Thursday, June 21, 2012

A week in the life: NXNE, Luminato

If you live in Toronto and claim to be a music fan, last weekend hosted an embarrassment of riches, many of them free—including outdoor shows by the Flaming Lips, Kathleen Edwards, Balkan beatmaster Shantel, our own Eastern European party machine the Lemon Bucket Orchestra, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, “Sugar Sugar” pop legend Andy Kim performing at a children’s festival, and finally the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

I wanted to do it all. I did very little. Sometimes it’s far too easy to take this city for granted. And more often than not, spending time with one’s own family as a mature adult trumps the twentysomething desire to do it all, all the time. 

My week of music began at the Luminato festival, with a Wednesday noon-hour interview that Richard Flohil conducted with producer Joe Boyd, who made amazing records with Nick Drake, Mary Margaret O’Hara, the McGarrigles and R.E.M., among others, and wrote the excellent memoir White Bicycles. He’s not only a great producer, but, as one can tell from his book, he’s a wonderful raconteur, sharing stories about everybody from Muddy Waters and Duke Ellington to Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention, and how he was part of the reason why “world music” exists as a marketing genre at all. If you’re wondering what kind of record collection this guy must have, he’s happy to walk you through it here.

Two days later, it was my turn to do the interviewing. It was a thrill to be drafted by NXNE to grill iconic Canadian music manager Bernie Finkelstein on stage during the conference’s daytime proceedings. Finkelstein has just released his memoir, which shares a title with his pioneering record company, True North. It’s an entertaining read, especially his accounts of the rollicking Yorkville years that still seem incredulous to non-baby-boomer Torontonians like myself. I will, though, join other reviewers in saying that Finkelstein is too nice a guy to write his own book—he told some stories on stage that would have helped enliven his written words (I’m glad I asked him about his antithesis, Bruce Allen).

When I started listening to pop radio in the early ’80s, I was enraptured by Bruce Cockburn and Rough Trade, both Finkelstein clients, and I’ve long had major respect for the paths Finkelstein helped carve into Canadian culture: as a lobbyist for CanCon regulations in the early ’70s, as someone who wanted to give Canadian musicians a reason not to leave home yet was always thinking globally, as a key figure in the founding of funding bodies FACTOR and VideoFACT—and as a mensch who commanded the respect of most everyone he encountered. Stay tuned for a transcript of our conversation.

Most of my musical NXNE experiences were decidedly underwhelming, including one hot buzz band riding the wake of the announcement of the Polaris Prize long list. The less said, the better. Which brings us to the last refuge of the aging hipster: the reunion show. 

I was a big Archers of Loaf fan in the ’90s—and make no mistake about it, everything about the Archers is dipped in that decade, right down to the reductive comparison points: they really do sound like a 50/50 mix of Sonic Youth and Pavement, stealing only the best bits from each. But it was Eric Bachmann’s side project, Barry Black, that I loved even more, and his continuing career as Crooked Fingers has been a consistently rewarding soundtrack to the last 12 years of my life. I’ve never been disappointed by a Crooked Fingers record, right up to 2011’s Breaks in the Armor. And while I adore certain Archers songs, I never, ever put on their records, not even after the recent reissues put out by Merge Records, which necessitated the reunion and random appearances over the past year.

I wasn’t going to go to the Archers show at the Phoenix last Saturday; I didn’t feel like I needed to see it. I’d much rather see Crooked Fingers deliver a performance as fine as they did at the much smaller Drake Hotel last year—or sit at home and grumble about why Crooked Fingers can’t fill the Phoenix, feeling like the inverse of the typical music geek: “Sure, I like his earlier work, but his new, more obscure stuff is fantastic.” But my special ladyfriend was in bad need of a loud, visceral rock’n’roll experience, so we went. I’m glad we did.

Archers of Loaf opened with “Audio Whore”—a track not found on one of their four albums, and an interesting choice for a band that is clearly cashing in. Let’s get that out in the open, they seemed to say, and then let’s enjoy the rest of the night. From that point on, the Archers sounded as good—if not better—than they ever did. I honestly have no idea what the other ¾ of the band has been up to, but it sounds like they have a lot of pent-up rocking to get out of their system. And Bachmann had almost given up on music entirely—moving to Taiwan to become a teacher—before returning to reform the Archers and put out another Crooked Fingers record, and it’s obvious from his grin he’s pleased as punch anyone still gives a fuck.

Up until about the third Crooked Fingers record, every time I saw Bachmann perform he had to fend off some lughead hecklers who kept calling out for Archers song. Every time, he sternly but politely addressed it from the stage: “That’s a different band, a whole other thing. I’m doing something else right now.” That’s why when, at the 2004 Mergefest in Carrborro, North Carolina, he suddenly launched into “Web in Front” at the end of a Crooked Fingers set, the resulting roar was the most visceral fanboy release I’ve ever heard. As my special ladyfriend put it, all she saw were a bunch of bobbing bald 35-year-old heads flipping out for three minutes straight.

The scene was similar at the Phoenix on Saturday, although without the surprise element. It was obvious we were going to hear “Web in Front” at some point—no point getting worked up about it. This crowd was just as excited, if not more excited, to bellow “The Greatest of All Time” at the top of their lungs. It was funny hearing fortysomething men sing songs they wrote as self-conscious, self-loathing university students: “It’s a waste of my time to pursue this / it’s so self-indulgent to think that you might like this song” (“Might”), or the inner dialogue of inferiority-superiority complexes articulated in “Wrong.” The second-last song of the regular set was, appropriately enough, a fierce run-through of “Nostalgia.”

Who came to the Archers of Loaf show? University of Western Ontario alumni, judging by the response of at least half the room when bassist Matt Gentling asked, “Who here is from London?” It was because of the campus radio program director there that I first heard the band back in 1995; he told me the whole town was going apeshit for all things Loaf, and invited me down to see them play the Embassy Hotel when Vee Vee came out. (“Party at the Whippet Lounge!” were Gentling’s parting words on Saturday, referring to the Embassy’s adjacent bar.) I’ve since been thankful to that radio man for a lot of lovely things in my life, including the love of Loaf.

I have mixed feelings about reunions. My own ’90s band did one a few years back, in front of thousands of people, and it was simultaneously the best and worst gig of our career, for a variety of very personal reasons. I was snarky about the Pavement reunion a couple of years ago, until I ended up at the show because of other bands on the bill and wound up enjoying the band more than I ever did in the ’90s. The gig I’m most excited about this entire summer is the Shadowy Men reunion on July 14 at Lee’s Palace. (See my article and Q&A with Don Pyle in Maclean’s). Maybe because the Archers of Loaf were never anyone’s #1 favourite band, there’s less at stake and audiences are free to go with modest expectations and be blown away, as opposed to setting themselves up for disenchantment.

Eric Bachmann gave a great interview to Stereogum last summer about the reasons for the reunion and the reissues. He’s a classy guy. Read what he has to say here

After a week of reading NXNE blurbs describing bands as “blog-friendly”—I have no idea what that’s supposed to tell me about their music, other than it’s probably lame—I ended the week with most blog-unfriendly group in Toronto: the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Isn’t it high time the TSO got some blog love? Here it is: conductor Peter Oundjian is a phenomenal and playful performer, a charming guy, a charismatic salesman, and the reason I want to go to the symphony. My lady and I subscribed for a couple of years (at her urging) before kiddo came along, and we didn’t pick any shows he wasn’t conducting. We’ve seen him duet with Itzhak Perlman, joke with Daniel Handler, and light a match under Stravinsky’s Firebird. I also want to go disco dancing with him.

The TSO closed Luminato with a free outdoor performance of Tchaikovsky’s War of 1812 Overture to celebrate the bicentennial of the North American conflict (though the piece is actually about a French-Russian war). It was Father’s Day and I wanted to take my dad—who always cranked that track when I was a kid, conducting in the living room—and my 18-month-old boy. My parents backed out at the last minute, so my special ladyfriend and I brought buddy boy to his first classical concert, which included the debut of a Philip Glass piece, the last movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and John Williams’ E.T. theme (which conductor Peter Oundjian dedicated to “all the cyclists who fly around Toronto”).

The Glass piece was, well, Glassy-eyed. No surprises there, but it did make nice accompaniment to the choreographed wind installation by Mitchell Chan and Diamond/Schmitt. The Dvorak was exquisite. The E.T. was fun. In the spirit of the evening, the evening began with both national anthems, and I’ll confess I was verklempt hearing my fellow citizens sing both with such spirit and affection (led by Kevin Fox). This wasn’t the rote beginning of a ball game; this was Toronto as a community remembering a time when the ground on which we were standing was lakeshore under invasion. This was singing a song about a legendary battle in the war we were commemorating, a song later adopted as our former enemy’s national anthem. We sang together thinking of the tribulations our two nations overcame to be the partners we are today. Yes, our relationship is still complicated. And yes, I still take a perverse glee in the fact we burned down the White House once. But there are few things more beautiful than two warring parties acknowledging the journey from the pain of the past to the pleasure of the present through art and community.

And then there was Tchaikovsky. War of 1812 Overture is an obvious crowd pleaser, from its triumphant, galloping theme to the tense, brooding build-up to the cascading woodwinds in the midst of the final flurry to the pyrotechnics that make it somewhat like the Nickelback of its day. For all its cliché, it’s still a stirring, powerful piece of music. Thankfully, baby boy thought so too, (mostly) enraptured through the entire piece and suitably impressed by the fireworks at the end. After the show was over and the musicians had left, he kept walking around, pointing at the stage and saying, “Boom!”

That one-word review, along with the wide-eyed wonder I witnessed in his eyes, was worth more to me than not just anything else I saw or heard that week, but at least the last 18 months.

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