She & Him
FEMI KUTI & THE POSITIVE FORCE at the Opera House, Wednesday, July 3. Rating: NNNN
Filing onstage at 9:20 pm - percussion, brass, dancers and, finally, the Afrobeat master himself - Femi Kuti & the Positive Force launched into a crashing instrumental number that saw Kuti jump from keys to sax, where he held down a note for minutes, doing circular breathing while his veins popped, cheeks bulged and everyone jammed around him.
At 51, Kuti has the moves of a man half his age - part b-boy, part boxer bouncing on his toes, part Carlton Banks side shimmy, part traditional Nigerian rhythm that seems to emanate from deep within. When he wasn't dancing or on keys, he was playing the sax, where his brass chops turned the crowd from rammed-in bobbing mass to wide-eyed gawkers.
Leaving the stage before 11 pm, the Positive Force re-emerged for a massive encore including Nothing To Show For It from his latest album, No Place For My Dream. He finished with a sweat-soaked dashiki and a marathon version of his 1998 hit Beng Beng Beng, proving that his troupe are a force to be reckoned with.
JOHN GRANT at the Drake Underground, Wednesday, July 3. Rating: NNN
A lot of very specific and complicated emotions were on display during John Grant's show, the final stop on the Iceland-based American singer/songwriter's tour in support of his second solo LP, Pale Green Ghosts.
Grant's ability to home in on the feelings underlying his urges toward self-hatred and self-love, and mull them over with honesty, heartbreaking wit and unpredictable turns of phrase, has attracted packed houses in the UK and the ears of Sinead O'Connor and Elton John.
While Pale Green Ghosts is a squelchy, new-wave-influenced affair, Grant dispensed with electronic beats in favour of a pared-back piano-man set that focused on the nuances in his gorgeous baritone and charmingly deadpan banter. His self-lacerating lyrics require nerve not only to write, but to sing, and he delivered them gracefully with eyes tightly closed. As a keyboard player, he's sometimes lumbering. It often seemed like his hands were struggling to keep up with his voice. Fortunately, touring partner Chris Pemberton was much lither on keys, providing a softer landing for Grant's venomous punchlines.
BRUNO MARS at Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, Wednesday, July 3. Rating: NNNN
I went for the choreography but stayed for the good vibes (and also because I was writing this review). Bruno Mars took his sweet time getting to the stage, but one flash of his Colgate smile and all was forgiven. Add in an arsenal of self-penned chart-toppers, MJ attire and eight friendly dudes with horns and casually in-sync dance moves and it's no wonder girls of all ages were swooning.
And Mars's fans are overwhelmingly women. His hook-filled tunes are aggressively sexual but also tenderly romantic. Sometimes he sings about the mistakes he's made in love, and the importance of loving you Just The Way You Are. The latter is a wretchedly pandering song he dragged out forever by having us sing the chorus again and again while crowd shots flashed across the jumbo screens. Gleeful screams abounded.
But the Hawaii-born pop wonder offset the saccharine with easygoing reggae, Sam Cookian gospel-soul, sexy breakdowns, cathartic bombast and solo acoustic moments that showed off his terrific voice. One impressively melismatic run at the end earned him a seemingly spontaneous high-five from his saxophonist. carla gillis
TURF at Fort York Garrison Common, Thursday to Sunday, July 4 to 7. Rating: NNNN
The organizers of Toronto Urban Roots Festival chose the name because "urban roots" is a vague enough umbrella term to fit myriad styles. On day one, the Barr Brothers took the roots part of the name seriously, moving through various genres - gathering at one point around a ribbon mic and getting really folky. Haligonian Canrocker Joel Plaskett's dusk set with his band the Emergency proved him one of the most likeable characters in Canadian music. Headliners She & Him were less impressive. The sound didn't seem to work for the sprawling band.
Day two began with a great set by Oklahoma rockabilly/R&B group JD McPherson. It was a smooth transition into Justin Townes Earle's timeless country blues on the other stage. Headliners Arkells picked up the soul theme of the evening during a generous show that included a Motown Revue finale.
On Saturday, TURF seemed to translate to "bands that sound a whole lot like Springsteen." After California harmony-rockers Dawes and Canrocker Matt Mays played guitar-soloing, hair-tossing daytime sets, Frank Turner played the festival crowd like an instrument. The Lowest of the Low showed less boundless enthusiasm, though the reunited 90s heroes got everyone swaying to immortal hits like Rosy And Grey. The Hold Steady were unofficial headliners, playing to the biggest, most engaged crowd.
Given his fast-rising profile, Kurt Vile shouldn't have been playing such an early day-four slot, but he brings it on himself by starting his sets with Wakin On A Pretty Day. Vile's languid slacker folk is the perfect soundtrack to a sunbaked afternoon, even if looming rain clouds threatened. Yo La Tengo invited everyone "into their living room" for a few acoustic-leaning tunes off their 13th album, Fade, and finished the set with a 10-minute guitar-swinging instrumental noise jam. The mud-shoed masses came out in droves for Glaswegian indie icons Belle & Sebastian. Playing with a 12-piece band, Stuart Murdoch was a twee showman, initiating a whistling chorus, descending into the audience to have makeup applied, inviting a girl onstage to play "indie Scrabble" and generally making life hard for security, in the most adorably whimsical way possible.
Sarah Greene and Richard Trapunski
FESTIVAL D'ETE in Quebec City, Thursday to Saturday, July 4 to 6. Rating: NNNN
Festival d'Été's 12 indoor and outdoor stages (the most epic being smack dab in les Plaines D'Abraham) lent the Quebec City fest (46 years strong) an urban NXNE vibe as well as a fieldy Coachella flavour.
I arrived on day one just in time to see Born Ruffians, who were super-tight jamming through tracks from their latest, Birthmarks. Later, Belle & Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch proved adept at both electric and acoustic guitar and managed to elicit participation from a sopping wet, rained-on crowd.
"Where are my weed smokers at?" Nova Scotia rapper Classified asked on night two before launching into a high-themed medley (Freda Payne's I Get High, Kanye's Dark Fantasy, etc).
He was followed by Taylor Gang emcee Wiz Khalifa, whose radio hits - Young Wild & Free, Black And Yellow - are infectious.
Finally, in front of thousands of Wu-Tang Clan logo shirts, the revered Staten Island OGs moved onstage like a well-oiled machine and with the energy and passion of men half their age. They gave us their greatest hits (the opening piano line of C.R.E.A.M. elicited a deafening roar) and made an effort to speak French and connect with the crowd, making the set a weekend highlight.
Saturday's headliners, the Black Keys, played to an even larger throng (metal and rock are kings by a landslide in la belle province). The guitar/drums duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were musically magnificent, displaying a truly special chemistry. Carney's kit sits centre stage, and he goes at it with sweat-drenched tenacity.
But it seemed like Auerbach was the only one not awed by the setting - his singing wasn't particularly impassioned, and his between-song banter was phoned-in at best.
Maybe they're content to let their instruments do the talking. Festival d'Été continues through Sunday (July 14).