The Toronto Urban Roots Fest Charmed Audiences, Despite Rain
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The Toronto Urban Roots Fest Charmed Audiences, Despite Rain

The first Toronto Urban Roots Festival had some challenges to overcome—rain, camera-shy celebrities—but it soldiered on.

The Toronto Urban Roots Festival—a multi-day, outdoor concert—climaxed on Sunday night, not so much with a rock ‘n roll roar, but with a sweet, indie-pop tinkle.

The festival’s headline act, Belle and Sebastian, charmed the rain-lashed crowd at Fort York—or at least those stoic enough to be dancing floppily on the soupy grass—with their upbeat choruses and witty lyrics.

The Glaswegian band ended their set with “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” a favourite from their 1996 album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, with its nostalgic melodies providing a fitting ending for a festival in which the “urban” tag came less from the gritty music and more from the downtown location next to the Gardiner.

Putting on a festival so close to the city’s core was a huge deal for TURF founder Jeff Cohen, who has long bemoaned the licensing restrictions he says have bedevilled Toronto’s live-music promoters.

“We’re bigger than film, but we don’t have a TIFF,” he grimaced. “People still think live music promotes drugs, free sex…abortion.”

Apart from a few distinctive smoky wafts every now and then, there wasn’t much illicit behaviour on display at the inaugural event, where the line-up for coffee was longer than the one for beer.

Most of the artists were just as polite as their fans. Warming up the west stage for Belle and Sebastian was singer-songwriter Neko Case, who wistfully told the soggy crowd they were going to make her cry. Husband-and-wife duet Whitehorse, who announced that they had moved from Hamilton to Toronto just two weeks ago, seduced festival-goers with their folksy harmonies and looped percussion.

Cohen says he wanted the atmosphere to be welcoming to senior citizens who had perhaps stopped going to gigs but loved live roots music. He also wanted the festival to be open to teenagers and families. “We wanted mom-and-pop eateries, and security that wasn’t full of testosterone,” he explained.

His words were interrupted by shrieks from a nearby Jenga game, made up of giant wooden blocks chopped by Cohen’s brother-in-law. His wife built the kids’ zone, a shaded spot where tots threw balls and worked on arts-and-craft projects.

Despite the family-friendly vibe, the previous night had been heavier, with evening sets by noisy celtic punks Flogging Molly and Brooklyn rockers The Hold Steady.

Loud bass levels could’ve been to blame for the 68 noise complaints made by residents, according to Cohen, who says he’s sure no decibel limits were breached.

On Friday, bluegrass guitarist Justin Townes Earl had successfully ratcheted the twee factor down from the stratospheric levels reached on Thursday evening, when manic pixie dream girl Zooey Deschanel took to the stage as one half of She & Him. Cutesy polka dots? Check. Tambourine? Check. Eye-covering bangs? Check. Ukulele? Check. Country-inspired verses? Check. The New Girl star also demonstrated her esoteric aversion to modern technology—by banning fans from snapping her on their camera phones. How adorably retro!

Scottish songsters Camera Obscura, who released their new album, Desire Lines, last month, kept heads bopping by playing favourites like “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken,” its warm snythy chords providing the perfect soundtrack for a sunny evening. Apologizing for wearing sunglasses on stage, guitarist Kenny McKeeve explained: “We’re not pretentious, but we’re not used to this. We’re British.”

Over at Lee’s Palace, as part of the festival’s late-night programming, the Barr Brothers played a trippy set on Thursday night, featuring a harpist, horn section, drums, guitars, a percussive bike wheel, a mouth organ, and a bright-pink tambourine. There were also pieces of pulsating wire that band members pulled from lead vocalist Brad Barr’s guitar, which added depth to the rich, hypnotizing sound created by the Montreal-founded group.

Cohen says he’s happy with the event overall, and is already talking about next year’s TURF, which he’s sure will be allowed to go ahead.

His confidence stems from a Music Canada report released last year [PDF] that recommended ways to capitalize on Toronto’s lively music scene by borrowing ideas from Austin, Texas, the self-branded “live music capital of the world.” The report, which Cohen influenced, highlighted the tourist dollars and job creation schemes that Toronto’s heavily regulated music industry has been missing out on.

A group of music scenesters have been meeting with city councillors once a month to discuss ways to fix the problem, which has helped to remove some of the red-tape that might hinder an event like TURF.

“I’m feeling a lot of love from the City. Also a lot of love from the province,” says Cohen.

He wants to grow the festival “naturally,” ideally attracting around 7,500 people each day, which would be an increase over this year’s crowd: Sunday saw around 5,000 people turn up.

Some of the acts originally pencilled in for this year who had to cancel—including Wilco—have already said they’re up for TURF round 2, Cohen says, adding: “We have a long list.”

CORRECTION: July 9, 2013, 12:25 PM Because of an editing error, this post originally misidentified the band Camera Obscura in a photo caption.