There are generally two large music “to dos” in Toronto each year. North By Northeast (NXNE), the cousin of South By Southwest, takes place the first week of June and features hundreds of acts in some 20 bars across the city. Canadian Music Week is often considered the “industry” showcase, with the festival often sticking to more homegrown talent. However, this year there were a few American acts as well as some fine Canadian performers that showed their goods, from the Bossa Nova style of Montreal duo Bet.e & Stef to the nu-metal onslaught of Californian band Trapt.
Thursday afternoon started with an in-shopping mall performance from Bet.e & Stef. With just a gorgeous voice and flamenco style guitar to garner attention, the duo had most stopping for a few songs on the way to and from lunch. The group, who are touring in support of their new album Day By Day, offered two mini-shows for free. Songs such as the title track, “Eu Vim Da Bahia” and “Listen to the Night” went over quite well as most listened attentively. But like most in-store appearances, the show lacked the intimacy that their show later that evening was sure to possess.
Famed Canadian producer Daniel Lanois was also in town. If you haven’t heard of Lanois, perhaps the names U2, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson will ring a bell—Lanois has produced all of them. Making a brief appearance in the studio of a local rock radio station, Lanois and drummer Brian Blades compensated for their small size with a hard and gritty rock performance. While it took a tad longer than usual to begin, Lanois was on for the first song “Shine”, from the upcoming album of the same name. Wearing a black stocking cap and matching t-shirt and jeans, Lanois could have been mistaken for a woodsman. But fortunately, Lanois didn’t leave without performing a hit from his Acadie album, “Still Water”. A sold out performance at the famous El Mocambo followed the next evening.
One of the benefits of these festivals is how bar-hopping friendly they tend to be. With twenty minutes scheduled between bands, you can go from one bar to another quite easily. Friday evening was such a night, as California group Trapt opened up with an early show. Touring with the Exies, Trapt performed a hardcore, nu-metal set with tracks taken from their self-titled debut album. Lead singer Chris Brown had the moves of Incubus front man Brandon Boyd down to a science, but too often the music seemed a bit cliched and unoriginal. A few numbers, particularly “Headstrong” and “Echo”, had most in the sparse audience enjoying themselves.
Following Trapt was the Exies, a group that will be opening for Everclear shortly throughout North America. The group, led by singer and guitarist Scott Stevens, has a very tight Zeppelin-cum-Strokes feeling to them, appropriate judging by bass player Freddy Herrera’s large “Led Zeppelin” belt buckle. Although some of their set was cut short due to time constraints, the six songs they did play were excellent and surprising. “Kickout”, the first single from the band’s new album, Inertia, had the audience bobbing heads, tapping toes or both. Other numbers that went smashingly well included “Creeper Kamikaze” and “Can’t Relate”.
After leaving the Exies at the Kathedral, it was over to the Horseshoe Tavern to get a taste of other newcomers. Opening act Soft Canyon from Montreal had the nearly barren bar entertained with some ‘70s retro rock along the lines of fellow Montreal group Tricky Woo. But although it was quite good, the band will have to be content being a bar band, a very good bar band. Following them on the odd yet eclectic bill was Boomkat, a brother and sister tandem who have become known for their inclusion on Eminem’s 8 Mile soundtrack. Taryn Manning on vocals resembled a cross between electro-shocker Peaches and Macy Gray. Backed by two sixties-like go-go dancers, Manning had the “school girl gone bad” persona down pat. Unfortunately her brother Kellin Manning on keyboards was having his share of technical problems as his microphone kept cutting out. Songs such as “Wastin’ My Time” and “The Wreckoning”, both from Boomkatalog One, were different but not necessarily stellar. The group has something unique but hasn’t honed it yet.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Vancouver-born Carolyn Mark. Mark, who seems to be cut out from a ‘50s era country songbook, was a bundle of energy and a pleasure to watch swigging back shots, dancing up a storm and hopping around stage when not singing her old-time country hillbilly tunes. Accompanied by a full band, Mark shone on songs like “Hazy Memory”, “Fuzzy Slippers” and “Don’t Come Over Baby”. While she was high energy most of the time, Mark cooled down with some slow waltz-like material that had all swaying or finding a partner. Unlike some of the bands presented, Mark filled her forty minutes as if her life depended upon it.
Saturday evening had most of the showcase shows, with Lanois, rock group Audiosleep and Vancouver sister duo Tegan and Sara all headlining at different venues. But with one pair of eyes and no access to a clone machine, decisions must be made. Thankfully Tegan and Sara proved that choosing them was worthwhile. Although the band had an early set time, the sold-out audience that neared one thousand was treated to a very hard pop rock show. The first group signed to Neil Young’s new label, the twin lesbian sisters had the energy and showmanship of bands like the Runaways and L7.
Kicking off a three-week North American headlining tour here before opening for Ben Folds, Tegan and Sara played a ninety-minute set that focused mainly on the new album If It Was You. Just as great was the between song banter, which focused mainly on recent odd events while doing promotional work in Europe. Perhaps the biggest factor that worked for them was their change of direction, as Tegan and Sara seem to no longer be content with the two acoustic guitars and a coffeehouse folk feeling of their previous albums. Songs like “Divided” and “Buried Alive” worked quite well as did others that were reworked. Dressed like early incarnations of Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro, the twins ended the show with the same energy and talent that got them this far. A nice cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” rounded out the evening. It was an enjoyable conclusion to a rather enjoyable week.