Toronto Urban Roots Festival Has It All Figured Out

Festival Review


    When I began thinking about how to sum up the second iteration of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF), I kept telling myself, “Don’t just say how Canadian it is.” It’s a weak out for a big, dumb Midwestern American to just pass off how comfortable, pleasant, and incredible of an experience TURF was by saying, “Of course it was unoffensive. It’s Canadian.” That being said, my experience at this festival left me with a different feeling than any American music festival I’ve experienced.

    Before the festival, I had an interview with Jeff Cohen, the head organizer of TURF and crowned king of the Toronto music scene, who owns The Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace—two legendary Toronto venues—and I asked him what improvements from the first year he wanted to put in place for 2014. He told me that while organizing set times last year, they didn’t leave any breaks between bands, so this year, he said, “Even your biggest Jeff Tweedy fan still wants a 10-minute break to take it all in or buy a Caplansky’s sandwich at a more leisurely pace, so this year we instituted a 10-minute break between main stage sets and 20 minutes on the new South stage.”


    Good thinking: Over the weekend, there was never a point where it felt like you had to run from one side of the beautiful Garrison Commons layout to the other. Whereas, I’ve seen people get bulldozed at Lollapalooza just to catch a set. Just a simple move like that set the course for the entire weekend. If people know they can be calm and leisurely, they will be, and they did over this three-day festival. It was relaxed and had an almost neighborhood block party feel, except there was a bevy of international talent rather than a local group of teachers.


    With headlining sets from the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Tweedy, Beirut, and Canadian behemoths Sam Roberts Band, the three days of TURF was an excellent blend of roots, folk, and rock. Each day had its own vibe and style — a testament to Cohen and his team’s planning genius.

    Thursday, July 3rd

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    Black Joe Lewis // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    On the night before the festival, I checked out Willie Nile Band and Black Joe Lewis at Cohen’s widely-celebrated The Horseshoe Tavern. The venue has been a Toronto mainstay since the late 1940s, cultivating the city’s own music scene, so it was a nice history lesson of sorts to walk through its doors. Similar to The Hideout in Chicago, The Horseshoe is a divey, wood-paneled haven with a whole section of tables and chairs and a small dance floor, drawing two sides of a familiar crowd: older goers who just want to sit and enjoy the music, and the younger folks who want to squish together and rock. Willie Nile Band and Black Joe Lewis blasted out long sets of rootsy blues that had the crowd riled up and offered a great intro to the world of the festival.

    Friday, July 4th

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    Beirut // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    Mississippi rockers The Weeks kicked off the weekend’s festivities at the West Stage. The quintet, led by vocalist Cyle Barnes, had the task of ensuring the crowd got off on the right foot, and they didn’t fail. There’s a little early Kings of Leon to their style, which makes sense considering they’re signed to Followill’s label, but their deeper Southern rock playfully patted heads back and forth in a way that Kings haven’t done in over a decade.


    For most of the weekend, the sun beat down fairly hard, but Garrison Commons caught a nice breeze every so often, offering enough comfort to stick around through the early sets. Though, the new South Stage was really the place to be. Set off at the bottom of a hill next to Fort York, the new encampment had a natural amphitheater with the hill to sit on and backed by the Gardiner Parkway. The sound rolls and grooves through the natural space perfectly, and with the festival itself providing blankets to sit on, well, you just couldn’t find a more familial atmosphere than that.

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    Deer Tick // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    In the afternoon, London Souls and Lucius both played highly energetic sets towards the South. Once more, the youth and grays were dancing and twisting and enjoying the sun. Later, Deer Tick delivered one of the best sets of the weekend as the sun dropped low behind the hill and the crowd swelled to its largest size thus far. John McCauley and his brethren ripped through an hour-long set full of gritty guitar solos and the type of rock ‘n’ roll that makes it okay to be an alcoholic.

    Just to reiterate: The close proximity of the stages made it easy to roam around the grounds, which means I was able to catch good chunks of Andrew Bird, Born Ruffians, and Gary Clark Jr., all before Beirut closed out the evening on the large East Stage.

    Saturday, July 5th

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    Photo via TURF


    Saturday proved to be the hottest of the three days, and a lot more time was spent utilizing the great shaded areas of the grounds. Also, the food section, right near the shade, housed some wonderful local food trucks for festivalgoers of which I took full advantage. Everything from Greek food to sandwiches, corn on the cob to ice cream, and the festival’s weight in poutine were available. It was a wonderful midway of treats and relaxation.

    However, the sun was no match for the energy of South Carolina’s own Shovels & Rope. Husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst set off the more country and bluegrass day of the weekend in superb fashion. They had a good mix of songs from O, Be Joyful and their forthcoming Swimmin’ Time, and even though it was just two of them, they filled the West Stage space with an infectious happiness.

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    Andrew Jackson Jihad // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    Following Shovels’ happy start, Andrew Jackson Jihad saddled up on the South Stage with their DIY style of cynical optimism. Having a full band was a great decision for masterminds Sean Bonnette and Ben Gallaty, who cranked up their punk bluegrass to a higher notch than what’s usually for par. Though, I’m unsure an outdoor festival is exactly their cup of tea, considering they thrive on being up close and personal with their fans. Nonetheless, the two absorbed their new bandmates and set themselves apart from the rest of the festival — always a positive.


    Shortly after, St. Louis roots rocker Pokey LaFarge delivered the best overall set of the entire weekend. Now, it’s rare that a band can move a crowd of mostly non-fans, but LaFarge accomplished this in roughly three songs with panache, confidence, and a sound that is unabashedly, and unironically, a “throw back.” “Well, now it looks like we’ve gotten your attention,” LaFarge observed from a mouthful of gleaming white teeth and well-pressed Dungarees.

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    Pokey LaFarge // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    For me, LaFarge’s down-home, Soggy Bottom Boys, ’30s/’40s country jazz was such a breath of fresh air that I immediately made plans to revisit The Horseshoe for his after-show that night. Naturally, he didn’t disappoint. Opting for his finest Sunday white preacher suit over the day’s Dungarees, LaFarge mesmerized the late-night crowds with a set that maintained the day’s energy and increased the intimacy. Sigh, it was good to see a boy from back home do right.

    Sunday, July 6th

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    July Talk // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    Even the weather seemed hungover as the temperature dropped and the festival went into the “odds and ends” day of the weekend. The lineup included sets from Twin Forks, Joe Pug, and three-time weekend performer Jon Langford and the Waco Brothers. Canadian rockers July Talk lit up the East Stage in the afternoon with a Tom Waits-meets-Wolf-Parade kind of sound, though they admitted they weren’t used to the daylight. Singer Peter Dreimanis yelled, “We need you guys to help us. We’re not used to playing so early. We’re much more comfortable playing in the dark late, late at night. So, raise your drinks, and we’re all going to have a great time.” The warm Toronto crowd obliged and raised their beers high with a hearty yell.


    Jenny Lewis then took over across the park with the most straightforward folk roots set of the day. Lewis wore a brightly colored shirt that she joked made her look like “an adult party clown.” Her very casual, deprecating humor fit well with songs off her solo releases and put the crowd in a great mood for Jeff Tweedy’s early evening set shortly after. Tweedy, with son and drummer Spencer, played a good chunk of his forthcoming album, Sukierae, as well as cuts from his deep catalog.

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    Jeff Tweedy // Photo by Kayley Luftig

    “I thought I had to play all the instruments, so it took me 18 years to grow a drummer,” Tweedy joked, explaining why he’s only now releasing a proper solo album. He then smiled and pointed to Spencer’s set-up nearby. He also discussed Gogol Bordello’s backstage warm-ups before their earlier explosive set. “We like to give it a good group shrug before we come out on stage. To set the mood right. [Gogol Bordello] have a chant and cheer and hand slaps, and we just see no need to get our heart racing to play these slow tracks. So, we just shrug and that’s about right.”

    The last bit of South Stage magic was experienced during Man Man’s total chaos. They fit the eclectic mix of Sunday’s music perfectly, and having them relegated to the South Stage was also a perfect fit. Dayglo tape, masks, fur coats, shimmering cloaks, and plenty of posing and posturing were punctuated by the band’s manic blast of drum-driven rock. Their set was another highlight from the weekend and another time when the crowd wasn’t sure at first, but were super fans afterward.

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    Man Man // Photo by Kayley Luftig


    Of course, the entire weekend came to a halt and close with new festival giants Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff Mangum and his 15-year-old hermit beard were the exact meditative ending that the festival needed. Songs from their short but impressive catalog brought tears and harmonies, making it an honest and heartfelt and hypnotizing conclusion. It was the feeling of a warm blanket and friends in embrace that they provided that made you wish you weren’t in a field with 10,000 people — even if they are 10,000 of the nicest, most Canadian people you’ll encounter in a situation like that.

    In the End…

    Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 12.16.27 PMAfter all was said and done, and reflections made on the weekend, Jeff Cohen and the TURF organizers have found a golden combination. Because of Garrison Common’s restrictions, only 10,000 people can be in the area at once. This is a key distinction and an important piece of the festival’s success. The space may be able to hold more people, but adding more may cramp the style of TURF. Cohen has fought hard to soften legislation on outdoor festivals, and he thinks TURF is just the beginning. Though, he is weary of more corporate festivals, like Lollapalooza, invading Toronto:

    “Lollapoloza is surely coming to Toronto next August 2015, and it’ll be very interesting to see how that changes the summer landscape in our great city. Honestly, we’ve never played by the industry sets of rules with regard to how things work in our venues, etc … being able to book a festival and at the same time also book some into our clubs is just an organic progression. But yes, we are absolutely self-sufficient in terms of how we do business and fiercely independent of the big players like C3, AEG, and Live Nation.”


    Cohen has focused on a self-sustaining festival built around veterans and a strong Canadian presence, which helps pay for the festival thanks to government grants. It’s a successful recipe that’s paid off not in spades but little red maple leafs. Okay, that last part was pandering, but hear me out: I’ve been sold on what a festival can and should be, and to be honest, there’s no looking back after TURF. See you next year, Toronto.

    Photo via TURF


    Photographer: Kayley Luftig