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MAD DECENT BLOCK PARTY with ZEDS DEAD, BADBADNOTGOOD, NADASTROM, JACQUES GREENE and A TRIBE CALLED RED at Yonge-Dundas Square, Saturday, July 28. Rating: NNNN
If you doubted that dance music's comeback was real, the sight of a few thousand kids going mental at the Toronto edition of the Mad Decent Block Party should have changed that. This year is looking more and more like the second coming of rave.
The range of rhythms and styles that get partiers on their feet these days is refreshing. Ottawa trio A Tribe Called Red combined elements of every contemporary strain of dance music with traditional native music, Montreal's Jacques Greene threw some mellow Frank Ocean into a set of bangers, DC's Nadastrom proved that moombahton's slowed-down tempos can make a crowd jump around just as much as punk rock can, and BADBADNOTGOOD did the impossible by using live jazz to make the party go off.
But it was Zeds Dead's headlining set that really drove home how much the scene has exploded. Say what you will about the aggressive vibe of North American dubstep, but it definitely works on the big stages. Hard to believe they were playing tiny Toronto pubs just a few years ago.
JONNY CORNDAWG at Lee's Palace, Wednesday, July 25. Rating: NNN
Too bad only a small crowd came out for Jonny Corndawg. It was pouring rain, and he joked that if anyone was soaking wet and shivering, he or she could get a glow-in-the-dark Corndawg T-shirt at half price.
The country singer's known for his dirty humour and 70s throwback vibe, but his show is thankfully more nuanced than that. Playing material from last year's Down On The Bikini Line as well as the forthcoming Dad Country, he sang about the anonymity and malaise of touring, social climbers in L.A. and depression before slyly taking the set in a more upbeat direction, at least musically, moving beyond country toward a funky early rock 'n' roll sound.
Corndawg seemed a bit tired (or tired of performing), but his songs translated well, thanks in part to his excellent band. A few times, he hung back while drummer Jerry Pentecost and fiddler Joshua Hedley held things down. Hedley took a few turns in the spotlight during a ridiculously long fiddle solo and when taking on Sherry, one of Corndawg's older songs.
A good set by a great band.
CHAD VANGAALEN at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club, Thursday, July 26. Rating: NNNN
Chad VanGaalen embraces a sort of laid-back chaos that sometimes causes his performances to meander or lose the plot. Other times, like at his jam-packed Virgin Mobile Mod Club show, the messy bits kept things human, hilarious and unexpected.
Near the top of the set, for example, the Calgary noise-folk musician's three-piece band launched into Eat It for no apparent reason. VanGaalen entered late, and in a different key, but he went with it, taking the Weird Al/Michael Jackson song in a visceral, punk rock direction by screaming through a distorted mic.
VanGaalen does tender and melodic (that stirring falsetto!) just as well as weird and guitar-squealy, and it's that unique back and forth that's made him so influential to other musicians and beloved by his fans.
The set was heavy on recent Diaper Island tunes - ballad Sara and frantic Freedom For A Policeman were standouts - though during the encore, a solo rendition of the emotional Willow Tree from 2008's Soft Airplane really socked us in the gut.
THE XX at the Phoenix, Saturday, July 28. Rating: NNNN
There's something to be said for a band that looks like a band. Dressed all in black and wielding black instruments, The xx guitarist Romy Madley-Croft and bassist Oliver Sim spent much of their sold-out show trading hushed, lonely verses as their handsome silhouettes drifted in and out of an enveloping fog and a flickering light show.
The expertly choreographed display was as subtle and affecting as the Mercury Prize-winning London trio's forlorn ballads. In the two years since they last toured, they've grown more confident and relaxed onstage, and the 70-minute set featured their entire debut album plus a handful of songs from the forthcoming Coexist.
New songs Angels and Fiction arrived to powerful effect with little more than guitar strums and breathy vocals, while drummer/keyboardist Jamie Smith cranked the beats on Reunion and Sunset. On recordings, the rhythms creep in quietly, but in concert their loudness boldly disrupts the delicate balance that makes The xx's music so alluring. Still, it's a nice changeup.