[19 June 2002]
Black Rebel Motorcyle Club
very June, the little brother to the annual South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas occurs here in Toronto. In recent years, only a few big names graced the NXNE (North By Northeast) stages of the 25 various venues and bars, but this year seemed to be quite different. The Hives, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Mooney Suzuki, Ben Kweller, Kathleen Edwards and Tift Merritt were just some of the big names in town for this annual schmooze fest. While it’s a plethora of talent, it’s also a logistical nightmare deciding what to see and what to unfortunately miss. Beth Orton, Green Day, Indigo Girls, Blink-182, De La Soul and Unwritten Law fit into the latter category. Nonetheless, the festival was the most memorable in years.
While the opening White Ribbon Concert benefiting battered women shelters played across town June 4, wee Ben Kweller performed at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern to a large and excited crowd. Starting his rather early hour long set with a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”, Kweller wasted little time swerving between whispered lyrics and a joyfully loud guitar. “No Reason” as well as an acoustic “Walk On Me” were well received, but sing-a-longs erupted during “Commerce, TX” and “How It Should Be (Sha Sha)”. After flubbing the set list slightly and using some self-deprecating humor, Kweller saved the best for last with the schizophrenic “Harriet’s Got A Song”. The track, which moves from a calm acoustic singer/songwriter dirge to an ear piercing wall of guitars and back left most shaking their heads in happiness.
On Thursday evening, those who weren’t able to sneak their way into Lee’s Palace for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (more about them later) were early at the Horseshoe Tavern for the latest alternative country darling Tift Merritt. Merritt, who has been compared to Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams, left little doubt she deserves the praise. Backed by only a lap steel guitar player, her guitar and her voice, Merritt performed most of her material from her debut Bramble Rose with a voice the recalls an early Dolly Parton or Patsy Cline with just a touch of Crow’s audible snarl. As promos were handed out to the crowd with samples from the album, Merritt did enough with her voice alone to keep the crowd’s relatively short attention span. An entire supporting cast would help flush out some songs such as “Are You Still In Love With Me” and “Trouble Over Me”.
One of the other solid alt. country performances was from Kathleen Edwards, a singer who has equally parts Lucinda Williams and Kasey Chambers but who doesn’t have the industry machinery behind her. Yet. Although still unsigned, she’s created a large buzz with her debut Failer album. The Ottawa-based musician, who dinged her head off the microphone during some blistering guitar solos and bridges, nailed songs such as “Mercury” and “One More Song The Radio Won’t Like” as industry execs watched on. After asking a fan to get her a shot of Wild Turkey, Edwards ended her nearly hour-long set with “12 Bellvue”, one of the concert highpoints. Definitely a name to remember.
With an off night Friday, and due to the overwhelming demand for tickets, the trio that is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club performed an acoustic set as part of an in-store meet-and-greet Friday evening. Looking equally parts disheveled and perhaps still feeling the effects of the late night, the group gave new dimensions to hits such as “Love Burns” and “As Sure As The Sun”. Also entertaining was the between song banter or lack thereof, often rubbing their eyes or trying to delay the aftereffects for the time being. With drummer Nick Jago resembling a young and indifferent Charlie Watts, guitarists Peter Hayes and Robert Turner spent some time tuning their only guitars, but the fans didn’t seem to mind.
One of the highlights of NXNE was the triple bill of The Pattern, Mooney Suzuki and The Hives. All bred on the sixties rock of the MC5 and The Stooges, the bands are intent on putting the fun back into the music. After The Pattern kicked the late afternoon/early evening show off, New York City’s The Mooney Suzuki wooed the crowd with a heaping of handclaps and loud, punishing riffs. Lead singer Sammy James Jr. climbed anything he could while his thick black sunglasses never moved an inch. Dubbing themselves the “hardest working band in show business,” it was the first of two performances for the group that night, with a headlining slot to follow. The idea of two shows in one night only added to the old time feeling and nostalgia.
The last evening of NXNE was the most anticipated of the weeklong activities thanks to five guys from Sweden. After moving the show to a venue four times the size of the original, The Hives demonstrated how energy, intensity and a great stage performance could make you feel you’re standing in Liverpool’s The Cavern and it’s 1960. Or picture The Strokes without ritalin. Led by Howlin Pelle Almqvist, the neatly attired group plowed through its almost hour set. “You heard what’s wrong with the radio,” Almqvist said. “Now you’re going to hear what’s right!” before kicking into “Hate To Say I Told You So” from Veni Vidi Vicious midway through the set. “Supply And Demand” had Almqvist in a possessed state of mind, his eyes bulging out as he scaled the wall of speakers. Most of the other band members, including bassist Dr. Destruction, appear as if they would be just as believable as waiters at Fawlty Towers as they were on stage.
Equally enjoyable was the between song banter. “Hello, T-O-R-O-N-T-O, we’re the T-H-E-H-I-V-E-S,” he shouted after a rousing start. Even the few hecklers were caught off-guard. “You need to go home, look at yourself in the mirror and get yourself some self-confidence,” he replied to one while asking the crowd to keep clapping when the “United States of The Hives” ceased playing. After another high-y octane song that closed the show, it was obvious they had converted any doubters. By ten o’clock, the show was over, and the evening still had dozens of bands performing. But The Hives did all they could to make bar and club-hopping that night utterly pointless.