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JEREMY FISHER at the Dakota, Wednesday, March 20. Rating: NNNN
Jeremy Fisher doesn't try to replicate his recordings at shows, and that's a good thing. Armed with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, the Art Garfunkel-coiffed singer played original songs plus selections from his summery collection of covers, Mint Juleps. Openers Trent Severn joined in on Jean Leloup's I Lost My Baby. Fisher made Greg Brown's Canned Goods his own and got the crowd lie-la-lie-ing and making explosion sounds during Simon & the aforementioned Garfunkel's The Boxer.
CHVRCHES at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club, Wednesday, March 20. Rating: NNN
Fresh off a string of well-received appearances at SXSW, Scottish trio Chvrches brought their highly danceable synth pop to a packed Mod Club. Flanked by keyboardists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, lead singer Lauren Mayberry charmed us by listing off the Canadian acts she knew (Tegan & Sara, Rush, Arcade Fire) and then dedicated a song to Ryan Gosling's jaw. The tunes were pleasant enough but incredibly similar-sounding. They ended with crowd-pleasing singalong Recover before returning for a cover of Prince's I Would Die 4 U. An EP arrives this week, and a debut album in the fall.
ACTION BRONSON at the Hoxton, Thursday, March 21. Rating: NNNN
Every rapper claims to love Toronto, but when Action Bronson says it we believe him. He spent a few days here prior to his shows at last year's NXNE, and has tweeted about the cuisine (416 Snack Bar, jerk chicken). At a packed Hoxton, the love was mutual. Playing songs from last year's stellar Rare Chandeliers and fan favourites Pouches Of Tuna and Bird On A Wire, the New York emcee strutted and sweated across the stage. "I've gained, like, 4 pounds since I saw you guys last," he joked. That didn't stop him from finishing his set on the floor, with the audience chanting his name like they were cheering on a boxer.
X-RAY EYEBALLS at the Silver Dollar, Thursday, March 21. Rating: NNN
In a festival packed with hundreds of bands you've probably never heard of, it's usually a safe bet to check out whatever no-bullshit rock act that promoter Dan Burke has booked over three nights at the Silver Dollar. That said, maybe it's best to show up on day two or three. In their first set at CMW, Brooklyn's X-Ray Eyeballs succumbed to technical problems, so we only got glimpses of a snotty but glamorous 60s-garage-meets-80s-synth-pop sound that could kill if it ever gelled. But, hey, at least they had two more tries to get it right.
SAVAGES at the Horseshoe, Friday, March 22. Rating: NNNN
Just in time for the latest round of British austerity, the foreboding sounds and sneering attitude of 1980s European post-punk returns in the form of London's Savages. Their show packs such a precise and intense wallop that calling them out as derivative seems pointless; they look and sound like the real thing.
During the quartet's hotly buzzed-about Canadian debut, singer Jehnny Beth stalked the stage in bright red kitten heels and glared fearlessly with wide-eyed intensity. A submissive crowd packed with industry types stared right back, content to be pummelled by a battery of percussion, razor-sharp guitar and scuzzy, angular bass. Gloriously intimidating.
RON SEXSMITH at the Randolph Theatre, Friday March 22. Rating: NNNN
It must be something to be charting in the UK yet unharassed at your neighbourhood grocery store. Such is situation for local songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who jokingly referred to the Randolph Theatre as a miniature Royal Albert Hall - where his band recently played in London. During a tight, heartfelt set that gained momentum as it went along, he and his band played songs off the recent Forever Endeavour, plus older ones like Strawberry Blonde and Secret Heart. Standouts included Sneak Out The Back Door, Snake Road and Me Myself And Wine.
THIS IS HEAD at the Garrison, Friday, March 22. Rating: NNN
A lot of bands from Nordic countries played CMW this year, including Swedish atmospheric pop act This Is Head, who played several gigs during the fest. Their recent record, The Album ID, features intricate layers and textures that they managed to recreate live. However, at loud-rock-club volume, much of the detail smeared together into a wall of sound. This made for a shoegazer experience, which is fine but doesn't quite capture their quirky pop appeal.
TYLER, THE CREATOR at the Opera House, Friday, March 22. Rating: NN
With Frank Ocean playing the Grammys and Earl Sweatshirt proving to be the group's most talented rapper, Tyler, the Creator and his no longer shocking antics are suddenly playing second fiddle to his Odd Future cohorts.
Everything about his Opera House show felt hastily planned, from his choice of hype men (Jasper Dolphin and Taco, OF's more expendable members) to the gazebo stage set. New songs from upcoming third album Wolf were unmemorable and lacked energy, though Tyler's still able to get the kids riled up. (A security guard stood on the bar keeping watch.)
But there's still plenty of time for the 22-year-old to learn new tricks.
A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS at the Garrison, Friday, March 22. Rating: NNNN
Fans of New York noise rockers A Place to Bury Strangers who didn't shell out to see them open for Coheed & Cambria at Sound Academy got good news when the band was announced as the Garrison's last-minute "special guest." Their already deafening wall of sound intensified in one of the loudest rooms in town. Fog machines, strobe lights and piles of effects pedals can come off as gimmicks, but they all aided APTBS's primary feature: extreme volume.
AUSTRA at the Danforth Music Hall, Saturday, March 23. Rating: NNNN
After Austra's impressive CMW gig, Toronto fans are suddenly a lot more excited about their upcoming second album. Not only did the old songs sound better than ever live, but the new material shows they've really grown as a band. Although the Danforth Music Hall still echoes like a cave, the excess reverb actually suited Austra's sound. And the Toronto band's confidence and chemistry more than made up for the lack of video projections and fancy lighting.
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS at Massey Hall, Saturday, March 23. Rating: NNNN
The news that the Bad Seeds' lineup would be rounded out by a children's choir made it seem like Nick Cave had something special planned for Massey Hall. And indeed he did. He worked through about half of his new record, Push The Sky Away, and a few golden oldies before shooing the kids off and letting the "muthafuckas" fly. The band was first-rate, and Cave was in top form, wiggling, hip-thrusting and making manic supplicating hand gestures toward the ceiling. But would it have killed him to play a few deep cuts?
COUSINS at Parts and Labour, Saturday, March 23. Rating: NNNN
Whether opening for Chad VanGaalen on the elegant Mod Club stage or playing the low-ceilinged basement of Parts and Labour for a CMW showcase, Halifax's Cousins always rise to the occasion. Drummer Leigh Dotey and guitarist/singer Aaron Mangle pounded through reverb-drenched garage-pop tunes mostly from 2012's The Palm At The End Of The Mind (standout: Die) and a sweet cover of Wings' Let Me Roll It. Mangle was clearly frustrated by sound issues - "Take out all the lows and mids," he repeated after every song - but the jam-packed crowd was oblivious. An amiable mosh pit rolled right up onto the stage.
SUUNS at Lee's Palace, Saturday, March 23. Rating: NNN
In the wake of London post-punk group Savages' second pulverizing CMW set, Montreal quartet Suuns' throbbing psychedelia felt like a weirdly menacing comedown. Their murky atmospherics include deconstructed Krautrock and post-punk traditions, but with a modern emphasis on burbling sub-bass rhythms. Singer/guitarist Ben Shemie stood with his back arched, clutched the mic in one hand and sang in a drawn-out deadpan that recalled Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie. His cascading guitar riffs churned out electronic pulsations, adding much-needed urgency to the drugged-out drone. The crowd blissfully writhed along but left wanting more.
MAC DEMARCO at the Garrison, Saturday, March 23. Rating: NNNN
Suuns, Dusted and Mac DeMarco took over the Garrison's tiny front room on Saturday afternoon for a pwyc unofficial festival show that, once word got out, attracted a lineup down the block. DeMarco's headlining set was jocular good times. The tunes were short and catchy, the guitars surfy-sunny and the execution spontaneous. A forward-creeping bass drum couldn't diminish the Montreal four-piece's easy camaraderie, especially with a cover of Weezer's Sweater Song and bits of Thunderstruck and Takin' Care Of Business thrown into the mix. A bizarre call-and-response guitar duel was the cherry on top.
MOZART'S SISTER at the Comfort Zone, Saturday, March 23. Rating: NNN
Ever since Grimes transformed from Mile End laptop loft-party-starter to Pitchfork fashion star, the search for the "next Grimes" has been on. That likely had something to do with the packed house for Mozart's Sister's late-night set. On the surface, Caila Thompson-Hannant's act bears similarities to Grimes's - looped beats, confident yet awkward stage presence - but it leans more heavily on R&B and dance music. The Montrealer occasionally veers into Claire Boucher's trademark baby coos, but her vocals are earthier. And though her request for "sexy dancers" was initially shrugged off, by the end she had a stage full of scantily clad fans.