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The Toronto festival rebuilt its hub at Yonge-Dundas Square, also putting on performances by Azealia Banks, U.S. Girls, Jazz Cartier, Lights and more
NXNE returned to Yonge-Dundas Square with a solid Festival Village lineup that saw artists engaging in fun ways with the possibilities and limitations of an open-air, free show in the city’s central public square.
Unlike in past years, the stage was on the southwest corner, with the regular stage converted into a VIP lounge. Save for a sound tent blocking views from the beer garden (a screen broadcasting the concert in the garden makes up for it), the move has resulted in better sightlines if you’re to the right or left of the stage and better sound overall.
Alongside a more calcified Curator Series, this seemed like a modest bounce-back year for NXNE, which continues to recover from a failed two-year Port Lands festival experiment.
JAZZ CARTIER, AZEALIA BANKS and U.S. GIRLS at Yonge-Dundas Square, Friday, June 15. Rating: NNNN
The square was still filling up when U.S. Girls, aka Meg Remy, took the stage with a six-piece band. The Toronto-based American musician’s voice had the clarity and smoky suggestiveness of low-range Kylie Minogue, but her presence was often controlled, as though in character. Her facial expression often resembled wide-eyed alarm, like a concerned house cat allowed outdoors for the first time.
At one point, she descended to the wide space between the stage and audience and stood cross-armed next to a security guard as the band laid down a lengthy Psychedelic Sunday-style jam. The clearly smitten guard later approached Remy, who held his hand and sang directly to him while staring into his eyes. It was one of several moments designed to comment on strictures of a festival set in a venue plastered with advertising and wound up feeding playful energy back into the tightly executed show.
U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy and a security guard
Harlem rapper Azealia Banks was up next. Backed by a drummer, DJ and two dancers, she performed with the easy confidence of a seasoned pro. Various controversies and subsequent apologies have overshadowed the fact that she is an impressive live act: she kept the energy high, nailed fast, braggadocious and tongue-twisty rhymes and belted out a cappella choruses full of fluttering key changes before the DJ dropped an invariably big, bassy house beat. Her biggest hit, 212, ended the 45-minute set and had the crowd, which had swollen significantly, pogoing.
Headliner Jazz Cartier is known for wild stage antics, like jumping off a food truck at WayHome 2017, but the large gap between the stage and audience seemed to pose a challenge for much of his set. Looking sharp in silk pajamas with a black-to-red gradient, the Toronto MC has found success pairing trappy production with simple choruses, and though he has some more rhythmically adventurous and bluntly political material in his catalogue, he leaned hard on bangers. That’s fine for a shorter festival slot, but he had a bit more than an hour as headliner and the effect grew very samey. He frequently implored the audience to get more hyped, but when he eventually descended into the pit, that did the trick. KEVIN RITCHIE
CHVRCHES, LIGHTS and YUNGBLUD at Yonge-Dundas Square, Saturday, June 16. Rating: NNN
Saturday was pop night at Festival Village, and the crowd was a Venn diagram of 90s-courting millennials, Pride revellers and random tourists/bewildered passersby. Whether you’d wandered into the melee or actively marched into it, folks seemed pleased by what was on offer.
Chvrches fans, in particular, got a satisfying 90 minutes of the Glasgow act’s sparkling synth-pop, high on melody and swelling builds. Glitter-glam singer Lauren Mayberry was especially fun to watch, and she shouted out not only T.O’s Alessia Cara and Arkells but also a kid waving a sign that read: “I stayed up past my bedtime for Chvrches.”
Earlier, Lights’ set gained momentum as night fell and the square filled in. The formerly Toronto-based singer focused on songs from 2017’s Skin & Earth, though the extremely infectious Up We Go from 2014’s Little Machines got the biggest reaction. She also threw in a cover of Cher’s Believe, because why not.
England’s Yungblud, before her, looked like if Robert Smith had been cast in a Tim Burton movie, and he shook and rattled himself across the stage in time to his bandmates’ ska-laced rock bombast. CARLA GILLIS
BIG FREEDIA and TINASHE at the Yonge-Dundas Square, Sunday, June 17. Rating: NNN
The headlining section of Sunday’s Festival Village started off rocky – Big Freedia was scheduled to perform at 8 pm, and after fans stood awaiting the New Orleans bounce queen’s arrival, it was not until 45 minutes later that the festival MC informed us that she wouldn’t be on until 10:15 pm. Some disappointed fans dispersed, but many returned hours later. Tinashe, who was initially scheduled to close out the night, was pushed up to 9 pm, before Freedia.
Tinashe is the kind of pop star that makes you go hmmm. Aaliyah’s influence is obvious, and Tinashe has been primed for years to be the heir to her throne. You can see why: she’s good at making all the requisite pop-star moves: hair tossing, baddest bitch in the room bravado, even the tried-and-true onstage lap dance (audience member “Mr. Pink Shirt” received a formulaic stage seduction during a performance of Company before being politely escorted away). Yet despite all the trappings, Tinashe doesn’t push the swagged-out 90s R&B throwback sound forward.
The highest moment was opener Joyride, the Tinashe-penned track that she famously bought back after it didn’t make Rihanna’s Anti. Her new track, Ooh La La, while efficient, failed to make a huge impression – one song melded into another by then. If you were not already a Tinashe fan, this was not the show to turn you into one.
Big Freedia at NXNE
Big Freedia could teach some people about star power, most importantly that it emanates from within.
Going from banger to banger: Azz Everywhere, Na Who Mad, Gin In My System to soon-to-become hits Rent (from her latest EP, 3rd Ward Bounce) to big-time chart-topping features, Beyoncé’s Formation and Drake’s Nice For What, Big Freedia, who had been held at the border for a hellish six hours, commanded the stage, giving the patient a partay!
Even her wobbly renditions of Adele’s Hello and Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You felt right. With the beats and bravado, hair swingin’ and booty bouncing like a basketball, Big Freedia is Beyoncé and Drake on 100. (The stunned “wow”s coming from NXNE’s cameraman was amusing. He clearly was seeing things he’d never imagined.)
A highlight was when 12 Torontonians took the stage to bounce at the queen diva’s feet – they did us proud. Mr. Pink Shirt made a reappearance, and boy, could he bounce.
Ultimately, she was the perfect artist to close NXNE. Big Freedia’s booty-bounce orchestra was best served at night. She might not have been the most recognizable name, but she was definitely the biggest star. CHAKA V. GRIER
Don’t miss: NOW’s NXNE Club Land reviews.
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