While the Toronto Raptors were completing their historic championship run, our reviewers were catching festival sets by CupcakKe, Le1f, Sir Babygirl, Swamp Dogg and more
Head here for reviews from NXNE’s first weekend and keep reading for our recaps of Club Land shows from the rest of the festival.
NICO PAULO, CHIQUITA MAGIC, DOROTHEA PAAS as part of CURATOR SERIES: CHARLOTTE CORNFIELD at the Baby G, Tuesday, June 11. Rating: NNNN
Singer/songwriter and soon-to-be-former Burdock booker Charlotte Cornfield took the reins of this show and introduced us to Nico Paulo’s gently forceful folk and Chiquita Magic’s absolutely bonkers vocal pop.
Singing was front and centre all night. When Paulo brought up duet partner Tim Baker (Hey Rosetta!) for the last few songs, her music – as yet unrecorded – took on a newfound Fleet Foxesian lushness. Meanwhile, Chiquita Magic (aka Toronto/Montreal’s Isis Giraldo)’s lo-fi electronic layers shot into the stratosphere thanks to two backing vocalists whose high and complicated harmonies built to a disorienting maze of sometimes atonal, frequently soulful, always fascinating weirdness.
One of those backing vocalists was Felicity Williams, who also added her pipes (alongside Isla Craig) to Dorothea Paas’s increasingly rockin’ band made up of PS I Love You’s Paul Saulnier on bass and Liam Cole on drums. Songs went from intimate to impassioned in a blink thanks to this cast of heavy hitters.
Cornfield looked on approvingly. CARLA GILLIS
JUSTUS PROFFIT with CHLADNY at the Baby G, Wednesday, June 12. Rating: NNN
L.A. singer/songwriter Justus Proffit headlined this showcase put on by local booker Matt Sandrin and immediately brought some California energy into the room. He brought a refined melodic power-pop touch to sunny tunes that recalled the more upbeat moments of Elliott Smith, early Foo Fighters and Nirvana. Members of his band often referred to the intimate crowd collectively as “Canada” and told us “y’all are tight, sick as fuck” while admitting they’re “intimidated by [our] niceness.”
That banter didn’t quite match the vibe of the small and unpretentious rock show, especially following Chladny. The six people in the band play in a handful of punk bands in Toronto – groups like Westelaken, WLMRT and Luge – but here they brought an endearing Basement Tapesy looseness to country and folk-rock. They were almost comically casual, all crossed legs and tossed-off harmonies, falling somewhere between Pavement and the Band. It felt like six pals having fun, which spread into the crowd too. RICHARD TRAPUNSKI
SWAMP DOGG at the Rec Room, Thursday, June 13. Rating: NNNN
The set time for this 76-year-old soul legend was moved up at the last minute so as not to overlap with game 6 of the NBA Finals, and the Raptors-induced mania created much confusion at the Rec Room – especially when his show was then delayed.
Once everyone made their way to the back end of the arcade bar venue, though, Swamp Dogg showed why he’s still such a cult figure of American R&B. In a canary yellow suit and blinged-out gold chain and with the sweetness of a Southern grandpa, he controlled the room from the moment the first gravelly note left his throat. His sorrowful croon and roaring band pumped the small crowd all the way up.
He didn’t play any songs from 2018’s Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) co-produced Love, Loss, And Auto-Tune, focusing more on his R&B standards. This show was for the old heads, like one 43-year-old woman who said she’s been a Swamp Dogg fan since she was 14.
Total Destruction To Your Mind got the wildest reaction, and his band played an extended version that went on for as long as it took Swamp Dogg to greet every person in the room. Even the Raptors fans peeved that his set encroached on their viewing time couldn’t help but be swept up in his charm. KELSEY ADAMS
ROBIN HATCH as part of CURATOR SERIES: THE ELWINS at the Dakota Tavern, Thursday, June 13. Rating: NNNN
Despite major competition from what turned out to be the Raptors’ championship-clinching final game, pianist Robin Hatch was in good spirits, thanking those who came out to see her as the opening act for the night at the Dakota curated by the Elwins.
The quick-witted Hatch – who you may have seen playing in the Rural Alberta Advantage, Dwayne Gretzky, Our Lady Peace, Sheezer or Whitehorse – used the opportunity to be upfront with the intimate crowd about the inspiration behind each of the songs from her recent album, Works For Solo Piano. Instrumental music can often be abstract, but hearing, for instance, how a song like O’Blivion took its name from Videodrome and is meant to conjure Cronenbergian images of the cityscape rooted the song’s dreamy, surreal energy in something more tangible. We came away with an appreciation not just for Hatch’s art but her process. MICHAEL RANCIC
RADIANT BABY and RUSSELL LOUDER as part of LISBON LUX SHOWCASE at the Rivoli, Thursday, June 13. Rating: NNNN
With only a handful of singles under their belt, Russell Louder had a lot to prove in their 40-minute set. Straight from Prince Edward Island, or what they lovingly call “a sandbar,” the synth-pop artist made quick work of winning the crowd over with their confidence and a killer vocal performance to back it up. The assistance of a live bassist helped bring their lithe, hook-forward songs to life and the crowd ate it up and danced in response.
Montreal’s Radiant Baby (a.k.a. Felix Mongeon) wisely chose to wait until the Raptors game had ended to start his set, which made the artist (backed by guitarist and drummer)’s melodic new wave elation feel like the best way to start off what would become a night-long victory party. MR
SIR BABYGIRL and NYSSA at Monarch Tavern, Friday, June 14. Rating: NNNN
Towards the end of her midnight set, New York City-based Sir Babygirl – a.k.a. Kelsie Hogue – took a moment to catch her breath. “I didn’t think I’d ever play these songs live,” she said about her frenetic bumble gum alt-pop anthems. “I didn’t think anyone would even listen to them.”
But there she was, just months after her debut album, Crush On Me, performing to an equally amped-up crowd at the Monarch. Playing over a backing track of bouncy synths and shredding her guitar, Hogue belted like a 90s pop diva or an unhinged Britney or Christina, singing about lousy parties that feel like haunted houses or how flirting is equally akin to butterflies fluttering and skinning your knee. She’s clearly a lover of 2000s pop, remixing snippets of Vanessa Carlton’s iconic piano hook of A Thousand Miles and Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi in-between songs.
Hogue has a feverish, positive energy on stage that’s contagious. A gang of 20 or so in the front row were basically her backup singers from the get-go, and by the end of her hour set she had pretty much the venue dancing with her. Her performance also felt like an unofficial kickoff to Pride month. Hogue, who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, did a roll call – “Where are my gays at?” “Where my trans boys and girls at?” “Where my non-binaries at?” – as a flurry of waving hands and hollers filled the room.
While thanking opener Nyssa, Hogue gushed, “in one year, she’s going to be all over the billboards.” And if there’s any justice in the music world, she will be. The Toronto electro-glam artist’s powerhouse voice was instantly spellbinding over shimmering synth-pop backing tracks playing from a laptop. In an interview with NOW last year she said she liked playing with the compact set up, where she doesn’t have to “rely on anything other than myself,” but I’d love to see the energy a full band could bring. SAMANTHA EDWARDS
CUPCAKKE with VAUGHAN at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, Friday, June 14. Rating: NNNN
When Chicago rapper CupcakKe posted an Instagram story of an airport tarmac with the caption “Toronto meet me @ the Phoenix theatre tonight @ 10pm” – fans listened. Hundreds queued up at the concert hall for her anticipated arrival as Toronto DJ Vaughan played an upbeat danceable mix of Destiny’s Child, Leikeli47 and City Girls that heightened the crowd’s energy.
But by 11:45 pm, our patience had begun wearing thin. “We want CupcakKe,” the crowd chanted as Vaughan, four hours into a tireless set, assured us that she’d be there soon.
When she finally arrived just shy of midnight, she wore thigh-high lace-up boots and a pink chiffon mini-skirt. She strutted across the stage to deliver the absurdist comical bars of her 2018 hit Duck Duck Goose. “Cut the dick off, took it home with me/ ‘Cause any dick that long, it belong with me,” she spat with a coy smile.
She graciously accepted dildos and lacy underwear from fans standing near the front, transferring them to the DJ booth before performing her synth-pop ballad LGBT. The song transformed the concert hall into a booming pre-Pride celebration.
“Ya’ll’s energy is amazing,” she said, beaming as she wiped a towel between her legs and threw it into the crowd.
By the time she walked off stage at 12:30 am before rushing off to Stackt for a second surprise set, no one cared that she was late. CLAUDIA MCNEILLY
NICO ADOMAKO, DRE NGOZI, MYST MILANO, ABSCVND and CHIPPY NONSTOP as part of NEW CURRENCY at Miss Thing’s, Friday, June 14. Rating: NNNN
When Berlin-based DJ Nico Adomako and Toronto-based curator Kazeem Kuteyi (of New Currency) first collaborated on a party at Paris Fashion Week in 2018, they knew they wanted to see more of each other. They continued their cross-continental meet-ups by working together on parties in Berlin, Paris, London and now Toronto.
The party began with sets from Dre Ngozi and Abscvnd before Adomako took over the decks to spin a seamless selection of dancehall, baile funk and electronica in the back room of Miss Thing’s. Nearing 2 am, local heroes Just John, Dom Dias and Chippy Nonstop could be spotted standing at the tiki bar, complete with a roof made of Caribbean palm thatch tiki grass, as Adomako closed his set with a slippery chopped and screwed version of Lily Allen’s 2006 hit Smile.
Nonstop reinvigorated partiers with a surprise MC performance alongside Myst Milano to finish the night. The crowd gathered at the DJ booth to dance and cheer her on in an uplifting display of Toronto talent and culture. CM
HUA LI and LE1F at the Garrison, Saturday, June 15. Rating: NNNN
Kicking off the Garrison’s Saturday night bill promptly at 9 PM, self-described “Canada’s only half-Chinese, half-militant, half-rapper” Hua Li proved in an all-too-brief set that she has no shortage of charisma.
Despite a low turnout, the Montreal artist’s deeply confessional R&B songs and braggadocious party-starting raps quickly won over the audience. If recently released single Since U Been – which she dedicated to her mother – is any indication, her forthcoming debut album Dynasty (out this fall) should be well worth the wait.
No stranger to playing NXNE in the past – including a particularly memorable Toronto Island performance in 2014 – Le1f’s headlining set was a reminder of how influential his experimental club rap sounds have been on both mainstream and underground artists today. Acting as his own DJ and one-man dance squad, he wasted no time whipping the crowd into a frenzy, turning the venue into a vogue runway. His blue sheer shirt drenched in sweat, he towered and prowled the stage, running through selections from his deep catalogue.
He played swaggering tracks like Koi and Grace Alek Naomi from his 2015 album Riot Boi alongside newer cuts off his 2018 EP Blue Dream. Le1f gave fan favourite Wut new life by mixing in instrumental snippets from songs like Clipse’s Grindin’ and Rihanna’s Work. For the finale, he had everyone form an enthusiastic circle around him on the floor, before ending the night rolling on top of the bar. MAX MERTENS