Monday, June 04, 2007

State of Hope

NXNE week in Toronto kicks off today, and Luminato continues, but I’m already exhausted and completely satiated before dipping into either.

My summer festival season started on Saturday with the Track and Field gathering. Held just outside Rockwood, Ontario (which itself is ten minutes outside of Guelph), it boasts the side of Toronto music that you rarely read about beyond the message boards. These are, for the most part, the non-careerists who spread themselves out between four or five different projects, where the will to create supercedes all else. These are the artists heard on this year’s excellent Friends in Bellwoods compilation, with only a mere handful bubbling up to anything resembling mainstream recognition (Great Lake Swimmers, Final Fantasy, Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979, Ohbijou).

Helen Spitzer has a full run-down of the weekend’s events in today’s Eye Daily here.

As she points out, the highlight for many was Bruce Peninsula, a new Toronto band that’s evolved over the space of ten gigs in the last year. Rooted in traditional spirituals and blues, the rugged gospel vocals are shared by a female choir and guitarist /marimba man Neil Haverty, with a dextrous rhythm section behind them that have obviously been schooled by the Thrill Jockey roster while simultaneously soaking up the Alan Lomax collection.

But the specifics aren’t as important here as the effect it had on the audience. There’s an inherent joy in seeing a family band such as this: mixed gender, choral vocals, and melodies meant to uplift and offer some glimpse of salvation. The staging helped, as well: an ever-so-slightly-sloped tiny natural ampitheatre, where the stage was set in a beautiful orchard; one had to peer through tree branches to see some band members.

Because of the size of the band (approx. nine or ten, if my sunstroked memory serves correctly), they obviously had many friends in the tightly knit audience. But for everyone else, it was one of those moments where with each successive song, you could feel everyone around you falling deeper in love and losing themselves in the joy of the moment. Applause and enthusiasms increased exponentially after each song, with some even moved to tears. These are the moments that every music fan lives for, the kind that are all too often spoiled by hype machines both macro and micro. Even writing about this now seems to sully the special moment.

(Quick side note: other discoveries for me were Great Bloomers, Rural Alberta Advantage, Water Colour, and Forest City Lovers (I’d only seen Kat Burns solo before). Returning favourites were Bocce, Acorn, Wooden Sky. Go see them all as soon as you can. Also, Great Lake Swimmers were in trio format, with guest vocalist Serena Ryder (rocking a Sylvia Tyson look with her autoharp), which made for an unforgettable summer sunset set.)

Arriving home on Sunday, I napped away the cumulative fatigue I felt after being kept awake all of Saturday by a drunken tambourine player. I had no intention of going out again, until I noticed that earlier in the week I’d made plans to go see Sweden’s Loney Dear at Lee’s Palace. It was a relatively early show (10.15 set time) and I was somewhat rejuventated, so I set out with little to lose.

Normally, when 120 people are in the 500-capacity Lee’s Palace, it’s a very lonely affair. But right from the first song, Emil Svanängen and his four-piece band drew everyone to the front of the stage for their first Canadian show ever. They were audibly very happy to be there, and despite the venue being too big for the crowd, they professed shock that anyone other than the promoters were coming to see them on their first headlining tour. So imagine their surprise when the Toronto audience not only recognized songs within the first two beats (“even my own band can’t do that,” Svanängen deadpanned), but called out for Swedish rarities that Loney Dear weren’t sure they remembered how to play. And, like the Bruce Peninsula audience (though nowhere near as emotional), the audience only got louder and more demonstrative as the show went on.

The look on the face of every band member was priceless. One only has to imagine what it’s like to land in a foreign country halfway around the world to find such an outpouring of love and familiarity. (“You know our songs better than we do. It’s creepy!”) For the boyish Svanängen, who writes stadium-sized anthemic choruses set to a modestly ambitious, richly harmonious folk-pop backdrop, you could see all of his bedroom four-track fantasies coming to life as he listened to these rambunctious Torontonians take up his wordless choruses.

It had the campfire intimacy of a Track and Field show, and yet here we were in an ugly, black-walled bin that we’ve all been a thousand times before. There were those there who were obviously ubergeeked about this largely obscure Swedish band (the fact that they’re on Sub Pop here is their only claim to fame so far), and the rest of us quickly fell in love with the disarming stage banter of Svanängen. But the magic here was watching the band be swept up in the moment, especially when they returned for a richly deserved second encore (as opposed to the confessed artificiality of the first one, befitting Svanängen’s self-deprecating humour).

The connections continued as we all shuffled out the door, as I overheard two Japanese guys recognize each other from back home, finding each other again in a Canadian bar watching a Swedish band. It was the perfect cap on a weekend of musical intimacy, of moments where the world seems that much more smaller.

“All I want is a state of hope,” sang Svanängen. Few people in either audience this weekend could have stated it more simply.



Unknown said...

it's been a while since i've been to a track and field gathering. was wondering if you know if it still exists? couldn't find anything through the searches of the internets..

mmmbarclay said...

The festival only lasted a few blessed summers. I'm quite sure the 2007 edition was the final one. It was truly a magical moment in local music history.