North by Northeast (NXNE), though long established, has more recently evolved quite rapidly over the last couple of years into the city’s most unmissable music festival of the year. Spearheaded by massive free shows at YongeandDundassquare by popular headliners, this year it featured over 800 bands at 50 venues over four days. The entire festival of seven days has also followed in the footsteps of it’s much larger and internationally renowned sister festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and has incorporated both a sizeable film festival of 40 music themed films this year, along with the second edition of their interactive media conference NXNEi. Here’s a rundown of the music shows we attended over the crazy weekend.
Yonge and Dundas Square
I arrived fashionably late for the free BadReligion show at Yonge and Dundas Square and it was extremely crowded. I have to admit though, I was kind of disappointed in Toronto since it wasn’t utterly packed. At least not as packed as it was a couple years ago for the free IggyPop show also for NXNE, where they had to shut down both Yonge and Dundas streets to handle the overflow. I mean this was Bad Religion, the veteran iconic punk band, the band that started EpitaphRecords, had inspired a generation of punks, and on top of everything, it was a free show! I expected mayhem, but while the core of the square was definitely sardine can packed with people, the crowd thinned out considerably way before the edge of the square. As I arrived the band was in the middle of some show banter reminiscing about their first show in Toronto decades ago at the Rivoli, and how when they had first crossed the border, customs thought they were BlackFlag. The band then launched into their classic song “Los Angeles is Burning”. The crowd cheered and sang along, and the vibe was relaxed with camaraderie and thick with weed. It was followed by “Let Them Eat War” and several newer songs. Lead singer Greg Graffin couldn’t resist some rabble rousing and took some shots at the festival for their “cheap laser printed quality backstage passes” before starting into “Generator”, which was met with the loudest and most active crowd participation so far. People were singing along and a fairly good natured mosh pit formed in front of the stage, with another one forming within the fenced in beer garden. The band followed up with “I Want To Conquer The World”, “Sanity”, “Defence”, “Punk Rock Song”, “Along the Way”, and ended with “Fuck Armageddon…This is Hell”. After some massive cheering for an encore, the band returned joking about dropping down from helicopters for it, and then finished off with “American Jesus”, “Infected”, and “Sorrow”. It was a great show with a diverse crowd, but the spirit was definitely embodied by the 14 year olds in neon green hair, dancing their hearts out.
Later that night brought me to a 1am show by a band and at a venue, both strangely not listed on the NXNE website or schedule book, for what as a result amounted to an unintended and badly kept secretish show. Badbadnotgood (BBNG) playing at the newish The Hoxton at the intersection of King and Bathurst, clearly did not need the publicity. The room was fairly full despite it being their second set there that night, and only got more packed throughout the show. Highly buzzed about in the international blogsphere, the local band consisting of three Humber jazz students, play innovative engrossing jazz filtered through a clearly punk aesthetic with hip hop connotations. They gained a major following after a well received collaboration with TylertheCreator, the de facto leader of the underground but also indie darling rap group, OddFuture. The crowd welcomed the band on stage with a loud roar and the trio, along with a truly dedicated considering the heat, unnamed fourth in a full stray cat mascot costume, began the show almost immediately with little banter. The music is unmistakably jazz, but has a rougher feel and more haphazard construction. While many online reviews contained commenters who complain about the band’s lack of technical prowess, my untrained to jazz ears couldn’t really tell. Anyways their technical ability is besides the point, since like early punk, their music is more about DIY attitude, energetic performance, and charisma, than being masters at their instruments. Keep in mind though, the band was by no means bad at their instruments, I mean they are in a post-secondary institution for jazz. I imagine however that most of the complaints are simply due to the amount of coverage and publicity they’ve gotten compared to other more traditional jazz acts. As a band, they easily captured the obviously not traditional jazz crowd’s attention, and never gave it up. While the typically indie rock Toronto crowd didn’t start the show with much movement, by mid show the cat mascot was able to crowd surf. I left the show with the verdict that BBNG is way more than hype, and absolutely worth checking out.
Yonge and Dundas
Friday night brought me back to Yonge and Dundas square with a distinctly different crowd for MattGood. The crowd was filled with couples on dates, some families with children, including an adorable baby in sound-cancelling headphones on his dad’s shoulders, and definitely far less aggression. The mood was extremely chill with people swaying, less density, but around the same amount of people that were there for Bad Religion. The square was mostly full which is a testament to the fact that Matt Good has apparently maintained his popularity since his ubiquity during the late 90’s. He started off by making some wry comments about about how he liked YD Square because he loved staring at ads while performing, and how it was barely missing anything to be a scene from Blade Runner. He began the set with a group of mostly mid career songs including “Born Losers”, “Alert Status Red”, “A Single Explosion”, “Zero Orchestra”, “Hello Time Bomb”, and “The Future is X-Rated”. “Load me up”, one of his bigger hits, was met with a clap and sing along for the very catchy addictive chorus, though everyone seemed to mumble through the verses, and was followed by some banter by Good about the distraction that was the nearly nude H & M model in the humungous video ad directly across from the stage. After playing “Extraordinary Fades” off his latest album, “Lights of Endangered Species”, he finished off with a couple of much older crowd favourites such as “Apparition”, my personal Matt Good forever on repeat song, and “Weapon”. After a very short bit of encore cheering by the crowd, Matt Good returned with “Everything is Automatic”, and the crowd rewarded him with a blast of enthusiasm. All in all, a good night, and a good show.
Later on that Friday evening had me checking out the slowly rising buzz of local band Yamantaka//SonicTitan at the indie mainstay TheGarrison. The back room venue was not surprisingly, quite packed and noticeably hot. I had never seen the band live before and was only briefly acquainted with their music, but I was definitely excited for a chance to hear them live. The band has recently gained much love from the local press and has been numbered among the next wave of great artists to break big beyond our borders. Best described as metal meets performance art with Asian influences, their music is haunting and tribal. Filled with chants, plaintive wails and trance inducing atmospheric marathon vocals rooted in driving, rhythmic, percussion, their performance was attention grabbing and unforgettable. The entire large band was painted in white and black war makeup that gave the impression of Kabuki with a hint of Kiss, and they were fully in such tradition, theatrical and dramatic, amply helped by the stark lighting and sparse stage setup. With rapt audience attention the band pummelled through a tight 45 minute set with little banter and then left just as swiftly. Yamantaka//Sonic Titan proved to be a band that needs to be experienced live to be appreciated fully.
Times Neue Roman
Very early Saturday morning found me at dependable SneakyDee’s for the band TimesNeueRoman, whom I had picked randomly due to a location and time that fit just right. Thankfully the band was not only decent, but actually quite good. With an overall laid back vibe, the four piece local band consisting of a DJ, a MC, a keyboardist who occasionally did second vocals, and a drummer, dived into a set that exuded confidence and old school 90’s hip hop. They managed to kickstart the initially small but growing crowd, and got the entire room moving from the very beginning of their set, and kept them pumped throughout. The MC had a smooth, dense flow and led the band into increasingly more aggressive and party oriented songs as the set progressed. He actively engaged the crowd into call back sessions and even invited the willing to jump on stage to dance. A few energetic members of the crowd accepted and began riving on stage amongst the band with intense energy. They finished up on their set with what I think was their strongest song, the fitting “Late Night Toronto”, which would definitely be a club hit. Times Neue Roman is a great example that Toronto has more to offer in polished strong acts than just indie rock.
Yonge and Dundas Square
Saturday brought the largest show at YD Square so far with the festival closing down Yonge Street from Dundas to Queen to accommodate the huge immense crowd that had arrived early for the FlamingLips show. The crowd was also probably added to in numbers by some sad last minute Radiohead fans due to the horrible tragedy at DownsviewPark, where a collapsed stage killed one and injured several others, cancelling the show. There were stupid rumours on the interwebs that Radiohead was going to relocate to YD square, which for anyone who gave it any thought, was pretty ridiculous. However the rumours were still plausible enough for enough people, that the TorontoPolice were forced to issue a public statement, on Twitter no less, to the contrary. The crowd at half an hour before the show was already at the edge of the square and spilling over onto Dundas street. Having arrived the earliest I have to any YD square show so far, I was still relegated to standing on the street with a barely perceptible view of one of the two screens broadcasting the stage. Seeing the actual stage quickly became a futile hope. The Lips began their show with their known signature visual flair and theatricality, by entering the stage through a door in a psychedelic vagina projected onto a brilliant screen that back ended the stage. This was followed by the intro bars of the first song while the lead singer Wayne Coyne, now inside a plastic sheath that slowly expanded into a clear bubble as it was pumped full of air, jumped around the stage. The band then launched fully into their first song as Wayne Coyne in his huge plastic bubble jumped into the crowd and crowd surfed around for a while before coming back on stage and singing the lyrics. The rest of the show was filled with the same joy and over the top humour and celebration, often punctuated with confetti and large inflatable beach balls being thrown around the crowd. Some surprisingly even reached back to where I was standing. Never underestimate how much a crowd wants to participate in a show, tons of the people around me made large efforts to hit the bouncing balls, quite self aware of the ridiculousness of it all but embracing it. The band ended their show with the launch of tons more confetti into the night sky, and the encore song of “So”, which is probably their best known song and a beautiful one at that.
I finished off the NXNE weekend on Sunday night at RanchoRelaxo, an appropriately run down but comfortable venue on the College strip just west of Spadina, with the band DreamJefferson. A four piece with a lead singer, but rounded out by a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist who all sung/rapped at certain points, the band was a refreshingly interesting hybrid of various genres. With mostly electronic melodies coupled with ambient drone backgrounding, strong percussion, and alternating rap verses between singers, the band had a distinctly underground early 90’s edge. Occasionally also pulling threads from psychedelia, mixed in with excerpted verbal audio overlay, I struggle to put just one label on the band. My best attempt would be to call them electronic dance rap, but with a far warmer feel than such a label conjures, created by the well done vocal harmonies and catchy hooks that took no time to create a sweaty dance mess of the audience. There was a clear contingent of hard core fans that knew all the lyrics and kept the energy high, despite the room becoming increasingly a sauna. Luckily for the crowd, local web startup ShowGopher that specializes in listenable local concert listings, were giving out free freezies that fit the late night summer patio mood perfectly. All four band members over a diverse and strong set proved to be fierce performers and ultimately gained a new fan in me.