Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Oh, right: Billy Talent.
In case you’d forgotten — or had, perhaps, never bothered to actually investigate for yourself — Billy Talent can really hold it down onstage. Like, really hold it down. Some bands get big and stay big for a reason. Billy Talent is one of them.
Suburban Streetsville, Ont.’s most treasured contribution (yet, anyway) to the permanent record of Canadian rock-’n’-roll history rode into the Air Canada Centre on Monday night for a homecoming date on its Afraid of Heights tour and completely crushed it with such well-worn confidence, discipline and egoless bravado that it could casually cede the first encore to an unannounced appearance by fellow 905-punks-made-good Alexisonfire — from whom Billy Talent has temporarily pilfered drummer Jordan Hastings while founding timekeeper Aaron Solowoniuk wrestles with multiple sclerosis — and still bounce back to shut the whole thing down as if there’d never been any disruption. If you’ve got a beast like “Try Honesty” languishing in the greatest-hits kitty after two hours, after all, you can do whatever the hell you want.
So, yeah, if you were part of the just-shy-of-capacity crowd that turned up for Billy Talent and Hamil-rockin’ openers the Dirty Nil and Monster Truck at the ACC last night, you got a bonus three-song reunion set from Alexisonfire. But you also got Billy Talent rippin’ it up at the Air Canada Centre with an incendiary enthusiasm perhaps not exhibited by the band in a big room in Toronto since it played the same venue for the first time way back in 2007.
The quartet — frontman Ben Kowalewicz, superhuman guitarist Ian D’Sa, bassist Jon Gallant and Hastings, who was briefly relieved behind the ’kit by a warmly received Solowoniuk mid-set on “Pins and Needles” and “Surrender” — went breathlessly full-tilt for the better part of two hours on Monday, hitting the new stuff from last year’s Afraid of Heights every bit as hard as “oldies” like “Devil in a Midnight Mass,” “Rusted from the Rain,” “Nothing to Lose” and “This Is How It Goes.” Harder, in fact; “The Crutch,” “Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats” and “Time-Bomb Ticking Away” were waaaaay fiercer live than their recorded versions, although Dead Silence’s “Surprise Surprise” might have won at the end of the night in the play-it-like-it’s-the-last-time-you’ll-ever-play-it department. Gaaah. Intense.
This was not a performance, in any case, where value-added production conceits like the LED-lit risers — to which D’Sa and Gallant finally took at stage left and stage right for “Afraid of Heights” (a fitting choice in its “elevated” context) and a stormy “Louder Than the DJ” — were employed to distract from any diminished power or presence on the part of the performers. Billy Talent, which will hit its 25th anniversary in 2018, genuinely sounded at the top of its game on Monday — and fired up like it still has something to prove.
At this point, with the Tragically Hip on the wane and its only other major Canadian rock competition at the arena level falling to the likes of Nickelback and Hedley, there are basically two ways left in which to frame the band’s narrative: either Billy Talent is this country’s most taken-for-granted mainstream rock act or its most perpetually underrated. It wins regardless.
Oh, yeah, they also covered the Hip’s “Nautical Disaster” on Monday and got away with it. Props, props, props.
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