Punk rock and buzz bands and goth girls! Oh my!
Forget compasses, GPS, or helpful Sherpas. From June 11 to 17, Torontoist is here to be your guide to everything NXNE.
Thursday night was undoubtedly buzz-band night at North by Northeast. Whether it was a quartet of attractive, Jack White–co-signed goths, a self-destructive Texan or a pair of haunting Albertan electro-popsters, if they had serious blog buzz, they were playing.
Pre-Show Hype: Minimal. 7 p.m. is a rough slot to fill—especially in a place as big as the Mod Club.
Performance: Excellent. It was impressive that that the vocal frontman was jumping up and down with his guitar and tambourine despite the fact that the room was only a quarter full when the set kicked off. These guys strive to be huge, and there are definitely echoes of bands like U2 in their music. They likely got a much better reaction at their 1 a.m. show later that night.
Best Moment: There was a stomping jam in the middle of the set that was a nice switch up from the previous numbers—and it finally got the audience engaged in the tunes.
Miscellaneous: This show was proof that rock stars can wake up early and still rock.
Verdict: Despite the early nature of the show—several of the audience members even looked like they might be nursing a hangover—it was a pretty solid set. Still, these guys deserved a much better time slot.
Pre-Show Hype: High. Considering that the band was playfully heckled by a fan in between songs for not returning to Toronto in seven years, it would be safe to assume there was an excitement in the air.
Performance: Songs started and ended at such a dizzying clip that, by the end, you could have sworn that they had played 20 of them in the 40 minutes they were on stage. Blasting out hard punk with a social and political bent, the group showed that time had not slowed them down—rather, it had further honed their skills. It was surprising how many people tightly packed into Yonge-Dundas Square were passionately belting out every lyric—almost as surprising is how well the material actually holds up.
Best Moment: Gloriously bald-headed bassist Chuck Platt was in especially fine form on this day, expressing his gratitude to the city’s enthusiastic reception with the promise that, “if you keep dancing, we’ll keep playing.”
Miscellaneous: One needlessly aggressive shirtless guy in the mosh pit had security putting on their plastic gloves.
Verdict: As part of an undercard for the night’s Bad Religion show, it almost felt like our own mini–Warped Tour in the heart of the city.
Pre-Show Hype: Moderate. They were still setting up a few minutes after they were supposed to start, but the crowd was certainly ready for it.
Performance: Definitely a highlight of NXNE so far. You know when you hear a band’s first ridiculously loud riff and you just want it to last forever, without any of those silly vocals? Well, that’s what happened: no lyrics, just rock. To say that this drums-and-guitar duo blew the roof off the Annex Live would be understating the sheer power of their set.
Best Moment: Realizing that no one was going to be singing and that these two just came here to play—and hard.
Miscellaneous: Number of times it was forgotten that only two people were playing: too many to count.
Verdict: A must-see live act only bolstered by the fairly small space provided by the Annex Live. It’s hard to say what they’d sound like in a larger venue. For the time being, let’s just enjoy having our faces torn off by guitar-shredding just feet away from us.
Pre-Show Hype: Approaching fever pitch. They were already one of the biggest acts of the festival, and the anticipation was exponentially increased by the fact that punk fans are, without question, a loyal and enthusiastic bunch.
Performance: Bad Religion are considered legends, and by tearing through many favourites from their extensive catalogue for more than an hour and a half, they reminded the crowd why. From older material like “Fuck Armageddon… This Is Hell” to mainstream breakthrough “21st Century (Digital Boy),” virtually every one of the band’s eras was represented. In many cases, the political undertones that have always been present in Bad Religion’s music seem even more pertinent now than when the songs were released.
Best Moment: Not to discount the music, but all of lead singer Greg Graffin’s between-song banter. Like a great stand-up comedian, he bragged about the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup victory before dismissing sports altogether. Later, he amusingly expressed his distaste for all of the advertisements surrounding the stage.
Miscellaneous: Though they omitted Toronto from their 30th anniversary tour a few years ago, the group did hint at a special treat for their Canadian fans in the near future.
Verdict: Punk shows can be judged by the quality of their mosh pit. By that measure, Bad Religion’s appearance was a success.
Pre-Show Hype: Fairly high. B L A C K I E’s performance at South by Southwest definitely put him on the radar. There was a fair bit of curiosity about the man who will be playing three nights at North by Northeast.
Performance: When you strip away the hype about the homemade 5,000-watt sound system, B L A C K I E—whose music combines punk, hip-hop, metal and dubstep—is essentially just one guy who screams bad poetry over top of a prerecorded backing track (admittedly a very loud one) and is really picky about how his name is spelled. That said, his North by Northeast debut wasn’t a total waste of time. B L A C K I E is, if nothing else, deadly serious about his own ridiculousness. His performance was fascinating and kinetic, and had a Darby Crash–ish flair. He hung himself with the mic, screamed, stomped, humped the amps and flailed around as if he was on fire. He may not have been great to listen to, but he was certainly fun to watch.
Miscellaneous: There were roughly 50 people in the crowd. It looked as if more than 40 of them had either a media pass or an artist pass.
Verdict: Like most of the crowd, Torontoist was there with a press pass. If we had actually paid money to be there, we would have been annoyed.
Pre-Show Hype: Strong. A set like this is basically prime-time. So in a packed venue filled with a still-chatty audience, everyone was looking toward the mic as 10 p.m. drew near.
Performance: Great. MacDougall’s no stranger to the touring scene, having spent the last three years on the road. She definitely knew how to work the audience. There were sing-alongs, songs that encouraged the crowd to make wolf noises at certain intervals, and charming audience banter.
Best Moment: There were many great ones (the out-of-nowhere howl that featured occasionally in her songs, for example), but maybe the most memorable was her between-songs story about how living in the Yukon had made her so scared of bears and wolves that she would pee in the sink to avoid going outside to use the outhouse.
Miscellaneous: The baseball cap she was wearing actually made her look cooler. Why don’t people wear those anymore?
Verdict: It’s hard to keep track of all the great singer-songwriters out there, but MacDougall managed to capture the audience’s attention.
Pre-Show Hype: Zero. Nyce was supposed to be part of Wednesday’s cancelled hip-hop showcase at the Rivoli. No one expected him to be here.
Performance: The Scarborough-born, Vancouver-based MC/singer put on a high-energy, entertaining performance. His fast-paced rhyme style, his tenor voice and his ability to mix thought-provoking lyrics and straight party rhymes all bode well for him in a world where Kanye West and Childish Gambino are superstars. While Nyce will never be a full-time singer, he can belt out a hook better than most rappers who try.
Best Moment: When he gave a shout-out to Scarborough, half the crowd broke into cheers.
Miscellaneous: Apparently he had bronchitis, which makes his performance even more impressive.
Verdict: He kept repeating the phrase “Tre Nyce is the future” throughout his set. There may be something to that.
Pre-Show Hype: Pretty high. They had a song on Gossip Girl.
Performance: The Hundred in the Hands’ brand of new wave–influenced, synth-heavy indietronica tends to go over well at North by Northeast, and they represent the sub-genre at its best. Keyboardist and vocalist Elanore Everdell’s haunting voice contrasted nicely with pulsing beats and catchy synth riffs, and guitarist/bassist/programmer Jason Friedman is a talented multi-instrumentalist who moves like a hyperactive scarecrow.
Best Moment: Excited Audience Member: “You’re my favourite!”
Everdell: “Well, you’re OUR favourite.”
Miscellaneous: The Hundred in the Hands have their own webzine, where they interview their fellow musicians, as well as other artists.
Verdict: When it’s done well, dark-but-danceable is hard to beat. The Hundred in the Hands do it very well.
Pre-Show Hype: It was a packed house. People standing on chairs.
Performance: Goth garage rock at its finest. Good sound, great song delivery and cute head-to-toe black outfits.
Best Moment: Emily the Strange’s twin sister wailing on the drums like they owed her money.
Miscellaneous: The band appeared on an episode of The Colbert Report in 2011.
Verdict: They were discovered by Jack White, and he knows what he’s doing. If you don’t like what they sound like, at least they’re nice to look at.
Pre-Show Hype: High beyond reason and completely out of proportion. Wrongbar was positively packed to the gills, with the entire audience standing at rapt attention. All this for a band whose debut album hasn’t even come out.
Performance: Most blog-buzz bands would crack under the pressure of this sort of high-profile coming-out party. Purity Ring may actually have exceeded expectations. Even when performed live, their emotional, slowed-out variety of electronica has the sort of polish you’d expect from a veteran act, not from a pair of newcomers. Megan James’ vocals are absolutely captivating.
Best Moment: When James admitted they were “really nervous” to be there, and that the crowd was “really awesome.”
Miscellaneous: The entire show was sponsored by a shoe company, who had their own VIP area. If anyone knows what it takes to be a Converse VIP, please let us know.
Verdict: Purity Ring aren’t going to be massive stars. They already are.
Pre-Show Hype: Middling. Lovely Killbots were the last band scheduled as part of the HMV Digital Showcase. As of our arrival at The Boat at 2:10 a.m., there were half a dozen audience members on the dance floor (two were photographers), and another two dozen tired-looking spectators spread throughout the venue in chairs.
Performance: With such a small and tired crowd to perform for, and Lauralee Love having difficulty hearing her keyboard in the monitors (and consequently not always nailing the right pitch), we doubt this was a high-point show for Lovely Killbots, though they soldiered on.
Best Moment: The best song in the set was “Must Be Machine,” which got our toes tapping.
Miscellaneous: The video projection during the set was a nice touch.
Verdict: This duo, with “a penchant for heavy analogue synths and fun, catchy electro” has been making music together for five years, so by now they’ve surely learned to weather an off night. This was one of them.