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PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005: We Just Came for the Wristband

We Just Came for the Wristband by David Marchese - David Marchese examines NXNE, the uneven blessings of talent and exposure, and the slippery notion of success.

PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005
We Just Came for the Wristband


David Marchese examines NXNE, the uneven blessings of talent and exposure, and the slippery notion of success.

by David Marchese

Part One | Part Two

Junior Pantherz look for all the world like three milk-fed, rosy-cheeked prairie innocents. They come from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and their NXNE show was part of the eastern leg of their current tour. It was the third show they would be playing in Toronto in six days. I was not expecting to be blown away. But within 30 minutes—after careening guitar solos, crashing drums, and spacious melodies—the alternately ferocious and gentle music would have me thinking the same thing being yelled by the young women at the back of the club: one more song!

Earlier that night, I had seen two acts—Phattoe and Arsoncityscape—perform in a combination of timeslot and venue that could only be described as a dingy purgatory. Here was something different. Junior Pantherz was playing a showcase set at the chic Drake Hotel. Instead of a random smattering of family, friends, and loiterers, the room was filled with beautiful people.

Where earlier I had been able to easily suss out who in the club was the band and walk right up to them, this time the band was undistinguishable from the rest of the crowd. They seemed to appear out of nowhere when it was time to take to the stage.

I had read in one of the local weeklies that “most bands only dream about the kind of success the Junior Pantherz enjoy.” The band has released four albums and opened for the Pixies and Modest Mouse. After hearing the Junior Pantherz play, their skill and charisma proved that they’ve got something even more powerful than exposure for other bands to envy.

Bringing a fresh jolt of energy to the power trio format, they married drifting melodies to violent guitar jamming. Before the first song was over, it was clear these guys were a different order of musicians. Their charisma filled the room as every song had a sense of drama and dynamics and every note was played with purpose. The crowd loved it. Two or three times, in the midst of a heavy guitar jam, I can honestly say that the band’s spirit approached that hallowed place where Jimi and Zeppelin learned to live.

A festival like NXNE is not just about music. Music is a means to an end. NXNE is about success. The industry hopes for success to keep feeding itself, the artists hope for success so they can feed themselves better, and the critics hope to find the next great success so they can feed off the buzz of a hot discovery. Hearing music that brings a smile to your face or a tear to your eye is but a value-added benefit.

The logistics of the event don’t necessarily make the best music most accessible. Bands deemed worthy get showcase slots at trendy venues and carry the attendant buzz. Others find themselves playing ramshackle venues in timeslots unlikely to attract anyone other than the most curious and dedicated. It’s painfully obvious that these acts are nothing more than the undercard to the main events.

What, in this context, might success mean? An established band playing a rapturously packed show? A go-nowhere band able to get in a little more fun before the real world comes and takes it away? An obscure band making at least one more fan? A band of fifteen year-olds out late playing music on a school night? A free festival pass and a shot at a dream?

If you want to sell a festival featuring largely unknown acts, you’ve got to have volume. Realistically, how many acts is someone going to see? I was exhausted by the time Sunday came around and I had gone to perhaps 15 different performances. But try selling a wristband to someone on the basis of 15 unknown acts. It’s not going to work. Offer the consumer 400 acts and you’ve got something.

What you’ve got, aside from a better marketing plan, is a lot of filler.

Phattoe is a band Calgarians who were penciled into an eight o’clock timeslot at a club that appeals more through its wacky name (The Bovine Sex Club) than the strength of its bookings. The NXNE directory gave them a hopelessly ambitious and passe description: “a catchy style that fuses hard rock, punk, funk, ska, and hip hop.” I asked a pale, red-afro’d dude in the audience whether he had ever heard of Phattoe. He hadn’t. He was at the show because “It’s close to where I wanna be later.”

Was the band aware of its sacrificial status? While waiting to begin their set, I leaned over the partition at the side of the stage and asked the guitarist if he would mind answering a couple questions. Being Canadian, he didn’t.

The guitarist (named either Rob or Ron and a ringer for That 70s Show’s Danny Masterson), happily told me the band had been invited to play at NXNE and had decided to take their payment in the form of a festival pass rather than a $100 fee. This turned out to be a common choice. Bands will play for a pittance if the prospect of exposure is dangled in front of them.

I asked Rob/Ron what his band hoped to achieve by playing this gig. After he said that they just wanted to have fun, he stopped for moment and smiled. “If we get signed. . . that’s good.” I do believe he would be satisfied simply by having a good time, but I also believed that to travel hundreds of miles to play for wristbands worth 25 Canadian dollars meant Rob/Ron’s second answer was a bigger part of the band’s motivation than he let on.


Phattoe

Still light outside, and with more staff than patrons inside, Phattoe began their set promptly at eight o’clock. Rob/Ron’s first goal was more than likely achieved. The band put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into their “hard rock, punk, funk, ska, hip hop.” Phattoe would be great band to have play at a University of Calgary frat party, but the thought of them progressing beyond that level is hard to imagine. There was no edge, either to the band or their music, and their sub-Chili Peppers vibe might have meant something seven years ago in the days when Crazytown was having hits. Now they sound like what they are—filler. Were they a success? It depends on whom you ask. To the NXNE organizers, Phattoe did what they were supposed to do—filled time.

If Phatto were a snapshot of band too utilitarian to think of in terms of future or past, Arsoncityscape promised a glimpse of tomorrow. The directory coolly announced that “The Arsoncityscape are all 15 years old. . .They are planning world domination.”

I wanted to ask the kids the same questions I asked Phattoe. The band’s producer called over a tall, rosy cheeked kid. His face shining with enthusiasm (I can only imagine what it’s like to talk to a journalist about your band when you’re 15 years old), he told me the band had been together for three and a half years (!). They had started off playing mostly Goldfinger covers, and were now veterans of around 50 gigs. The band’s goal was simply to get people to listen, but the producer interrupted and told me that before the gig the kid said he was hoping to get laid.

I don’t know whether or not the members of Arsoncityscape got laid, but they put on a pretty damn good show. When I was their age, I was still wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants everyday; these kids are rockin’ out. The content of the music was unremarkable, simply a solid version of modern alternative rock. I should amend that: the music is unremarkable until you realize that kids are making it. The drummer had the requisite dramatic fills, the guitarists played the heavy chorus riffs and atmospheric verse parts you expect to hear bursting out of the radio, and the singer hit all the notes while he emoted professionally across the stage. Watching Arsoncityscape play was like watching a fish take to water. It brought a tear to my eye.

After each song the singer was working the sales pitch: the band needed our support in an on-line battle of the bands, they had merch to sell after the show, check out the website, yadda yadda yadda. If the sheer number of ears listening was the determining factor behind their evening, I don’t think this was the night for Arsoncityscape. After delivering a solid thirty-minute set, the best the band could draw from the sparse crowd was mild applause. But I wouldn’t bet against a lot of ears hearing them before too long. Time will tell, and time is something that 15-year olds have plenty of.

The difference between bands thrown into useless timeslots and a band playing a showcase set was now apparent to me. The Junior Pantherz are just more successful at this point in all facets than Phattoe and Arsoncityscape. More people were paying to see them, more people were hanging around their merchandise booth after the show, and they were a much better band.

I don’t know where a killer NXNE set will take Junior Pantherz, but by being who they are and playing where they played, I think they can justifiably call the night a success. I hope Phattoe keep having fun and I hope Arsoncityscape keep working at it. Unlike Junior Pantherz their successes will have to be of a different sort and at a different time.

[read part two]

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