Monday, June 29, 2009

NXNE 2009

NXNE was held a week later this year, and June being the hectic month it is, it meant that my time out on the street was limited, so there's not too much to report. Other than the admirable line-up of free shows at Yonge-Dundas Square, there wasn't much to distinguish this NXNE from any other: it's solid, dependable, necessary, but at the end of the day it's a club crawl and a crapshoot. I wasn't as present mentally or physically as I usually am, so I'll offer these humble observations:

Black Lips

This was the buzz gig of the opening night festivities, a free outdoor show by the upstart Texas garage band at Yonge-Dundas Square. Entering the square, most of the local media and industry types were spotted easily and instantly; while locking up my bike, I could hear the singer of a high profile and still somewhat new local band lamenting his press coverage and complaining about how “reviewers should be reviewed.” Clearly, this was the place to be and be seen. The Black Lips were introduced by an obnoxious MC from the show’s sponsor, who made the mistake of quipping, “Did it just get a lot more hipster in here?” Judging by the fashion choices surrounding me, it certainly had. Rubbed the wrong way by this point, it was a challenge to lend the Black Lips my open ears. It didn’t help that they sounded like a tired old garage band devoid of any personality, whose ass could easily be kicked by any one of 20 similar bands playing somewhere else in the city at that exact moment. No wonder they used to play their guitars with their genitalia: would we be listening otherwise?

Change of Heart

For a certain generation of Toronto music lovers, this was the main attraction of NXNE, the first performance in well over a decade by prog-punk powerhouse Change of Heart. “I’m scared shitless,” confessed bandleader Ian Blurton, before launching into a set that betrayed not a speck of rust. So flawless was their reunited chemistry that, halfway through the set, Blurton shifted his tone and quipped, “Okay, I’m bored.”

No one in the audience shared that sentiment, however, as the set list pulled from every stage of their career, dating right back to “Directions for Going” from the 1986 album 50 Ft. Up. And it wasn’t just a younger generation of fans that was relishing hearing the oldies for the first time; during the band's lifespan, Ian Blurton rarely liked to play anything from an album much older than the one he was touring at the time.

As the set progressed, Blurton seemed increasingly befuddled at the whole spectacle: Was this actually a big deal? Should he have expected it to be more of a big deal? For all the accolades and the legendary status they have among fellow musicians, is a sold-out Horseshoe show in the middle of a festival worth reuniting for?

For fans, the answer was obvious. I considered myself a big fan who at least can remember all the jagged stops and starts of the songs, but there were people here who were singing every word, and one man was so excited he was simply vibrating on the dance floor. But exhibitions of ecstasy were rare; this was a polite and reverential Canadian crowd. Or—Torontonian. Blurton expressed bemused dissatisfaction with the crowd response: "Wow, it sure sounds like we're in Toronto. Can we try for Oshawa, at least? Come on, people, how about a little Peterborough?!"

The encore was the 90-second song "Yeah, Right"—a perfectly punk move that suggested Blurton and company weren't ready to succumb to any delusions of a victory lap or an anthropological excavation. A gig is a gig is a gig. This was a great one: nothing more, no less. And if it's the last time anyone hears from Change of Heart, then they went out with class.

Now, at the very least, can someone re-master Smile?

Arrington de Dionysio

Part of my NXNE was spent trying to see bands that didn’t consist of four guys with two guitars, bass and drums—often in vain. Which is why it was so refreshing to start off Friday night after work with a meditative set by the bandleader of Old Time Relijun, accompanied on bass clarinet, vocals sung into a snare drum, or a jaw harp. It was the last thing you’d expect to find in the bustle of an industry music fest, and all the more valuable because of it. De Dionysio projects his feral and sexual drawings behind him while he performs, reinforcing the primal and raw sounds he conjures from within himself, no matter the instrumentation.

Experimental Dental School

Other than Battles’ Tyondai Braxton, looped guitars are rarely used in frenetic rock settings; normally they’re the domain of plaintive solo performers looking to replicate band accompaniment. Experimental Dental School is a duo that makes enough of an intricate and lovely racket without the loops, but once the pedal is turned on everything gets both giddy and dizzy. Vocals are sweet but sparse; songs are fractured and constantly in a state of renewal and rebuilding. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, there are more than a few shades of Sleater-Kinney’s interlocking guitars and Janet Weiss’s balance of rock’n’roll drive and careful composition on the drum kit. Experimental Dental School live up to the surprising elements of their name, not the excruciating ones.

Red Mass

Just because you invite all your friends on stage to hammer out sluggish one-chord jams doesn’t mean you’re able to reach a state of transcendence. Or if you are, it certainly doesn’t translate to the somewhat stunned audience who had been led to believe that this seven-piece Montreal ensemble was going to be some kind of mindblowing psychedelic metal show that you couldn’t afford to miss—and with three midnight gigs in a row, clearly someone in charge thought this would be the shit. If you weren’t there, you didn’t miss a thing.

So So Glows

This young Brooklyn band had three shows scheduled on the opening night of the festival, including two at different clubs back to back. Their 9 p.m. show proved that they had more than enough energy for the task, plowing through a powerhouse set of material that lay somewhere between the first albums by The Clash and Franz Ferdinand. The rhythm section in particular set the So So Glows apart from other pop punk pretenders; even more impressive, the bassist does double duty as pogo-ing lead singer. Despite the fact that the venue was projecting the highly distracting psychedelic kids classic film Pufnstuf on screens behind the bar, So So Glows were unavoidably powerful and promising.

These Are Powers

I should never judge a band on how they look. But when your singer is a lithe woman in a striped unitard, your bassist looks like Flea’s cousin who fled his job as a gas pump jockey for a Williamsburg loft, and your percussionist is perched over various drums decorated in Christmas lights—and on top of all that you sound like a cross between Alta Moda and Bolero Lava (or insert any other new wave fusion band that never escaped the hipster strip that spawned it in the mid-80s)—it’s hard not to be harsh. The singer has personality and talent to spare—if she didn’t, she probably wouldn’t even attempt to get into the unitard—and it would be fascinating to see her fronting just about any other band but this one.

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