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PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005: Searching For Those 40 Minutes

Searching For Those 40 Minutes by Jason MacNeil - NXNE has now matured into an event with its own rhythms and habits. But there's still that craving to hear something fresh.

PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005
Searching For Those 40 Minutes

NXNE has now matured into an event with its own rhythms and habits. But there's still that craving to hear something fresh.

by Jason MacNeil

The junior counterpart to South By Southwest has grown quite a bit in recent years, and it is no longer just a replica of the Canadian Music Week held here in Toronto each March. In fact, the popularity of the festival has allowed several bands make a mark here. But for every band that succeeds, there are two or three dozen that have to live with the memory of a fleeting 40-minute set that didn't pan out as they had hoped.

The Blue Seeds, a Montreal band, played at the Black Bull, a bar that brings to mind Arnold's in Happy Days, minus the floor space. The guitarist lost his strap early in one tune while an errant cue ball cracked a young woman in the ankle. They were plagued by a bad mix early on: the vocals of singer Amelie Laflamme were lost too often. One song � one of the few good ones � came off as a cross between Ute Lemper and Neko Case. They persevered, ending on a strong note with a rousing, groove-riddled � and creepy � tune entitled "Amphetamines and Coffee".

Many of the bigger bands tend to play NXNE at showcases sponsored by labels or one of the local weekly magazines. This can suck attendance from the other venues, even though local audiences can see some of these acts regularly (the Rheostatics, for example, can be seen up to 12 nights in a row at the Horseshoe Tavern come November).

The better bands at the smaller venues compensate with sheer energy. Detroit band Otto Vector � perhaps the underrated act of the festival � were excellent from start to finish. Led by blond, diminutive, barefoot singer Renee, they offered one sharp, catchy dance-rock tune after another, capturing an electro-synth rock feel in the style of the Killers or Controller.controller. To make the retro point, even the band's guitarist was wearing a toque with Pac Man figures on it, as well as having an Atari decal on his axe. Songs like "You Know That I Know" and "Lots To Say" were excellent.

Eliott Brood, a trio that played at the Horseshoe, churned out one chugging, train-rolling traditional mountain tune after another, sounding as if they were a coked-up Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The group nailed songs like "Cadillac Dust" and "Oh Alberta" with energy and excitement. Dressed as if they had day jobs repairing Xerox machines, the trio worked the crowd into a quasi-frenzied state with its choppy, no-nonsense style.

Other bands filled up space with friends and acquaintances. The four-piece Kids on TV managed to have some of the dance floor occupied at Club 279. They were intent on giving a full sensory performance. With their front man wearing metallic shoulder pads, a mohawk and a long flowing bed sheet � er, cape � the band's hard techno dance beats brought to mind an early garage version of Depeche Mode or Erasure. Their set � including some colorful visuals � was fun, but an acquired taste.

On the third day of NXNE, a some people head out of town, and more than a few can't get over the fact that transit delays made them miss the one band that they just had to see. Others, exhausted by the club-hopping, just wait to see what the evening will bring. It's also that time of the festival that you really want a band to hit you in the gut, to make you feel like you're the only one in the room.

I had heard about Milton Mapes from a SXSW radio feed. Milton Mapes is an alt country/Americana/roots rock group from Austin. They opened the night with a slow-building tune that made them sound like a Canadian-inspired collage of Neil Young, the Cash Brothers and the Band. Even the drummer resembled a young Levon Helm, down to the beard. A few in the room took notice and closely paid attention, but generally the bar consisted of bands wanting to prepare for their own set.

Crunchy riffs, twang-tinged riffs, Americana riffs � Milton Mapes had them all abundance. While they concentrated on material from their new album, The Blacklight Trap, songs like "Bowie AZ" and the gorgeous "When the Earth's Last Picture Is Painted" soared from start to finish. Milton Mapes is a kindred spirit to that fine Canadian act Matt Mays & El Torpedo. Ragged at times but producing some extended riffage when called upon, Milton Mapes ended the night by bringing a song into an ethereal barrage of guitars that finally won over the whole audience, producing one of the loudest responses of their short set.

NXNE offers much in quantity and variety. But it's those 40 fleeting yet blissful minutes you look for every year, and thankfully I got them.

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