Friday, June 18th.
Much like the day before it, North by Northeast’s Friday schedule would prove to be chocked full of music-y goodness. So much that it all seemed to overlap. My plans were to start the day off in the late afternoon by seeing Neutral Uke Hotel perform on a patio at Yonge and Dundas Square. Needless to say, I slept in. So then I figured I’d see them a few hours later, playing a 9 o’clock set at The Painted Lady. Well, that didn’t happen either, since I discovered shortly thereafter that Old Man Luedecke was also playing a 9 o’clock set just a few doors over at The Dakota Tavern. Needless to say I decided on the latter; while the prospect of a ukelele-fronted Neutral Milk Hotel cover band was peculiar and promising, and their press release was certainly enthusiastic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see one of Canada’s finest songwriters up close and personal. Plus, if we’re talking plucky sounding instruments, I’ll take the banjo over the uke ninety nine times out of a hundred. So I’m sorry, Neutral Uke Hotel, for passing doubly on my intentions to see you. It just didn’t work out.
I’m glad I ended up where I did since Old Man Luedecke was absolutely incredible. Playing to a packed house, Old Man Luedecke (né Chris) was alone on stage. Left without any backing band, his performance was stripped to its core. With nothing but his banjo and a microphone placed next to his left foot for makeshift percussion (which added a lot to the stomp of his more upbeat numbers), Luedecke ran through a set consisting mainly of songs from his 2010 release My Hands Are On Fire and Other Love Songs, much to the crowd’s content. And what a crowd, might I add. Though I’m usually averse to queueing—I leave that to our English writers—I was more than a little pleased to see so many young people lining up to see a folk revivalist, and it wasn’t just the Dakota Tavern’s usual weekend crowd, as I’d find out the next night.
Back to the matter at hand, which is just how riveting (very) Luedecke’s performance was. For those who haven’t heard him—and given the amount of views on his track of the day posted weeks ago, I’ll reckon that’s most of you—his closest point of comparison is Sweden’s Kristian Matsson, perhaps known better as The Tallest Man on Earth. The difference between the two lies in their aesthetic: while both are gifted storytellers and songwriters, Luedecke’s strength lies in his proficiency on the banjo (as opposed to Matsson’s on the guitar) and his voice is more soothing than irritating. Comparisons are unfair, though, as they cheapen each artist involved, so I’ll go on to say that throughout his 35 minute set Luedecke had the crowd in his hands. Rows of die-hards surrounded the stage. Stage right, a young and surprisingly attractive women mouthed every word without restraint. In front, a younger guy in his early twenties clenched his fist and slang along. Stage left, well, that was a wall.
In addition to songs like “Foreign Tongue”, which he introduced by talking about his teenage years in Toronto, when the Blue Jays won back to back World Series (the song contains a sexual reference to ‘first base’ and ‘home runs’), Luedecke played a new song, one he’d written about a week prior to his NXNE showcase. As he segued into this new song he prefaced it by apologizing to the venue’s sound-guy in advance. As we’d soon find out, it was a not so complimentary tale about his experiences at another venue, which I vaguely recall to have been in Alberta. Later in his set he spoke about his love for garage sales. He talked about the time he found a Nana Mouskouri record and said it inspired him to cover her French take on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain”. And then, without pause,he said he couldn’t do it, so he wrote ‘this’ one instead, ‘this’ one being “Just Like a River” off Proof of Love, which he then performed…but not before a valiant attempt at Mouskouri’s cover. He couldn’t get past the first verse, but his attempt at singing a cover of a cover in a language he cannot speak was valiant and just one of the countless ways in which he endeared himself to the hundreds of young folk fans who clung to his every word. If Luedecke wasn’t the best performance of the festival, I’m not sure what was.
What came next fell on a familiar but a wholly different side of the musical spectrum. From the Dakota Tavern to Sneaky Dee’s, my Friday night continued as my Thursday afternoon began, with a catchy but distorted Sandman Viper Command set. Full disclosure before I continue: I do consider the guys in Sandman Viper Command to be acquaintances. Friends, even. They’re friends of a friend and, in turn, I’ve seen them numerous times. With that being said, each is better than the last. They’re young dudes with a lot of talent and a clear-cut vision of their sound (derp). As they showed to a packed house of sweaty dancing lasses and media personnel (who stuck out like Solomon Burke at a clan rally), Sandman Viper Command know how to dominate a show. As always, tracks like “Strawberry Quick” (which you can download for free here) and “Yo Bobcat!” (the ‘house song’ of Bob “Bobcat” McCowan’s Fan 590 radio show) were standouts, blending the band’s melodic propensity with their underpinned musical geekery. Not just a bunch of bratty kids, SVC take their hook-laden garage pop and throw in extended rock out breaks and fuzzed out leads, translated wonderfully from their delightfully lo-fi (but not irritatingly so) Everybody See This, which they recorded using a vintage 24-track.
As was the trend that night, I left after their set. One and done, you could say, but with good reason as I slung a bag over my shoulder and trekked north to Lee’s Palace to catch SputnikMusic favourites Japandroids (this makes, what, the 3rd time they’ve been on this blog in the past week?). Getting to Sleaze Palace faster than anticipated I was lucky enough to catch most of Wavves set. I had no idea what to expect, having never heard their music and knowing they were “Pitchfork approved”, but was pleasantly surprised by their noisy brand of poppy surf rock. Accompanied by two smoke-machine-mouthed monsters carefully papier-mache’d on each side of the stage, the California three-piece ran through a set filled with songs off their upcoming King of the Beach. Though they continually flubbed each song’s beginning, claiming to have ‘forgotten how it started’, almost every thing they played struck a chord or three (but no more than four) with the audience. Their fuzzed out sound, to me, fell somewhere between the Melvis and Screeching Weasel, like a juvenile Pixies or broken-amped Queers. Or, more accurately, the late Jay Reatard, which is who Wavves’ bassist and drummer played with prior to joining the band. Theyobviously play up their goofy, childish image, with bassist Billy Hayes’ eight pounds of hair flopping along to his childish stage banter while the green monster to his right belched out smoke at an alarming rate. I can imagine their sound being awful on record, but live it thrived. I don’t remember which songs they played, only that “Post Acid” was easily the best of their set, which ended as the band taunted the NXNE stage manager who, after telling them they had one song left, was told by the band that they were going to play two quick ones instead. They also made it a point to tell the crowd that the album had just leaked before employing them to download it, so don’t feel bad if you did.
Up next was Vancouver’s Japandroids, otherwise known as the reason I, and presumably everyone else in the crowd, ended up seeing Wavves in the first place. Coming off of a secret show the night before at the Dakota Tavern, the band made it a point to get all the small talk out of the way early. After professing their love of the city (name dropping every venue they’d played in it) before saying they won’t be back for a while, guitarist Brian King said they didn’t have long so they were going to run through as many as they could. Channelling their inner-Ramones, they did just that. Not only was their set incessant (in a good way) but it was loud with David Prowse’s kick drum somehow over powering the stack of guitar amps to his opposite. From the Vancouverized, Springsteen influenced “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown” to the Thin Lizzy referencing (I guess?) “The Boys Are Leaving Town” it was a set that did every thing to please the die-hards, but as someone who’s only dabbled here and there in the band’s relatively small discography, I did feel like I might have been missing something. Both members were replete with charisma and the crowd fed off of that, but standing off of the side trying to make notes and take awful pictures made me feel like a spectator to a participatory sport. It’s like how watching baseball kind of sucks, but playing it kind of doesn’t, which isn’t to say Japandroids sucked. Even though I don’t feel as strongly as their die-hards, I’d still say they ruled. Just not as much as I’d expected them to.
From there I stumbled back to Sneaky Dee’s to catch the Leathers. Again, full disclosure: I went to see them semi-seriously, since Paul, one of the group’s two rappers, used to play bass in Arms to Illustrate, a now defunct post-hardcore band I saw countless times in my teenage years. He’s a good dude, even though he once threw a firecracker at my face when I was 16. That being said, the Leathers were fucking awesome. As expected, they gave off a bit the typical white-boy rap vibe, but instead of being super serious try-hards, rappers Atherton (Devon) and P-Brain (Paul) embraced their goofiness and ran with it. Not only that, but they lived up to their name, as Paul performed much of the set wearing a leather jacket before, after Devin complained about the heat, they finished things off donning matching leather vests. Performing with nothing but microphones and a MacBook, the gruesome twosome rapped about hugs and cowskin with surprising stage presence. Playfully shouting “NEW SHIT, DJ CLUE!” between songs and playing up to the crowd’s urge to dance until the night’s extended 4A.M. last call, it was clear that the Leathers are all about having fun and, as their music showed, not sucking. Check them out if it’s your thing, since I can’t think of any other hip-hop group with lyrics like these: My name is Paul, I like tattoos and stuff/I don’t often read books that aren’t cluttered with pictures/I’ve got big burly arms if you’re into warm hugs/I find bikes on the side of the road and I fix them [.....] my cinnamon beard will kiss your cute face.
Oh, and the Axl Rose reference you’re seeing in the title? That’s because after the Leathers I ended up at a house party before stumbling back to Lee’s Palace to meet up with some friends. Sitting on the curb, I saw a sleazy looking dude stumbling towards me, three or four broads draped by his sides, his ginger pony-tail swinging from his corn-rowed scalp. I decided, along with Sandman Viper Command’s Rob Jansen (the only other person who saw him) that it had to have been Axl. There aren’t many people who look like that, and it was 4 in the morning, which is when I imagine he does his best ‘work’. Maybe he was in town to see Mudhoney, who played a few hours earlier at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern or maybe it wasn’t him. But it was. I’m sure of it.