ROCK THE BELLS with NAS and LAURYN HILL at Molson Amphitheatre, Thursday, September 8. Rating: N
Rock The Bells' Toronto stop was a half-hearted afterthought. First clue: it was billed as a classic album cabaret - "Nas performs Illmatic" and "Lauryn does The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill" - instead of the all-day festival for which the franchise is known.
Forever 90s in baggies and Timberlands, Nas tried to liven up a rote 70-minute set by having accomplice AZ rap on Life's A Bitch and producers DJ Premier and Pete Rock feign a beat battle before he ended with his pre-Illmatic showpiece Live At The BBQ.
Then the stage went quiet for almost two hours. Emerging after the Amphitheatre's 11 pm curfew, Hill performed Miseducation at an anxious pace. She flew through Lost Ones, To Zion and That Thing (Doo Wop), flailing her limbs and spewing unfocused energy before walking off the stage.
Morale-wise, that's where the show ended, as masses of resigned fans hit the exits. She returned to close with some Fugees material and the Nas duet If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) to swaths of empty seats.
TIM SWEENEY at the Drake Underground, Saturday, September 10. Rating: NNNN
Hearing an influential but esoteric DJ like Tim Sweeney at the Drake during TIFF is a mixed blessing. The madness of the fest guarantees a packed house but also means some diehard fans won't make it past the huge line of celebrity stalkers. Thankfully, the space-disco lovers made it out, and the random Saturday-night crowd seemed as into Sweeney's eclectic sound as the heads were.
Considering that he's best known as a radio DJ, Sweeney displayed surprisingly decent skills behind the decks. Mixing techno, disco, house and left-field dance-floor oddities, he kept the mood deep and the sound varied. Despite avoiding obvious floor-fillers, he never came close to losing the crowd. Unlike many touring DJs, he took full advantage of the late-night last call and played until the lights came on at 4 am. Even at that, most of us would've stayed for another hour.
ESMERINE at the Music Gallery, Sunday, September 11. Rating: NNNN
On paper, a modern chamber music concert based around cello, vibraphone, harp and percussion sounds like a sleepy end to your weekend. But Montreal quartet Esmerine infuse their sound with so much intensity that no one in the Music Gallery was in danger of nodding off. Originally a duo of cellist Rebecca Foon and percussionist Bruce Cawdron, Esmerine added harp player Sarah Pagé and multi-instrumentalist/drummer Andrew Barr (both of whom play in the Barr Brothers, see preview) for their new album, La Lechuza.
It's dedicated to singer/songwriter Lhasa de Sela, who brought Barr and Pagé into the fold before passing away from breast cancer. The music, however, is not at all gloomy. The work is rhythmically focused, with harp, vibes and assorted percussion building intricate percolating beds for the cello melodies to float over. At the concert, the applause often lasted so long and was so loud that the musicians looked taken aback. The standing ovation and encore, though, came as no surprise to the crowd.
Eddie Vedder on TIFF red carpet.
PEARL JAM at the Air Canada Centre, Sunday, September 11. Rating: NNNN
In the 20 years since Pearl Jam released Ten, the band has amassed a legion of truly fanatical fans. At the Air Canada Centre, when Eddie Vedder put his hand in the air, close to 20,000 audience members did the same. When he strummed the opening chords to Better Man, they sang the first verse and chorus without prompting.
Few bands inspire so much devotion, and Pearl Jam seem to love their fans just as passionately. Playing for over two hours, they drew from their entire catalogue and along the way paid homage to the English Beat, Sleater-Kinney, Dead Moon and Neil Young, who showed up to jam on show closer Rockin' In The Free World.
Although they play too many guitar solos and ballads to ever be considered a punk band, on songs like Porch and Do The Evolution they reach an intensity that stadiums rarely see.