Twelve has always been a lucky number for me, and maybe it is for NXNE as well. I’ve attended nearly every festival since its inception in 1995, as both performer and press. Some years I only made it out one night of the three; a couple of years I’m quite sure I didn’t bother going at all. And I’ve studiously avoided the conference centre during the day for most of the last 10 years—the mechanics of the biz always soured my taste for the new music I was supposed to be excited about, making Queen Street seem like a boulevard of soon-to-be-broken dreams.
This year was different. The evening line-up was predictably solid, though because I made a conscious decision to avoid the tried and true, my own picks often came up a bit short. But for Joe and Jane Concertgoer, there were a lot more high-ticket events that let wristbands in, so it was undoubtedly better for the consumer.
The difference was in the daytime. The conference actually had panels I was interested in, some of them even in conflicting timeslots. Some turned out to be duds, some were surprisingly effective and informative. One of the ones I didn’t go to sounded unintentionally hilarious: my new Australian friend Ned Collette writes about it on his blog here (scroll down to the Toronto entry).
The other difference was the afternoon parties. Kelp Records and Saved By Radio teamed up for a smashing shindig on Friday afternoon, the highlight of which was Kelp mainman Jon Bartlett resurrecting Rhume, his rock tour-de-force that left everyone flummoxed. Bartlett is a true believer who throws everything he has (literally) into his performance, which came as quite a shock for those who know him only as the mild-mannered frontman of Greenfield Main or as the guy who puts out Jim Bryson and Acorn records.
Saturday’s place to be was the Six Shooter Records back lot party out in my neck of the woods, the east end. Normally it’s impossible to get Torotonians to cross the RubiDon River, but much as Bloodshot Records’ BBQ convinced CMJ’s NYC patrons that Brooklyn was as happenin’ as Manhattan, Six Shooter threw quite a do that actually moved the shakers onto a streetcar. The irony is that it was such a good party, that I don’t actually remember much of the music performed, with the exception of the unavoidably compelling and well-dressed Ford Pier. Hopefully some newcomers did take notice, and perhaps they browsed the beautiful boutique storefront that the label runs, with one of the best-stocked Canadian music shelves in the city.
Around the corner, mastering engineer Joao Carvalho opened up his lovely new studio to a swarm of ravenous and thirsty partygoers who invaded every corner and spilled out into the backyard. There, an open stage featured unknowns alongside Ron Sexsmith, Danny Michel and Serena Ryder, everyone sticking to a quick three-song set. As with the other two afternoon parties, the informality was a welcome contrast to the schmoozefest happening downtown.
I didn’t make it out Thursday night at all, and bicycle issues foiled many of my Friday night plans. Quickly, then, some things I saw at official showcases.
Said the Whale: Pop band from Vancouver. Potential, but a bit green. Very Shins-y. And, not that this really matters in the least, but bad comic timing on the banter!
Metermaids: Nerdcore hip-hop duo from New York City. Not bad, but the sound system at new venue Rockwood was insanely loud—especially for the sparse crowd and small room.
Memphis: Side project for Torquil Campbell of Stars. My lord, don’t quit your day job. I had to flee during my least favourite song of the past year, the god-awful “Incredibly Drunk on Whiskey.”
Scotty Hard: The Vancouverite behind the boards for Wu-Tang Clan, New Kingdom, and plenty of WordSound and Bill Laswell productions brought a three-piece band with him (drums, percussion, MC) from NYC to flesh out his solo material, but the live approach didn’t improve material that’s probably better at home with headphones. And for some reason, I expected this rather standard instrumental hip-hop show to be more experimental than it was.
Ned Collette: Charming Australian man who schooled me on the differences between Triple J and the much-worthier Triple R radio in Melbourne. His solo electric guitar performance draws heavily from English folk idioms (a topic that hung over the festival thanks to the presence of Nick Drake/Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd), as filtered through his own post-rock instrumental past and a flair for the epic. His use of a looping pedal was thankfully sparse, allowing him just enough space to employ some very subtle fingerboard wizardry that always erred on the tasteful side. Hypnotic and entrancing, you can see why he’s a favourite of All Tomorrow’s Parties.
The Old Ceremony: Helen Spitzer took me to this, based mostly on the fact that they hail from the perpetually fertile scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Not much of a gamble, but it paid off: great songs, great fashion, great instrumentation (guitar/bass/drums augmented by piano, violin, and organ/vibraphone.) A fair bit of Tindersticks/National noir-ish drama, a dash of Squeeze-y pop, and a whole lot of charisma—which, when your parents name you Django, is inevitable. Thoroughly satisfying, and a most pleasant surprise. They have two albums out; don’t let the fact that they opened for Cake sway you.
Bonjay: Top Toronto DJ Denise Benson has been hyping this Ottawa duo, and with good reason. Vocalist Alanna Stuart has a soulful, sexy voice and commanding stage presence (not to mention a fantastic ‘fro), while DJ Pho has production skills that could find him challenging Ghislain Poirier in a couple of years. So far they’re known for their covers (electro soul makeovers of TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and their own material is a bit green, but Stuart has unmistakable star appeal.
Thunderheist: This is another act to benefit from the Benson boost: see her cover story in Eye here. Toronto MC Isis and Montreal beatmaker Grahmzilla concoct a fiery electro-hip-hop party mix that’s hotter than hell, as anyone at this ecstatic Drake performance can attest. Isis is a 21-year old Nigerian-Canadian hoser with mad mic skills, boundless energy, and oodles of sex appeal. Grahmzilla: not so much—he humbly looks lucky to share the stage with such a goddess, but it’s his powerful beats that set the crowd off, before Isis pushes them even further into delirium.
Things I meant to see but missed for a variety of reasons, mostly geographic, fatigue-related, or the fact that I skipped Thursday: Mother Mother (caught a bit of an in-store they were doing, which was enough to make me reconsider my dismissal of their album), Camouflage Nights, Wordburglar, Woodpigeon, Abdominal, Parkas, The Old Soul, The Blood Lines, No Luck Club, Motion, Think Twice, Ghettosocks, King Sunshine, SoulJazz Orchestra, Yo Majesty, Track Dirtyaz, No Dynamics.