Monday, July 07, 2014

TURF 2014

As a parent… No, just kidding. I wouldn’t pull a Peter MacKay on you like that.  It is interesting, however, the reviews of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) I’ve read by dads (hmmm—no moms) who brought their kids to the festival.

The most egregious was this one by the National Post’s Ben Kaplan, which is, frankly, an astonishingly awful piece written by someone paid to be a culture writer at a national newspaper. I’m not one to call out colleagues for bad writing; God knows I live in a glass house. But really: woof, that should win some kind of prize. It’s been deservedly nitpicked to death on social media (and in the comments section beneath the article), but one consistent criticism is Kaplan’s reference to attending TURF “as a parent” (sorry, there’s MacKay again). Stuart Henderson at Exclaim! did the same thing, to less consternation (he’s  a much better writer, even if I disagree with almost all his opinions). I suspect some negative reaction comes from non-parents who can’t imagine why a music reviewer would think we’d care what their five-year-old thought of Artist X. I agree, it’s indulgent; if you’re representing a national media outlet, your kids shouldn’t be a prop in your story. (That was only a minor quibble with Henderson’s review, and the very least of my troubles with Kaplan’s.)

Bringing your kids to festivals is a novelty for Torontonians; Western Canadians and folkies everywhere have been doing it for decades. Silly urban hipsters always think they’ve reinvented the wheel. But the greater point is that major festivals in Toronto are actually accounting for the fact that many parents who no longer make it out to live shows are far more likely to come to a festival if they know the kids are going to be all right; both TURF and Field Trip figured this out and Toronto is a better city for it.

I was halfway through writing my own review “as a parent” when I read the above reviews and got self-conscious. But I’m not pretending to speak objectively about a festival I consciously attended as a family outing; I was there to enjoy a family outing first, educate myself second (see new acts, get story ideas) and hopefully scribble some notes after the fact.

So here they are, with hopefully few maudlin asides about my child.

With a three-year-old in tow, I can’t begin to pretend I saw everything worth seeing. I know I missed plenty I would have loved to have seen: Andrew Bird, Lucius, Caitlin Rose, New Country Rehab, Strumbellas, Sam Roberts, July Talk, Jeff Tweedy and much more of the Violent Femmes’ set than the three songs I saw. No matter, however: it's hard to leave TURF unsatisfied.

Here, then, is a summary of my highly subjective experience:


Waco Brothers: I have maximum respect for Jon Langford, even more so after I once saw the Mekons give 100% to a completely barren concert hall in Montreal more than 10 years ago. But I feel far too young—at 42—to fully appreciate what he’s up to with old-dude act the Waco Brothers, his long-running band that leans heavily on punk covers of country songs. I’m sad I missed the Sally Timms cameo during this set, and Langford’s appearance with the Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir later in the weekend.

Deer Tick: Lots of people love this band. I have no idea why. A poor man’s Cuff the Duke.

Local Natives: If I felt too young for Waco Brothers, I felt too old for Local Natives. (All told, a pretty good midlife crisis to have.) Who are these guys, when did they get so popular, and why are so many people into such a boring band? This Friday night was not shaping up well.

Beirut: I was an early adopter back in 2006, though I don’t think Zach Condon made another fantastic record until 2011’s The Rip Tide. I hadn’t seen the band in years. It sounded fantastic: his voice is as swoony as ever (though my ladyfriend disagrees; its her least favourite thing about Beirut), and it’s a perfect soundtrack to a warm summer night by the lake. That said, the set was rather static. After he dropped “Postcards from Italy” about six songs in, I was completely satiated. So it was off to…

Black Joe Lewis: This man has the most effortless scream in rock’n’roll since Little Richard. I can’t help imagining him using it in his everyday life: “Please pass the salt, baby. WAAAAAAAA-OOOOOOOOO!” To top it off, he’s got a monstrous garage rock rhythm section and a delightfully dorky three-piece horn section that includes baritone saxophone. The sound on the festival’s South Stage wasn’t forgiving—Lewis’s guitar was tinny, his voice too high in the mix. The slower numbers also dragged, with the exception of the ominous “Vampire,” of which Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would be proud. When Lewis and his band hit their party groove, however, as on “Booty City” and others, I’m sure even the trucks on the Gardiner above could feel the earth moving.


Shovels & Rope: The most pleasant surprise of TURF. I didn’t know anything about this South Carolina duo before this set; Cary Ann Hearst’s striking country voice drew me in immediately; the instrumental juggling between her and husband Michael Trent was just as impressive. The foot-stompin’ songs aren’t half-bad, either. This was exactly the kind of band I’d hoped to discover at a festival this summer; watch for their second album, due out Aug. 26.

Drive-by Truckers: I’ve never seen this band and have only heard enough of their music to know that even the best Southern rock band is still just a Southern rock band. I thought I’d give them a shot this weekend (the why-not? beauty of festivals like this). As soon as we approached the stage, however, my boy started shouting “I don’t want to be here!” Who was I to argue?

Pokey LaFarge: My boy loves swing music. And how can you not love a man named Pokey? We saw this Missouri musician at Hillside last year, and it’s near impossible not be charmed by his old-timey take on Western swing, complete with a saxophonist/clarinetist and stand-up drummer who plays a mean harmonica. This was a must-see for our family, which sadly means we missed…

Violent Femmes: Apparently they played their 1983 debut album from front to back. Hard to argue with that. I was skeptical that after all these years, and an acrimonious lawsuit between the two remaining founding members (over a Wendy’s commercial), that the Femmes could play with any passion at all. I was prepared to leave this band in my past. Catching only “Black Girls,” “I Held Her In My Arms” and “American Music,” this was a most pleasant surprise. It also sent me back to the incredibly underrated album 3 (1989), which gets even less love than Hallowed Ground (1984) or The Blind Leading the Naked (1986). Of course that first album is untouchable—which is why it’s not entirely sad that they’re still milking it. But if this show made you reaffirm your Femmes fandom, I highly recommend you go back to the three albums they put out after the debut.

Gaslight Anthem: I’ve somehow unconsciously avoided this band for years, assuming they were faded carbon copies of bands I loved in the ’80s. Big mistake. It says a lot that they made a big impression even from the muffled distance of the kids’ area, for the same reasons a great Springsteen song still sounds good from a tiny speaker at the other end of an apartment. Judging primarily by a straw poll of T-shirts spotted at the site, this band had the most devoted fans of the weekend. If I was 20 years old, I would absolutely be one of them.

Jenny Lewis: Well, her band was pretty good, I’ll give her that. On a side note, it’s unfortunate she was the only lady at TURF with anything resembling a headlining slot.

Bidiniband: I wish I liked Bidiniband’s latest, The Motherland, more than I do. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that appreciation for Paul Linklater’s guitar playing grows exponentially when you see how exactly he pulls off what he does, while Bidini remains the most indefatigable frontman in Canadian music. The visceral punch of his lyrics work much better in the moment than they do on record; the lesser lines wash off easily with the force of his band. “The Fatherland” is his latest standout, while “Last of the Dead Wrong Things” never gets tired. Seeing the former Rheostatics leader perform directly underneath the Gardiner Expressway was—well, strangely endearing.

Man Man: The hands-down highlight for me, this group of Philadelphia oddballs get better every time I see them. The band members have changed; the duo of Ryan Kattner and Chris Powell—each pounding the shit out of their piano and drums, respectively—has not. Yes, there are ridiculous costumes involved. At times the manic ecstatic vibe can be overwhelming. But everything about the intensity of Man Man doesn’t seem the least bit forced or fake; their music has always been, to me, the sound of the only other people in the world who understand the chaos in your own head, strange shamans who are determined to dance you back to sanity. It’s not an act, a masquerade; it’s an emotional necessity. As they get older, the tempos have slowed slightly and found some funk; there are genuinely tender moments that are all the more tearjerking amidst the fantastic fuckery they get up to the rest of the time. Also: Powell is one of the best drummers you will ever see in your life. 

If that wasn’t enough, Man Man was the one act all weekend that made the boy insanely happy—like, deliriously so. Didn’t see that coming; honestly, I thought he’d be terrified by the band that both his mama and papa have loved for the last 10 years. We laughed and cried with joy and the three of us danced as a family, something I’ll never forget. Man Man: quality family entertainment. Put that in their press kit.

Neutral Milk Hotel: Well, honestly, we skipped this because by that final slot of the festival I was incapable of enjoying anything else with a sleepy (and heavy) preschooler on my shoulders—and I’m going to see them in Chapel Hill, N.C., in two weeks at Mergefest (shockingly, tickets still available, people!). It seems phenomenally weird that a band so wrapped up in mystique is now Just Another Band on Stage, during whose set stoned guys wander up to you and say, “Dude, is this Man Man playing right now?”

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