Oblivion followed, and she pivoted away from her piano to a mic that was positioned to handle her acoustic numbers. Her folk styling is just as unique as her piano compositions. The energy she gives off is very reminiscent of an early Neil Young, crouching over his acoustic guitar and singing songs you know are transcending time even as they are played. When she uttered the phrase “I love you” in this song, it was piercing and permanent with untouched beauty.
Body had her going back to the piano and utilizing it fully for all possible sounds. When she started opening and closing the wooden case with her right hand while playing the piano with her left, it was bloody heavy. If you weren’t left in a puddle of your own thoughts, you weren’t at the same show. Before she went back to the acoustic guitar for Company, Emma Ruth Rundle uttered the quote of the night, highlighting the beauty of being imperfect humans:
“You will never be in tune. I will never be in tune. Thank you for supporting live music.”
That was the perfect moment to be reminded of the importance of live music and the artistic community.
When she went back to the piano for Dancing Man, she told a story about the song, which only added emotional gravitas to the ensuing performance. It was about memory anchors, which use our five senses to recall moments.
She talked about cherry blossom trees. She talked about their soft petals. She talked about their light fragrance. She talked about them falling lightly to the ground. She talked about how this is what love feels like and the moment she had with her friend on a beautiful Spring day. Getting that story before she even played a note was critical in appreciating the song even more. The image of those petals falling is something we all know. And, those in the audience now had a vivid, musical attachment to its symbolism of love.
The show only gathered the momentum of propelling the audience to a state of deep contemplation and awareness. Razor’s Edge was dedicated to the great Chris Whitley, a phenomenal blues artist, who passed away too early at the age of 45 in 2005, incapable of conquering the same demons that allowed him to sing viscerally. It’s basically a folk song, but again the power is in the delivery and the lyrics “the demon I have become”. Lyrically, it is my favourite song on the album.
Citadel broke the pattern of Emma Ruth Rundle alternating between piano and acoustic guitar. She stayed with her guitar. Something about this song just painted an image of a dewy morning with lots of emerald green, having its bright colours obscured by the mist. Maybe it was the tinge of Celtic that I heard in the song, some subtle nod to dark romanticism.
This is all set up for the finale of the album, Afterlife. Again, Emma Ruth Rundle talking to the audience about a song was pivotal, just adding more context and clarity about its meaning. She even joked that “we can toil in eternal misery” after this song. The audience laughed. Another reminder that those who listen to heavy and dark music, are paradoxically lightened by our existence with it. She talked about the song being a journey, first beginning with a plunge into the water and then reemerging to head towards space and sublimating into nothingness, where there is only freedom in the end.
My daughter, Raya, who is 14, asked me prior to the show if I would cry. After that short preamble before Afterlife, I can say I did. They were tears of profound connection. Damn. I am tearing up just writing this!
Afterlife is such a powerful song, and to experience it live at the culmination of one of the heaviest shows of intimate, human connection is something I will never forget.
There were two encores after, and they were played with well-needed lightness, whimsy, and audience interaction. As much as we all came into the show seeking heavy, we left with a new sense of lightness and hope through the artistic performance and philosophical attention to nature, the truest beauty in life that Emma Ruth Rundle gifted all of us.
Remaining Tour Dates
Apr 08: Crystal Ballroom – Boston, MA (SOLD OUT)
Apr 09: Le Poisson Rouge – New York City, NY
Apr 11: Crystal Ballroom – Boston, MA
Jun 21: Center United Church at Sled Island – Calgary, AB
Jun 08 – Sideways Festival – Helsinki, FI
Jun 11 – Bergen, NO – USF
Jun 21 Sled Island Music & Arts Festival – Calgary, AB
Jul 15 – Bos! Festival- Bergelen – Gullegem, BE
Jul 20 – Electric Castle Festival- Banffy Castle – Cluj, RO