Not their first rodeo: Marianas Trench @ Calgary Stampede

Arts Coverage

Can-con pop-punk favourites Marianas Trench played a packed crowd at the Calgary Stampede’s Coca Cola Stage this week.

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Rain earlier in the day may have marred Day 4 of the annual rodeo, but skies were clear by the time Josh Ramsay, Matt Webb, Mike Ayley and Ian Casselman took the stage.

The band kicked off their set with the “Astoria,” a sprawling, seven-minute suite that opens their most recent album. The proggy track seemed an odd pick for the venue, but it worked; frontman Josh Ramsay belting out “What doesn’t make me stronger kills me!” was a suitable arena-rock rallying cry.

The rest of the set was more accessible, combining crunchy pop-punk with electronic-tinged dance tunes and liberal servings of funky pop.

The set list, which included catchy favourites like “All to Myself,” “Cross My Heart,” “Stutter,” “Good to You,” “Haven’t Had Enough,” “Fallout,” and “This Means War,” was a fitting showcase of the band’s versatility and eclecticism.

Marianas Trench released their emo-tinged debut Fix Me in 2006, standing out from the pop-punk pack with a distinctive mix of tongue-in-cheek humour and genuinely raw accounts of addiction and mental illness. From early on, the band wore their Queen influence on their sleeve (see: the “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque video for “Shake Tramp”). Their 2009 follow-up Masterpiece Theatre maintained their punky vibe while experimenting with complex narratives and prog rock-style suites, and their 2011 concept album Ever After felt like a dance-punk version of Styx. More recently, the group went full pop with their latest record, 2015’s buoyant funk throwback Astoria.

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This isn’t to say Marianas Trench is ever self-indulgent. Despite their grand ambitions, the band never fully abandoned their formula of irresistible pop hooks, soaring ballads, and gorgeous vocal harmonies.

(A highlight of their Coke Stage gig was a rendition of “Who Do You Love” – a Queen-meets-Phil-Collins opus that sounded as magical live as it does on the recording).

For all their grandiosity, Trench live shows can feel slightly minimalist. With just the occasional electronic sound effects to back up the drums and power chords, the spotlight falls squarely on the songcraft and affectionate interplay between the band members.

Ramsay (who removed his shirt for the encore but retained his red-and-black striped armband), is a cocky and gregarious frontman. Throughout the show, he frequently stopped to banter with the crowd (occasionally cracking himself up and having to stop to compose himself) and reminisce about Stampedes past.

Marianas Trench’s rodeo debut, coincidentally, was ten years ago, and saw the band opening for moody post-grunge outfit Three Days Grace. “It was a perfect fit,” Ramsay quipped. A subsequent Trench show, he noted, broke Stampede attendance records.

“And guess who came along and beat it? It was us.”

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This sense of humour, saucy with a scathing streak, animates many of the band’s biggest hits.

“This song’s a little cheeky – just like the guy who wrote it,” Ramsay announced prior to Ever After-era standout “Desperate Measures,” one of several Trench tracks that takes swipes at the music industry (the others being “Celebrity Status,” “Here’s to the Zeros,” and “Pop 101,” all  well-received by the Coke Stage crowd).

It takes tact to mock sterile, factory-produced pop without denying one’s place in the pop landscape (after all, Ramsay was the producer behind Carly Rae Jepsen’s international earworm “Call Me Maybe”). Thankfully, Marianas Trench are self-aware to pull it off.

“Pop 101” in particular works both as a parody of dance music cliches and a banger in itself, allowing audiences to appreciate the satire while responding non-ironically to its “Get to the floor!” call to action.

This balance between sarcasm and sentimentality is a large part of Marianas Trench’s enduring appeal, and a major reason why their live shows are so effective. The band knows how to make smart statements without sacrificing fun, appealing equally to nostalgic superfans and everyday Stampede-goers looking for a good time.

Lineup: Marianas Trench

Date: July 11/2017, 9:00 PM

Venue: Coca-Cola Stage, Calgary Stampede

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