Thursday, June 17th.
North by Northeast is not South by Southwest. Not yet, at least. They’re on separate scales, so when you’re reading what will ultimately be a three part write up, keep that in mind. With that out of the way, I’ve got another disclaimer: NXNE ran, officially, from June 14th to June 20th, and I’ll have three day-each write-ups. The math doesn’t make sense because not every day was worth writing about. The 14th and 15th were part of NXNEi, the festival’s inaugural interactive conference series.
Onto the 16th, the opening day of performances. I came in from Hamilton, which is about a 45 minute bus-ride from Toronto, to get my pass. Having seen Shad—who was as incredible as ever, by the way—the night before, I was at least a little bit hungover, but since NXNE is an event filled with media and musicians, I was definitely not the only one. I got my pass and looked at that night’s schedule and, well, it sucked. Wednesday night was barren. There was an ‘invitation only’ event featuring k-os, Kathleen Edwards and the Arkells. I wasn’t invited. The Eagles of Death Metal were playing the Phoenix, but it was a regularly ticketed event with only the first 200 wristbands guaranteed admission. I had a priority pass, not a wristband, so I could probably have gotten in, but not only is the Phoenix out of the way but the Eagles of Death Metal, well, they’re shit. So that was out. The only real gig that caught my fancy was a 10pm set at the Bovine Sex Club from the babe-fronted Cavaliers! (the exclamation is theirs). Problem is that when I said Wednesday was barren, I meant it. Only seven of the festival’s fifty-plus venues were active and when you weed out the CN Tower, the invite-only show I wasn’t invited to and the Phoenix there was really only four options. So I missed Cavaliers!, as I always do, which sucks, since I’ve heard consistently great things about their sound—a supposedly catchy blend of “alt country” and “folk rock”, two imaginary subgenres I find myself immediately drawn to. There’s always next time, I guess.
So, for me, and like with CMW, day two is when the fun started and, thanks to a semi-secret daytime show, it started early. To put it lightly, I was more than a little buzzed by 6 o clock, all thanks to a show at the “Nacho House”. Not a venue so much as an Audio Blood Media manager’s apartment, the show took place on a hipster filled rooftop full of ironic moustaches, unironic sunglasses, free nachos (prepared and served by the dudes in Hollerado) and $3 bottles of Steamwhistle. It was a good time filled with good, maybe great (I left early) tunes. I got there just in time to catch the last few songs of hard-working Burlington garage-rock band Sandman Viper Command. Though I was immediately entranced by guitarist Daniel Reardon’s Bret “The Hitman” Hart shirt, the group’s bouncy but loud—and mostly catchy—brand of “indie” rock did a wonderful job meshing with the day’s blaring hot sun. You’ll read more about these guys in the next entry.
Up next was the Balconies, a band I’d heard of only from a friend who assured me that their guitarist was, as he said it, a total babe. And she was. But little did he say about the fact that she, as well as her mandem on drums and brother on bass, were pretty good at what they do, which is play hook oriented pop-rock accented by sometimes quirky, sometimes harmonized vocal hooks and off the cuff riffs (like in Battle Royale, which is a peculiar mix reminiscent of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” and Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”..seriously) . Their performance was really super. Vocalist and guitarist Jacqui sounded better than she looked and her guitar playing was top-notch, certainly better than I’d have expected—a bias on the genre, not gender. Steve, the bassist, took up vocal duties on certain tracks, “Lulu” being the only one I remember, but his half-shouted way of sing-talking didn’t strike any chords but the irritating ones. Even if he did bear an inexplicable resemblance to Earthworm Jim, his occasionally walking basslines were certainly decent. Drummer Liam, well, he was okay: he did little more than what was expected of him, but given their sound, that wasn’t much at all. He did an amicable job harmonizing while playing, I guess. Ultimately, it was Jacqui’s charisma that served as the backbone of their performance. Whether it’s her sunglasses falling off during the second song, only to have a random stage-intruder place a new pair on her face or her frequent rock out sessions—we’re talking head banging and occasionally tripping over her own feet while trying to do a guitar-strapped adaptation of the running man—she was more or less always the focal point. Her stage banter wasn’t bad, either, such as when introduced the next band as “Dinosaur Boner” only to quickly retract and apologize (I guess you had to be there) or when she thanked the owner of the apartment for “maybe getting evicted” to put on the show.
Up next was Dinosaur Bones, who I almost entirely ignored. I went to get another beer-or-three (seriously, they were $3) and they weren’t nearly interesting enough for me to shove my way back to the front of the stage. Did I mention this was on a rooftop? Because that fact is, ultimately, more interesting than what I could sort-of-hear from Dinosaur Boner. Colour me disappointed, since I’d always been curious about them. Hollerado followed, which is when I left. I was more than happy to eat their nachos but by that point (about 6) the place was too stuffed to move and while I “liked” their inexplicable desire to freestyle for a few minutes as well as the multiple waves of confetti they shot into the crowd, their decision to hand out spraypaint for fans to tag the roof’s adjoining wall was overwhelmingly fume-y and their sound wasn’t (and still isn’t) interesting enough for me to stick around. So I left, but not before thanking the host (I think that was her?), as I’ll do again here. Thanks, Audio Blood Media and owner of the ‘Nacho House’, for starting my NXNE off the right way—drunk and sweaty but surprisingly sunburn free.
After a brief dinner break I was off to Lee’s Palace to catch the Six Shooter Records “Outlaws and Gunslingers” showcase. The idea was kind of stupid and kind of awesome: take three performers, give them each some of their usual backing bands and put them on a stage. Each plays three of their own songs with the others helping out as much as possible. Open Mic Night, but with ultra-talented, highly respected musicians. A songwriter’s circle, someone called it.
First on the docket: Justin Rutledge, Danny Michel and Oh Susanna.
I hadn’t heard of Danny Michel before seeing him that night, but I certainly wasn’t the only one unsure of what to expect, since he was a late-replacement for Simone Felice. But he was good, starting things off with a song from his upcoming album, Sunset Sea, which he was selling—for one night only—a few weeks before its July 1 release date. Throughout his three songs1 Michel showed an almost childlike enthusiasm—which could just as easily have alcohol induced—for what he was playing, smiling and laughing throughout his solos and always ending them with a look of bewildered astonishment (at what I couldn’t be sure). Not much stood out about his sound other than it was a little more upbeat than what his stage-mates are known for.
Justin Rutledge was, as always, top notch. Though he bares an almost frightening resemblance to Jeremy Piven, Rutledge always comes off as an every-man and I truly believe he is. Case in point, he served a buddy of mine a beer about a week earlier at the Dakota Tavern. Just outright gave him one.
His three songs got the biggest response from the crowd (which was slowly but surely growing). “Be A Man”, the lead track off his Polaris longlisted release The Early Windows was the obvious highpoint of the set, as Michel and Oh Susanna took a backseat and let Rutledge deliver the soulful ballad as intended. During “Heart of a River” he responded to the roar (okay, slightly above volume cheers) of a few excited ladies up front by holding his mic (still in its stand) over the crowd for anyone willing to sing along to the chorus. A Springsteen influenced sing-along tailor made for such a moment.
Oh Susanna is a name I’d heard before (probably because she worked on Rutledge’s record and is part of Canada’s generally collaborative country community), but it wasn’t until I heard her sing that I understood the hype. Not only did her voice sound incredible on its own, but she did a more than admirable job singing on Michel and Rutledge’s tracks. She also had great stage presence, giving off a similar vibe to Rutledge, playing off of his jokes and generally endearing herself to the audience as a result. Like Rutledge, Oh Susanna’s three songs centred around a subdued singer-songwriter vibe. The country influence was there, but it was pushed a to the background. Danny Michel may have been the odd man out, but his bouncy contribution to an otherwise low-key performance probably worked better than it should have. Oh, and it was great seeing David Baxter on guitar2.
Up next was Amelia Curran, Andy Maize and Royal Wood. From the get go it was obvious that Amelia Curran didn’t really mesh with the other two; between Royal Wood’s smooth sound and Andy Maize’s bombastic but ballad-y country-rock tunes, Curran’s vulnerability made her look, well, vulnerable. She really seemed to connect with a few girls standing in front of the stage, but it kind of alienated everyone else in the audience as a result. Moreover, she kept trying to step into sing along with Royal Wood and Maize but when she realized she didn’t know the words it got pretty awkward for anyone watching. She’s obviously an accomplished songwriter, because if she wasn’t she wouldn’t have been involved, but I’m not sure collaborations are her strength.
Royal Wood was equally unassuming, though for entirely different reasons. Dressed to the nines in a waistcoat and tie, Royal Wood’s piano-driven folk-pop didn’t do much to stain itself in my memory and, because of that, I’d be a fool to keep talking about him. He wasn’t bad, I just can’t really recall if he was any good.
I can’t say the same for Maize. Performing third (and sixth and ninth), Maize spent the first two songs (Curran’s and Wood’s) standing idly off to the side with his hands in his pocket. I was immediately reminded of Simpsons episode 164, where Marge’s pretzel conundrum climaxes in a battle royal between the Italian and Vietnamese mafias. In this case, Maize was the short guy in the white suit, standing off to the suit; nobody was quite sure what he was going to do, or when he was going to do it, but everyone probably figured it would be worth the wait.
After delivering a timely G20 joke (he apologized, claiming he had nothing to do with it coming here), Maize kicked things into high gear with the Skydiggers classic “Where’s My Baby Tonight?” and from the get go the performance was met with a sense of bombast and enthusiasm not seen yet that night. Gesturing both wildly and awkwardly, as if after decades of performaning he’s still unsure of what to do with his hands while singing, Maize belted it out, giving long-time fans of the Skydiggers what they wanted and causing the younger crowd to whisper, as I did, “I feel like I should know who this is.” Now I know, and I’m glad I asked. Maize also played “A Penny More” and another track I can’t recall, but one that resulted in an awkward if cutesy dance-off between he and Curran. Keyboardist Michael Johnson was pretty entertaining, too, looking almost exactly like Chuck Klosterman as he gyrated and twitched all over the place through his solos (of which there were a surprising number).
As the three tore down the set and we readied for the third and final “songwriter’s circle”, mumbles and whispers (and slurs) all said we’d be in for a surprise. I was unsure of what that surprise could have been. Hawksley Workman, Jim Cuddy and Colleen Brown were set to perform, and while I’d heard of each of them, I didn’t recall anything significantly interesting about their music or personalities. Workman had one big hit (“Striptease”) about a decade ago before he fell into the shadows to produce and Jim Cuddy bares a striking resemblance to my dad (and his music’s pretty good, too), but those aren’t interesting so much as they’re trivial. As it turned out the hype was right. It was a set full of surprises, the first of which being Hawksley Workman’s astonishing weight-gain (in his defence, being a producer is, as I understand it, basically sitting around eating chips and listening to music). The second surprise also related to Workman: more specifically, how fucking incredible he is live. If you’d have told me I’d be writing this two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. Most of my friends still don’t when I talk about how good he was. But wedged awkwardly between Colleen Brown’s self-described “neurotic pop” love songs and Jim Cuddy’s soulful twang was Hawksman’s palpable bravado. Whether it was playing a nine-minute plus rendition of “Autumn’s Here” filled with alternating solos and an extended reprise or inserting a shred-tasting guitar solo into one of Cuddy’s tunes, Hawksman dominated the stage in a way not often seen. Yes, he came off like a jackass and yes, it was incredible. At one point a friend to my left suggested he was almost like a Canadian Prince. I wouldn’t go that far (I like to pretend Prince is the Canadian Prince even though he moved away from Toronto a couple of years ago) but I will say the comparison, even as conversation, was warranted. Not only did Workman show a proficiency on guitar that I was completely unaware he had, but his three songs showcased his surprisingly powerful vocals, belting through at least three octaves of whoo-ing and haw-ing in his ever-lengthening songs. He probably stepped on Brown and Cuddy’s toes, evidenced by Cuddy’s apathetic backing vocals and Brown’s request that everyone leave the stage for her final song, but it worked. Brown’s quirky love songs worked, too, especially the one using gasoline as a metaphor—her father worked in the Alberta oil industry…it’s a Canadian thing—and Cuddy’s vocals were smooth and nearly perfect, but Hawksley…he surprised me. I still can’t get the melody of “Warhol’s portrait of Gretzky/pretty fucking sexy” out of my head, even if it did piss Jim Cuddy off, if only for a minute; dude was definitely smiling for much of their set.
As far as his recorded music goes, well, it still kind of sucks. It’s over-produced, for one thing. But as a live performer, very few can do what I saw that night and as someone who’s been to hundreds and thousands (but not hundreds of thousands) of shows, that’s saying something.
Lastly and loudly was the Beauties, a five-piece Toronto rock and roll band who convinced me to stay and check them out based solely on the fact that they had four mics set up for vocals. They delivered what ended up being the night’s most high-energy set, churning out fast-paced rock tunes that, with their occasional twangy-rockabilly inflections, almost make me want to call them “cowbilly”. Obviously a finely tuned live act (playing a few times a week for four years straight will do that), the Beauties won the crowd over with their energetic shenanigans. Whether it was their four-to-five part vocal harmonies or when the bassist and guitarist switched instruments, they did everything in their power to keep everybody awake and involved throughout their 1am set. Success was theirs, as from their opening tune to a cover of M. Ward’s “Sad, Sad Song” there were babes-a-plenty singing and dancing to their heart’s content though the dance of choice that night was, for some reason, Courtney Cox’s jig from “Dancing in the Dark”. Sadly the Beauties have to be faulted for their drummer. More importantly, for his drums, which sounded like they were quadruple mic’d. To make matters worse he seemed to have a bone to pick with his kit, hitting it harder than necessary whenever possible (it was always possible). He was really talented but it was irritating as fuck, and after the second, third or tenth drum solo it was too much to bare and I left, drunk and exhausted but definitely pleased with what ultimately ended up being about 8 straight hours of live music.
1 Each artist played three songs, rotated, ie: x, y, z, x, y, z, x, y, z)
2 David Baxter on guitar is almost a running joke I have with friends, since the multi-talented producer/guitarist seems to perform with anyone and everyone involved in roots music throughout Southern Ontario