U.S. Girls show they’re ready for next step at secret show

Local critics’ darlings perform excellent tune-up show before beginning major tour

Who: U.S. Girls
Where: Drake Underground, Toronto
When: Sat., April 8
Vibe: Majestic art-rock butterfly emerges from COVID-19-created chrysalis
Rating: NNNN (out of five)
Highlight: Watching frontperson Meg Remy delight in taking back her on-stage power as confidence grows with each song.

A RED, VELVET CURTAIN remains pulled across the Drake Underground stage as a quietly excited small group of family, friends and industry folk mill and mumble in anticipation of a special “secret show” from local heroes U.S. Girls. This show comes ahead of their first major tour since COVID-19 hit and the recent release of their excellent new album, Bless This Mess.

The tour hits Toronto for public shows at the Velvet Underground on April 27 and 28, but right now, that red curtain feels more like wrapping paper for a show that will almost exclusively feature the new album, making it feel like a gift to the lucky crowd.

The curtain finally pulls open to reveal boss girl, Girl, Meg Remy sitting slumped in an overstuffed easy chair, the stage itself overstuffed with keyboards, congas, a million pedals, mics and five other band members (including Remy’s brilliant guitar-playing spouse Max Turnbull, better known to some for his own indie career as Slim Twig).

She looks annoyed or maybe just deep in contemplation; either way, she’s riveting and when she arises (wearing a brick-like patterned jacket that would make David Byrne proud) to slink from her chair to the microphone stand as the band plays, she will command the stage for the rest of the night; sometimes through stunning vocals, unexpected dance moves and even silence.

U.S. Girls is the kind of band critics like to adopt as their own, a precious treasure so special it’s assumed they’ll never have arena-level success; their art experiments are the kind of stuff whispered about by indie folk lingering at sound boards in the back of clubs, with larger success presumed a “no go” at the price of “brilliance.”

But on their recent new album, Bless This Mess, U.S. Girls served notice that this band can write hits, radio tracks and songs smart kids can dance to on TikTok. Remy, with close-cropped hair and a dramatic gaze, at times, has the stoic otherworldliness and gravitas of David Bowie and it’s impossible not to think of Annie Lennox watching her. Much of the new sound borrows from ’80s synth rock with dashes of Yacht Rock, and comparisons to the Eurhythmics are inevitable — and not just because of the band’s spousal artistic partnership.

Early, Remy drops the jacket to reveal a black body suit and while the band artfully detours, surrendering to the loops and beats, she busts dance moves to the delight of the already dancing crowd.
And even in this small, somewhat-subdued show, Remy’s first time on any stage since before COVID-19 struck, it’s clear that, with the new songs and a confident, well-constructed set, U.S. Girls are ready to grab a major audience.

With Turnbull driving his guitar sounds through masterfully assembled loops, keyboardists Geordie Gordon and Edwin De Goej dropping layers and flourishes onto the sound and percussionist Ed Squires weaving it together with beats, Remy summons it all to propel her star power forward with mesmerizing vocals and grab-you-by-the-collar lyrics.

The band often comes to a full stop after each song; is it a dramatic device or a byproduct of their first show in years? It works to create drama: as if Remy is contemplating the impact of each song after performing it, a little amazed herself at how good it was, deeming it worthy of contemplation. Or is she just catching her breath?

Remy takes one last big breath before beginning each new song, as if summoning some latent power that has been dormant, buried under decayed leaves for a few seasons, there to be called up when needed, even more powerful than before.

And U.S. Girls do seem even more powerful than before. I find myself feeling a little jealous of audiences that will see this show once they’ve played it a few times, tightening their already precise playing and interplay. It’s already so tight.

The show feels deeply personal, all the more so when Remy sings of her and her lover’s mothers and some challenges there, as I spy the singer’s own mother-in-law taking in the track by the edge of the stage.

At the risk of being just another hyperbolic critic, this U.S. Girls tune-up show feels like the prelude to greatness. I was certain there were times, as Remy gazed into lights above the Drake crowd while the band played and Turnbull soloed, that she was envisioning the arena version of the song with the requisite fleet of dancers, spectacular lighting and special effects. And based on the show on display at the Drake this weekend, the days of those kinds of arena shows aren’t that far off for this band.

Don’t miss them at the Velvet.