There was a lot going on during the closing weekend of NXNE, including veteran rappers, chest-thumping punk bands, and indie-rock boat cruises.
Like all good things, North by Northeast must eventually come to an end, but that’s probably for the best, because while we can’t speak for the rest of you, the Torontoist staff is thoroughly exhausted right now.
Pre-Show Hype: High. Four bands and a luxurious cruise complete with beer and food. What wasn’t there to be excited about?
Event: Great. After spending many nights running about the city trying to catch the latest act, it was nice to get some fresh daylight, pull up a seat and simply chill for a few hours (there were a couple people passed out even before the cruise departed). The boat was spacious, and not overcrowded. It would have been infinitely cooler to have the bands play on the outside deck than on the dark lower level (it was probably a space issue), but there was fun to be had all around.
Best Moment: Though all of the bands put in solid performances, it was when the first band (Hooded Fang) started playing that the feeling of “heck yeah, we’re listening to music on a boat!” kicked in.
Miscellaneous: Number of times an artist or audience member shouted out, “I’m on a boat!”: too many to count.
Verdict: There’s a reason this event fills up way before NXNE even begins. If you’re looking to chill on open waters on a sunny afternoon, make sure you’ve got your spot saved when Bruise Cruise comes around next year.
Pre-Show Hype: Quite high. The group—part of the Elephant 6 collective—was playing what was likely the biggest stage on the biggest night of the festival.
Performance: Suitably weird and fantastic. Frontman Kevin Barnes is cut from the same cloth as Bowie. While the band played infectious retro-rock in front of the swirling psychedelic imagery projected behind them, a cavalcade of characters intermittently swarmed the stage. Most were clad in creatively designed bodysuits that had appendages (like giant breasts, for instance). This added a whole other component to the vibrant show.
Best Moment: Probably when a woman in her underwear decided to crowd surf.
Miscellaneous: Considering Barnes’ glam make-up and other interesting costume choices, it’s safe to say that this band knows how to make a fashion statement.
Verdict: One of the best we’ve seen. Of Montreal provided the perfect lively musical accompaniment to a gorgeous evening.
Pre-Show Hype: Can hype get any higher? The Flaming Lips were already the biggest name the festival had to offer. And when the Radiohead show at Downsview Park was cancelled, this show became a back-up plan for many ticket-holders. Predictably, this transformed the event into a claustrophobic nightmare.
Performance: Appropriately sombre, given the stage collapse at the Radiohead show. Frontman Wayne Coyne appeared genuinely heartfelt as he expressed his support for all involved. The set list, aside from a few old favourites, drew heavily from the band’s newer material. It was shortened by extended instrumental freak-outs that closed nearly every song.
Best Moment: It seemed like it would be hard to beat Coyne walking on top of the crowd inside his trusty inflatable balloon, until they pulled out the trump card: a closing performance of “Do You Realize?” amid a flurry of confetti and balloons.
Miscellaneous: A cover of Radiohead’s “Knives Out” followed by “Waitin’ For A Superman” may have slowed the momentum down a little in the middle of the set, but also managed to achieve a touching and surprising intimacy for a gathering this size.
Verdict: For anyone who saw the band at the Molson Ampitheatre a couple of years ago, this show was not an entirely new experience. It was, however, a nice evening, and it happened under a very special set of circumstances.
Pre-Show Hype: Medium. Appearing as part of the Pop Montreal showcase, Caila Thompson-Hannant’s new project has recently been reviewed on Pitchfork. But she’s still under the radar outside of Montreal.
Performance: Sensational. The energy and voice Thompson-Hannant displayed in her previous bands is being wonderfully showcased here; since she’s making music with an end-table’s worth of loopers and programmed synthpads, all the focus is on her voice and stagecraft. (During her backyard mini-set, she revealed that she has a theatre background.) She hit Whitney Houston levels of crescendo at times, and confidently bumped and grinded to her tabletop beats, as the crowd followed suit.
Best Moment: Dancing! There were (many) people dancing to a (mostly) unfamiliar act! At NXNE! This is a rare occurrence.
Miscellaneous: As Mozart’s Sister, Thompson-Hannant has appeared on bills with Grimes and Born Gold, and shares many of the extroverted qualities of those acts.
Verdict: Our only complaint was the shortness of the set, and of some of the songs. Set closer “Single Status” felt like it flew by in a minute. Thompson-Hannant is reportedly working on an LP, and has plans to expand Mozart’s Sister beyond herself, which is great, ’cause we want more, more, more.
Pre-Show Hype: Medium to high. Ceremony have several critically acclaimed releases under their collective belt, and recently put out their first record on mega-indie label Matador Records.
Performance: It’s hard to argue with the volume and raw aggression of Ceremony’s live set. A perfect fusion of American hardcore and early British punk, they moved between a thrashy, high-speed sprint and a slow, menacing chug without ever losing their ferocity. Vocalist Ross Farrar looks and sounds like a man possessed.
Best Moment: When Farrar began using a beer bottle as a percussion instrument.
Verdict: Back in the late ’80s, a zine called Profane Existance came out. Its slogan was “Making punk a threat again.” PE didn’t really manage to pull that off, but Ceremony has.
Pre-Show Hype: High. Rival Schools hasn’t played Toronto in nearly a decade.
Performance: Solid. This post-punk act—consisting of members of such legendary hardcore bands as Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today, and Judge—did an excellent job of balancing melody and volume. Frontman Walter Schreifels’ voice ranged from a whisper to a wail, while drummer Sam Seigler beat the drums so hard they begged for mercy. The audience knew every one of Rival Schools’ sing-along choruses.
Best Moment: Schreifels asked the sound man if they could play one more song, even though they were out of time. The sound man agreed, and the audience went nuts with joy.
Miscellaneous: The band is named after a relatively obscure mid-’90s arcade and PlayStation game.
Verdict: Even punk rockers mellow with age, but few do it as gracefully as Rival Schools.
Pre-Show Hype: Extremely high. While Ghostface Killah and Raekwon’s Sunday-evening free show was the highest-profile performance, Killer Mike may have been the most hyped, given the recent release of his critically acclaimed album R.A.P. Music.
Performance: Killer Mike killed it. The Atlanta-based MC was able to move seamlessly between charged political songs, straight street music, and more playful material. For a man of his not-inconsiderable girth, Mike is remarkably athletic, and spent the entire hour-long set dancing, bouncing, stomping, and bounding across the stage. His own unwavering energy was reflected back tenfold by the audience, which in turn pushed Mike to go harder. By the end of the night, people were crowd-surfing, which is pretty rare at a rap show.
Best Moment: It was a tie between when Mike admitted that he was having “the time of my life” playing for the crowd at Wrongbar, and when he told a story about his mother in which he admitted that he still calls her “Mommy.”
Miscellaneous: In his Twitter bio, Mike refers to himself as a “Pan Africanist Gangster Rapper, Civic Leader & Activist.”
Verdict: Hands down, Killer Mike’s set at Wrongbar was one of the best shows at this year’s edition of North by Northeast.
Pre-Show Hype: Medium. Comedy overall had a much bigger profile at this year’s NXNE, but the previous night’s Strip Comedy was the more buzzed-about show.
Performance: Varied. Garrett Jamieson of The Boom Comedy, a last-minute addition to the bill, plowed through his set, sprinkling it with “Am I right guys?” and venting his frustration at oblivious barflys by exclaiming, “Guys, you want to make me funny? LAUGH!” Darren Frost fared a bit better by checking in with the audience several times with “by way of applause, who likes ______.” But the best set we saw came from Brian Barlow’s Dick Mime character. With no mic at all, he held the bleary-eyed crowd’s attention with his variations on a one-joke premise.
Best Moment: When Barlow’s Dick Mime held up a large sign saying “You Choose,” the audience had a field day. “9/11” was one of the winning suggestions. Barlow mimed a Superman-style flight around the twin towers, during which he pretended to catch (and fellate) jumpers, to raucous applause.
Miscellaneous: At the end of the night, host Gary Taylor announced that the Monarch will be the venue for a new weekly Sunday stand-up show hosted by Mark Debonis, starting next weekend.
Verdict: Comedy overall held its own as part of this year’s NXNE, and this showcase was part and parcel.
Pre-Show Hype: Middling. Local MC Tre Mission has a bit of a “Big in Japan” thing going on, except instead of Japan, he’s blowing up in England while still being a relative unknown in his hometown. That’s not really surprising, though, given that he specializes in the uniquely British subgenre of grime.
Performance: Mission showed why British grime heavyweights like Wiley and JME have taken an interest in him. His rhymes are tight and crisp, and delivered rapid-fire. Also, his punch lines are rewind-worthy, and his stage presence is remarkably strong for an artist who only started performing regularly in 2010. The crowd may not have known who he was when he came out, but they were dancing, waving their hands in the air, and asking for more by the time he left.
Best Moment: When Tre’s hype man, British MC Prowla, asked “How is it I’m from England, and I knew about Tre Mission before all of you?”
Miscellaneous: Tre also produces most of his own beats.
Verdict: If there were ever any doubt as to whether or not Tre’s grime flow and dubstep-influenced beats could get over with a North American audience, there’s not now.
Pre-Show Hype: Medium to high. The Albanian American MC played a sold-out show at the Rivoli in the fall, and has released another mixtape, as well as a couple of YouTube-hit videos since then.
Performance: Kind of average. Bronson has stage banter worthy of a stand-up comedian, a great rap voice, and a charismatic presence. Unfortunately, he used those things to mask what was an otherwise spotty performance. He occasionally seemed to struggle with breath control, missed some lines, and sometimes rapped much slower than he does on his recordings. That said, when he was on his game, like he was for “Barry Horowitz,” he almost made up for the rest of it.
Best Moment: Bronson pretended to leave, then came back to do his YouTube hit “Bird on a Wire,” performing both his own verses and those of his partner on the song, Riff Raff.
Miscellaneous: Before he was a rapper, Bronson was a chef at several New York restaurants.
Verdict: He was good enough, but Bronson is capable of so much more.
Pre-Show Hype: Enormous. The two Wu-Tang legends were the hip-hop headliners for the week.
Performance: Almost two decades after the release of 36 Chambers, Ghost and Rae still sound as crisp as ever. The two traded bars with the sort of casual grace that can only come from years of working together. Raekwon talked repeatedly about how much he loves living in Toronto—he bought a place here last year—and, in a remarkably classy move, took a minute to memorialize both the victims of the recent Eaton Centre shooting and the Radiohead stage collapse of the day before. That moment of solemnity aside, the two spent the time between songs cracking jokes, with Ghost occasionally updating the crowd on the score of Game Three of the NBA Finals and lamenting that they have “too many songs.” Rae also brought out his local protegé, JD Era, to do a quick three-song mini-set. The crowd freaked out at the beginning of every song, and by the end of the set both audience and artists were thoroughly spent.
Best Moment: When they asked for audience members to sub in for Method Man and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the Wu-Tang classic “Protect Ya Neck,” then pulled long-time local MC Mindbender on stage to do ODB’s part.
Miscellaneous: Raekwon and Ghostface’s real names are, respectively, Corey Woods and Dennis Coles.
Verdict: Free shows like this are what make NXNE the highlight of the summer.
Photos by Kyle Bachan, where noted.
At the Raekwon/Ghostface Killah show, Mindbender and another audience member were brought up to perform ODB’s and Method Man’s parts (respectively) on the song “Protect Ya Neck.” It was not ODB’s and Inspectah Deck’s parts during “Triumph” as previously stated. The correction has been made above.