I never thought that after standing in rain and mud for hours that I would continue to be on my feet after dark watching two people play Scrabble on stage at a rock show. Belle and Sebastian, you continue to surprise me.
That wasn’t the only surprise of the July 5 weekend, at the inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival, held at Fort York.
Another was that a multi-day, family-friendly rock festival was happening in downtown Toronto at all, especially one where I never once lined up for beer (nor beer tickets, which were not necessary), never once lined up for a bathroom, was handed free non-alcoholic soft drinks, was always able to manoeuvre close to the stage, and had a fine selection of quality food trucks to choose from. Even my 2.5-year-old son had fun on the one afternoon we took him (Saturday), thanks to a lovely, shaded kid’s area.
The fact that lineups were minimal is both a credit to organizer Jeff Cohen of Collective Concerts, but a bad sign for him: attendance was low on the first three days of the festival, with Sunday’s stacked lineup pulling at least three times the numbers of any other day (based purely on my visual estimate and conversations with food vendors). Cohen knew the first year would be a loss leader; hopefully his (visibly endless) enthusiasm for the concept survives his pocketbook for 2014 and beyond.
TURF skewed heavily toward “dad rock” (sorry for the sexist term), with few (any?) artists under 30. The obvious goal was to create a downtown Toronto festival that competes with the likes of Guelph’s Hillside Festival, which started as a folkie event 25 years ago, slowly evolving to become a wildly eclectic institution with a reputation that’s able to sell tickets before a lineup is even announced. More recently, Daniel Lanois’s Harvest Picnic, held near Dundas and now in its third year, also assembles top-notch bills, quality local food and great atmosphere with minimal corporate branding.
I bought two four-day passes at an early bird price, before the days’ schedules were announced. Turns out everyone I wanted to see was on Sunday. No matter, I figured: anything else I see is a bonus.
Starting a festival at 6pm on a Thursday is a terrible idea: who the hell has time to get there after work? I mean, other than CBC employees (who work a few steps away). I missed the Barr Brothers (whom I respect, but don’t actually like); I saw about half of Camera Obscura (whom I like, but do nothing for me live). That left Joel Plaskett to make the most of the evening—which of course he did, being a consummate entertainer, a lovable ham and a class act. I’d seen him deliver an even better show at Hillside last year, but it had been awhile for the Lovely Lady by my side, a once-avid fan who had her faith instantly reaffirmed right from the opening strains of “Down at the Khyber.” The Lovely Lady has a visceral, almost physical reaction to the thought of Zooey Deschanel doing anything at all—based largely on our experience seeing an appalling She and Him show at Mergefest in North Carolina in 2009—so we skipped out early. We also passed on Friday; only Justin Townes Earle had us mildly interested, though later reports were very positive for both Fitz and the Tantrums and the Arkells.
Saturday was a success despite a serious of disappointments—that’s a sign of a great festival. We brought the baby boy and saw Skydiggers, Lowest of the Low and the Hold Steady—a lot of music for the 40+ set, all of it decent and dependable but by no means riveting. The Lovely Lady pointed out that the Skydiggers average age has plummeted, with only Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson left on stage with a bunch of youngsters, one of whom, a new guitarist, looked like he was one of their sons (he’s not). Twas nice to hear that the Lowest of the Low have at least one great new song in their set, perhaps not coincidentally, one in which Ron Hawkins sounds like he’s bitching about the kids. Whether the Low will ever be more than a one-album nostalgic act is still doubtful, but at least they’re trying. Sadly, we missed Frank Turner, who’s been on my to-do list for years.
The Hold Steady provided the best fans of the weekend, fist-pumpers who’ve memorized every ridiculously wordy verse that spilled out of adorable frontman Craig Finn. I wish I shared their enthusiasm: this was my virgin Hold Steady experience, having never even heard more than a song or two. I remain unconvinced. I admire the spirit, but the actual riffs and songs leave me flat, as does the drummer (and a mediocre drummer always means a mediocre band). For a lyricist who sounds like he’s aiming somewhere between John K. Samson and the Constantines’ Bry Webb (and I’m pretty sure those three guys are all acquaintances, if not friends), I don’t think Finn is that great a writer; he hammers many a weak simile into the ground. Samson once told me that Finn teased him for taking five years to follow up an album, a time in which The Hold Steady released three albums. But I’d take Samson’s measured perfectionism (and his drummer) over The Hold Steady any day.
That said, Finn and his band deserve full credit for opening their set with 2008’s “Constructive Summer,” an ode to all aging scenesters who still strive to make something out of nothing: “Let this be my annual reminder / That we can all be something bigger … Getting older only makes it harder to remember / We are our only saviors / We're gonna build something this summer.” I’m pretty sure that Jeff Cohen was weeping tears of joy somewhere side-stage.
Side note: MC Dave Hodge, the former Hockey Night in Canada turned professional Canadian music champion, was tasked with intro’ing The Hold Steady, which he began by inviting Frank Turner on stage to say a few words. Turner knew what an MC should do: he was passionate, inspiring, and segued perfectly into what should be a triumphant opening note… except Hodge then said, “Woah, I just have to say one more thing,” and proceeded to tell a stupid, sexist and pointless story about going to see a Jays game with Jim Cuddy and Craig Finn, during which Cuddy self-ID’ed Blue Rodeo as “a chick band” and Finn self-ID’ed The Hold Steady as “a rock band” and bla bla bla—I guess neither Hodge nor Finn seem to think chicks dig rock’n’roll. (Note: they do.) Whatever, dudes. Stick to your sausage party, and next time leave Frank Turner to do his thing.
Social commitments kept us from Sunday’s stacked opening salvo: The Wooden Sky, the Sadies and Alejandro Escovedo. Which meant we arrived in time to be bored stiff by Kurt Vile, a guy who has one or two pleasant Sunday morning stoner jams in him, but—especially live—comes off as a poor man’s J Mascis. I wanted to believe he’d be the perfect soundtrack to a lazy humid afternoon. He’s not.
Likewise, I was excited Yo La Tengo were there; there was a time when they were one of the few bands I’d consider following on tour, such was the appeal and eclecticism of their live show. However, this is a band that doesn’t belong in the daylight: the noisier jams lose all potency in an open-air setting; likewise, the dreamier numbers merely drift into the clouds. I’ve seen this band be both transcendentally great and awkwardly awful, often (though not always) in the same show. This time, they were just there.
That can’t be said of Whitehorse. The duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland are mid-level, mid-career CanRock survivors who decided to start from scratch and build again from the ground up; the result towers over anything they did on their own. They arrived at TURF as the favourite of neither the indie rockers there for Yo La Tengo and Belle and Sebastian, nor the aficionados of Australian hippies Xavier Rudd and Cat Empire. They had something to prove—and wasted no time doing exactly that.
Whitehorse functions like a roots rock TuneYards, constructing every song slowly with component parts and a looping pedal. In this genre, that sounds like it would be lame. It’s not. It creates a highwire act that enhances not only the performance aspect, but arguably the songwriting as well: every tiny part of the instrumentation is deliberate, every melody line is designed to stand on its own without any accompaniment at all (i.e. the guitar line for “Devil’s Got a Gun”). Yet even the conceit isn’t a match for the sexy schtick this married couple deliver on stage; they play up their chemistry, right down to the shared microphone positioned centre stage in front of the gear, into which they croon perfect harmonies. Cheezy? Sure. Effective? Yes. They know a little theatricality goes a long way, which gives Whitehorse both style and substance in spades.
Then the Australian hippies took over. Time for a break. To their credit, Cat Empire was better than I expected, delivering perky party music, and Xavier Rudd was even worse than I imagined: your most hideous nightmare of a white dreadlocked guy playing a didgeridoo and singing about ganja. I thought the downpour during their sets was some kind of divine judgment.
Of course, if it was, I’d have to say the same about Neko Case. The rain had ceased by the time she started to play to a crammed mudpit, but two or three songs in the heavens opened yet again, a relentless rainshower that proved to be a mere taste of the floodwaters that would arrive the next day. Lesser audiences would flee. But this was a hardy lot. No waltz was too sad or slow. No new song was too unfamiliar. This was the rowdiest, most raucous crowd I’ve ever seen at a Neko Case show; every time I’ve seen her in the last 10 years it’s been respectable but reserved, and the audience downright hushed. Frankly, even as her records continued to improve, the show was getting kind of boring, Not so here. Every new wave of showers only made everyone cheer even louder, making Neko and her stalwart backing vocalist, Kelly Hogan, openly emotional, wiping away tears of gratitude. (Then again, as too many songs will tell you, it may just have been the rain.)
Me and the Lovely Lady, we were cheering ourselves hoarse because Neko’s guitarist was none other than Eric Bachmann, of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf. Sadly, there was no duet of his song “Your Control”—but not because we didn’t yell out the title any chance we got. Here’s hoping he stays on in her band. Here’s hoping Crooked Fingers opens her fall tour. Here’s hoping there will soon be a lot more Eric Bachmann in the world.
Belle and Sebastian fans are even more loyal than the Neko Case crowd. They only see their heroes once every few years; for the first three or four albums, the band rarely played live at all. So if it means waiting out the elements for an instrumental b-side to open the show, followed by, among other things, the aforementioned on-stage Scrabble game with a fan, then so be it. It’s not that Belle and Sebastian take their audience for granted; on the contrary, they bring a superfluous string quartet and a horn player on the road, they’ll do electro reworkings of old singles, they’ll invite a dozen people on stage to dance—hell, they’ll even let you do their makeup.
Before I first saw B&S live, in 2006, I’d heard fey horror stories about a shambling, twee mess of a touring band. Those rumours proved false—partly, no doubt, because they’d just released their most muscular, upbeat album to date, The Life Pursuit. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch was not a bookish church janitor; he was a fully confident cutter of rugs, prancing about like a bona fide rock star, not just a librarian’s secret crush, while the rest of the band’s study of old soul records paid off in powerful grooves. Little has changed since then: B&S are still an excellent live band with a deep songbook. I’m not even the biggest fan: I listen only to three of the last four albums and a singles collection, and then the charm wears off quickly. Live, however, they’re entirely satisfying. Watching them, it’s easy to forget you’ve just spent way too much of the last four days standing in the same place watching far too much music.
Which will hopefully be the first of many TURF traditions.