For Canadians in London, seeing Dan Mangan play at the Brixton Windmill is supremely surreal. Vancouver's newest and favourite indie folk-rock hero has already won Verge XM Artist of the Year for 2009, is nominated for a further five major Canadian indie music awards (the Buckys), and sells out the biggest and brightest live music venues across the pond faster than you can say "I'm sorry." Which, of course, is Canadian for "hello."
With his star rising so fast back in his native land, it's a tremendous luxury to see him wowing crowds at some of London's more intimate live music venues. The crowd at the Brixton Windmill (Wednesday, 11 November) was a typical mixture of curious regulars and clusters of fans already familiar with his effortless wit, soul-wrenching poetry, and a live delivery that's passionate, forceful, and fluid all at once. One half of you wants to sing along at the top of your lungs of some of his anthemic choruses, but the other half is all too grateful to see him perform his more soulful and confessional songs in a welcoming room like the Windmill.
Mangan is a slight and quietly-spoken young dude of 26, and at first glance doesn't appear likely to be He of the Powerful Sound. But once he began his set with a new tune, You Git (written in dedication to Old Blighty, unsurprisingly enough), the Windmill crowd was hushed and captivated by his gravelly, impassioned voice, and darkly sweet lyrics.
He next launched into his sleeper hit Sold, from the new album. With no backing band on this tour, Mangan nevertheless performed a rousing rendition of the song that seemed perfectly suited to the intimacy of the venue. He pounds away on his acoustic with magical precision and raw energy, and when he hits his stride, his stage presence swells up and draws you in completely. But of course, he then follows up each tune with a sheepish "thanks guys" that brings you back to earth again, slightly dizzied from the trip to wherever it was he'd just taken you.
Most of Mangan's set was devoted to the new album (named not-coincidentally after the Kurt Vonnegut poem of the same name) and he played the full gamut of tracks like Robots, Indie Queens are Waiting, and Tina's Glorious Comeback - songs that have crowded Canadian airwaves for months. But he also delivered wonderfully downbeat songs and a new untitled tune that evokes the desperation that's hit huge swaths of northern Canada as shopfronts are boarded up and families uproot to pursue hoped-for greener pastures.
His music touches on themes of fumbling through the darkness of life's big and small challenges, and tripping over some of the pleasant surprises on the way. He is one of those rare musicians whose melancholic lyrics don't sacrifice charm or effervescence. With three more upcoming gigs across London this week, you've still got a chance to treat yourself to a mesmerizing and unforgettable show (or, if you like, all three).
By Liam Roberts