Canadian Music Week has its problems. Meet the bands that make it worthwhile.
The stage is dark, it’s 1 a.m., and the band before you finished late, cutting into your set time. You’re exhausted. You’ve got no fans in the crowd of, what, maybe 15? Stink, and people will walk two blocks down to find something better. Kill it, and no one will notice.
Oh, and you’re not getting paid.
Welcome to Canadian Music Week.
A mainstay of the local music scene, CMW has always been an odd-duck festival. Musicians of a certain calibre resent it for not paying young artists while expecting them to shell out hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars just to travel here, but the festival is, at least, a streamlined way for no-name acts to reach a audience in Toronto. In theory, that counts for something—even if that something is just a boost to a fledgling band’s fragile self-esteem.
But here’s the thing: some of those groups are actually pretty good. It’s invigorating to witness a young band with lucid songwriting and intense musicianship take these small, crummy, unforgiving stages and actually have fun. Sure, they can be plagued by rookie problems, but one gets the sense, watching them, that they’ll figure it out someday. So if they can be foolishly optimistic enough to play these grimy back-room stages at 1 a.m., we can be optimistic enough to listen to them.
Listen if you like: Joy Division
Matt Mason’s stringy blond hair casts shadows over his eyes as he prowls in front of the stage. When he comes up to the crowd, it’s intimidating—and he comes right up, screaming in their faces, and waving his hands. He looks like Iggy Pop and sounds like Ian Curtis, and he carries this band on his scrawny shoulders. Surinam has been raising eyebrows around the city for these sorts of intense shows. The band, made up from the fragments of the erstwhile post-punk-psychedelic group Anagram, plays well together, filling the room with synthesized noise from a 1950s sci-fi flick, rounding it out with hard and fast bass and drums. But it’s Mason who lunges into the crowd and grabs our attention, dragging us along for the ride.
Goodnight, Sunrise (Toronto)
Listen if you like: July Talk
If you want to catch Toronto’s next indie darlings before they get big, this is the band to watch. Goodnight, Sunrise has such a boisterous spirit that one gets the feeling they could play any venue—bar mitzvahs, military graduations, wakes, whatever—and walk away with a few converts in tow. This is, in part, because their onstage chemistry is undeniable and infectious. Vocalist Vanessa Vakharia somehow makes keytars sexy, drummer Paul Weaver laughs when things go well (read: often), and lead singer David Kochberg exudes the kind of confidence that can—and did—invigorate a room of fewer than 30 people. Obviously influenced by the likes of July Talk and Metric—except they’re more innocent than the former and more playful than the latter—the band’s biggest problem is that their lyrics sometimes sound like they’re ripped from a high school diary. But that’s fine. They’ll grow up, and into something great.
Listen if you like: The Black Keys
Deserving nominees for CMW’s non-existent Best Band Name award, Orangabang includes, I’d wager, some of the best blues guitarists in Uxbridge township. Fans of the Black Keys and White Stripes should appreciate lead singer Geoff Holt’s wavy, almost mournful voice and Dave Mordak’s impressive guitar solos. The band’s only problem is how easy they make it look—no, seriously—because onstage they jam casually, sometimes soullessly, making a play-by-numbers act. It might be their youth betrays their sound; they treat catchy, original, textured songs like “Fledermaus” almost like covers, with a sort of restrained hesitance. These guys are great talents, and if they learn to give themselves up to the crowd a little more and shed that teeming self-consciousness, opening for big-name acts isn’t far away.
Rob Moir (Toronto)
Listen if you like: Against Me!’s acoustic EP
I feel bad for this guy’s guitar. The sound hole is cracked, the wood around it stripped from what I can only assume to be violently passionate picking. Moir didn’t damage it much at Handlebar in Kensington Market during his folksy solo set, but you could tell that he might—when he plays, he looks like he’s trying to destroy his strings, clenching his neck muscles as if trying to strangle himself. It’s an intense performance. Moir isn’t exactly an industry newbie—in between songs he gabs about his recent Australian tour and how he kickstarted his solo career a while back—but he’s far from a big-name singer, which made it all the more impressive that he could gather a sizeable crowd in a difficult, sweaty venue.
The Stogies (Halifax)
Listen if you like: Spinal Tap (unironically)
The poor Stogies had to tee off 20 minutes late because of tech issues, and intermittently paused their set to keep fixing them. But it didn’t seem to deter the frumpy Nova Scotians too much. The mop-haired Blake Johnston could barely be heard through the muddy mic, but that just let the group’s intricate musicality shine a little more. It works because they don’t take themselves too seriously; they write pretty obscene, silly lyrics, and their grungy denim style, along with Johnston’s mid-May toque (seriously, dude—it’s warm outside, enjoy it), give a shrugging air of indifference to audience expectations. Billed in the program as “classic rock,” the Stogies pull off in earnest what a lot of throwback-1970s bands try and fail to do: They capture a musical moment they never lived through, not simply by recreating a sound, but by reinvigorating it.