Toronto Urban Roots Festival: Good for Both Kicking Back and Rocking Out
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Toronto Urban Roots Festival: Good for Both Kicking Back and Rocking Out

Eclectic lineup at second annual TURF had country twang, hardcore punk, and at least one Santa Claus beard.

Considering the weekend’s co-operative weather, the second annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival saw surprisingly low numbers. “Tell your friends,” urged local music mainstay and festival organizer Jeff Cohen, repeatedly and before every band he introduced. “You don’t have to drive five hours to see the best live music in the world.”

The festival kicked off with what would be the smallest audience of the weekend—homegrown Born Ruffians sweated through a sunny 4 p.m. slot, and Andrew Bird lulled visitors into a comfy trance. Cohen predicted that by the time Gary Clark, Jr. hit the stage at 6:30 p.m., there would already have been over 100 noise complaints filed. That’s a hard fact to check, but the after-work crowds did turn up to see the Austin-based, Grammy-winning guitarist shred soothingly for over an hour.

Just before Beirut capped off the night with beautiful horns and quips (neither the first nor the last that were made) about being Americans playing on a landmark historic site where America lost a war, the dirty-country folks of Deer Tick took to the south stage. Deer Tick can destroy an intimate venue like the Horseshoe Tavern or Lee’s Palace (and they did just that the night before), but lead singer John Joseph McCauley’s presence didn’t make as much of an impression with the crowd perched on a sloping hill against the backdrop of the Gardiner Expressway.

Saturday saw a country theme, with New Country Rehab, Old Man Markley, Drive-By Truckers, and locals the Strumbellas twanging away at enough acoustic guitars and plucking enough fiddles to exhaust anyone by sundown. The winner of the Most Under-Appreciated Award without question goes to Pokey LaFarge, an Illinois singer who pays homage to the bluegrass and ragtime jazz tunes of the 1920s and ’30s. LaFarge’s crooning falsetto, slicked-back hair, and bright-red shirt went largely unnoticed by the crowds freaking out over the Violent Femmes, who were playing their killer self-titled debut album, start-to-finish, on the other end of the park.

After Sam Roberts’s driving 90-minute day two finale (during which he did not, despite many screamed requests, play “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”), day three enjoyed a mellow vibe until Toronto-based July Talk took to the stage. Despite the awkward 3:20 p.m. time slot, singers Peter Dreimanis (who channels Tom Waits covering the Ramones) and Leah Fay (who carries off a crazy confident “I don’t care if I look and act like Miley Cyrus” attitude) whipped the crowd up into a true festival frenzy. If TURF returns next year, these guys have got to make a repeat performance.

The rest of Sunday was a roller coaster of high-energy dance and relaxation. Jenny Lewis possesses a kind of Joni Mitchell–like serenity, but an hour later, Eurasian Soviet-folk-punkers Gogol Bordello leapt on the same stage as July Talk and picked up right where that act left off. Once they exhausted themselves and the crowd, Jeff Tweedy (and his drummer, a.k.a. his 18-year-old son who is no doubt the envy of every high-school kid in a band) calmed things down with tracks that, if not Wilco originals, certainly sounded a lot like Wilco originals. The experimental Man Man crept on the south stage shortly after, led by a multi-outfitted Honus Honus, who switched from an occult magician’s robe to an alien mask to a white fur coat within minutes.

And yet, somehow, Man Man wasn’t the weirdest act that night. That title might have to go to Neutral Milk Hotel—its lead singer clad in a military cap and thick hobo beard, its trumpet player with a stark white Santa one. While acts like Man Man and July Talk affect madness onstage for kicks, one gets the sense that Jeff Mangum really is a hermit living in a log cabin somewhere in the swamps of his home state, Louisiana. He gives off a tender, delicate vibe onstage (he requested the audience take no photos), and the fact that he disappeared after writing one of indie rock’s most influential albums of all time—In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—should speak for itself.

Toronto lacks a solid three-day music festival. Canada’s only real player in the Coach-Lolla-Roo category is Montreal’s Osheaga; NXNE and CMW are terrific, but they’re sprawled-out and lack the gravitas that comes with invading a historic park for three straight days. TURF may be fighting Field Trip for the title of Toronto’s Music Festival, and while it would be great to see them both succeed, it would be unsurprising if one (or, regrettably, both) were to become the latest additions to the graveyard wherein rest ALL CAPS!, Virgin Fest, Edgefest, and Rogers Picnic. But we certainly hope we’ll see them—along with bigger crowds of Toronto music lovers—this time next year.

All photos by Michael Fraiman.

CORRECTION: July 8, 2014, 10:30AM The post mistakenly implied Neutral Milk Hotel trumpet player Scott Spillane’s beard was fake. It is actually quite real.