We take a look back at this year's edition of Toronto's best music festival.
NXNE has come to a close for another year. Here’s the best and weirdest of what we saw. (Now please excuse us as we attempt to readjust to a regular sleep schedule and a diet that doesn’t just consist of free barbecue.)
Pre-Show Hype: Moderate. Last year the group played to far too few audience members, but this year it had more support.
Performance: Great. The band’s smoky, swoony post-punk noir was a great fit for the comfortable griminess of the Hard Luck Bar. The set had a tightly coiled, shivering energy to it. Launching into the title track of its new record, Anhedonia, the band channelled the kind of cracking, electric energy that usually heralds a thunderstorm.
Best Moment: A live rendition of stunning murder ballad “My Love He Shot A Sparrow” was breathtaking. Vocalist and bassist Julia Ryckman’s voice was both tragic and syrup sweet.
Miscellaneous: Julia Ryckman may have been wearing the most stunning red dress I have ever seen in my entire life.
Verdict: The members of This Hisses are on the cusp of greatness, improving their stage presence and confidence each time they perform. Their set was one of the underground wonders of NXNE this year.
Reason: There are all sorts of reasons for music acts to bust out a cover. Mikal Cronin used one to supercharge his closing number for an already fired-up crowd (in Cronin’s case, Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World”). Dance outfit Bear Mountain used snatches of a familiar tune (Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) in the middle of their own composition to lend it some familiarity. Vancouver duo Data Romance put their own haunting touches on Johnny Cash’s “If I Were a Carpenter” for a small but rapt crowd. But newly indie (again) artist Gentleman Reg’s cover of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” was our favourite of the fest, thanks to vocals by both him and bandmate Kelly McMichael.
Best Moment: Reg stepped down to the lip of the stage for this one, to serenade the crowd.
Miscellaneous: “She’s awesome,” sighed a girl in the audience as McMichael started in on the song’s namesake refrain line.
Verdict: All of these artists had their own strong material. But it’s always a treat when a musician shares a favourite tune, and Reg and Kelly have made this one a lovely signature.
Pre-Show Hype: Absolutely none. There literally could not have been less hype surrounding this show. We couldn’t even find a video of these guys to run with this post.
Performance: With hundreds of acts playing dozens of venues, you’d think it would be pretty much imposssible for there to be a dead spot in the NXNE schedule. Yet at least once a festival, we find ourselves looking at our smartphones saying, “I don’t really want to see any of this shit.” While most people would take this as a welcome chance to get some food, we just chose a band at random at hoped for the best.
In this case, we lucked out. The boiler-suit-and-Zorro mask-clad Janitors are the latest in the great Torontonian tradition of unbelievably loud two-person bands. They play high-energy, thrashy garage-punk with thoroughly bizzare lyrics. If we knew we were going to like them this much, we probably would have planned to see them.
Best Moment: Their stage banter, which consisted almost entirely of yelling “Janitors suck” in between songs.
Miscellaneous: They have a song called “This is Not a Song About Oscar Pistorius.”
Verdict: They’re still a work in progress, but what they lack in polish, they more than make up for in charisma and fun.
Reason: If you were taking a NXNE audience “best show” poll, The National would surely win, purely by dint of the fact that seemingly half of Toronto crammed into every available nook and cranny surrounding Yonge-Dundas Square to watch the band’s free show. NXNE certainly got its money’s worth from The National, who put on a typically accomplished performance. But we were more impressed by The Balconies, who drew and held a (much, much smaller) crowd for their evening park set, despite pouring rain.
Best Moment: This was our first time seeing the Balconies as a four-piece act, with former drummer Liam Jaeger moving to lead guitar and newcomer Theo Mckibbon taking the drum kit. Another guitar has given lead singer and guitarist Jacquie Neville more flexibility to move, and a highlight of many songs was when she started swinging her now flame-bright hair around, which nearly qualifies as its own instrument.
Miscellaneous: A tipsy couple wandering through the park ambled up to the side of the gazebo, and between songs, shouted out, “You’re better than Bon Jovi!” The band politely thanked them for the compliment.
Verdict: We already knew The National could entertain and hold the attention of a stadium-sized crowd. Now, we’re starting to think The Balconies aren’t that far behind.
Reason: We were exceedingly happy with the amount of comedy in this year’s NXNE schedule, and how it was fully featured in the program.
But we did have an issue with the comedy program: unlike the rock acts, which are timed down to the minute, many comedy shows started late, and ran later. This caused a cascade effect for those of us seeing multiple shows. Happy Time Contest, for instance, started nearly 45 minutes late, and ran an hour over its scheduled time. Unfortunately, much of the audience left before the winner was announced.
Best Moment: Happy Time Contest winner Amanda Brooke-Perrin, who also co-hosted Wednesday’s Chuckle Co. cabaret with Michael Kolberg, silenced a six-beers-in heckler asking questions about her online dating routine by explaining her username and singing a few bars of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” delighting the crowd and the judges.
Miscellaneous: The Laugh Sabbath Film Festival (which did run roughly on time) recognized some exceptional comedy shorts. $250 prizes were awarded to Daniel Warth and Deborah Robinson’s “Future Assassin,” and The Sufferettes’ “Ben.” The $1,000 grand prize went to Tony Ho Comedy’s “Japan,” which the sketch trio plans to bring to other festivals.
Verdict: It’s great that comedy is in the regular NXNE program. But now that it is, comedy producers need to get with said program. When you’re running later than the hip-hop showcases, that’s a definite problem.
Pre-Show Hype: Decent. Many people had come to see showcase headliners July Talk, and then wound up being completely sucked in by Imaginary Cities.
Performance: There is a pure, effervescent joy in the way Imaginary Cities perform. The chemistry between vocalist Marti Sarbit and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Rusty Matyas is palpable, and it’s clear that together they adore every minute of stage time. Having recently released their sophomore effort, Fall of Romance, there was an additional layer of excitement to the performance.
Best Moment: The way they were able to inject even their most plaintive and soulful pieces with a sense of hopeful joy.
Miscellaneous: Marti Sarbit’s ivory and gold dress was like a piece of wearable confectionary; in other words, perfect.
Verdict: With layered production and the liberal use of field recordings and unexpected sound elements, it would be easy to assume that Imaginary Cities is strongest in the studio rather than on stage. As it turns out, even without real bells from Cologne playing on “Bells of Cologne,” the group is still capable of something magical.
Pre-Show Hype: Less than there should have been. Having made the Polaris Prize long list last year for Born To Deal in Magic: 1952-1976, this band’s show should have been absolutely packed rather than simply rather full.
Performance: Instrumental aggressive music is challenging to pull off in any context, and the sheer cloudy density of the doom-inspired material that Shooting Guns writes could easily become greyed out and featureless if executed without precision. This performance ebbed and flowed appropriately. It’s rare to see a band navigate so dense a set so deftly.
Best Moment: The complete and utter lack of stage banter. There was just a wall of tar-thick, poppy-sweet, hallucinatory riffs and clattering, insistent drums.
Miscellaneous: Props for the keyboard/synth/effects master’s radical Lavagoat shirt.
Verdict: If this is what comes out of the frozen wastes of our most rectangular province, we need more psychedelic, stoner doom from Saskatchewan.
Pre-Show Hype: Orginally an electronic side project of Caribou drummer Brad Weber, with Angus Fraser and Dan Roberts, the buzz for Pick a Piper was what you’d expect: very enthusiastic, if a little on the sparse side. With Pick a Piper, though, you could actually watch the kinetics of word-of-mouth publicity, as the floor at Comfort Zone went from tumbleweed-bare at the beginning of the set to full and attentive by its end.
Performance: Pick a Piper took the stage a little after 11 p.m., joined by trombone player Steve Ward. For the group, about to embark on a tour of western Canada, there was evidence of energy waiting to explode, supernova-style. At other times, the dark, undulating tones of the group’s electronic/organic style seemed restrained, but focused and simmering, setting the baseline for the night. The percussive severity of Pick a Piper overlaid with Ward’s mournful trombone made us scribble the words “plaintive urgency,” which endures as the best lingering impression of Pick a Piper’s performance. More on that below.
Best Moment: The optics of a studious, deliberate performing style grinding out this blisteringly intense, almost angry sound. The evidence of academic musicianship in action.
Miscellaneous: In the context of that plaintively urgent theme we mentioned, the name “Pick a Piper” came across as particularly salient. This is the music that plays as skylines burn and chaos rages, at least in the back of our Friday-night imagination. The idea of “pick[ing] a piper”—the idea of choosing a side—reflecting the subtly dramatic feel of the group’s sound, as if it was the theme music underpinning the third act of…well, something. Like Godspeed or A Silver Mount Zion, only more aggressive.
Verdict: Pick a Piper slot pretty neatly into that Godspeed description, actually. Making new fans may be a more deliberately nuanced process for the group, but holy hell, will those fans ever be merited. Solidly an 8.
Reason: There were plenty of veteran pop rock acts that fans were waxing nostalgic about this year at NXNE. Local band Tangiers reunited after 10 years apart, turning The Garrison into a sweaty sauna during their 10-song set. Evan Dando thrilled fans at the Rivoli with renditions of classic Lemonheads songs like “Confetti.” But the biggest crowd pleaser was Sloan. The band, now recognized as the quintessential Canuck rock band of the ’90s, thrilled long-time adherents by playing its first-ever EP, Peppermint, from start to finish.
Best Moment: It’s a tough call, but during “Lucky For Me,” we quickly jotted down “thunderous,” and, “drummer (Andrew Scott) is crushing it,” so let’s go with that.
Miscellaneous: Nearly as many fans stuck around after Sloan’s set to see fellow ’90s east coasters Superfriendz.
Verdict: Sloan is Canuck-rock royalty, and the Great Hall was as packed as we’d ever seen it with fans there to pay homage.
Pre-Show Hype: Hard to say. People were really stoked for this Saturday night show at The Horseshoe, but no one actually knew the show was happening until a couple hours beforehand.
Performance: Having White Lung’s tough, urgent, art-damaged thrash come on after a low-key, melancholic set by Gold & Youth was kind of an odd call, but we’ll take this band any way we can get it. It more than delivered, with a hard, aggressive set that even managed to motivate the slightly heavy-lidded crowd to start a small pit.
Best Moment: When Gold & Youth finally announced that yes, White Lung were up next.
Miscellaneous: Frontwoman Mish Way is also an accomplished music journalist.
Verdict: White Lung are bad ass.
Pre-Show Hype: Medium to high. People were mostly there to see headliner Joey Bada$$, but Kidd was certainly a draw in his own right.
Performance: In the hip-hop community, Toronto is widely referred to as “The Screwface Capital,” thanks to our tendency to produce scowling, skeptical audiences. Local acts notoriously get the worst of this treatment. On Saturday night, Rich Kidd was the exception to the rule. The incredibly dynamic MC and producer had the Wrongbar crowd rapt. The entire room was screaming back the lyrics from his latest mixtape, In My Opinion.
Best Moment: When he ran into the crowd and instructed several young women to “Rub on my chest like I’m Usher.” They obliged.
Miscellaneous: After his own set ended, Kidd stayed on stage and acted as Deniro Farrar’s impromptu hype man.
Verdict: Drake may be the city’s most famous MC, but Rich Kidd may be challenging him for his crown as King of the City.
Pre-Show Hype: Medium. He played two very well received sets at Wrongbar over the course of the week.
Performance: In retrospect, Deniro Farrar may not have been the best choice for the 4 p.m. time slot at Yonge-Dundas Square. It’s not that he wasn’t good—he was amazing—but his bleak, intense, thugged-out rhymes were probably a little heavy for the early hour. That said, he made the most of it, getting the audience involved and winning over the crowd with his captivating presence and laser-focused delivery.
Best Moment: When he rapped directly to one 10-year-old child in the front row.
Miscellaneous: We saw Farrar play twice this week. Apparently he’s incapable of rapping while wearing a shirt.
Verdict: Farrar calls his subgenre “cult rap.” We see why now. He has the sort of charisma that could get people to move to a remote compound.
Pre-Show Hype: High-ish. On one hand, he was headlining Yonge-Dundas Square. On the other hand, he was called in as a last-minute replacement after original headliner Big Boi injured his knee and had to cancel.
Performance: While most NXNE sets clock in around 40 minutes, Dundas Square headliners are given two hours. Apparently no one told Ludacris. After starting 20 minutes late, Luda ran through a tight, high-energy, hit-heavy set, and wrapped things up half an hour early. People had a good time, and we guess it’s better to leave ‘em wanting more, but we still felt a little let down at the end.
Best Moment: When everyone from patch-covered crust punks to Persian moms started dancing to “What’s Your Fantasy?”
Miscellaneous: Apparently Luda’s Disturbing Tha Peace label still exists? Who knew?
Verdict: We would have been happier with Big Boi.
We previously stated that the Balconies’ new drummer was Steve MoLella, when it is in fact Theo Mckibbon. The correction has been made above.