Rhye wants you in the dark. Last March, they released their debut album, Woman, anonymously, leaving critics and fans to speculate on their identities – and most famously, their genders. We now know that Rhye is composed of Toronto singer-producer Mike Milosh and Danish singer-producer Robin Hannibal, with the former in town this last weekend for his second ever show in Montreal.
The first time, he performed at Cabaret Mile End in April – again, without Hannibal – and though the smaller venue was much better suited to Rhye’s intimate performance style than the Metropolis, Milosh nonetheless seemed pleased Sunday, calling it a “great venue.”
Even with their identities public, their live shows still feel secretive and mysterious. The setting is as sparse and stripped-down as their music. Milosh and his five-piece band (Hannibal is not touring) are barely lit on the dark stage, appearing almost as silhouettes.
With Milosh standing still in front of the microphone, they opened with “Verse,” followed by a slowed-down version of “3 Days,” after which Milosh addressed the audience: “Hope you enjoy everything we’re gonna do tonight!” Amidst cheers, they lapsed into “The Fall,” one of their more uptempo tracks and the second single from the album.
Milosh’s silky falsetto is as lush and sublime live as it is on the album, and the 5-piece band (keyboard, drums, guitar, strings and brass) was nothing short of spectacular, with enough solos to showcase each musician’s talent. “Major Minor Love” included an explosive trombone solo that had the audience, and seemingly Milosh himself, in awe.
Milosh shows restraint in his interactions with the audience as well, and is known for being a serious performer – he does not like loud talking or other distractions, and no press photographers were allowed at the show.
Annoyed by a group of chattering guys near the front of the stage, he veered off lyrics and sang to them, “It makes it really hard to sing.” When they kept talking, he continued, still in tune with the band, “They don’t even know I’m talking about them.” Toward the end of their set he again addressed loud audience members, almost imperceptibly declaring “You’re ruining it for everyone” to a group of evidently drunk girls, again, near the front of the stage (note to future Rhye concert-goers: If you’re going to be drunk and rowdy, stay toward the back).
If it perhaps seems pretentious to demand a kind of silence that borders on reverential, Milosh can be forgiven. “Woman” is an intimate, emotional work, borne of both Milosh’s and Hannibal’s experiences of falling in love with their respective partners. Rhye have said that their intention was to create an album that was emotionally honest about love and sex, which are too often portrayed in the music industry in a manner that’s misogynistic and degrading.
The universality of the message was clear judging by the makeup of the crowd — a mix of young and middle-aged, hipsters and corporate-looking types. Many couples, yes, but many friends and solo attendees as well. And when “Open,” Rhye’s breakout track, started with Milosh seductively cooing “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs,” the crowd instantly surrendered. Middle-aged couples slow-danced in corners near the stage, two twenty-something guys in backwards baseball caps kissed slowly…alongside another couple swaying, the man’s face buried in his girlfriend’s neck. Beside them, three young women sang along, twirling one another with abandon.
Rhye wants us, quite simply, to celebrate love in all its forms. The audience surrendered to the seduction. And if some of the revellers’ enthusiasm bordered on the boisterous, they can be forgiven as well. This is, after all, a festival.
Rhye performed on Sunday night as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Visit the Festival website to find out more and to consult the full programme.