Like its more famous Austin-based forebear, North by Northeast (NXNE) is a hell of a way to spend a few days if you’re a culture junkie with excess energy. NXNE brings some 800 bands and 40 films to Toronto (which is probably not, despite the old joke, the actual centre of the universe) for about seven days’ worth of general mayhem. It is (along with the Toronto International Film Festival and Pride) among the best festivals that this diverse and deeply artistic city has to offer.
Though by all accounts the daytime film program is getting stronger year after year, I’ll admit to having never taken advantage of it. (To be blunt, there’s just too much music to see and hear every night—and all night, too, since bars are allowed to extend last call to a vampire-friendly 4:00 a.m. during the fest—to spend my sleepy days running from screening to screening.) But anyway, it is at night when the festival really shines.
A wide and impressive cross-section of bands make the list year after year—between hip-hop, dance, punk, pop, folk, country, experimental and plain old rock ’n’ roll, there is surely something for everyone on the voluminous schedule. And, boasting contributions from indie upstarts trying out their new sound to seasoned veterans on a comeback trail, the festival celebrates the new while paying great respect to long-established masters.
In short, it is a music-lover’s dream to wander these vibrant streets from show to show, taking in the good, the silly, the dreadful, and the absolutely transcendent.
To paraphrase Guy Clark, it ain’t Austin yet, but it’s getting there.
Well, now, it’s over; let the headaches, muscle cramps, and general malaise kick in. After spending the better part of a week running around Toronto chasing bands as they hammer out 45-minute sets, meeting up with old friends, drinking the inevitable multitude of $7 pints of beer and those bottomless carafes of joe, what do I have to show for it? And so now, in the hazy come-down from all of that amber ale and all of those caffeinated ups, let’s review.
I saw all or some of about 30 sets by as many bands over the course of four nights. Here is a roundup of the best (and worst) of these.
This Toronto-based band plays calamitous, camp-heavy pop-rock in a way that demands (not just invites) comparisons with the mid-1970s New York post-Factory scene. Featuring dancing female back-up singers in pseudo-pirate costumes, a shirtless and sweaty frontman with a gloriously over-the-top vocal, shimmy, and sway, and offering the general impression of what happened when careful glammy art rock collided with gritty punk, this set simply floored the packed house at the Boat, a Kensington Market mainstay.
What happens when the son of Jann Wenner (of Rolling Stone fame) and the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis (of just general fame) get together and play in an indie rock band? Well, for starters, they draw attention from labels and the curious, despite the fact that they are not at all ready for this kind of attention. This set (at the semi-legendary El Mocambo club) was sloppy, somewhat awkwardly performed (especially from Scout: lots of fiddling with her necklace and hands in and then out and then in the pockets), and overall giving of an impression of too many people telling them that they are ready when they are simply not. No doubt they will be a good band one day with some woodshedding and some more careful attention to presentation. But, today is not that day.
One of the best bands I saw at the festival, and among the most promising groups to emerge this year. A guitar/drums combo that rides an immense array of hooks and shiny melodies while pummeling the audience with fuzzy, pounding garage rockery, Cousins pulls the audience into their world almost immediately. With the ability to transfix one half of the crowd while compelling the other to shake it down, Cousins is perhaps the best rock act to come out of Halifax since Sloan.
The single most underrated musician working in Canada today. Daniel Romano is a country crooner of the early 1970s So-Cal school; people compare alt-country musicians to Gram Parsons so freely that it became a stupid cliché many decades ago, but in this case I will stand behind it. The sweetness of his voice, the raw openness of his lyrics, and the psychedelic rock ’n’ roll sensibilities he brings to his otherwise straight ahead country and western music all conspire to present a sound at once eminently familiar and thrillingly fresh. Standing there onstage at the Black Box in a tight suit (that looked suspiciously like it had been made of Alligator-skin) and ten-gallon hat, the look was all performative, all dress-up kitsch. But, once his guitar found the chords and his voice rose above them, we were all transported along with him to that same dusty frontier town from which he dreamed he had emerged.
Playing to an absurdly packed and sweaty Wrong Bar, this Montreal-based electro-pop duo likely gave what many will be calling the show of the festival. Not me. It was fun dance music, and the room was buzzing with the kind of ecstasy- and coke-fueled vibe you’d expect to find at a 1 a.m. show by a dance outfit on a night when last call won’t come for three hours. But, to this mostly sober guy at the back, standing with another rock journalist who is herself usually a fan of the band, neither of us could find the musical draw here. There was a big beat, there was a great party atmosphere, but there wasn’t much “there” there. Still, you could say the same for my lame critique, so there’s that, too.
Hamilton-raised and now Ottawa-based folksinging troubadour Jeremy Fisher came onstage at the Dakota with a broad grin and great opening song, and proceeded to hold the audience in his palm for the entirety of his set. This is not in itself exceptional—it’s what we expect from any good performer, really. But, what made this set to impressive was that it was kind of a mess. Fisher forgot lyrics on at least three occasions, bashfully apologizing to the audience every time. But then he also garbled the chords to a tune. And then, while trying a cover of a Jean LeLoup song, he blew that, too. And yet: somehow with every flub, with every unforced error, Fisher seemed to bring the audience even closer to him. They cheered. They gushed. The woman beside me actually kind of fake-swooned at one point, then tuned to me and laughed, all mock embarrassed, face aglow. Jesus, I thought, is this all part of the act? Fisher’s songwriting is strong, his dry husky voice warm and captivating (and evocative of Dan Bern at his most melodic), but it was his performance that was outstanding. What should have failed miserably was spun, with almost no apparent (but surely a great deal of practiced) effort, into a triumph.
Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins
This band, discovered and produced by Jack White and recently featured on the Colbert Report, is comprised of three women in matching black dresses, sporting black lipstick and, on the two guitarists, big black witch hats. They play heavy-metal-inflected garage rock. Basically, they sound sort of like the way the White Stripes did, and they way a million other Stripes-obsessed bands also sound, but they almost completely fail to distinguish themselves from those other pretenders. Playing to an amazingly crowded Horseshoe Tavern—simultaneously Toronto’s best live music bar and hardest place to get a drink—the Belles ran through 8 or 9 songs in about 25 minutes (just over half of their allotted time) and never managed to leave much of an impression. Cool look, but no substance. If I want to listen to the White Stripes, Jack, I’ll listen to the White Stripes. Not this pale (or is it merely powdered?) imitation. (Also: sometimes, not always but sometimes, songs should include a chorus. Or maybe a bridge. Just me?)
It doesn’t get much better than the Sadies. Indeed, when you add it up, the Sadies are probably the single most consistent live act in Canadian music, and have been for nearly 15 years. Toronto’s alt-country good boys bring professionalism, showmanship, and verve to whatever they do. This collaboration with R&B also-ran Andre Williams is no exception; though deeply eccentric and somewhat uncomfortably riding a certain unconscious reverence for the authenticity of “the old wizened black man” that infects so many white roots musicians, there is no denying the fabulousness of this stage show. Williams’ bizarre songwriting, his chic pimp outfits and strutting stage presence—at 76 years old the man still has more sex appeal than your average 26-year-old—and his thrillingly gravel-road rasp of a voice make for a perfect foil to the clean, eclectic roots rock of his band. They made one of my favourite records of the year, so far, and gave one of the you-shoulda-been-there shows of the festival.
This was my greatest “new band” of the festival, and they’ve been around for over a decade. Just goes to show, no matter how many hundreds of records you hear every year, there’s always a hundred or so more that you’ve missed, that when you finally hear you can’t understand how it got by you. Canadian rock journalist Jenny Charlesworth sent me a note on Facebook suggesting I check these guys out, and I obeyed. (This, incidentally, is how you survive NXNE—flurries of fb and Twitter messages traded back and forth with other, cleverer critics and music fanatics who will tell you where to be, what to see, what not to miss.) And, thanks to her tip, I saw my favourite show of the festival, and of the year so far. Asheville, North Carolina’s Reigning Sound make punk-inflected rock’n’roll with such grinning intensity, with such careful attention to melody, with such unflappable cohesion, with such compellingly memorable lyrics, that I was three songs deep before I took a breath. Somewhere in the sweet spot where the Replacements, The Faces, The Pixies, and Uncle Tupelo intersect, you’ll find the glorious Reigning Sound. Of all the bands I saw at NXNE, this was the one that found me at home after the show, ears ringing at 3 a.m., buying their records on iTunes. Reptile Style, indeed.