It’s night, it’s clear, and it’s freezing outside. The minute you step off the streetcar, you look for a familiar door and you run for it.
It doesn’t take long to find the Smiling Buddha, a bar not far from downtown Toronto. It’s mostly empty when I arrive, but soon, all that changes. There’s a well-worn stage at the back. The Smiling Buddha attracts every kind of folk, and the bands that play here range from folk to heavy metal. On any given night, a young hip crowd can mix with their elders, and no one seems to mind. It’s not a glamorous place. But it’s becoming a fountainhead of live bands, each individual, collectively creating a “Toronto sound”.
Basically I’m here to see Robert Graham, who’s connected to the theatre scene, and who is often called in for consulting on live productions. He plays keyboard and is the lead vocalist of a new band named The Fairest and Best. Robert is tall and lean. Tonight, he’s wearing a dark pinstripe suit, with an open shirt which makes him look even taller. The band members look rather dapper in suit jackets and jeans and remind me in appearance of a number of groups that play Saturday Night Live. In addition to Robert, the band provides this helpful and descriptive list—drummer Tony Nesbitt-Larking (Mr Handsome), guitarists Darryl Wood (Mr Expressive), Jimmy Reilly (The Wild One), bassist Gerry Williams (the Respectable One) and back up vocalist Caitlin Holland (the Young and Talented One). As the Fairest and Best set up the stage, more and more arrive, packing the place.
The music is hard to resist. The Fairest and the Best play original music that references pop, and soul. There’s usually a curious retro quality about all the songs that remind one of the high, silver sound of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young all the way to The Eagles. Listening to it live, in a bar, one recalls pop music from the 1980s, the kind of music you’d listen to driving down a long California highway, convertible roof down, pink light washing over fast wheels. But F& B also plays lovely ballads that leave you in solitary spaces, mindful of loneliness, looking forward and back. But The Fair and the Best peppers its own material with songs such as Hall & Oates, “She’s a Maneater”, which goads the audience into a dance frenzy.
The Fairest and Best is a very new band that’s come a long way quickly. The individual songs are engaging but as a whole, but the group needs to tighten and control its transitions, rather than stopping after each song and filling the silence with stray banter. With live music, it’s unwise to skip randomly from fast song to slow, bouncy beat to somber ballad just for mere variety. Live music demands a strong narrative. A band must organize songs in a way that it tells a compelling, connected story, from beginning to end. A live audience craves direction, punctuation, and a driving narrative. Good material, even great material, loses its impact without that structure, and that’s what The Fairest and Best needs to work on.
For the record, drummer Tony Nesbitt-Larking (Mr Handsome), really is handsome and back up vocalist Caitlin Holland (the Young and Talented One) is young and has a truly sublime voice. And Robert Graham is the Empire State Building of men.
For more info on The Fairest and Best, check out:
All photos by Cory Whitehead