Future Islands at VICE Island (Toronto Island), June 19.
FUTURE ISLANDS at Tattoo, Saturday, June 21. Rating: NNNN
On March 4, Baltimore synth-pop group Future Islands became an overnight sensation thanks to stocky frontman Samuel T. Herring's animated performance of the song Seasons (Waiting On You) on the Late Show With David Letterman. The hitch: they've been making music for a decade, so this was no faddish twerk-gate. If you missed the band's sensational VICE Island set on Thursday (pictured here), an intimate club show at Tattoo was an opportunity to take in the singer's deranged dance moves and his tightly coiled band's romantic melodies and big, angular post-punk rhythms up close.
Herring has a curiously dichotomous presence. At times he was officious, thanking fans and intro-ing songs like a considerate host, only to growl like a death metal vocalist as he attacked material off the band's recent Singles album and back catalogue with the full force of his body.
His physicality combined the deranged preacher-man histrionics of Nick Cave with pantomime and the sweatiness of Bruce Springsteen. This works so well because the other three dudes in the band appear utterly detached by contrast. As they make uplifting synth choruses and thick bass lines look easy, Herring low-dances, glares intimidatingly at audience members, mimes the lyrics and generally showers the front row with sweat.
TUNE-YARDS at Massey Hall, Thursday, June 19. Rating: NNNN
Now and then you see a performer who reminds you that you can do anything you want as a creative person. Follow any whim and build it into your own totally weird, totally unique reality. tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus was my reminder at her NXNE Massey Hall gig.
Rhythm is the fundamental element of Garbus's worldbeat-inspired music, and the five musicians onstage spent the night hitting sticks, drums, sampling pads and myriad percussion instruments while shimmying in vibrant bodysuits and glow-in-the-dark makeup. Bass and ukulele were the only stringed instruments, and vocals mattered a lot. Garbus's voice is sometimes husky and fierce, but also swoops high in stunning harmonic interplay with her backup singers.
The experimental pop musician is an incredibly commanding presence (and master of looping pedals), even if she did admit to feeling shy in a place as grand as Massey, which was sadly not even close to full. Whokill tunes like Powa and Bizness went over big, but those from third album Nikki Nack, which only came out in May, did, too. The crowd was on its feet by the second song and never sat back down.
SLEIGH BELLS at Yonge-Dundas Square, Thursday, June 19. Rating: NN
When Sleigh Bells originally burst on the scene, there was something undeniably unique and refreshing about their combination of sickeningly sweet teeny bopper pop and ear-shredding thrash noise. But in the years since their 2010 debut, Treats, that intriguing tension has been watered down, resulting in a sound that's disturbingly close to 90s rap rock, a trend that's definitely not ready for a comeback.
Their live show has also become more like a traditional rock concert, but the live drummer and second guitarist only managed to cover up the songs' quirky electronic underpinnings, resulting in something closer to hair metal with industrial drums. Even more distracting were Alexis Krauss's shouted vocals, which were stripped of the heavy processing that made their early work sound so alien, and she often lost track of the main melody lines. Judging from the lukewarm crowd response, even the super-fans missed the magic of their older material.
ST. VINCENT and SWANS at Yonge-Dundas Square, Friday, June 20. Rating: NNNN
No shocker: St. Vincent slayed at Yonge-Dundas Square.
Annie Clark epitomizes professionalism, and the tour for her latest stunner album sees her exaggerate her theatrical side: freaky robotic stage moves and minimalist/futurist outfits meet slickly effortless singing and guitar soloing.
All of that also prevents genuine warmth from getting through, and Clark's stabs at expressionistic stage banter ("We have a few things in common: when you were a child you made a hot air balloon from bed sheets and it plummeted to the ground, but the reason you're still here and I'm still here is that we didn't give up hope") came off as a bit pretentious.
But there's no denying the thrill that came from experiencing her sharp-edged pop tunes live, with their odd twists, big choruses and even bigger guitar solos. She goes for the gnarliest guitar tones, and they earned her massive applause on Surgeon, Prince Johnny, Huey Newton and Bring Me Your Loves.
Earlier, Swans were a seething, roiling sonic mass. Two drummers pounded away at hypnotic, anvil-heavy grooves enhanced by percussion, massive-sounding guitars, keys, pedal steels and intermittent vocals by leader Michael Gira.
MAC DEMARCO at Tattoo, Saturday, June 21. Rating: NNNN
The first half of Mac DeMarco's hour-long set at Tattoo - billed as a "secret show" - was pretty much a tipsier version of his daytime gig at Yonge-Dundas Square. Telling the crowd the band was now called the Poo Bangers, DeMarco strummed a vintage guitar to the heartfelt jangle pop of last year's acclaimed Salad Days LP.
Eventually he abandoned inhibitions and the mood switched from pleasantly tipsy to ragingly drunk. The band launched into a sloppy power rock medley that covered Dave Brubeck's Take Five, Metallica's Enter Sandman, Limp Bizkit's Break Stuff, the Police's Message In A Bottle and a version of Bachman Turner Overdrive's Takin' Care Of Business featuring lyrics about sucking Dad's dick and wiping jizz off his lips.
Bassist Pierce McGarry, who sounds like he's taking a painful shit when he sings, occasionally took on lead vocal duties, and DeMarco forced the security team to pay extra attention when he flipped forward on top of a crowd surfer. He further panicked the AV staff by nearly colliding with a pair of expensive-looking projectors as the crowd carried him around the now sparsely populated club. At last, surrounded by security, he landed somewhere near the bar and promptly ordered drinks.
RHYE at Massey Hall, Saturday, June 21. Rating: NNNN
Rhye's outstanding April 2013 show at the Great Hall set the bar very high, raising expectations for the alt-R&B duo's NXNE follow-up.
Truthfully, a carbon copy of that performance - transported to Massey Hall - would have been satisfying. But Toronto-bred frontman Mike Milosh showed a deft hand at composition and an obvious love of Rhye's tiny catalogue - they have just one album - by reproducing it in recognizable but new arrangements. Sure, they were the same brooding slow jams, but accompanied by an exceptional five-piece band Milosh unfurled Open, Shed Some Blood and 3 Days with impressive control. There was less emphasis on brass and strings than at the Great Hall show, less of the record's sexy-jam vibe, and more funk, jazz and overall experimentation.
Predictably, Milosh's silky countertenor was transcendental, and occasionally he messed with an effects pedal board and played percussion, pattering away on a hi-hat set up by his mic stand and getting behind the kit with his drummer.
Milosh also demonstrated restraint and poise when intoxicated balcony dwellers threatened to kill the blissed-out vibe. Instead of freaking out, he reminded them that his parents were in the audience.
COURTNEY BARNETT at the Silver Dollar, Saturday, June 21. Rating: NNNN
On record, Melbourne's Courtney Barnett puts a lot of emphasis on witty verbosity, but live, the "Courtney Barnetts" (as she called them last night) are all about the rock.
The trio played their ear-piercingly loud set - part two of a three-night residency at the Silver Dollar - not as two dudes backing a songwriter, but as a solid, ecstatic unit revelling in the joy of feedback and groove. The band appeared to be having a lot of fun, judging by the bassist's huge smiles as he and Barnett swapped vocals and when the three congregated during jams.
Barnett is just as articulate shredding into her leftie Strat as she is with words, but even over the huge din, her deadpan vocals provided a rhythm for the songs - even when it was hard to make out what she was saying.
Some in the crowd seemed slightly surprised by the band's volume, but they were clearly charmed by it.
The Courtney Barnetts closed their set with a trippy, heavy rendition of History Eraser that culminated in a head-banging guitar freak-out courtesy of the bandleader.
RUN THE JEWELS at Yonge-Dundas Square, Sunday, June 22. Rating: NNN
Run the Jewels emerged on Sunday night to the triumphant strains of We Are The Champions - fitting for the rap duo who, I'm told, had nailed it the night before at Adelaide Hall.
At their 9 pm Yonge-Dundas Square show, emcees Killer Mike and El-P proved to be a dynamic duo, encouraging a mass clap-along right off the bat, striking some pretty mean moves for a couple of guys not remotely built like dancers and getting creative with audience participation: "I bet if you put one wavy hand in the air, we can make it feel like an ocean, Toronto!"
Some tunes early in the 40-minute set fell victim to muddy bass. But the retro-video-game production of 36" Chain landed just right, as did the prefacing spiel about wearing our pretend 36" chains ("Toronto, if you got a chain around your neck, make some nooooo-ooiiiiise!").
And for the record, the moniker Killer Mike is a misnomer. The Atlanta rapper - who played the square solo two years ago - exuded Southern charm. "You motherfuckers are an absolutely wonderful city," he said. I've never been more chuffed to be called a motherfucker.
JUICY J at Yonge-Dundas Square, Sunday, June 22. Rating: NNNN
On Sunday, Juicy J handled his closing-night NXNE duties with the confidence and charisma of a man who's been rocking shows for most of his life.
After taking the stage to Stop It, the robust opener from his latest album, Stay Trippy, he kept the banter crisp and tailor-made for response. ("Toronto has got some fine-ass women!" "I think I want to buy a condo here, just to party.") But he never idled in chatter too long; each song was deftly mixed into the next, keeping the show moving at a brisk pace.
The crowd erupted when he mined his earlier career with a medley of Three 6 Mafia tunes including Stay Fly, Ridin' Spinners and Tear Da Club Up. But the biggest reaction was reserved for his recent radio hits - his verse on Mike WiLL Made It's 23 erupted into an all-encompassing Yonge-Dundas Square scream-along. Though his backing vocals were playing in the background, Juicy still rapped each bar of his trademark double-time flows with precision all night, showing veteran breath control.