After an exhausting Friday night, which in keeping with the day before it didn’t end until sunrise the next day, Saturday would prove to be the death knell in SputnikMusic’s head-first dive into NXNE 2010.
Like the day before, my Saturday started at the Dakota Tavern to see Jack Marks and his Lost Wages, a sometimes six, sometimes seven piece country outfit led by singer-songwriter standout Jack Marks. Like Sandman Viper Command of the two previous days, Marks and his band of mice-fights are a bit of an ol’ faithful for me. In truth, I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve seen them over the past year; a handful of times at the Cameron House, some more at Dakota’s and a few other little gigs around the city (my favourite being in the bar-room of the Tranzac, which was in the middle of hosting a barbed-wire wrestling event in its main room).
Arriving to see a surprisingly sparse Dakota Tavern I took my perch on the bar-rail, sitting behind none other than A.A. Bondy and his Farmville enamoured bassist, to catch what would prove to be a familiar but all the while noteworthy performance from one of Toronto’s finest roots acts. Working through his usual mix of songs from his debut Two of Everything and his upcoming, seemingly still untitled new release, Jack Marks and his Lost Wages did their best to draw in a seemingly filled with media personal and executives. A showcase in the truest sense, the band ran through stand-outs such as “Railroad Yard”, whose stomping bassline (played by the seemingly always grinning Arif Mirabdolbaghi) and loose harmonica playing (done by multi-instrumentalist Ben Rough) took the song to its strong climax. As good as “Railroad Yard” was it paled into comparison to “So Hard”, the surprisingly catchy number that saw the recently reviewed Jadea Kelly join the band on stage to provide vocals on the chorus (as she did on the album). Otherwise it was Marks’ usual, inspired set of Dylan influenced country songs, his gloomy narration peppered by Ben’s strumming on the banjo and mandolin (and his inspired fits on the harmonica) as well as David Baxter’s accented lap steel. There is, however, a catch. Not only did Jack seemingly flub his own lyrics in “Railroad Yard”, likely a first (and last) for him, but there seemed to be some nerves in the air–either that or fatigue, since they’re a busy bunch of guys. Oh, and the pianist (whose name I can’t recall) seemed even more lost than usual, plinking away at times to nothing in particular, though it clicked wonderfully at times and his harmonizing always made a point of adding to the already layered compositions. Not Jack’s best performance but certainly better than most of what’s out there these days.
Next was A.A. Bondy, someone I’d read about but never heard. After starting off his set on a sombre solo note with ““O The Vampyre,” Bondy played one more track by his lonesome before inviting his bassist and drummer on stage to accompany him in what might have been the festivals best performance had it not come the day after I’d seen Old Man Luedecke dominate the very same stage. Live, Bondy’s music uniquely blends his folk roots with a healthy dose of Springsteen and even some of Crazy Horse’s over-driven guitar playing. At times, Bondy’s voice would carry a little like Thom Yorke’s and in certain instances, like in the increasing stomp of “The Devil’s Loose,” a hint of the Proclaimers’ “500 Miles” crept in, giving just the right amount of bounce to a set that, in spite of these comparisons, was uniquely his own. But while I’m lazily name dropping let it be known that Bondy bares an almost uncanny resemblance to Dominic West, better known as officer Jimmy McNulty on HBO’s The Wire.
All in all, Bondy was remarkable. His performance was impeccably constructed, from the way he timed his occasional jams on the guitar (which was, by that point, cranked to 11) to the way he conducted his band in the beginning of “Killed Myself When I Was Young,” gesturing for the drummer to quiet his playing and counting the bassist in when he felt it was time.
After Bondy’s set I’d hoped to walk south to the Legendary Horshshoe Tavern to catch Hannah Georgas’ set, but I more than overstated my footpace and arrived at the venue about ten minutes too late. By then I was tuckered out and the frustrating realities of such a festival had set in: not only are the exhausting, but they can get pretty fucking busy. Case in point, the line-up outside the Horseshoe for Attack in Black. Like I said in another post, I did have ‘front of the line’ access but a capacity limit is a capacity limit and sweat smells when it clings to hordes of dirty hipsters packed like sardines into dirty, century old venues. So no, I didn’t get Georgas and I didn’t catch Attack in Black (who are terrible anyways). As a last resort, and as what would turn out to be my final foray of the event, I walked a couple yards to The Rivoli for another look (and listen) at Colleen Brown, the “neurotic” singer I heard and saw perform with Jim Cuddy and Hawksley Workman two days earlier.
Removed from Thursday’s collaborative setting and put in front of her usual backing band, Brown was much more in her element, even going so far as to step away from her keyboard at times to don a guitar that looked much too big for her. Of course she was still awkward in her own smirky, adorable way, grinning through anecdotes about her happy love songs and her bluesy, self-proclaimed “feminist manifestos.” In watching her perform, delivering her occasionally shaky but certainly unique vibrato, I thought to myself, “that’s the kind of face you could smile at even after she punched you in yours,” and I meant it as a compliment. Brown is absolutely endearing as a performer, even when her voice slips into Gord Downie mode. Whether bluesy or mellow, her songs were catchy and immediately likeable and I can’t fault anyone who drops Prince references into their music (one song featured the line “it’s been seven hours and fifteen days”). It wasn’t the most exciting end to a busy couple of days but it certainly could have been worse.