It’s erroneous to classify Toronto quintet The Beauties by the A-list company it keeps. Sure, they’re Canada’s most celebrated backing band, supporting everyone from Kevin Drew to Serena Ryder to Justin Rutledge. Yes, you’ll find the group’s band members credited on Holy Fuck, Sebastian Grainger and Gandharvas recordings. And yes, they’re veterans of the national fest circuit, having performed originals from their Six Shooter-released eponymous LP.
Ignore all of that. Instead, focus on the reasons their hometown alt-weekly, Now, has named it Hogtown’s best country band: It’s at the centre of the Dakota Tavern, home of Toronto’s loudest, and most exciting, country community (whose walls hosted residencies by Eamon McGrath and Elliott Brood in their infancy); They’re one of the city’s most cherished homers, whose Sunday night performances have people lining down Toronto’s buzzy Ossington strip on a weekly basis; And musically, they’re equal parts gritty outlaw country, punkified honky tonk and hard-edged psychedelia — traits that place them squarely in The Sadies, late-game Blue Rodeo and Elliott Brood cohort.
“The way we play at festivals is like the way we play at the Dakota,” says guitarist and Dakota co-owner Shawn Creamer, noting his band plays blistering, five-hour sets every week.
“Well, if we have only one set, we’re going to rock it out,” laughs Creamer. “To play louder and faster than everyone else might be disrespectful — but we’ll turn it up. Our set’s loud. The guitars are layered. We may start with country covers — like old Ernest Tubb songs — but we end on punk rock.”
But, as Creamer admits, the colliding dynamics that typify a Beauties show — a quality that’s made them a favourite amongst punks, Ontario cowboys and stuffy MBA students alike — was difficult to distill in recording. Which is why The Beauties, a lacklustre effort created under the guidance of Drew, isn’t indicative of their powerhouse live chops: It was scatterbrained, over-produced and unfocused. But if listeners dismissed that LP — perhaps rightfully so — they shouldn’t write The Beauties off before witnessing them in person.
“The problem with the album is that we played it too safe,” he says. “Kevin Drew was there, and he was great, but he was telling us to concentrate on this, concentrate on that.... And we ended up putting a little bit of everything into those songs. And it’s been three years since we recorded the record. We’re a completely different band now.”
And that band, live, is one that can comfortably slip psych freakouts into Townes Van Zandt covers, or turn country stompers into post-rock wanderers — no small feat. That restless penchant is something Creamer, in the next year, hopes to document: He says The Beauties have written a batch of loud-loud-louder originals; the band’s also written songs with Drew and Ryder, which Creamer hopes to record. And if they succeed — and we believe they will — The Beauties could be the next notch in Toronto’s gritty urban country lineage.
“Toronto’s interpretation — its urban roots — has a long history,” he says. And that history has never been about open-mic crooners or cowboys. “Look at Blue Rodeo. Toronto’s music is more about rock ’n’ roll. It has an edge. I’d sound silly singing a Corb Lund song, or some shit about the truck getting stuck. But I can sing about Bloor Street, or the problems in our city. And I love that Canada has so many regional [roots] sounds.”