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COLD SPECKS at the Music Gallery, Thursday, March 22. Rating: NNNN
During her Music Gallery performance, Colds Specks (aka Al Spx) was awkward and nervous between songs, seemingly oblivious to whether the mic was anywhere near her mouth and telling some of the corniest old jokes in the history of comedy.
But her amazing transformation from timid and goofy to powerfully intense the moment she started singing reduced the room to stunned silence. She makes the kind of spine-tingling modern spiritual blues that lives up to the next-big-thing buzz being thrown her way.
JOEL PLASKETT EMERGENCY at the CN Tower, Wednesday, March 21. Rating: NNNN
Despite all the obnoxious photographers hogging sightlines, spirits were high at CMW's industry-only CN Tower gala launch. How could they not be, 351 feet above the city on a beautiful day? (You could spot sailboats, ferries and planes simultaneously in motion.) Add in joyful rocker Joel Plaskett's infectious songs - a mix of oldies and newbies from his about-to-drop Scrappy Happiness album (standout: Lightning Bolt) - that beg to be sung along to and, well, nice start, CMW.
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT at El Mocambo, Thursday, March 22. Rating: NNN
A stubbornly chatty rock 'n' roll bar wasn't the ideal setting to take in Martha Wainwright's rambling folk melodrama. Although debauchery and drama are self-ascribed hallmarks of her oeuvre, the Montreal-based singer/songwriter was in a contemplative mood.
"Shut the fuck up," she snapped at one point, a whiff of irony in her voice. "This one's about motherhood." Fortunately Wainwright's vast, swooping vocals have a way of upping the gain on even the quietest of torchers. With the help of an equally loud, sparkly blazer, cabaret theatrics and aggressively nimble fingerpicking, she overcame the chatter.
ARMY GIRLS at Parts & Labour, Thursday, March 22. Rating: NNN
The basement house party vibe at Parts & Labour has never quite suited CMW, so it wasn't much of a shock to see Toronto's Army Girls go on more than 30 minutes late. Anyone planning to catch a later set elsewhere was out of luck, though drummer Andy Smith and singer/guitarist Carmen Elle more than made up for it. Elle's confidence grows by the day, and she owned the mini-stage with off-kilter guitar heroics and passionate, if too quietly mixed, vocals.
REGGIE WATTS at the Danforth Music Hall, Thursday, March 22. Rating: NNNN
Comedian/musician Reggie Watts made entertaining a young crowd for nearly two straight hours look easy.
Standing alone on a stage filled with dry ice vapour, the Brooklyn-based performer brought the yuks big time, switching seamlessly between improvised stand-up bits and on-the-spot song creation using only a keyboard, a table of loop pedals and effects and his powerful singing/beatboxing voice.
Some of the tunes even brought rock-star levels of epicness thanks to the powerful sound system and lights. Best was the impromptu post-encore Happy Birthday sung to him by his adoring fans.
STARVIN HUNGRY at the Bovine Sex Club, Friday, March 23. Rating: NNN
Back in the 90s, twin brothers John and Glenn Milchem were doing the trashy garage-punk duo thing as Starvin Hungry long before the White Stripes and the Black Keys put ragged minimalist rock on the pop charts.
They'd never played outside Toronto, though. And while John kept a larger version of the band going in Montreal through the 00s, judging from the intensity of this reunion gig the original duo has a unique energy that can't be matched by a conventional lineup. Hope this turns out to be more than a one-off festival gig.
CLOUD NOTHINGS at Lee's Palace, Friday, March 23. Rating: NNNN
On their second album, Cloud Nothings took a huge leap forward by ditching generic-leaning indie rock for darker, angstier emo-grunge. Outfitted in a black T-shirt and black jeans, bespectacled, baby-faced band leader Dylan Baldi looked like a nerdy high schooler entering a goth phase, while the music sounded authentically like the 80s/90s bands on their influence list. Cloud Nothings pounded through a guitar-heavy, mosh-inducing set of noise-punk, while Baldi's frustrated, nasal vocals hit an adolescent sweet spot.
NICOLAS JAAR at Revival, Friday, March 23. Rating: NNN
Chants of "Jaar! Jaar! Jaar!" and "Nico! Nico! Nico!" filled Revival's rowdy dance floor minutes before rising underground electronic star Nicolas Jaar took the stage for a cerebral late-night set. The rock star welcome and coked-up club vibe confusingly contrasted with the 22-year-old's anti-club anguish and low-key stage presence.
Fortunately, this crowd seemed up for anything - a good thing, since what they got was a nuanced, postmodern dance party. As a guitarist and saxophonist worked up a jazzy haze of free-form ambience, Jaar sculpted it into arpeggios and builds, and dropped thick techno beats only to cut the bass just when the music approached catharsis.
THE INBREDS at Lee's Palace, Saturday, March 24. Rating: NNNNN
Nineties Kingston/Halifax indie pop innovators the Inbreds were overwhelmed by the warm response they got from the crowd at Lee's. And no wonder: it's been seven years since the reunited bass-and-drums duo played Toronto.
Drummer Dave Ullrich acted as band historian, while singer/songwriter Mike O'Neill bashfully basked in the attention and pulled out rock 'n' roll moves with his bass, which he plays with a capo through a distortion pedal. Cuff the Duke's Wayne Petti made a guest appearance on North Window.The exultant set ended with encore song Amelia Earhart.
MACHINEDRUM at Forest View Chinese Restaurant. Saturday, March 24. Rating: NNNN
Machinedrum's recent high-profile releases - 2011's Room(s) and Sepalcure, with Braille, and production work for Azealia Banks - tackles the catch-all "bass music" genre: stuttering, trench-deep tunes ribboned with bright vocals. Live, the veteran goes harder.
"Like Swizz Beats threw a rave," read an incoming text. (Shouting couldn't break the blare.) The BPM stayed high - soca to juke to jungle - and the bass low. Men who "don't dance" danced. Extended last call sustained Machinedrum's nostalgic conjuring of a mythical rave scene. The crowd was temporally suspended and totally rapt.
ALX at the Garrison, Saturday, March 24. Rating: NNN
Theatrically inclined singer/songwriter Allie Hughes has recently reinvented herself as a synth-pop artist, and her CMW gig was only her second as ALX. Old fans shouldn't worry, though; many of the new songs are updates of earlier ones.
On a sonic level, reworking her tunes with the help of producer Damian Taylor is a smart move and makes her far more marketable. But onstage she came across as surprisingly unsure of her new identity, at least in comparison to her former self.
GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW at Wrongbar, Sunday, March 25. Rating: NNN
Georgia Anne Muldrow closed CMW with a laid-back set. Her singing, rapping and producing is free-form and benevolent: old-school soul cosmology meets new-school rap viscerality. "We want you to shake it and think," Muldrow, in a floor-length kaftan, chirped. "Like patting your head and stomach at the same time!"
Highlights: a cover of Dudley Perkins's pensive piano tune Flowers and the new Madlib-produced single, Seeds. The latter embodies her sound: raw bass mixed with orchestral soul-jazz and hits of vocal force. Her too brief performance ended with a mini DJ set that built to a deep-house climax.