Iskwē played an electrifying, intimate show at the National Arts Centre last night.
Kicking off her set with a hard-hitting version of Indigenous empowerment anthem “Healers,” the JUNO-nominated singer performed her new album acākosīk in full, as well as highlights from her acclaimed sophomore record The Fight Within.
With dramatic Siouxsie and the Banshees-esque grooves offset by Powwow singing and hints of electronica, Iskwē’s intense songs were complemented by her powerful vocals and hypnotizing, balletic stage presence. With an excellent band that incorporated drums, keys, guitar, and electric violin, the live arrangements were grander and heavier than their recorded counterparts.
Drawing from her Cree and Metis heritage, Iskwē’s compositions frequently chronicle issues facing Indigenous communities in Canada.
The second song of the night was the mournful “Nobody Knows,” inspired by the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine. She revisited the subject later in the set with “Little Star,” which was written in the wake of the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier acquittals; she said that the JUNO-nominated protest song was a condemnation of the media’s “reckless” and victim-blaming coverage, and an attempt to acknowledge the humanity and value of the young people who were killed: “They place the blame on her like she was nobody’s child / and all I see today is how they wash away our little star.”
This combination of rage and grief and hope was present throughout the set, heightened by intense instrumentals. Her third song, “Say It Sweet,” set vulnerable pleas for affection to eerie, NIN-style industrial atmospherics, and “The Storm” (written about her mother’s struggle with depression) saw a stripped-down piano arrangement build into an apocalyptic gale.
There were several softer moments as well, including a ballad dedicated to Inuk singer Kelly Fraser (who died late last year) and “Sweet Tuesday,” a gentle elegy for a departed friend.
I appreciated the way she set the scene for gothic break-up song “Night Danger,” which she revealed was inspired by the moose warning signs she passed while driving along a deserted northern road. “Imagine if people came with that kind of warning system,” she mused.
She closed the set with defiant call-to-arms “The Unforgotten,” which saw her bring audience members onstage to join a community dance and lead the crowd in singing along with the Ojibwe bridge.
Opening Act: Vi
Local singer-songwriter Vi showed off her strong voice with a set of catchy acoustic originals, which she acknowledged were “mostly about heartbreak.”
“It’s the only thing I can write about,” she laughed.
Highlights included a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and chirpy kiss-off “Clover.”
Line-up: Vi / Iskwē
Venue: National Arts Centre, Ottawa
Date: Feb. 1/2020