From Heaven to Home: Daniel Caesar Graces Danforth Music Hall

Photos by Ziyaad Haniff.

Ziyaad: I like to start these pieces by revisiting old stories. They make the present seem so much more formidable. As of writing this, I’m in the running for the best attendance record at Daniel Caesar performances in Toronto. However, by time this piece is released, there will have been loyal fans that attended all five of Caesar’s sold-out shows at the Danforth Music Hall.

Daniel Caesar and River Tiber at Mod Club taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Daniel Caesar and River Tiber at Mod Club taken by Ziyaad Haniff

After showing up to the first of these nights, I’ve attended a total of three Daniel Caesar performances and witnessed two guest appearances; we were first in line at his first headlining show at Mod Club — he called us kings; at Manifesto 10, we watched in awe as Daniel dispersed cumulonimbus clouds with the sheer brilliance of his voice, saving the show in the process; and just last week, we attended the first night of what will go down as a historic week: the Freudian Tour Toronto shows.  

My remaining contributions to this piece will teeter between hardened, unbiased music writer and borderline-obsessive fan. As someone hailing from Toronto’s East End – albeit, not the Deep End of Oshawa – I’m fascinated by young Daniel’s trajectory. While Toronto and its adjacent cities are bustling with talent, we currently don’t have the infrastructure or funding to support it. So for a group of kids to find success in their grassroots methods, I think that’s reassuring for all.

 

Jamaal: Just calling it “success” would be putting it lightly. Success is completing and shipping a project you’re proud of, or breaking even on a creative investment. To be on the receiving end of two Grammy nominations, three late-night television appearances, tens of millions of streams, and a largely sold-out world tour that includes five straight nights at one of the most noteworthy venues in your hometown, all this coming off the release of your first full-length album — what do you even call that? I’m serious. I can’t think of a word that encapsulates both the magnitude and frequency of achievements that comprise that journey to superstardom.

And in the context of that ascent, this series of shows stood out to me as being significant for two reasons: for Daniel, to express his gratitude for all the love and support he’s received here in Toronto, notoriously perceived as having a very cold and cynical music scene; and for fans, confirmation that despite newfound adoration and acclaim around the world, Daniel’s heart still resides in the city where it all began. Everyone in line — and it was a long one even though an “Extreme Cold Alert” was in effect — expected something monumental. Talk of special guests, special setlists, and special set-ups were all we had to keep warm. As it turns out, we’d get all three.

Z: We got all three in unimaginable ways. It’s crazy to think that, as we’re writing this piece, the show is literally changing by the night. Like an Airbnb, Daniel and his team are slowly making themselves at home in Danforth Music Hall while guests trickle in and out. There’s also the added bonus that, as they became more comfortable, I’d imagine the shows only got easier. But as envious as I am of the subsequent shows, I’m overjoyed with the amazing artists we got to see. One of the consistencies throughout — other than the 7500 fans that will flood the venue’s doors this week — was the wonderful Snoh Aalegra.

 

In our piece on Pigeons and Planes’ No Ceilings Tour, we mentioned the unfortunate trend of concertgoers skipping the opening act(s). Thankfully, that wasn’t the case here. Many fans showed up early to be serenaded by Snoh, ourselves included. Every element in her performance felt like it was paying homage to a time of past. I couldn’t help but feel like we were in a noir film, with Snoh playing the mysterious, beautiful woman whose voice fills the bar. But it wasn’t just the songwriting, wardrobe choice, or fluorescent signage; it was everything. Snoh created an immersive, cohesive experience; one which you couldn’t get solely by listening to her music at home.

If you couldn’t tell by the ear-piercing screams, Snoh’s performance really resonated with the audience. Her music had a slow, consistent pace that allowed her to flaunt her vocals, and enabled listeners to really take note of her songwriting. “Thank you for making me feel at home on this stage tonight,” Snoh shared right before putting her spin on Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. I’m glad an artist with that level of talent got to relive that night four times over, especially in a city as loving as Toronto.

Daniel Caesar and Cadaro Tribe at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Daniel Caesar and Cadaro Tribe at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

J: Her set really did resemble a noir film. The jazz instrumentation, seductive vocals, smoky environment, and two-tone approach to lighting (which mostly comprised of deep blues and purples) were all distinctly evocative of that genre’s mood and iconography. And I have to imagine that was very intentional given Daniel’s own affinity for classical melodramas like Casablanca. As a side note: I haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that I’ll likely never hear a live rendition of “We’ll Always Have Paris.” So, you know, woe is me. Seriously though, that Snoh honed in on the theme of home, both in her dialogue with the audience — “It’s not about the place. It’s about the people,” she proclaimed — and her Drake cover, demonstrated to me a really warm, thoughtful understanding of these shows’ importance to the crowd and Daniel himself. It was everything an opening set should be.

And that brings us to the main event. Here’s something noteworthy: until that night, I’d never been to a show at Danforth Music Hall where the room was shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-chest packed from the stage all the way to the rear exit. Here’s another: it was that crowded before Daniel even took the stage. And when he did, it was of course with a sense of saintlike spectacle. Welcomed by back-up vocalists Cadaro Tribe, chanting the chorus to the titular “Freudian”, he emerged from tall, white curtains into the spotlight, wading through ankle-deep fog and descending to center stage down makeshift stairs lined with glowing LED’s. There was a clear attempt to represent Daniel’s gospel ties on stage, ultimately by adhering to an all-white-everything theme — including the instruments, stands, platforms, and the attire of every performer —  that obviously has its roots in very traditional depictions of heaven and holiness. Again, I was hit the realization that I’d never seen Danforth Music Hall transformed like that before.

Daniel Caesar at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Daniel Caesar at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

Z: I believe we have Sean Brown and Keavan Yazdani to thank for that. The production design definitely gave me some heaven-on-Earth vibes. I loved that depending on the lighting choices, the white clothing, curtains, and instruments would all wash over in color, making each song feel like a different scene. The stage reflected Freudian’s gospel influence, and each lighting change embodied the feelings imbued by a song. Sean and Keavan’s ideas were multi-purpose, giving them the flexibility to do what they wanted with the space they had. And as you mentioned, I’ve never seen something like this at Danforth.

This is the fifth time I’ve seen Daniel Caesar perform, but I’ve never seen him like this. He’s a different animal and the same beast. It was endearing when the shy East End kid sang his heart out while tucked behind the mic stand at Mod Club. I could not believe it was the same guy at Danforth Music Hall. As soft-spoken and heartfelt as his music is, Daniel strutted around the room like he owned the place; he was feelin’ himself! I’m so glad he’s found the confidence in himself and his music to entertain a room of 1500 people five times over. Aside from being a completely different performer, I think that was Daniel’s best vocal performance ever. Even as an avid listener since 2015, there were many “holy shit” moments when he hit those impressive notes — going on tour can do wonders. We also saw this in Charlotte Day Wilson; she put on a good performance when opening for Daniel at Mod Club, but when she opened for River Tiber later that year? Different animal, same beast. I feel accomplished just being able to watch these artists blossom before my very eyes. I’m sure many others in the room that night felt the same way.

Daniel Caesar and H.E.R at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Daniel Caesar and H.E.R at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

J: There were at least three people in my vicinity who cried at various points during his set. It was wild, man. I’ve been reading a bunch of stories about marriage proposals at Caesar shows, and while I could understand that phenomenon to a certain extent based on the type of music he makes, I had difficulty imagining what the atmosphere must have been like to inspire and allow for moments of such personal significance. Though we didn’t experience any proposals ourselves, the show was still a very intimate space for people. The crowd was filled with couples rocking back-and-forth in loving embraces, and groups of friends swaying with their arms around each others’ shoulders. I’ve said before that concert experiences are as much celebrations of togetherness as they are of music, and this was another great example of that dynamic at work. Throughout his set, Daniel would take on the role of conductor while fans poured their heart and soul into what was essentially a night of mass karaoke, most notably during his encore performance of “Get You”, which lasted well over 10 minutes to accommodate a dozen run-throughs of the chorus.

Simply put, there was love in the air — more than enough to go around given the reception for the night’s special guests: H.E.R, Syd, and Nick Hakim. Each received an extremely warm welcome, and were provided with an opportunity to not just perform alongside Daniel, but also own the stage with some of their solo work. Hearing Syd perform “Girls” live (for the second time this year) was one of my favourite moments of the night, as despite their wonderful collaboration on Freudian, I never once guessed that she might make an appearance during the Danforth series. H.E.R and Daniel also shared a great (read: steamy) moment during her performance of “Focus”, which saw the two locked in a passionate stare while singing to one another from across the stage, gradually closing the distance until nose-to-nose.

Syd at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Syd at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

Z: Those guests were something else. Five shows in Toronto already had people calling it a festival, but now I’m hearing comparisons to OVO Fest. On Night 1, we were blessed to have three guest performers. While promoting Freudian, Daniel said he wanted the album to have a strong female presence. How fortunate were we to have two of those powerful women perform their respective collaborations? My favourite song on Freudian changes by the week, but “Best Part” and “Take Me Away” frequently battle for the top spot. Rarely do audiences get to experience live renditions of their favourite music with all the contributing voices on stage. It’s great to see that other artists have embraced Daniel as one of their own, so much so that they’d fly over to Toronto in the wintertime to do their friend (and us) a favour. We were also treated to a song from Nick Hakim, whose latest project, Green Twins, is said to be fantastic. When Daniel was introducing this surprise guest, hearing the deep respect and admiration he had, I suspected it to be a fellow Toronto artist and longtime friend. When the curtains parted to reveal Nick, I completely understood just how impactful he is to our hometown hero.

Nick Hakim at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Nick Hakim at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

Wow. Looking back at my responses, they can all be summarized as “I can’t believe that happened. I’m so happy for them.” And it’s true. I think this entire piece, and Daniel Caesar’s rise, can be attributed to the power of art. Music brought Daniel from Oshawa to Toronto. Daniel and his team work well together because of their mutual love for each other’s craft. And we all came together to celebrate their efforts at Danforth Music Hall — five times. That love and appreciation for art transcends boroughs, cities, and even countries. That love brought us three surprise guests! Regardless of the hardships that transpire in these trying times, I believe we can rely on art to unify us. Night 1 of the Toronto shows has me emotionally overwhelmed, but all I can say is, I can’t believe that happened. I’m so happy for them.

J: This comes up every time we head to a show, but I feel the need to say it again here.  More often than not, people are forced to compromise their creative dreams in order to procure some sense of stability later in life. That’s not to say they don’t end up happy; it’s just a reality that not everyone ends up in a position where they can survive off their artistic merits. And so, I think what these shows offer us goes beyond a cathartic hope in ourselves and our abilities; what they offer is a broader faith in the very premise that if you’re perseverent enough, and if your every word, brush stroke, or musical note is endowed with the totality of your love and dedication to the craft, then even if it doesn’t pan out for you, it’s still possible for anyone to attain a platform of comparable significance and stature to five nights at Danforth. As long as that narrative is upheld — I do think it’s more present in Toronto than ever before, simultaneously a factor in and product of Daniel’s success — we will never find ourselves at a loss for fresh voices and visionaries.

Daniel Caesar at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Daniel Caesar at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

Case in point: we’ve spent a good portion of our time this year discovering and spectating the immense musical talent that exists across Toronto — BADBADNOTGOOD, River Tiber, Charlotte Day Wilson, Sean Leon, TiKA the Creator, Adria Kain, Matthew Progress, Derin Falana, The Sorority, Clairmont The Second, Kilmanjaro, Prince Innocence, DIANA, Harrison, a l l i e, M.I.BLUE, TOBi, Young Clancy, RALPH, MADDEE, Native Other, Above Top Secret, a bunch of others I’m really sorry I can’t recall at the moment, and of course, Daniel Caesar himself — and as awed as I am by the music of each, what’s crazier to think about is their cumulative influence as a collective, galvanizing an entire generation of creators in this city by demonstrating to them that you don’t have to fit a certain mold or follow in the footsteps of those who came before. If tomorrow’s greats are raised on today’s, then we’re in for a hell of a ride.

Daniel Caesar at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff
Daniel Caesar at Danforth Music Hall taken by Ziyaad Haniff

Did you attend the Freudian Tour? What was your experience like? What’s your favourite Daniel Caesar moment? Reply to the tweet below to join the conversation:

 

In case you missed it, we created a video celebrating Daniel’s 5 days at Danforth Music Hall.  Starting all the way at Kingsway College in Oshawa, we documented what Daniel’s journey would look like when he traveled to Toronto. You can watch it here.

Lastly, we put together a playlist of songs in accordance with Snoh and Daniel’s setlists for the night. The playlist also includes Snoh’s covers and the music performed by Daniel’s surprise guests. Stream it here: