Forget compasses, GPS, or helpful Sherpas. From June 13–19 this year, Torontoist is here to be your guide to everything NXNE.
Descendents, Dodos, and Dirty Beaches—oh my! Sunny and warm, day two of NXNE was like a trip over the rainbow. Here’s what we checked out:
Seen at: Yonge-Dundas Square, 7 p.m.
Rusty, who you may remember from that time you were 12, played a pretty convincing, and hilarious, set. No wonder they took home that Juno in 1996, eh? Just seeing Rusty fans, and seeing that there still are Rusty fans, was pretty cool.
Seen at: Music Gallery, 7 p.m.
The meandering, billowing vocals of Snowblink were ideal for the high-ceilinged Music Gallery. Snowblink was the closest thing the audience has felt to supposed the new rapture coming this October, which is to say that the light, floaty music had the audience collectively feeling as though they were ascending to heaven.
Seen at: Music Gallery, 8 p.m.
Evening Hymns sounds like Bon Iver without falsetto, and supported by a fully fleshed-out band. The further into the set they got, the further down they pulled us from the airy heights where Snowblink left us; their mostly new material was full of palpable pain. Which made sense after the lead vocalist explained that their upcoming album was very much inspired by him recently losing hs father.
Seen at: Yonge-Dundas Square, 8 p.m.
Everyone’s favourite local heroes ripped out some tracks from their new extra-long-player David Comes to Life. Damian Abraham (a pit photographer’s wet dream) descended into the crowds, with techs feeding the mic cord out, extended an almost–mosh pit halfway to Yonge Street. A lot of the layered, three-guitar jive of Comes to Life got lost in the shuffle, with the set sounding coming off a little flat. Or maybe we were just standing too far back.
Seen at: 918 Bathurst Street, 8 p.m.
With all the hype and goings-on that come with a festival as large as NXNE, trying to digest it all can get old overwhelming quick. Luckily, with smaller, a bit out-of-the-way venues like 918 Bathurst, a not-for-profit community arts centre in the Annex, it’s possible to enjoy a couple of quality sets without having to fight for personal space. In the church basement–esque hall, audience members chilled shoeless on an old rug while the bartender in the back tended to his stock of about three forties of liquor, a couple Tupperwares of assorted beer, and stacks of plastic drink cups.
Unfortunately, it was only the six or so people who could fit on the rug, plus the few who grabbed actual seats along the wooden room’s periphery, who showed up for Doctor Ew’s (a.k.a. Drew Smith) opening set,.
CBC Radio 3’s Vish Khanna once said of Smith’s sound: “In places, it reminds me of Brian Wilson, fighting one of his demons to make a Beach Boys masterpiece that no one else understands.” With playful, catchy, but at times dark songs about being a dreamer and walking home from school, this comparison seemed to make sense. Also appropriate, then, was his decision to talk about Brian Wilson‘s appearance at the festival’s Interactive arm during his between-song banter. Even more appropriate? The cover of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” that Smith played with about as much heart as if he was playing in front of Wilson himself. Although it would have been nice had more people shown up to enjoy Smith’s set, it was a worthwhile way to either wind down from a hard day at work or begin a long night of show-hopping nonetheless.
Seen at: 918 Bathurst Street, 9 p.m.
The minimalist quality of the venue worked to Borcherdt’s advantage, as there was little to distract the audience from Borcherdt, his guitar, and that voice you don’t get to hear with his other gig in instrumentalist group Holy Fuck. With very little interaction with the audience until the end of what appeared, at first, to be a disappointingly short set, it felt a little bit like Borcherdt didn’t know there was anyone even watching him. Despite putting down his guitar after only playing about 20 minutes of mostly new material off his upcoming album, he thankfully stuck it out upon audience request and rounded out his set with an old favourite, “Motel.”
Seen at: The Phoenix, 9 p.m.
The Dodos were once known for incorporating toy pianos and xylophones into their sets for a more percussion-driven, yet playful sound. But with another guitarist along for this tour, they were suddenly much harder and louder than fans at The Phoenix may have anticipated. We thought the show was missing some light-heartedness and audience interaction, but the rest of the crowd was feeling their style (and don’t get us wrong, they still sounded pretty good). In fact, the last time dodo birds were so loved, it didn’t bode well for them. Let’s hope it turns out better for these Dodos.
Seen at: Yonge-Dundas Square, 9 p.m.
Holy smokes is Keith Morris ever angry. The band’s set of shreddy, sound-the-same bangers was broken up by Morris going all VH1 Storytellers, offering up commentary on the American government, a Vietnamese woman who lives in his neighbourhood, and how he’d get helicopters to pour tar on the crowds if his band ever played the Super Bowl. Like, OFF! rules and all, but any other 56-year-old guy who just stood around yelling “Fuck People!” would probably just be called a schizophrenic. Just saying. You get a pass if you were in Black Flag and Circle Jerks, though. Maybe.
Seen at: Yonge-Dundas Square, 10 p.m.
Oh hello, everyone’s inner 14-year-old skanker! The goddamned Descendents played! Which was wicked. You can scoff at punk reunions, sure, but fun is fun. Milo Aukerman brought his kids on stage, which kind of tempered a however-old Milo Aukerman, singing songs about what he’s going to be like when he gets old and sneering about suburban homes. And they played “Lucky” live. For the first time ever. Decent!
Seen at: Mitzi’s Sister, 10 p.m.
Cyr wasn’t nervous at the outset of her gig, but she did spend some time pulling down the hem of her vibrantly coloured frock. “I was going to wear pants tonight, but then I remembered what I promised in this interview I did. I usually wear tights with this dress… if there was a drummer behind me, he’d be getting a whole different show than you guys.” Wisecracks aside, Cyr’s set benefited greatly from accompanist Cam Britton, who had his own set of looping pedals, a flute, and tenor and alto saxophones. The horn section in some songs brought Destroyer’s recent album Kaputt to mind (though Cyr’s style is considerably more earnest).
Seen at: Wrongbar, 10 p.m.
Walking in to Wrongbar at the beginning of Tanika Charles and the Wonderfuls’ set was a bit like walking into a scene of Dreamgirls, that movie with Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson, but with less drama and fewer sequins. Charles is a Toronto-born, Edmonton-raised singer who is back in her hometown with her two background singers—the “Wonderfuls” part of the equation, we gather. The strong trio of female voices belted out a set of Motown-inspired tracks, complete with subtle and effective choreography and a sharp wardrobe. The set ranged from a string of slow, remember-the-good times songs to upbeat anthems like “Money” and “Parkdale,” which was especially appropriate considering the locale.
Seen at: Wrongbar, 11 p.m.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Allie Hughes set without some sort of theme. Last night was a German-inspired evening, complete with scripted interludes between songs spoken entirely in German in semi-convincing Eastern European accents. True to her musical theatre roots, there was exaggerated choreography that included slain bandmates, the return of her “Chad” character, and tears of blood. We’re also pretty sure there was a narrative thread throughout, though our understanding of the German language is severely lacking. Even with all the theatrics, Hughes; strong vocals were still the highlight, especially in the crowd favourites “Not the Stars” and “Headmaster.” However, when you’ve got a set as choreographed as Hughes’, technical blips seem all the more obvious; there were a few noticeable audio glitches throughout, but they fortunately did not take away from the overall effect of this entertaining set.
PS I Love You
Seen at: The Horseshoe Tavern, 11 p.m.
We managed to catch the tail end of PS I Love You’s set at The Horseshoe Tavern, but we’re not sure if we could have handled any more. In a good way! This Kingston duo wasn’t holding back and delivered the hard-hitting alt-pop that got them on this year’s Polaris Long List. But between that, their amps at full volume, and the oppressive heat of The ‘Shoe, if we had been there longer, we just don’t think we would have survived to write this review.
Seen at: The Horseshoe Tavern, 12 a.m.
Suuns are part of the Montreal invasion of bands taking over NXNE, which we’re welcoming with open arms if they keep playing like this. Suuns delivered a pounding, high-energy (even higher than usual), yet totally danceable blend of electro-rock that pumped up the crowd at The Horseshoe Tavern as much as lead singer Ben Shemie’s singing-face and body language creeped them out.
Seen at: 619 Bathurst, 12 a.m.
Three-fifths of the Wilderness of Manitoba make up Lake Forest, so it was no surprise that this show was impressive, despite headman Will Whitwham’s suggestion that it was simply a fancy rehearsal. As far as we can tell, Lake Forest is Whitwham’s personal project: he seems to be writing all of the music and then bringing in friends at the end to help flesh out the sound. The sound itself reminded us, unsurprisingly, of Wilderness of Manitoba, but more sombre and with more electricity.
Seen at: The Rivoli, 12 a.m.
“Wow—it’s been a while since we’ve been here, huh?” Owen Carrier observed, looking around the packed Rivoli back room fondly. These days, the radio-approved pop-rock outfit plays larger venues for their hometown appearances, and the long line-up outside the venue (on a night with a plethora of options) was a testament to their loyal fans. The boys played a typically energetic set, with Carrier’s freshly broken toe a non-factor—although his bandmates got a few digs in about his rock climbing mishap between songs.
Seen at: The Rivoli, 1 a.m.
“It’s been a few months… it feels so good to be up here.” With his leukemia in remission, and with a new record on the way, Bruce Peninsula’s Neil Haverty was in fine spirits, and his enthusiasm was infectious. The new tunes in the band’s set were joyful indeed, and the capacity crowd was boisterously smitten; we’d have taken more detailed notes, but we were too busy stomping and clapping ourselves.
Seen at: The Silver Dollar, 1 a.m.
Like vandalism on a piece of artwork, there is a sense of indignant sadness in the idea of a dirty beach. So it also comes with the music from Taiwan-born, now Canadian resident Alex Zhang Hungtai, whose haunting, distorted, low-fi music is based in his sense of displacement. It also sounds lost in time, reminding us of both a tortured ’50s greaser (a modern day Rebel Without a Cause) or the hero of a Western, about to draw arms against his foe under the sun at dusk (rather, under the red lights of The Silver Dollar). Either way, he sounds even more anguished live than on his recordings, which is good, for us.
Reviews by: Carly Conway, Steve Fisher, Carly Maga, John Semley, and Corbin Smith. Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist except where noted.