North By Northeast (NXNE) 2009, Toronto - Full festival review and photos
On arrival at this year's NXNE on Friday evening, I had one destination in mind, that being the Mod Club, where tonight The Distillers' Brody Dalle was in town with her new band Spinnerette. I collected my media pass from the festival headquarters at the Hyatt Hotel, then headed up towards the Little Italy district of Toronto to seek out Spinnerette.
Spinnerette at the Mod Club was easily the hottest ticket in town. I remain a big fan of the Distillers and continue to give their records regular plays, and the huge turn-out for this show was clear evidence that Brody Dalle has kept an eager following. Even by the schedule set start time of 10 p.m. there were still people waiting outside, as there wasn't enough room in the Mod Club to accommodate everyone and this meant that only those with an actual ticket were let inside, as opposed to those with a NXNE festival pass or wrist band. I was denied!...."We're at capacity..." - were the words uttered from the door, as myself and some other photographers and reporters were sent away. Neeeeeeeowwwww, BOOM! - my whole week of pre-show anticipation for this gig came crashing down like an airliner on the pavement of College Street. Ah well, next time...
While walking back through Little Italy I was stopped in my tracks by the awesome sight and sound of a band who were taking part in the 'Taste Of Little Italy' street festival. Dr Draw, an instrumental group, led by an electric-violin playing band leader, who together with a harp player and the rest of the usual suspects you'd find in a typical rock band, put on a great show. I've always been a fan of the electric violin, definitely an instrument that I feel should be used more often in rock music, and Dr. Draw demonstrated the shear emotive power of the electric violin in the hands of a passionate player. A big crowd of smiling faces gathered, with every song receiving warm applause - the music, ranging from original compositions to covers, including Danny Boy, finding favour with a mixed-bag demographic of passers-by. It was something a bit different, and far removed from the style of artists performing at NXNE. Afterwards I checked out some songs on Dr. Draw's MySpace page and they really don't do the group justice (not helped by some questionable production and shoddy levels); the collective that I saw performing on College Street delivered grandiose music with an impassioned display that became the highlight of my evening.
At some time after ten o'clock I found myself back on the NXNE circuit, as I ventured into Sneaky Dee's where Aids Wolf were making a right old racket. Aids Wolf is what happens when a bunch of hyperactive toddlers who used to bash on their mother's kitchen pots and pans grow-up and form a band. It was car crash syndrome as I stood in the middle of Sneaky' and allowing myself to zone out to the blissfully discordant crashing, banging and walloping noise.
Down on Queen Street, my evening came to an end at the Kathedral where Purrr, an Toronto electronica trio, played to a small crowd. I can see what the band were trying to accomplish visually, as they started their set adorned with white mime-artist masks and bright strobe lights, but behind the attention-seeking visual display was a sound that was lacking in impact. The sights and sounds of Purr got an initial reaction of stand-offish toe-tapping intrigue from the crowd, but apathy and boredom soon took over. There were some good moments - Want being the best; a slam-dunk of a track amidst a set where most the other songs failed to score. A distinct image can help a band create an identity and a following, but in this instance the music was too gutless to inspire the kind of epileptic freak-out that Purrr seem to be looking to create with their pulsing beats and strobes. Or perhaps the band just adorn masks to deal with issues of glossophobia.
NXNE 2009 - Saturday, June 20
"The AMP $100,000 Rock Band Rock Off was a slap in the face to all the real artists performing at NXNE. I wasn't the only one pissed off by what was unfolding...blood was even spilled."
My Saturday at NXNE '09 began in the evening at Yonge-Dundas Square, where I had the angering experience of witnessing part of the $100,000 Rock Off sponsored by AMP energy drinks. So get this - four groups of guys battled it out by 'performing' a song live from the Rock Band video game. The winner collected a cheque for $100,000.... for playing a friggin' video game!! I stood in utter disbelief at what I was watching. This event was a slap in the face to all the real artists performing at NXNE, for which that kind of money would be a monumental sum. I wasn't the only one who was pissed off by what was unfolding, with the 'bands' being taunted and booed by the majority of the crowd, and blood was even spilled as fights broke out. This whole event was utterly disgusting and certainly an ill-advised publicity stunt. I didn't stay to find out which 'group' won the $100,000, and I couldn't restrain myself from ranting at an AMP promo girl on the way out. I hope the NXNE organizers think twice before allowing anything like this happen again at music festival which is supposed to be a celebration and showcase of emerging new Canadian artists.
Fate would have it that half an hour after the atrocity at Yonge-Dundas I'd find my way inside the Horseshoe Tavern where I would see an actual group - with actual instruments and actual talent to boot - pick up the NXNE Galaxie Rising Star award from CBC Radio staff who were broadcasting the gig. Woodpigeon, a band from Calgary, were fantastic and worthy award winners - they picked up a cheque too which I'm sure had a lot less zero's than the one handed out by AMP.
Woodpigeon were haunting, enchanting, and every metaphoric imagery of crashing waves rolling up upon a beach as you wet your feet and float away like driftwood. Um, yeah... they have the whole melodic bliss thing down pat. If you own a Snow Patrol record then Woodpigeon's richly atmospheric indie-folk stylings will be right up your street. Knock Knock was a fantastic little trip-out, while And As The Ship Went Down was the perfect ending to Woodpigeon's show and beautifully introduced by the reverberating sound of a violin bow stroked against the resonators tubes of a vibraphone. Totally magic.
Back out into the night and heading west on Queen Street, I found myself staying for way long inside The Hideout where I caught San Fransico glam rock outfit Triple Cobra. There was a really awkward moment when the lead singer Attis Ngoval, (who incidentally seems to have kidnapped Mick Jaggers lips), had an amusing stand-off with a member of the audience after the guy in the crowd objected to the singer's badgering of the audience to "get the fuck up here, come closer". The singer demanded that the guy "step up here and say that" - so he did, being not in the least bit intimidated by the prima donna on stage. Aside from that, the only entertaining thing about Triple Cobra were the pair of cabaret-styled Go Go dancers that provided some eye candy and back-up vocals - without those girls I'm pretty sure the predominantly male populous inside The Hideout would've just walked out. Musically the band were totally forgettable.
A little further down the road I came across Kilbourne, a three-piece all girl punk/hardcore band from Calgary. I only saw caught the last ten minutes but I liked what I heard - the drums were hit hard, the bass had a good heavy tone, the guitar went crunch and the singer had a nice aggressive snarl. Not half bad.
Across the road at The Reverb I saw The Dudes, from, you guessed it, Calgary. Ever since my trip out west to Calgary in May I seem to become across a string of great bands from the city. So hey, you heard it here first - there's more to Canadian music than just what happens in Toronto and Montreal. The Dudes got a great reaction from what must've been an almost capacity crowd. Good-time upbeat tunes like Pretty Lies were just as accessible as the slower more soulful numbers like Small Mercies, largely down to the lyrics which for the most part were pretty easy to hook on.
After midnight I made my way up to Spadina Avenue at El Mocambo where the good music continued, this time from Halifax, Nova Scotia based In-Flight Safety. I'd actually caught a glimpse of these guys the day before at Yonge-Dundas Square, while on my way to that ill-fated Spinnerette show. They played a more straight-up brand of indie rock compared to the shimmering soundscapes of Woodpigeon, but I found myself liking this music a lot too.
At sometime around 2 a.m. I called it a night back down at The Reverb, which is where the party was at, with Grand Analog serving up a mix of dub, hip-hop and some Bob Marley inspired reggae. They had a white bass player who played laid down plenty of funky grooves, while singer Odario G. Williams had the crowd in the palm of his hand. After Grand Analog's show I walked out into a humid Toronto night still singing their catchiest chorus line to myself;
"I've been thinking about my nieces and nephews,
The great bands that I caught on this Saturday evening turned my mood around and allowed me to briefly forget about that stupid AMP energy drink Rockband gimmick, but I still consider what happened there to be an utterly scandalous waste of resources, and a crime against both music and taste. Maybe next years sponsors could put some money towards helping some of the fantastic Canadian talent that gets showcased each year at NXNE, instead of throwing money at guys for playing a video game. Yeah, you bet I'm bitter - some of us just happen to care about music.
© Brian Banks
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