NXNE 2011: The Festival That Was
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NXNE 2011: The Festival That Was

Forget compasses, GPS, or helpful Sherpas. From June 13–19 this year, Torontoist is here to be your guide to everything NXNE.
It really is fitting to use compass directions as the name for a large-scale music/film/conference-hybrid festival, since we have to approach it as an expedition of sorts. First, there’s lots of planning: choosing your destinations, finding a route, arranging transportation, creating contingency plans, the whole deal. Second, you can’t do it alone, or else it’s a lot harder and, frankly, lamer. Third, you have to be willing to take risks and venture off the beaten path every once in a while. And lastly, expect the unexpected, because sirens, booby traps, and mortal enemies can pop up at any point to derail your musical quests. Hopefully you make it to the other side in once piece, a bit tired, a bit sore, but happy.
To describe this year’s North by Northeast festival in one word, we’d have to say: “hardcore.” Punk and grunge rockers were a definite presence across both music and film programming. Beloved punk, grunge, and new wave bands from the ’90s were resuscitated to breathe life into a new festival-going audience. A new Lifetime Achievement Award was instituted to celebrate music’s most devoted patrons, this year to Brian Wilson, a man still touring and recording while dealing with the effects of a lifetime addicted to music (and a few other things). And though not all the headliners at Yonge-Dundas Square were necessarily hardcore, their fans certainly were.
North By Northeast has always been big. But now it’s getting really big. With a new comedy showcase and expanded film lineups and conference panels, we’re enjoying watching NXNE mature into new roles and expand its scope. Excited, even. Dare we say, proud? Because, though sometimes it seemed like Montreal’s entire music scene went on a road trip to NXNE, it’s still very thoroughly and remarkably a Toronto event, one that gives its attendants the same sense of curiosity and eagerness to explore the city as events like Nuit Blanche. Armed with a wristband and bike lock (Didn’t see enough helmets out there this year. For shame.), you feel like there’s no venue too small, no band too obscure, no way to have a bad time.
Also—give us a moment—HOLY HOTNESS! Someone give whoever was responsible for the weather this past week a priority pass to next year’s festival. Surely, our sense of musical discovery would have been hampered if the voyage was rainy and cold. With such warm nights, the traveling in between concerts was sometimes just as much fun, it became part of the experience instead of a hassle to be avoided. More hopping, more bands, more good times.
So, now we’re home again after a week or so out exploring. And like all good travellers, we’ve got some pretty good photos to show for it. Above are some of our favourites we haven’t shown you yet, and after the jump, reviews of this weekend’s shows. Enjoy, while we finally get around to cleaning up our rooms, picking up the paper, and feeding our fish. Until next year.

Weekends. Supposedly “free time” meant for some R&R, a break to reload for the week ahead, when actually they’re mostly spent going back and forth between Home Hardware, Canadian Tire, and the Home Depot for hours trying to find the exact fitting to get your faucet to stop dripping. It’s keeping you up at night and Johnson at the office is saying that you’re falling behind. There’s the big trip to Milwaukee coming up. He needs you on your A-game.
But not this weekend! Oh boy, not this weekend. Were we ever busy doing anything but chores, work, or other responsible endeavours. After all, it was the closing weekend of NXNE—the most wonderful time of the year. Here’s what we checked out:

Friday June 17

Diamond Rings
Seen at Yonge-Dundas Square, 7:30 p.m.
It’s not like John O’Regan, the man behind Diamond Rings, needs extra help on the performance front, but securing a place on the Polaris long list this week for his album Special Affections probably didn’t hurt. He commanded the attention of the crowd that filed into the Square as his set got underway, and delivered his playful brand of pop complete with his uninhibited dance moves, glamorous wardrobe and makeup, and infectious air of excitement. Racing from keyboard to mic stand and down to ground-level, O’Regan conquered the Square all by his lonesome. (CC)

Land of Talk
Seen at Yonge-Dundas Square, 8:30 p.m.
The second of three Polaris long listed acts to play at the Square, Land of Talk began their set with a very special guest. Although from where we were standing it was tough to tell who it was, other than a man in drag, we later found out it was Gentleman Reg. Though it was a fun addition to the set, once Reg departed and people in the crowd stopped wondering if Land of Talk had acquired a fabulous new member, the Polaris-worthy performance began. Frontwoman Liz Powell killed it, and she could probably kill you, too—her ridiculously ripped arms were the star attractions on the big screen video that was set up beside the stage. (CC)

Seen at: Rancho Relaxo, 9 p.m.
A band’s following can be measured in ticket sales, fanmail, or the quality of the choreographed dance moves peformed by their friends in the front row. By that last criterion, Toronto’s GROUNDERS are doing amazingly well. Despite not being part of their close circle, we were still humming the beat of the bouncy “Along the Line” as we left Rancho Relaxo. (CM)

Seen at Yonge-Dundas Square, 9:30 p.m.
As thousands of fans crammed into Yonge-Dundas Square, swooning over Stars’ charming and oddly intimate set, vocalist Torquil Campbell proclaimed: “Just when I think Toronto can’t get any more beautiful, you keep on coming through.” It was an all-out lovefest between the Montreal band and their audience. Playing mostly tracks off their Polaris long-listed album The Five Ghosts, the over hour-long set incorporated all the things we’ve come to love about Stars—beautiful music, joyous performances, and true professionalism, even when Campbell forgot the lyrics of his own song (which happened). (CC)

Red Mass
Seen at: Great Hall, 10 p.m.
The problem with big ticket NXNE shows: bands like Red Mass open for bands like Swervedriver, which theoretically is awesome, except everybody’s buzzing around doing other stuff ‘cos they bought tickets to the big-ticket artists and don’t get there early enough for the openers. And so, awesome bands like Red Mass end up playing to virtually nobody. Which sucks. The band was hot, though. They’ve dialed back on the psychey Brian Jonestown Massacre stuff since we last saw them, leaving a more stripped-down, thrashy set. Mostly bangers, very little mash. (JS)

Black Lungs
Seen at: Horseshoe Tavern, 10 p.m.
“Schizophrenics and stolen bicycles… Stay out of Parkdale!” screamed former Alexisonfire guitarist Wade MacNeil, who has shed every last melodic wail from the like of Dallas Green. Black Lungs has no soft edges, but their showmanship and clever lyrics keep even the least-likely bangers hanging on. Probably even Parkdale residents. (CM)

USA Out of Vietnam
Seen at: Great Hall, 11 p.m.
Featuring ex-Doughboy Jonathan Cummins (who made some jokes about Arts and Crafts, you know, for our benefit), a member of Hot Hot Heat, and a guy named Brendan, USA out of Vietnam played a droney set of riff-heavy post-rock. While it was a bit snoozy to start, like all post-rock is, things picked up steam as they played on, and as more and more folks piled into the venue. (JS)

Seen at: Supermarket, 11 p.m.
Just as with CMW, Kidstreet once again brought the goods. This powerful sibling trio opened by getting the crowd dancing, and didn’t let up until the end of their set. The closest we can get to explaining Edna Snyder’s quick-paced vocal stylings: imagine Super Mario Starman as a rap artist. (CS)

Rich Aucoin
Seen at: The Garrison, 12 a.m.
What can we say about Rich Aucoin that hasn’t already been said? Aucoin’s fans are well aware that he is the ultimate showman, and maybe one of the best live acts in Canada right now. If the volume of media and photographers are any indication, the industry is starting to pay attention to this master of positive party-pop. Aside from some technical glitches caused by some over zealous photographers and a pair of dead AA batteries, his powerfully interactive set had the entire crowd jumping, dancing, singing, and, most of all, sweating. (CS)

Seen at: Great Hall, 12 a.m.
Plenty of hipsters and oldsters and people in pilled Raise tour shirts at this one. English alt-rock icons Swervedriver packed the Hall, with kids lining up outside scrambling to get in. Swervedriver’s band of shoegazy whine-rock has never sound better—except for bassist Steve George’s hot mic, which resulted in repeated feedback whirs throughout the set. (JS)

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers
Seen at: the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom, 12 a.m.
Technical difficulties and equipment issues unfortunately affected this London, Ontario-based folk rock act throughout their set. Although frontwoman Olenka Krakus took the setbacks in stride, changing the set list on the fly like a pro, the six-person outfit seemed to lack its usual lustre. Fortunately, Krakus and violinst/vocalist Sara Froese largely redeemed the set’s troubled spots with an especially strong encore, performing a haunting rendition of “Motel Blues,” off their latest album And Now We Sing. (CC)

Seen at: Lee’s Palace, 12 a.m.
Cults described themselves as “a romantic band” to the sardine-packed Lee’s Palace crowd: their music is about love—bandmates Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion are dating—and Follin kept playing with the hem of her dress in a very coy and adorable way. But with three supporting band members in their live show, Cults’ happy ’60s style took on a distinctive harder and edgier tone. It still sounded good, just not like what audiences can hear on the radio. But if anyone knows the problems and solutions to keeping a romance alive on the road, it’s Follin and Oblivion. At least it better be. (CM)

Seen at: Drake Hotel Underground, 12 a.m.
Our first note at the Matters’ set: “We’ve missed these guys!” The D’Urbervilles 2.0 have upgraded with tinges of lead singer John O’Regan’s Diamond Rings project; also, O’Regan’s busy solo touring schedule has imbued him with an even stronger presence as a frontman (though to our mind, he and the boys were always great as the D’Urbs, too). Adding some keys and a darker synth sound you can dance to is a canny shift for the band (the new name is easier to wrap your head around, too.) (SF)

Great Bloomers
Seen at: Sneaky Dee’s, 1 a.m.
Talk about your sweat lodges. Jeepers. An oppressively humid Sneak’s upstairs hosted local roots-rockets Great Bloomers, whose lineup has been entirely shaken up in the past year, save for the consistent presence of singer/songwriter/guitarist Lowell Sostomi. Though trimmed down to a four piece (keyboardist Shawn Dell recently parted ways with Bloomers), the band’s sound is as dense as ever, getting the Sneak’s floor literally shaking with foot-stomping and other woo-hooing hullabloo. Former Bloomers ivory-tickler Andrew Kekewich (of Wooden Sky) cameoed to play keys for a few tunes and join-in for the chorus harmony sing-a-longs, which was adorable. (JS)

Seen at: Sneaky Dee’s, 1 a.m.
A snatch of conversation we overheard just prior to the Sheezer set: “An all girl Weezer cover band—what’s better than that?” “Nothing, really.” Toronto (and indeed, everywhere this act has toured) has fallen hard for the quintet of moonlighting musicians. That’s because the ladies have the experience and chops to do justice to the early beloved material of Rivers Cuomo and co. This was one of the most enthusiastic response from a capacity crowd we saw at NXNE; as we wrote that night: “Mosh pit going at the @sheezertoronto show—but instead of bodychecking, there’s a lot of enthusiastic hugging.” (SF)

Seen at: Horseshoe Tavern, 2 a.m.
Deerhoof is a weird band, with a highly-devoted fan base of similar oddballs. Needless to say, the crowd was s-t-o-k-e-d to see Deerhoof play as The Horseshoe’s special guests on Friday night, and they certainly didn’t disappoint in delivering their offbeat beats with charm only a mother could love. A little uncomfortable with the spoken word—Greg Saunier’s address to the crowd was an adorably awkward string of “Toronto,” “shows,” “love,” “levels,” and “thank you”—they let their music do the talking for them, Satomi Matsuzaki’s childlike vocals were enough to fill in for onstage banter. We got a good selection from their latest album, 2011’s Deerhoof vs. Evil, but the highlight was an exciting and interactive closer of “Come See the Duck.” This band is still considered indie despite opening for The Pixies, releasing 11 albums, and having legions of followers, and it was a real treat to see them at The Shoe. (CM)

Saturday, June 18

Live in Bellwoods: Allie Hughes, Forest City Lovers, and Harlan Pepper
Seen at: Trinity Bellwoods Park, 3:30–5:30 p.m.
We love to see free, unplugged events taking place during the daylight hours of NXNE, especially when they boast some of our favourite lineups. We love to see them take place outside, especially in Trinity Bellwoods, especially when it’s frigging hot as Hades out. We love to see them so well-attended: there were probably over 200 people thronged around the acts like the ants around their picnic lunches.
One problem with all this though—and it’s a big one—is that while Hughes and Harlan Pepper had a bit of support from more band members and interments, poor Kat Burns of Forest City Lovers was barely audible, even for those only feet away. As the Live in Bellwoods series gets more and more popular, maybe choose a spot that’s speaker friendly? Then again, isn’t being unplugged the point? We’re conflicted.
On another note, we must give an honourable mention to an adorable little boy who stole the show during Hughes’s set with his supreme dance moves. (CM)

Men Without Hats

Seen at: Yonge-Dundas Square, 8 p.m.
It may seem stupid that MWH singer Ivan Doroschuk, who nowadays looks like a sun-bleached Ultimate Warrior, was, in fact, wearing a hat. But that’s no stupider than naming your band Men Without Hats in the first place. (JS)

Brett Caswell & The Marquee Rose
Seen at: Sneaky Dee’s, 9 p.m.
Brett Caswell and his band amply rewarded the early attendees to the Audio Blood/White Girl Records showcase with a blistering set of country rock; whether seated at his keyboard or burning up his guitar nose-to-nose with his exceptional fiddler (who went through a few hairs on her bow), he was leaving it all on stage. We’re grateful indeed to MJ Cyr for tipping us to Caswell; his band is one we’ll be keeping an eye on for more local sets in the future. (SF)

Seen at: Yonge-Dundas Square, 9 p.m.
Awesome. Better than the Phoenix shows in 2009. The band made exceptional use of the venue, playing loud and twitchy and full-on to a crowd of punks, dads of punks, and people in homemade energy dome hats. After shuffling through some new material, Devo worked through all the hits: “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” “Mongoloid,” “Gates of Steel,” “Girl U Want,” “That’s Good” and, yep, even “Whip It.” You want to make fun of Devo being this old and so sell out-y, but fact is they’re one of the coolest bands ever. Three costume changes, guys. Three! (JS)

Jennifer Castle
Seen at: The Great Hall, 10 p.m.
With the amount of buzz around Toronto’s Jennifer Castle and her newest album Castlemusic, we weren’t surprised that The Great Hall was swarming and humming with fans like excited bees, Castle playing music that’s got the same slow grace as a blossoming flower. Unfortunately, from where we were at least, her microphone muffled any chance of catching a word, spoken or sung. As a strong songwriter, we missed her crafted lyrics. We still got her signature vibrato though, loud and clear. And we’ll take it. (CM)

Jenn Grant
Seen at: Horseshoe Tarvern, 11 p.m.
Anyone who can stall an audience through a bout of technical failure with a surprise
performance with Buck 65 deserves a little praise for her ingenuity. Despite a rocky
start, equipment-wise, Jenn Grant’s performance of “Paper Airplanes” with fellow
East Coast musician Buck 65—while her bandmates scrambled to fix whatever was
tripping them up—was a highlight of the set otherwise comprised of songs off her Polaris long-listed album Honeymoon Punch. (CC)

Seen at: The Great Hall, 11 p.m.
Yet another buzz band from Montreal playing NXNE, BRAIDS have certainly come a long way from spending a year practicing in guitarist’s Taylor Smith’s parents’ garage. Wanting a live glimpse of their debut Native Speaker fresh off it’s spot on the Polaris long list, we were most impressed by the lead vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston, flowing from alto to near-operatic soprano ranges, but less than enthused by their quiet stage presence. (CM)

Carnival Moon
Seen at: The Secret Delaware Show, 11 p.m.–ish
Torontoist really cares about making sure that you know everything about the shows you weren’t able to make it to—but now we’re going above and beyond, to recap the shows that you didn’t even know about. The “Secret Delaware Show” opened with Carnival Moon (Elaine Kelly-Canning and Dave Scanlon, the violinist from Irish band Halves), backed by members of The Wilderness of Manitoba. Though there were some rough edges around their new songs, the overall impression was like watching a smooth, flowing Joanna Newsom. (CS)

Chad VanGaalen
Seen at: The Great Hall, 12 a.m.
With a tiny, ramshackle, homemade guitar strapped to his chest (admittedly, the worst guitar he’s ever made), Chad VanGaalen still managed to rock out pretty hard during his set, which only included a few older songs and mostly put his latest release Diaper Island on display. Surely, not everyone was super pleased with this choice, but we enjoyed the set in any case. We’re still miffed VanGaalen was overlooked by Polaris this year. (CM)

New Country Rehab
Seen at: The Dakota Tavern, 1 a.m.
We were excited about the debut release of New Country Rehab back in January, and the quartet of double bass, drums, guitar, and fiddle didn’t disappoint in person either. Lead by fiddler John Showman (of The Foggy Hogtown Boys and The Creaking Tree String Quartet), this isn’t Taylor Swift’s new country. In one sense, they’re a back-to-basics bluegrass band, yet they incorporate modern influences and sounds. Plus, just like the fiddler’s name suggests, they’re showmen. The deadpan of Showman’s delivery of twangy vocals complimented the biggest smile we’ve ever seen on the face of bassist Ben Whiteley, and it had the crowd slow dancing one song, jigging the next. (CM)

One Hundred Dollars
Seen at: Horseshoe Tavern, 1 a.m.
After watching set after set of enthusiastic young acts thrilled at the opportunity to play CBC Radio 3 NXNE showcase, the entirely smile-less performance of One Hundred Dollars could have been at risk of officially killing the mood that had been built up over the night with preppy pop/folk acts like Hooded Fang and Jenn Grant. However, with lead vocalist Simone Schmidt’s gritty vocals and the band’s refreshing alt-country sound, the audience was taken to a different time and place, like a country-western bar in the southwestern United States during a time before Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood existed. (CC)

The Balconies
Seen at: Sneaky Dee’s, 1 a.m.
Perhaps The Balconies’ new songs and high-intensity performance were too stimulating; unlike the Sheezer show the night before, where the enthusiastic crowd was jumping up and down and hugging each other, a half-dozen alcohol-fueled moshers threatened to ruin the exceptional pop-rock trio’s set for everyone else (they knew the words to the Balconies’ older songs, so they weren’t just louts who’d wandered in from the Taste of Italy street festival). By the third song of their set, The Balconies’ Jacquie Neville had noticed the shoves, harsh words, and smaller fans fleeing the out-of-control crush, and asked for some moderation. “I don’t actually want to bleed all over this stage,” she insisted; “Don’t make me have to punish you.” Thankfully, a few larger fans made their way to the centre and planted their feet, imposing order without resorting to violence; reckless moshers, like atoms, tend to stay relatively still when they have nothing to react to. (SF)

Thom Gill
Seen at: The Secret Delaware Show, 12 a.m.
All we can really say is: “Holy shit.” If Eric Clapton put together a band and enlisted Prince, Whitney Huston, and John Mayer to round things out, and then that band played for over a decade, and then that band had a collectors edition greatest hits album, it would sound like Thom Gill. Seriously. Not even being funny about it. (CS)
Entire Cities
Seen at: The Dakota Tavern, 2 a.m.
One of the last official sets of NXNE, Entire Cities provided a rousing send-off, in more ways than one. Flute and sax player Ruhee Dewji dedicated their entire barnstorming set to E Street Band member Clarence Clemens, who’d passed away hours earlier; lead singer Simon Borer revealed he’d given the eulogy for a close family member at a service earlier in the day, and told the crowd that after the day he’d just had, spending it playing for such an enthusiastic crowd was exactly what he needed. Certainly, their set would double as the most spirited wake we’d ever attended. (SF)

Wilderness of Manitoba
Seen at: The Secret Delaware Show, 2 a.m.
And one of the last semi-official shows, hosts of the the Secret Delaware Show The Wilderness of Manitoba closed out the night, er, morning with a handful of songs pretty much exclusively generated by audience request. It was a real treat for the audience to hear songs like “Crows Feet” and “Manitoba,” which the band rarely ever play live. It wasn’t the tightest set they’ve played, but that really wasn’t the point, and the audience didn’t really care. Everyone in attendance went home happy after such an impressive and intimate line-up. (CS)

Reviews by Carly Conway, Steve Fisher, Carly Maga, John Semley, and Corbin Smith.

CORRECTION: June 20, 11:45 AM In the ninth photo in the gallery, we originally misidentified the band as Indian Handcrafts. It is Amos the Transparent.

CORRECTION: June 20, 5:08 PM We initially reported that the guest turn at the Land of Talk show was John O’Regan of Diamond Rings; it was actually Gentleman Reg. Our apologies to both.