Chad Van Gaalen turned into Captain Buzzkill at NXNE 2011
Impressions of North By North East Festival 2011 in Toronto
I got my first taste of the fest Thursday evening at Yonge and Dundas Square. Music Vice had some table space in the square that evening, and so I went to join Brian and our intern Jackee to help staple and sell zines. Most of the gig was explaining tattooed teenagers, that no we didn’t know where the merch guy selling the Descendents t-shirts was. Meanwhile, in the background, METZ were warming up the crowd for that punk show that was later to come.
We were less successful selling the zine than we’d hoped, which was a bit of a morale killer. (But hey, we’ve sold a few online since.) At the end of our hour, we went our separate ways and I decided to split the square because Rusty were bringing me down. First thing I sought out was some beer to console the fragile writer’s ego. Then I met up with a Toronto ex-pat at the Horseshoe to check out the PS I Love You/ Suuns/ No Joy triple bill.
When we arrived, Knoxville Tennessee natives the Royal Bangs were setting up their equipment. The sound was bad. Really bad. No matter what amount making out with the microphone the lead singer did, he couldn’t get his words to reach the audience. It was hard to tell if they were good or bad (I like the youtube videos) with all the distortion. Likewise, PS I Love You and Suuns was just a lot of noise. PS vocalist Paul Saulnier stopped after the first song for another quick soundcheck, but the sound quality remained an issue for the rest of the evening. I had really been looking forward to the showcase, so it was really hard to make it an early night in spite of all the aural abuse.
I wasn’t really feeling for anyone in particular Friday night, so I decided to take a trick out of Brian’s book and just take a walk down College Street, and duck in and out of bars until I found something that suited my ear. I wasn’t intoxicated enough for the Comfort Zone, so I walked til I hit Rancho. A local band called Volcano Playground were getting ready to play to the small audience that was gathering. Heavy levels of vocal looping and reverb give a feeling of ghostliness. The feel is 90’s alternarock with none of the decade’s fear of synth and pop sensibilities. Songs bleed into each other instead of ending, giving the audience little opportunity to clap and break the spell being cast over them. After the failures of the day before, it was nice to be thrown a bone by the music festival gods in the form of the discovery of a promising local band I’d never heard before. [Busted. Natascha, you should read Music Vice more… we first mentioned VP over a year ago – Ed.]
After the set, I decided to make my way down to Sneaky Dees. I was worried that if I didn’t get there before 11, the club would be at capacity and I would miss out on Sheezer’s 2 AM performance. Sure enough, there was a long line about 300 deep to get into the venue. Upstairs local band Ruby Coast had just finished their set, and PEI’s Paper Lions were taking to the stage. There was a high concentration of bands and music industry types in the venue, and there was definitely a celebratory air to the party. Once the band started to play, I realized I recognized a lot of the repertoire from afternoon shifts spent listening to The Verge XM. The music is a little more catchy than much of my usual fare, but admittedly their 2010 EP Trophies was a pretty easy listen. I was really pleased to see that the band could pull off the material live, and bring a lot of energy and fun to their performance. The crowd was loving it- radio single “Don’t Touch That Dial” was a particular hit. The club reached the maximum capacity of sweating, hard-partying bodies it could hold during the set- and the floor began to shake with the ferocity of the dancing. For just one moment I was actually afraid that the floor might really give in, and that we’d fall down onto the nacho eaters below. Then I thought to myself, fuck it, if I’m going to go- it might as well be while I’m having fun.
If it wasn’t enough to follow a great Paper Lion’s set, Great Bloomers also had the misfortune to be slotted immediately before all girl Weezer cover band Sheezer (only the Blue album and Pinkerton) – the band that everyone was there to see. I spent most of the set anticipating the next act, but my interest did not go unpiqued by the talented young band. I was more excited by the band’s roots elements than their rock elements, but I would see them again on a night when I could be less singularly focused on Sheezer.
You could feel the energy mounting as the girls got on stage to set up their equipment. There was a roar when the girls started their set after what seemed like an unbearable amount of teasing- but the nice thing with these festival sets is that a show starts no more than 15 minutes after the official set time, so there are no real interminable waiting periods. I was really impressed to see that the girls who had to actually learn to play instruments just to bring the project into breezing through the show like pros. It was impossible to hear the vocals over the crowd who were singing every lyric out loud- and early on into the set a friendly mosh pit started in front of the stage. It was impossible not to enjoy the party that the music provided, and it was the only show I saw at NXNE that lived up to hype.
Saturday night I decided to spend the evening at another show which was receiving a lot of media attention- the Braids/ Chad Van Gaaleen/ Grimes show at the Great Hall. But Friday’s hits were Saturday’s misses, and it got off to a bad foot when Braids lead singer Raphaelle jumped on stage after being sick in the bathroom with food poisoning. It was an impressive display of professionalism for her to get on stage and play in that condition- and nail every note too- but though the music was album quality, the performance came off quite hollow. Chock it up to food poisoning, but there was a complete lack of audience engagement.
But the major disappointment of the night was Chad Van Gaalen, and it pains me to say it because Chad was the one act I wanted to see this year at the festival – the absolute top of my NXNE bucket list. I carry a pretty big torch for his music which I begin to follow after catching him perform at the Harbour Front Canada’s day celebration 2 years ago. A few months later when he came to tour “Soft Airplane” at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto, I bought tickets and convened with God via the shy performer from Alberta. It was one of the most moving shows I’ve ever seen, and I left with a feeling that I can only describe as peace- despite the often unsettling lyrical content- (as is the site-specific brilliance of the church as a venue).
The Chad Van Gaalen that came on stage Saturday night was not that Chad Van Gaalen I saw two years ago. Likely, I was more acute to it because of a conversation I had before the set with a friend who’d just interviewed the singer-songwriter before the set. He doesn’t like performing, she told me, and it was clear from the get go that the singer did not want to be on stage that night. Everything seemed to irritate him- for the poor quality of his set’s sound, to his strange, DIY looking guitar which was not functioning as it was supposed to. Songs were rushed. Banter was forced, and if you listened carefully, you could hear a sneaking disdain mumbled behind half-hearted polities. When he finally tired of the guitar which was giving him problems, he tried the uke on for half a song- which ended abruptly when he decided he wasn’t feeling being on stage anymore.
Usually picking a firm stance on any matter of opinion comes easy to me, but I don’t know where to stand. Professionally, it comes off as a failure to perform one’s job- but artistically it weighs in differently. Chad’s an artist- not only of songs, but an animator, and a visual artist. In art, there’s an idea that authenticity is paramount to artistic expression- and we wear it like blankets. Authenticity is what gives art it’s value and it’s power- it’s what allows artists and audiences to connect. Part of being authentic is not forcing it and not faking it if it just isn’t coming or if you’re just not feeling it. Leonard Cohen famously stopped midway through a performance, saying he was calling it off for the night and that he’d refund tickets (although he returned to the stage with renewed vigour to finish the set after a shave). It’s a choice we take at the risk of popularity, or our careers, but at the end of the day I can understand it- even if I don’t like it.
The Chad performance really took the wind of out of my sails, and I didn’t get it back for the rest of the fest- I didn’t go to even one show afterwards (although there were certainly temptations). Oh well. Slowly I’m learning a bit more from every festival I attend. It should be obvious with these indie fests that it’s not always about the names in bold in the print publications. The grimy local dives are often where it’s at. And on that note, next year- fuck the hipster media machine with their big claims. All I want to do is shake my ass.
© Natascha Malta, Music Vice