Another North by Northeast music festival is in the books, and with it, the bustling metropolis of Toronto is a little more quieter. Between June 15th and June 19th, an estimated 650 artists representing any and every genre you can think of played well into the Toronto night at close to 50 downtown venues. Streets where a great deal of bars are clumped together, like Queen West, the festival headquarters at the Hyatt Regency hotel on King, as well as the public square at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas crawled wall-to-wall with people nonstop, all looking for the next show to get their fix.
It was a veritable orgy of live music, with enough choices to literally make peoples heads explode! According to the NXNE schedule, at any given hour there were more than 30 shows going on. Aside from the (somewhat) pocket-sized festival guide, I think cloning machines were the next biggest must-haves. Twitter, mobile applications like MyNXNE, and good ol fashioned word of mouth played vital roles in keeping folks informed and letting them know of any secret or last-minute shows taking place. No, Death from Above 1979 never appeared, but some bands like Deerhoof, who played very early in the fest, stuck around town to return later as special guests. And because the MuchMusic Video Awards went down on June 19th, music celebs like Lady Gaga and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys were frequently spotted around Toronto.
The weather also couldnt have cooperated any better, although it did get awfully hot and sticky at times. Not that there was much complaining, as spring seemed to have skipped Toronto altogether. The city was ready for summer, and incredibly amped for Northby, as the annual festival is referred to locally. It was obviously impossible to see each and every one of the great bands on the bill, but I sure did my best, braving the humidity (not to mention the four a.m. drinking curfew) to act as a Canadian correspondent for Consequence of Sound. My ultimate goal? To come into contact with a wide range of styles, whether they be punk, indie, folk, or even hip hop. After a short nap, I filed this extensive report, and like a lot of others, I’m already counting down the days to next years NXNE!
Wednesday, June 15th
LOOM The Rivoli 8:00 p.m.
LOOM is the pseudonym of singer-songwriter Brooke Manning, performing solo for Canadian indie label Nevado Records. She has a minimalist strumming style to say the least, with an absolutely beautiful, haunting voice. In a way, she struck me as a bit of a female Thom Yorke, except without any trace of pretension. There was an especially cute moment where she covered Toms Diner by Suzanne Vega; she forgot some of the lyrics, but made up for it quite entertainingly by having us jump to the universally familiar Do do do do do do do do.
Moon King Horseshoe Tavern 9:00 p.m.
Moving over to Horseshoe Tavern, an eccentrically interesting trio calling themselves Moon King got the M for Montreal showcase underway, filling in at the last minute for Dance Laury Dance. It was apparently their first-ever gig, and they sure tried to grab peoples attention between periods of the Stanley Cup final with their absolutely booming dance-punkish drum machine and short, punchy material. All our songs are like a minute and a half long, stated lead singer Daniel Woodhead. When he wasnt trading acoustic guitar riffs with his female counterpart, he was sitting cross-legged on the tiled floor in front of his band, or inviting those watching onto the stage like he was Noah and was saving them with his makeshift Arc. Like I was saying, interesting…
O Voids Horseshoe Tavern 10:00 p.m.
With Dance Laury Dance AWOL, O Voids became the first Montreal band to hit the stage. Id describe their sound as droning post-punk that sounded more like it was coming from the gritty streets of New York City than from Montreal. Fans of Interpol would no doubt like them, but the hockey fans in attendance at the Horseshoe were more concerned about the Boston Bruins beating Vancouver for their first championship since 1972. Definitely more bodies along the lengthy bar area at the front of the club with their eyes glued to the TV than in back listening to O Voids, unfortunately.
Parlovr Horseshoe Tavern 12:00 a.m.
Parlovr may very well be the musical equivalent of the fries/gravy/cheese curds delicacy known in Montreal as poutine. No, it’s not the healthiest meal, but at its best, poutine is hot, sloppy, gooey, and so damn good, a real food indulgence. Parlovr, on the other hand, are three guys full of joie de vivre who you want to treat yourself to again and again and again. They made everyone feel good, even those who wished they were rioting out in Vancouver, setting cars on fire. The suddenly jam-packed crowd were whipped into a dance frenzy by drummer Jeremy MacCuish, lead guitarist Louis Jackson, and keyboardist Alex Cooper, who sported a ratty old Quebec Nordiques t-shirt to mark the occasion.
A quick hockey rivalry lesson for you: Montreal Canadiens fans arent very fond of the Boston Bruins, but before they moved to Colorado in 1995 and became the Avalanche, there was one team Habs boosters loathed more than anyone else, and those were Les Nordiques! So its probably safe to say Parlovr were pulling for Vancouver to win
We Are Wolves Horseshoe Tavern 1:00 a.m.
The last time I saw We Are Wolves, at Montreals Osheaga Festival, they came out wearing these gothic-looking, cape-like apparatuses. There were no gimmicks needed this time as they closed out the first night of music at NXNE – Not like the teeming crowd at the Shoe cared anyway. They flocked to the front for the incredibly heavy, bass-driven industrial sound that characterized their entire headlining set. Wolfpack leader Alexander Ortiz reminds me of a chiselled Gene Simmons wielding his oversized bass guitar, elongated tongue wagging as he howls songs like La Nature from their French titled debut, Non-Stop je te plie en deux (Ill fold in two). Oh, and did I mention their drummer stands the whole time – Very cool! Forget Edward or Jacob, everyone left Horseshoe Tavern as Team We Are Wolves members!
Thursday, June 16th
METZ Yonge-Dundas Square 6:00 p.m.
METZ had the honor of kicking off NXNEs series of free shows at Yonge-Dundas Square in the heart of the city. And any pals of Fucked Up, who are fast becoming Canadian music royalty, are instant friends of Torontos fiercely loyal punk community. And as far as really loud opening bands go, they weren’t too bad, sounding at times like Bleach-era Nirvana (must have been the “swirling” guitars, or their closing number “Negative Space”, which brought “Negative Creep” to mind). And with his drooping glasses, their lead singer/guitarist looks like a young Rivers Cuomo had the latter chosen a more grungier path on his personal road of life.
Rusty Yonge-Dundas Square 7:00 p.m.
This is an open plea to todays Canadian indie kids to not let their bands of the moment end up like Rusty, who were as awesome as it got in the mid-to-late 90s but faded away in part due to lack of fan support. They surprisingly reunited for NXNE, and while they may be visibly older and different looking, they still rocked with the best of them at the festival, although it cost vocalist Ken MacNeil his voice after an off the hook second show in his summation at the el Mocambo Tavern Friday night. And according to a quick conversation I had with him, thats it again for Rusty, so if you passed on them at NXNE, you missed out on something pretty special.
Fucked Up Yonge-Dundas Square 8:00 p.m.
There isnt a whole lot thats pretty about Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham. One thing you have to give him, though, is that he truly is a man of the people. By that I mean he loves to get his gargantuan frame up close and personal with everyone who came to see him. I didnt time him, but he couldnt have been onstage for longer than :30 seconds (which included showing his son Holden to the swelling audience) before charging the barricade, jumping into the now frenzied crowd, and spending the next 40 minutes body surfing, wrapping the microphone cord around his face, screaming songs from the bands new album David Comes to Life at the top of his lungs, and even cracking a few jokes while not appearing winded at all. Simply incredible; I can only imagine the conversations he must have with his cute-as-a-button boy before concerts: Wait here Junior; Daddy’s just going to go play in the human sandbox for awhile!
OFF! Yonge-Dundas Square 9:00 p.m.
It would be tough for anyone to follow up the carnage left behind by Fucked Up, but if any band had the pedigree to keep the aggressive energy flowing, it was punk supergroup OFF!. Between their four members, they contain the DNA of no less than seven of punk rocks most well-known outfits. Their set was equally short, probably because the longest song from their First Four EPs debut is “Poison City” at only 1:33. Former Circle Jerks and Black Flag singer Keith Morris probably protested more about the current state of American politics than he sang, but the Canadian horde seeing OFF! for the first time didnt mind at all, courteously slam dancing along whenever they were given the chance.
PS I Love You Horseshoe Tavern 11:00 p.m.
The City of Toronto apparently cant handle the sonic fury brought by PS I Love You from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. One song into their Windish Agency showcase at the Horseshoe, imposing guitarist Paul Saulnier blew out his amplifier, and at a surprise two AM appearance later at the el Mo, they blew a fuse! When all the gear did function properly, Saulnier proved that he can really play, with extended solos not typically seen from two-piece garage-type bands (Ben Nelson complements Saulnier on drums). Apart from his amazing axemanship, Saulnier isnt above using screeching feedback to make our ears remember PS I Love Yous performance that much more the next day.
C.J. Ramone Bovine Sex Club 1:00 a.m.
Its an annoying overused term, but it really is the only one appropriate enough to describe C.J. Ramones late night NXNE set, and that is EPIC. Legal age Ramones fans young and old, male and female, stuffed themselves into the cramped Bovine Sex Club on Queen Street West to shout along to punk classics like “Blitzkreig Bop”, “Pinhead”, and “Teenage Lobotomy” with last-ever Ramones bassist C.J. as well as longtime band collaborator Daniel Rey on guitar. (Not to mention 1, 2, 3, 4 before nearly every song!) The end came far too soon for all of us, but not before we engaged in one last thrasharound to Rocket to Russia standout “Do You Wanna Dance?”.
Friday, June 17th
Rival Sons Cherry Colas Rock N Rolla Cabaret & Lounge 6:30 p.m.
All the way from Los Angeles, Rival Sons threw a brief, early evening party to introduce themselves to Canada and, more importantly, show that blues-tinged hard rock is very much alive and kicking. Playing five songs, mainly from their new album Pressure & Time, they sure werent afraid to make a little noise, arent shy to dress the part in homage to their heroes of the late-60s and 70s, and they definitely arent against getting a little sleazy.
The Most Serene Republic The Mod Club 8:00 p.m.
NXNE is a significant event, but it wasnt the only thing going on in Toronto by far. The Taste of Little Italy festival closed down a good chunk of College Street, making for an interesting commute to the Mod Club Theatre. I thought I was going to miss The Most Serene Republic (from nearby Milton, Ontario), but fortunately they were only sound checking as I made my way to my perch. The first think that struck me was that the stage seemed awfully crowded I counted a three-member horn section, large keyboard setup, two guitars, and a bassist who switched to violin at some point. I guess the easy comparison would be to Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, but I thought a lot of their songs sounded harder, actually, particularly whenever vocalist Adrian Jewett rocked his trombone!
Art Brut The Mod Club 9:00 p.m.
I had heard a lot about this Art Brut, named after the French outsider movement and likened favorably to Franz Ferdinand, but never had a chance to see them live before. Singer Eddie Argos is quite the character, constantly ranting during songs, including one about Van Gogh which saw him stroll into the crowd. Lets just say it wasnt as $#@%ed up as the night before; definitely more danceable though! Not quite the Sex Pistols, not even the Libertines, but highly enjoyable. Just as I was really starting to get into “Bad Weekend” (or maybe it was “Good Weekend”; whatever, both are from the bands 2005 Bang Bang Rock & Roll), we were submersed in feedback and the set was over. Grrrr
Dum Dum Girls Lees Palace 11:00 p.m.
Feeling almost as if I had been jilted, there was only one thing that could soothe my soul on a sweltering night like this Attractive women in revealing outfits and fishnet stockings playing kick-ass garage rock-meets-surf pop straight out of its heyday in the 1960s! Thank goodness I made in time to Lees Palace to catch Dum Dum Girls! Ear-piercingly loud songs like “I Will Be”, “It Only Takes One Night”, and “Everybodys Out” proved to be the perfect tonic for what ailed me.
Cults Lees Palace 12:00 a.m.
With my tension now eased, I was primed for the indie pop stylings of New York Citys Cults. They did their best to live up to the hype bestowed upon them by other music websites who shall remain nameless, despite the fact that the last time they were in Toronto, their van was broken into. They must not have let that weigh too heavily on their minds, as they created a light, airy, dreamy, dance-friendly atmosphere inside Lees, punctuated by singer Madeline Follins adorably natural high-pitched vocals. She got a rousing cheer during “Never Heal Myself” when she squealed, But I can never be myself so fuck you.
Saturday, June 18th
Stars Edward Day Gallery 2:00 p.m.
After headlining Yonge-Dundas Square Friday night, Stars were a little tired as well as admittedly hung over (well, vocalist Torquil Campbell at least), but that didnt stop the Montreal-based band from glowing intensely at a secret afternoon show. An out of sight art gallery on Queen West was the destination for a hundred or so tech-savvy fans who found three QR codes scattered throughout the city, which revealed passwords when you scanned them with your phone needed for guestlist access. For their efforts, they were treated to an hour-long set of favorites like “Fixed”, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”, and “Take Me to the Riot” in an amazingly unique environment (which also made for a looser, more honest, and special performance).
Chains of Love Reposado Tequila Bar 4:00 p.m.
Ive never been to South by Southwest, but is it common to go from makeshift music venues like a classy Bohemian art gallery to a gringo-accepting tequila bar in the space of an hour? Thats where a lucky handful of us had gathered to see Vancouver-based Chains of Love burn it up. Seriously, it got so hot inside the bar that I thought a flash fire was going to ignite! Good thing they left one of the doors open so that the entire neighborhood could hear some pretty sweet garage soul, with two smoldering senoritas at the forefront singer Nathalia Pizarro and guitarist Rebecca Marie Law Gray. Had to have a bottle of Sol beer just to cool down after they were done
Cults Yonge-Dundas Square 7:00 p.m.
With 650 bands playing NXNE, its next to impossible for anyone in particular to really stand out, but one that may have honestly done so is Cults. I didnt think theyd sound as good outdoors in front of their biggest audience to date, but they blew me and a lot of other people away, to the point where I intend to purchase their self-titled debut once I catch up on some sleep!
Men Without Hats Yonge-Dundas Square 8:00 p.m.
Just because New Wave is experiencing another resurgence in the 2010s, it doesnt mean that every band who practiced it in the 80s should get back together. O.K., maybe thats a little mean to say about Men Without Hats, who were admittedly quite popular here in Canada back in the day of yuppies and Rubiks Cubes. They just looked really out of place at NXNE, especially lead singer Ivan Doroschuk. Maybe its because he made the severe faux pas of defying convention and (GASP!) wearing a hat! On the positive side, his old skool Thor t-shirt was decidedly badass, and they did play the two songs everyone wanted to hear, those being “Pop Goes the World”, and “The Safety Dance”.
Devo Yonge-Dundas Square 9:30 p.m.
Last year, Iggy and the Stooges set the bar sky-high when they christened the free series of NXNE concerts at Yonge-Dundas Square with a show that left an unforgettable mark on Toronto. The five men of Devo, however, were more than up to the challenge, presenting a set that screamed Something for Everybody (ironically, the title of their 2010 album). They started with grey suits and matching masks, with drummer Josh Freese wearing catlike fur and whiskers. They switched to blue energy domes on their heads for “Whip It”, hurling replica hats into the crowd for good measure. After “Planet Earth”, Devo returned with their timeless red domes and yellow jumpsuits, which they eventually shed for more summer-appropriate black t-shirts, shorts, and ultra-sporty kneepads!
As we all chanted that night, they are not men. They are Devo!
Shad The Ballroom 12:00 a.m.
Needing some hip hop to make my NXNE 2011 experience as well-rounded as possible, I walked from Yonge-Dundas Square, past the awesomely impressive stage setup for the MuchMusic Video Awards, and ultimately found myself at The Ballroom, a sports bar and bowling alley right smack in the middle of Torontos bustling club district. I was here for Shad, the fast-rhyming Canadian artist with a penchant for intelligent lyrics and thought-provoking beats. It didnt take long for the human pins lined up by warm-up act 88 Days of Fortune as many white as there were black and other colors I might add to be absolutely floored by Shad once he took the stage. I didnt even mind that went on a little later than advertised, although it meant I had to leave before it was over, as there was still one more day of live music ahead