Published May 28, 2018A wide number of weird and wonderful instruments take the stage during Halifax's OBEY Convention each year, but Sunday night's finale show put the most familiar of them — the human voice — front and centre.
Admittedly, Un Blonde, the solo project of Montreal-based Jean-Sebastien Audet (pictured), spent a good deal of his set focused on his other musical tools as well. He switched quickly and frequently between guitar, organ and grand piano, often darting away from one suddenly as soon as one of his short-but-sweet compositions was over. At times, it was as if he was deciding which one would best fit the next title on his handwritten set list. The gaps between songs made his set a less cohesive experience than on record (like 2016's Good Will Come To You, his most fully realized release thus far), but offered a nervy charm all their own.
But no matter what instrument he ended up choosing, Audet's voice captivated. A quiet, unassuming presence on stage, Audet started to sway and shimmer around the mic when it was time to sing. His was not an effortless performance: you felt each vocal run being pulled from within his body, pushing its way through the side of his mouth and out into the church's acoustics. His tone deftly encompasses a such a legacy of genres (from R&B, back to soul, back to blues) and allows brief songs like "No Fronting" or "Staying in Line" to play like sketches, drawings to which Audet's voice — strong, soulful, in complete command — adds amazing colour.
The crowd was primed for vocal prowess after the thrilling previous set by New York-based Anaïs Maviel, who received a standing ovation from the church's pews at the end of her performance. Described as a "vocalist, percussionist, composer, educator, curator and healer," Maviel's performance consisted of two long-form pieces, each of which ebbed and flowed across multiple movements. The first was performed with a n'goni, a West African harp that Maivel seemed to use every inch of to conjure sound. The second was built around multiple stringed instruments, two bows and a surdo drum — all used for both percussion and melody.
Tying it all together was Maivel's voice, her control of which stunned from the first note. At times, it sounded almost electronic: with no digital effects, she would cut and splice her tone, crackling her voice into fragments colliding up against one another. At others, it was such a fulsome sound that its echo seemed to reverberate around the church hall, unending. "What you heard is where I'm at," Maivel said at the end of her set, suggesting that her creative work on these particular pieces remains in progress — an exciting prospect, given their impressiveness at this point.
The voice even had an unexpected cameo during the night's opening performance by Montreal-based ambient performer Markus Floats. At the end of his lush, contemplative sound construction, built entirely on his laptop, the cacophony of tones built into an excerpt from "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by American poet Langdon Hughes. It was a timely dose of humanness at the conclusion of a wavy, woozy set of sounds.