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Photo: Wade Muir

James Baley Manifests His Story in a Live Experience

The Toronto-based R&B singer/songwriter invites us to get lost in his debut album, ‘A Story.’ 

by Daniel McIntosh

Photo by Wade Muir

On Friday, Oct. 22 James Baley’s debut album A Story came alive at Toronto’s Great Hall. At once a live performance and an exhibition, the evening showcased all the work that went into the creation of his first full-length album. A Story navigates themes of communities, faith, and hope while the live program cements all of them in a brilliant live experience.

First, Ceréna warmed things up with cuts from her debut album resurrection. Despite this only being her first album, she commands the stage with a veteran’s presence. Of course, she cut her teeth as a co-founder of Club Quarantine, the digital party series that sprung up last March,  and her ability translates naturally from screen to stage. 

She flexed her skills, treating us to a ballad of “resilience,” which put her power belt on full display. The same lyrics took on new significance as a sanctifying vocal house bop on “see.” The crux of both songs lies in their common dictum: “resilience and patience is key.” Introducing “pa’fuera,” a bilingual banger about casting out negative feelings she says, “this next song is a common theme here, y’know, sadness, depression. She’s just everywhere! I have to say to that: ‘pa fuera.’”

Between sets, I wandered into the Great Hall’s Conversation Room, where six CRT TVs were covered by a transparent veil, displaying the visual elements from Baley’s album. On screen he poses under a spotlight, dressed in a bodysuit embellished with dirt and bits of grass and moss, as if he were just uncovered from beneath a thin layer of earth.

Of course, community was a central theme of the night’s event. There was no shortage of champions for Baley in the audience from general music fans to people in the ballroom community. Many of the heightened moments during Baley and Ceréna’s performances were punctuated by calls of “Sirianoooo!” from the audience, referencing Toronto’s ballroom collective, the House of Siriano.

In fact, there were calls and applause from the first moment Baley’s silhouette appeared from  behind the velvet curtain. No longer earthbound, he appeared newly sanctified in a glittering top and white pants. His band, by contrast, wore black. Above the stage, a suspended circular screen displays pulsing gradients. Not quite a setting sun, it appeared more like a mood ring, generating tones to match each song.

Baley’s music is similarly lurid with emotion, and the live context amplifies his blend of soul, R&B and ballroom influences into new territory. In the preamble to his hymn “Call on You,” Baley let us into the genesis of A Story. “I had to create new boundaries for myself, and communicate that to the people around me, my loved ones, my friends,” he said introducing the song. “But in the music that I created, the messages that I created for myself, and for people I wanted to hear my music, I just ended up meditating on those words anytime I had to work on this music.”

The hymn featured four additional voices in an acapella that rivaled the studio recording. The supporting voices provided immense texture on “Saviour” and “Keep the Light On” as well, that allowed the sentiments of Baley’s lyricism to fully emerge.

The supporting cast of the performance deserve their shine, including Twysted Miyake-Mugler, Baley’s band and supporting vocalists, and especially the dancers from Toronto’s Kiki Ballroom Alliance. 

Leave it to ballroom dancers to find the most intuitive ways to use the space between the floorwork and handwork. In addition to the onstage voguing, I was thrilled to see the performers from the Kiki House of Siriano extend their performance to the mezzanine and the aisles,  dancing alongside spectators during “On My Mind.” That extra ounce of audience engagement served as an elegant reminder of the value of seeing music contextualized by performance. 

Upon leaving the Great Hall, the feeling of being satiated by a full experience crept in, at long last, after a long while. Baley and his team of players created a multi-faceted program. No matter which element draws you in, you will find yourself in a story you can’t pull away from.