NXNE 2013: The National + The Whiskey Hearts + Paul Langlois + Bruise Cruise + Shannon and the Clams

But first, a little further east at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, was the headline event of NXNE 2013: The National. Finding a spot to park my bike amongst the thousands who’d flocked downtown for the free concert was quite the task, but not nearly as difficult as finding a spot with decent sightlines to catch the band of brothers and the increasingly aged-looking Matt Berninger. Sure, the band’s mix of classics and cuts from their latest, Trouble Will Find Me, was entertaining enough. Yet age has certainly affected this band’s aesthetic, as a hardened realism ends up playing out in tracks like “Graceless”, which sound much more driving than anything they’ve ever done.

It wasn’t enough to keep me posted downtown for long, though. Friends agreed that there was more people than ever at the National compared to past NXNE free outdoor shows, perhaps too many. A 10-minute bike ride down Dundas to Hard Luck Bar meant we arrived just in time to catch the beginning of the Whiskey Hearts, an acoustic-punk act with a strong political bend. Hard Luck Bar had a sparse (At best) crowd, though that didn’t stop the five-member band (With a revolving cast of musicians hopping onstage) from sounding any less esteemed and enthusiastic. Flashes of the Dropkick Murphys and Tim Barry were evident, and ending the set with a acoustic-punk classic “Wagon Wheel” was a nice touch.

Five minutes down to Dundas/Ossington and the legendary Dakota Tavern, which was featuring a solo set from the guitarist of Canada’s musical institutions, the Tragically Hip. Paul Langlois looked relaxed and comfortable in the intimate basement venue, with the other Hip guitarist by his side. Rugged and catchy all the same, Langlois’s set, comprised largely by tracks from his solo debut Fix This Head. A little dirtier and much more countrified than standard Tragically Hip material, Langlois seemed to relish in the spotlight that he’s rarely granted in the Hip. Perhaps Langlois and his standout tracks such as “Can’t Wait Anymore” and “Broken Road” deserve a little more attention in the future.

Saturday began with a pesky hangover that lingered much longer than it should’ve. The most optimal way to combat these kinds of mornings is a healthy dose of fresh air, which M for Montreal provided on their “Bruise Cruise”, a three-hour boat cruise around Lake Ontario and Toronto Island throughout the afternoon featuring a very well-curated lineup. The weather was perfect and the beer was cold, so the garage-themed cruise went over swimmingly. We Are Wolves weren’t terrible, and local favourites Odonis Odonis showed a sonic prowess bands that young usually take years to attain. Keep an eye out for this three-piece in the near future.

But the afternoon, and perhaps NXNE as a whole belonged to recent Merge Records signing Mikal Cronin. This was his third of four shows at the fest and while he appeared rushed due to time constraints, Cronin sounded exactly as you’d hope he would: poppy but scrappy, daring but focused and completely engaging.

Later that evening, the Silver Dollar Room swelled in anticipation of Shannon and the Clams, the Oakland act that’s often difficult to label, but impossible not to enjoy wholeheartedly. Shannon Shaw displayed effortless grace and a somewhat seductive snarl throughout their buoyant set, which eventually had the floor of the Silver Dollar Room shaking in total agreement with their pungent garage pop ditties. Shannon and the Clams have been garnering acclaim for their recent Hardly Art full-length Dreams in the Rat House, and they’re very well deserved.

It was felt strange but somewhat fitting to end NXNE on such an enjoyably benign note. I managed to get in a quick hello with festival organizer Michael Hollett afterwards, who was seen casually strolling through the Silver Dollar Room. Such is the general affability of NXNE in oft-overwhelming times. But let it be known that I could only scratch the surface of the hundreds (If not a thousand?) acts available in Toronto throughout NXNE. The city’s rep may have been tarnished in recent weeks, yet a trip through the incredible rooms and venues this city has to offer proved that it indeed does deserve the title it’s vying for, that being one of, if not the greatest city for live music in the world.

Shannon and the Clams