Well, NXNE 2013 was certainly… eventful!
I opted this year to take it easy and sample a small piece of the festival pie. This was due to several factors, one of those being underwhelmed by the line-up this year. Granted, NXNE 2012 had an exceptionally amazing line-up, one that would be rather hard to top. That said, I found the programming a bit of a let-down. For starters, showcase groupings seemed less coherent sonically as the week went on. I frequently found myself playing samples and thinking, “Yes, meh, huh?” This made for annoyance when rocking two days of wristband. I was also unimpressed with all but one of the YDS headliners this year, although I know hipsters, music snobs and tweens will disagree with me. Film curation was also not as strong this year; unlike last year, very few films grabbed my attention with the synopsis.
Thursday, I braved the rain at YDS to take in folk-punkers Old Man Markley and punk legends Social Distortion. Stormy skies couldn’t stop the fun for diehards, who donned garbage bags ponchos and popped open their umbrellas to stand near the stage. Me, I took advantage of the beer garden’s handy little shaded coverings that became giant rain shelters for the masses. Old Man Markley delivered an intriguing brew of what I imagine would happen if the 70’s punk scene were stuck in steerage aboard the Titanic. This is a positive, and the band deserves accolades for remaining cheery and doing their best to stir the crowd up in spite of the deluge.
Social Distortion closed off the damp night with a solid set of fan favourites peppered with storytelling moments from frontman Mike Ness. Like another legend of the scene a few months prior, the band sounded fantastic, definitely lifting spirits. Highlights were “Bad Luck” (unabashed Bones fan), “Story Of My Life” and set-closing cover tune “Ring Of Fire”. For me, what stood out most about the performance was the clear emotional resonance the tracks continue to hold for Ness. It would be easy to phone it in at this stage, but as he related his youthful experience to those of street people of Toronto, it was clear that there’s still so much relevance to be heard within the lines.
Saturday, in contrast, was an oven at YDS, and us eager little cookies were danced into good form by festival highlight We Are Scientists. Their brand of dance-rock was precisely the vibe I’ve been craving of late: sunny and clever, with a bite. So-Cal’s Animal Talk, in my estimation. A very polished performance, I will definitely be keeping my ears out for their future endeavours and really, so should you.
Up next came Blinker The Star, the nostalgic alt-rock contribution to the line-up. I’ve been pretty disheartened with what passes for mainstream alt-rock these days, mourning the ’90s and early 2000s. While thngs seemed a bit shaky on the stage with extended tunings and a sense of nerves (stage rust?), the melodies were sweet. Here’s hoping they can do what Our Lady Peace are failing miserably at these days.
Moon King was an act everyone and their mother seemed to have a hard-on for this year, but honestly? It was all godawful noise to my ears. Perhaps the sound was poorly handled for their set, to give benefit of the doubt. All I know is that the endless distortion, breathy vocals muddied beneath guitars and sameness of the songs came off dull like a poor knock-off of Sonic Youth. Similarly disappointing was another hype act, Big Black Delta. While certainly enjoyable and intriguing with their dual-drum set-up, they didn’t really stand out for me at all. Not a band I’d actively seek out, but one I wouldn’t mind stumbling across on a night out.
Off I journeyed next to Danforth Music Hall, where I spent several hours basking in solid tunes. Opening the festivities was Northcote, fronted by Vancouver’s Matt Goud. Fantastic folk-rock storytelling of the Springsteen ilk, Northcote delivered an enthusiastic set for the early bird crowd lucky enough to be present. The sincerity of the lyrics and the roaming melodies made for a great combination, particularly live.
Next up were Paper Lions, a group of P.E.I. rockers who are exceptionally well-travelled as a band. The road life becomes them: their sound is tight, each member feeding off the others to build layered indie rock that’s catchy without being derivative. Playing a selection of tunes from their new EP, I was particularly impressed by the stormy track “Ghostwriters”. They’re also a pleasant example of a band who shines live.
Dinosaur Bones hit the stage next and were certainly fun, although nothing quite wowed me about them. Perhaps it’s the fact they sound very much like the mainstream rock I’m tired of these days; I’m not certain. There are twists of psychedelic rock beneath the surface of their tracks, enough so that I feel this band could be more engaging. There’s a promise here, undoubtedly: creativity, skilled playing, joy for their craft. I’m just not sure Dinosaur Bones is there yet.
Capping off the night on the Danforth were Halifax-hatched Wintersleep, a band I first discovered years ago at NXNE. Launching their set with a one-two punch of my fave Hello Hum tracks “In Came The Flood” and “Resuscitate”, Paul Murphy and company put on a show that drifted from ethereal ambient folk to straight-up East Coast rock with hearty smiles and refreshing humility. Setlist choices balanced that fine line between new album promotion and die-hard fan satisfaction. And sure, “Weighty Ghost” was the track everybody knew (even the awesome senior beside me bouncing happily and snapping images with his netbook), by the end of the night, the audience walked away impressed by the performance in its entirety. One gripe: serious abuse of dark purple lighting. It gave the impression for the first half that the band was hiding in plain sight, if that makes sense.
For one last taste of music for the night, I jumped on the TTC and headed for Lee’s Palace, where Los Angeles rapper Mickey Avalon held court over a raucous crowd eager to chime in lines in command or outright sing along, as in the case of Avalon’s notorious tune “My Dick”. A cleverly cherry-picked set featuring “Jane Fonda” and “So Rich, So Pretty” had the audience (self included) in Mickey’s palm, even as he sprayed water onto the front row. Contrary to any past stories of stage tantrums, I found Avalon very happy to be on stage, almost giddy at the love shown by fans.
Sunday was my movie day of the fest: I’m not a fan of Ludacris by any means, and I’d so enjoyed the time I’d taken on films last year that it seemed perfect to cap the fest in the darkened theatre. First up, Aka Doc Pomus, a moving documentary about the legendary songwriter behind some of the most iconic tracks in history. One of the most powerful documentaries about the industry I’ve seen, Aka Doc Pomus unfolds the incredible and unlikely story of Jerome Felder, a man who rose above the crippling effects of polio and societal stereotypes to perform blues music and later write some of the very best blues and rock tracks of the times. More importantly, it captures the love and heartbreak of his life and its impact upon the music he crafted, as well as the friendship and tutleage he offered so many. I was teary-eyed by the end, simply contemplating the impact he’d clearly had upon so many of those interviewed. Very much worth the watch.
Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same of the Laugh Sabbath film festival. A series of shorts compiled and judged by the jury in attendance, results varied from genuine, hearty laughted (fest winner Japan) to shrugged annoyance (What’s up, Butt?) to utter disgust (Pedofire). Yeah, you read that last one correctly. What’s it about, you ask? Well, two male comic writers thought the concept of a paroled pedophile who’s been court ordered to not have contact with children stumbling onto a house fire and being asked to save a pantsless young boy by a blind man and a differently-abled woman hilarious. At absolute minimum, this information should have been available on the NXNE website; truthfully, given the incredibly lukewarm reaction to the piece by the crowd, it never should have been a selection. Did no one consider the potential impact on a survivor of sexual abuse? Did no one examine any of the recent articles discussing the lack of funny when it comes to rape?
Hey, writers: why not look into some of Dan Savage’s interviews with Professor James Cantor or listen to the calls from suicidal pedophiles struggling to not ever act on their attraction in a society that gives them no reasonable means of seeking treatment for an attraction — one that research is proving to be one they’re born with?
This wasn’t even the first case of poor judgement by festival organizers this year. Saturday’s between-sets commentator found it hilarious to joke about getting wasted and throwing trash cans at homeless people, commenting that an older woman (whom may have been a minority) that she didn’t look like the type to have a smartphone and getting irritated when the audience was unimpressed and classy comments about the TTC. It was so junior high – kind of like an entire sketch about a man whose butt never stops farting. You know, I simply expect better. I also wager, given their displeasure on Twitter, that Ford Canada expected better of the announcer too as the day’s sponsor.
I also miss the accessibility of the film festival in 2012. The Bloor Hot Docs cinema is not accessible (bathrooms are waaaaaaaay upstairs) and as an invisibly disabled woman with serious pain from standing at shows, it wasn’t fun. I also didn’t enjoy the leave and go swelter outside in line again for those double-billing the movies. There needs to be a better system.
So there you have it: the music was good, the weather was mostly sunshiney and the humour was decidedly hit-or-miss. Fingers crossed for a much better NXNE 2014 (perhaps with more than one Canadian headliner at YDS?).