I’d been counting down the days and the nights (chessy intro, I know) but there was nothing that could have prepared me for the beauty, the love, the emotional journey I was to venture on, lead by one of my favourite artists, Above & Beyond. This marked my fourth time seeing them live, but I don’t consider grouping the Acoustic II show with the rest; there is something so pure and unique about live orchestra music. Being musically talented enough to have your electronic music translate to this style speaks wonders of the quality production Above & Beyond have been providing us for years.
I nearly never have the opportunity to doll myself up, so I went all out with a ruffled dress, large curls, a face full of make up, and brand new glittery gold heels purchased precisely for that night. Some put in the effort to dress up formally as I did, most others went for semi-formal, and a few showed up in very casual wear.
With nothing but two keyboards, two pad controllers, four beams of pink and blue light, and the two musical talents of Joe Wilson and Tom Kingston, Solomon Grey took their place at centre stage. The British duo were announced as the supporting act to the Acoustic II tour about two months prior on Group Therapy Radio #170. Performing with a stripped down stage presence put more focus and attention to their ability to layer their intricate sounds live – the venue echoed with their haunting and unique melodies. The concert hall was approximately a third full at this point in time; a disappointing turn out as I would’ve wished for a little more acknowledgement and respect for the specially selected opener (although I’m not sure how seriously they took themselves, as they opted out of suits and classy dresswear and went for the casual shirt and pant combo). If you were a part of the small audience and you enjoyed what they had to offer, Solomon Grey has made a live recording of their newest single Broken Light as a free download in celebration of their first United States and Canada appearance. Their set lasted half an hour ending at 8:30pm and the energy of the room changed to excitement, knowing our headliners were just moments away.
Massey Hall filled up as 9pm approached. A voice spoke from above, informing us that there will be an official live film recording of Acoustic II to be released after the conclusion of the tour, suggesting that we put away our cameras and enjoy the evening without distraction. The lights dimmed once again and Tony McGuinness, Paavo Siljamäki, Jono Grant, Zoë Johnston, Justine Suissa, Natalie Holmes, Cobi, and their touring 18-piece band arranged themselves across the entire stage. Seconds after the first chords to Hello were struck; I was in tears. I had been waiting for this moment since the Acoustic II tour was announced six months prior; my excitement and emotion had been building for a long time and it uncontrollably poured out of me the first chance it had.
The audience seemed unsure of how to act in the beginning. All of us are used to singing loudly and dancing wildly when we hear Above & Beyond’s music live at clubs and festivals. It was dead silent while they played, followed by polite applause and cheers in between songs. It wasn’t until a loud heckle from the balcony few songs later that broke the tension. McGuinness laughed and spoke to us, telling us that this wasn’t a stiff show, encouraging us to find what feels good: singing along, dancing in our seats, closing our eyes to feel the music, anything goes. I found myself switching between sitting upright and fully present, to moving my seat to its reclined position (special seating option to those viewing from the floor), closing my eyes and embracing the beautiful movement of the music.
For the majority of the night, Paavo Siljamäki was positioned on the left side of the stage playing the grand piano, Tony McGuinness took the middle on guitar, and Jono Grant was on the right side on Rhodes keyboard. Sometimes they would switch up their instruments; McGuinness had a fun ukelele bit during We Are All We Need and Grant shared the piano with Siljamäki during Save Me. Occasionally the vocalists would play an instrument as well, such as Holmes taking over the xylophone for various tunes and Cobi playing guitar for All Over The World. The stage lighting changed depending on the theme of the song – lots of blue lighting for Blue Sky Action, red for Thing Called Love, starry sparkly lights for Satellite, dark moody and minimal lighting for Black Room Boy, etc. Drastic differences, but very fitting. Every few songs, one of the three would speak to the crowd, telling us short stories of what inspired their music (such as Siljamäki telling us Save Me was written about his sister’s heart being broken and him not knowing how to help her) or how they came to work with various artists and vocalists. I was really looking forward to hearing Peace Of Mind, which unfortunately didn’t translate acoustically as well as I would’ve hoped. Afterward, Siljamäki said “If that was our sunshine, this is our darkness” which lead right into Black Room Boy, a duet between McGuinness and Cobi. Before they closed their main set with Alone Tonight, what McGuinness referred to as their “James Bond theme song”, they talked about concerns they used to have about hosting acoustic performances, unsure of how well fans would react to it and how they couldn’t be happier with the acceptance and support of the project, and they gave Guvernment a shout out which lead to the room erupting with cheers.
Zoë Johnston was the first vocalist of the night to take centre stage with her solo of We Are All We Need. Johnston was a part of the first Above & Beyond acoustic shows back in 2013 and fans were excited to hear her return to the project when the vocalist announcement was made a few weeks prior. She’s been featured in many of trance group’s discography and took the spotlight for five songs. My favourite performance from her was Good For Me – the beautiful track was the last song of night and couldn’t have ended on a better note.
Of the nineteen songs in the set, four of them were from Above & Beyond’s side project OceanLab. Justine Suissa has collaborated with McGuinness, Siljamäki, and Grant since 2000 and they released their debut album “Sirens Of The Sea” in 2008. All eyes were on Suissa when she sang Miracle, Satellite, On A Good Day, and their latest single Another Chance (one of my favourite performances of the night). I would’ve liked to hear Little Something, but then again I would’ve been a crying wreck more so than I already was, so maybe I’m lucky they opted out of playing it.
As the evening progressed, Cobi went from formally standing and singing at centre stage to moving around and rocking out! He had the biggest role out of the four vocalists, singing solo or as a duet for nine songs which accounts for nearly half the setlist. Sticky Fingers had a very rock and roll vibe to it and Cobi took full advantage of it, traveling from side to side on the stage and really getting into the music. During Thing Called Love, he had a slight mic drop when he tried removing it from the stand, but he recovered quickly and professionally. After it ended, the girls laughed and hugged him – I can only imagine the chirps he got later that night!
Johnston and Suissa have angelic singing voices, but I would’ve liked to hear more from Natalie Holmes. I was very impressed with her cover of Counting Down The Days, the only song she had her own solo for. I recognize that Above & Beyond wanted to make the most of Johnston’s and Suissa’s presence and let them be the stars of the show, as they are two lead female vocalists for many of their discography and they are close friends with the group. But the effort that went into hiring and training her for the tour, they could’ve given her another song, even if it was a duet with the ladies, or maybe even let her create a female cover of an originally male lead song. Holms looked absolutely adorable on stage and I hope to hear her lovely voice again in upcoming Above & Beyond productions.
I was taken to a place beyond “group therapy”. Everyone contributed to the cloud of love that filled the room, showcased at its highest peak during the triple encore of On A Good Day, Sun & Moon, and Good For Me. Together, we stood and sang along to all the words, united by our adoration and appreciation for Above & Beyond. McGuinness dedicated Sun & Moon to the Guvernment club (cue more loud cheering) and confetti shot out during the feelsy outro. When the show finished, I was still radiating happiness as I twirled around and sang Good For Me on the streets of Toronto, making a note to look for a cheap ticket to the second show happening the next day the minute I got home (in the end I didn’t go – the excitement after the first show prompted a lot of FOMO and ticket resales were going for face value).
This was one of the most magical nights I’ve ever experienced, making this girl the happiest little dreamer in the world.
9:05 Hello (w/ Zoë Johnston, Justine Suissa, Natalie Holms & Cobi)
9:10 We’re All We Need (w/ Zoë Johnston)
9:16 Blue Sky Action (w/ Cobi)
9:21 Miracle (w/ Justine Suissa)
9:27 Sticky Fingers (w/ Cobi)
9:33 Counting Down The Days (w/ Natalie Holms)
9:40 Satellite / Stealing Time (w/ Justine Suissa & Cobi)
9:46 No One On Earth (w/ Zoë Johnston)
9:51 On My Way To Heaven (w/ Cobi)
9:55 Another Chance (w/ Justine Suissa)
10:03 All Over The World (w/ Cobi)
10:10 Peace Of Mind (w/ Zoë Johnston)
10:16 Black Room Boy (w/ Tony McGuinness & Cobi)
10:22 Thing Called Love (w/ Cobi)
10:26 Save Me (w/ Zoë Johnston)
10:32 Alone Tonight (w/ Cobi)
10:42 On A Good Day (w/ Justine Suissa)
10:48 Sun & Moon (w/ Cobi)
10:55 Good For Me (w/ Zoë Johnston)
Ashlyn Doughty – EDM TOR