VAG HALEN at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Thursday, June 6. Rating: NNN
Toronto's buzziest band, Vag Halen, has a set list composed of the same classic rock hits that would make us yawn coming from aging dudes in a hole-in-the-wall tavern. But the message is completely different when delivered by queer women turning misogynist tunes on their heads.
Aside from Metallica's Wherever I May Roam, a song they might want to reconsider, the cover band chose the sexiest classics: Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love, AC/DC's Dirty Deeds, Bowie's Suffragette City.
Vanessa Dunn is a powerful frontwoman. In micro-shorts and a crop top (which she eventually stripped off), she gyrated, beckoned and asked us to get nasty. Her voice scaled Geddy Lee-level summits during Closer To The Heart; she mastered Axl's feral yell in Welcome To The Jungle.
The all-female band chugged away behind her, struggling with Walker Court's horrid acoustics. They didn't interact much, but they're clearly in tune with each other. When Katie Sketch's bass crapped out during Now I Wanna Be Your Dog, Dunn, who is married to Sketch, used the moment to crowd-surf. The excited audience delivered her back to the stage just as the low end returned. The couple traded a secret smile.
THE XX & GRIZZLY BEAR at Echo Beach, Thursday, June 6. Rating: NNNN
There was nothing beach-like about The xx and Grizzly Bear's rainy, cold joint Echo Beach concert. Mercifully, the latter appeared right on time, playing a lot of material from 2012's Shields.
It seemed cruel for dream pop trio The xx to make us wait an hour between sets, but once they appeared, you understood why they had to wait for pitch darkness. They have a ridiculously cool light show, including a projected low psychedelic ceiling that stretches out over the crowd.
They set the tone with Crystalised, which they teased out slowly as if trying to delay orgasm, making a tip-toed crowd wait for the "ahh ahh ahh"s of the chorus.
Jamie xx quietly played percussionist in the back, often breaking it down on steel drums, furthering the non-beach beach vibe. Frontman Oliver Sim induced startling Beatlemania screams - and his arched, claw-like bass plucking is something to behold. But the heart of the band seemed to emanate from Romy Madley Croft's guitar. Best was when they came together mid-stage, playing their instruments at each other like a choreographed bird-mating ritual and moving toward and away from one another in sync with the music.
ACTRESS at Blk Box, Saturday, June 8. Rating: NNN
UK electronic musician Actress (aka Darren Cunningham) is known for the extreme diversity of his catalogue, and fittingly, his live set was all over the map. But there's a difference between healthy variety and a random, scattershot approach. His set ranged from menacing ambient drones to Dilla-influenced instrumental hip-hop to deconstructed skeletal dubstep to moody techno, but rather than moving logically, he lurched unpredictably from rhythm to rhythm; it seemed like he was pulling tracks out of a hat.
Nevertheless, the individual songs' quality and creativity made up for his puzzling set list construction. While most electronic performers wouldn't dare play 15 minutes of beatless washes of sound at deafening volume to a peak-time Saturday-night dance floor, Cunningham has the balls to take such chances. Those kinds of choices had the casual listeners fleeing for the exits, but his hardcore fans loved every minute.
CRYSTAL CASTLES with TARANTULA X at the Sound Academy, Saturday, June 8. Rating: NN
Since catching their big break on MySpace and subsequently courting blog controversy with no-shows, copyright violations and minor acts of violence, Alice Glass and Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles have found it harder to play enfants terribles. For starters, their brand of dim-basement, raccoon-eyed electro-punk has inspired a whole generation of synth goths, including show opener Tarantula X.
What was shocking eight years ago is starting to feel old hat. Sure, Glass jumped into the crowd and sang from atop the shoulders of the front-row fans, but she had her own personal security guard to hoist her up. And, yes, she stepped on a few heads to get there, but those fans stood in front of the stage for precisely that reason.
The duo haven't let their old habits die completely, though. Word had it they cancelled all photo passes just hours before the show. It would have been near-impossible to grab a clear shot anyway. Between smoke machines and rave-worthy strobe lights, Glass was just a magenta-haired blur of prowling energy occasionally glimpsed in the cherry of a lit cigarette, her modulated screech equally unintelligible.
FIELD TRIP MUSIC & ARTS FESTIVAL at Fort York Garrison Common, Saturday, June 8. Rating: NNNN
Arts & Crafts' 10th birthday bash proved that Fort York Garrison Common might be the city's best concert venue. The green fields, heritage buildings and glimpses of city life between the foliage was a perfect (mostly) sunny place to showcase both the veteran and more recent additions to the indie label, with highlights including Cold Specks' insanely soulful live singing voice and a haunting performance by Timber Timbre.
Headliners Feist and Broken Social Scene took radically different approaches to their sets. The former put an electronic spin on her fan favourites, reconfiguring them until they were unrecognizable. Her rendition of 1234 swapped an acoustic guitar for a sampler, and she looped her voice on My Moon, My Man.
Afterwards, Broken Social Scene played their breakout album, You Forgot It In People, from start to finish, a spot-on and nostalgia-laden performance. Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew took turns at the mic, and Lisa Lobsinger, Amy Milan of Stars and Feist accompanied them throughout the night.