OWEN PALLETT at the Danforth Music Hall, Saturday, May 10. Rating: NNNN
Fans crammed in so close to the stage at Owen Pallett's release party for In Conflict that he joked they might want to consider moving back to avoid catching airborne VDs from his spit. The audience cheers continued unabated, even when he had to double- or triple-start songs in order to get his loops right. The group's sound is so massive and sophisticated now, quieter moments at the beginnings of songs - with just violin and voice - were often most poignant.
THE DIRTY NIL at Tattoo, Tuesday, May 6. Rating: NNNN
The Dirty Nil made a Tuesday night feel like a Saturday night. There's something delightfully mischievous about rangy singer Luke Bentham, who moves and talks fast, swings his guitar around, channels Courtney Love when he sneer-screams and just flat-out entertains. Things also get pretty Weezerish, except when bassist Dave Nardi takes over lead vocals on Metzier-type fare. The Hamilton three-piece have a lot of enthusiastic fans who will not only come see them early in the week, but also start a pit.
SWOLLEN MEMBERS at the Opera House, Tuesday, May 6. Rating: NNN
Vancouver's Swollen Members started about 15 minutes before their midnight slot time. Fortunately, I waltzed in to their all-time best tune, Bring It Home, from 2001's Bad Dreams.
Both Madchild and Prevail are competent showmen, and Prevail laid down a formidable freestyle, even chastising people for calling it Canadian Music Week instead of Canada Music Week. (Wait, isn't it Canadian Music Week?)
It all would have been better if we hadn't had to hear Madchild, during a solo turn, completely degrade women in one of the most disgusting songs ever written.
WAR BABY at Bovine Sex Club, Tuesday, May 6. Rating: NNN
Earplugs went straight into ears as War Baby hit their first chords at the Bovine. The Vancouver three-piece are loud and tight, their thick fuzz sound drowning out the vocals and reverberating through the club. On their 2013 Jesus Baby album, a feral grunginess comes through - especially via Jon Redditt's Kurt Cobainesque vocal delivery and Melvins guitar sludge - but live, the songs could benefit from more dynamism.
TRAVIS SCOTT at the Opera House, Wednesday, May 7. Rating: NNNN
Rap tastemakers like Kanye West have long touted Travis Scott as a future superstar, and his CMW show proved that he's spotlight-ready.
From the moment he took the stage with his hit Quintana, Scott was a veritable pinball machine - incessantly high-fiving fans, jumping into the crowd, climbing several balconies with abandon - much to the delight of rabid young fans decked out in Pyrex and Supreme gear.
Scott already excels at something that takes many emcees years to learn: showmanship. More importantly, he also has something that can't be taught: magnetic star power.
THE KENNEDY CULT at the Horseshoe, Wednesday, May 7. Rating: NNN
There are a ton of awesome bands whose members don't necessarily look like rock stars. The Kennedy Cult do not have that problem. Maybe because frontman Ryan Kennedy owns a vintage clothing store, the Peterborough foursome looked as slick as their sax-infused, 80s electro rock with killer melodies sounded. Their CMW appearance showcased the best of their tunes: Start Slow, Alibi, Forever. I would have liked Kennedy's mic levels raised a notch or two. And, damn, did they deserve a looser crowd. Anticipating the arrival of punk rocker Brody Dalle, the packed 'Shoe was mostly very stiff.
MEGAFAUNA at Hard Luck Bar, Wednesday, May 7. Rating: NNN
Playing at 8 pm to a handful of people is tough, but Austin's Megafauna didn't let it dampen their enthusiasm. Led by jaw-dropping guitarist Dani Neff, the four-piece plays a kind of prog-rock-tinged Breeders (thanks to Neff's Kim Dealish voice) meets Joe Satrianian arpeggiated fretwork meets heavy Queens of the Stone Age thunder. It's a little hard to hold on to, but when it all comes together, like on Time To Go and Hug From A Robot from their new album, Maximalist, the effect is staggering.
TASHA THE AMAZON at Wrongbar, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNNN
Taking cues from venue-scaler Travis Scott, Tasha the Amazon climbed multiple teetering objects during her 1 am set. Starting her show from atop the railing around the VIP area, she leaped down to the stage and later performed atop a chair and on a table. Succeeding at manipulating the crowd from engaged to TURNT UP, she had a healthy buzz on as she performed songs from her mixtape FiDiYootDem, pouring a drink on the crowd, smoking weed and, yeah, missing a lyric or two along the way.
ASTRAL SWANS at the Cameron House, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNN
He was the man of the hour, but he was totally shit-fucking nervous - and who could blame him, sandwiched between Sandro Perri and Veda Hille? Looking at a crowd that included Feist? Astral Swans (aka Calgary songwriter Matthew Swann) was warmly introduced by Dan Mangan as the "flagship artist" on his new label, Madic Records. The ensuing muted bar chords and songs of malaise and hallucinogenic ramblings struggled to hold the crowd's attention, but Swann's raw, minimalist style allowed subtleties to shine: an eerie whistling solo, for instance, or when he got deep into a guitar jam.
OPERATORS at the Silver Dollar, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNNNN
It was only the third night of CMW, but we already called it: Dan Boeckner's new band, Operators, gave one of the best performances of the week. As promised, the 45-minute set was loud, danceable and full of synth-pop earworms courtesy of Boeckner's signature piercing growl and Devojka's masterful reign over a table full of synths, drum machines and other electro doodads. For the finale, the packed room went absolutely crazy when Boeckner's West Coast buds Japandroids joined in for a raucous, nostalgic cover of Wolf Parade's This Heart's On Fire.
OSIYM at Wrongbar, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNN
Rap duo OSIYM's propensity for alcohol is an integral part of their party-rappers-who-aren't-afraid-to-get-solemn charm. And charm they did - offering free shots to the liveliest audience members and bringing fans onstage for interactive drinking contests. It definitely brought joy to their songs, which document their struggle to the middle.
THE 6TH LETTER at Wrongbar, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNN
Performing alongside his producer, Raz Fresco, Toronto emcee the 6th Letter treated Wrongbar to selects off his mixtape NorthernPlayalisticGetHighMuzik. The rapper has an arsenal of chilled-out smoking tunes - both throwback boom-bap styles and next-generation Snoop Dogg, West Coast-channelling ones - which he delivered with cool confidence. But laid-back isn't necessarily best late on a Thursday. The more uptempo tracks, like Still Twistin', were by far the most engaging.
DIANA at the Drake, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNN
Rather than showcase their usual synth pop sound, DIANA chose to rework their catalogue into ambient improvisations for the first of their two nights at the Drake Hotel, and then flip the songs again into house/techno arrangements for the second night. The results of the first night's experiment were playfully weird, and it was refreshing to see a band take chances for a festival appearance, but the set wasn't a very accurate representation of what we actually love about them.
JENNIFER CASTLE at the Drake, Thursday, May 8. Rating: NNNN
Kneeling down out of sight of most of the audience, Jennifer Castle relied almost exclusively on her haunting country-inflected vocals to charm the crowd, her minimalist fingerpicked guitar patterns echoing away faintly in the background. It's hard to say exactly what gives her eerie folk ballads such a hypnotic quality, but it's working for us.
TEGAN & SARA at Kool Haus, Friday, May 9. Rating: NN
The first hot day of the year would've been better experienced outside the sweltering Kool Haus, as a pleather-clad Tegan Quin noted during Tegan & Sara's hour-long set. Unfortunately, the heat threw the twin sister duo off their game. Their set traded the slickness of Heartthrob for a loose, rollicking sound that played up the messy emotions and folky influences. Thundering drums and impassioned singing riled up the audience during Shock To Your System and Closer. But the revved-up approach worked against other songs, as the flubbed harmonies during an off-key rendition of I Was A Fool demonstrated.
ELLIE GOULDING at Kool Haus, Friday, May 9. Rating: NNN
British pop star Ellie Goulding ended an extensive North American tour attempting to rouse a sleepy crowd with joyous pop anthems. Three backing singers, an upright piano and a whole lot of percussion filled the stage for the dusky-voiced singer and her four players. Goulding's professionalism was impressive but not exactly infectious. It wasn't until she explained that this was the last show of her tour, so could we please crank it up a notch, that the audience tried to match the energy level onstage.
FLATBUSH ZOMBIES at the Phoenix, Friday, May 9. Rating: NNNN
On Friday night, the Flatbush Zombies proved they're a Beast Coast standout group by deftly combining new-school rap aesthetics with old-school rap performance skills: each member rapped every bar of their complex verses without the assistance of backing tracks. The Zombies appeal to both boom bap aficionados and new-school streetwear-obsessed teenagers, and they know how to turn it all into an unhinged but technically proficient stage show.
NEKO CASE at Massey Hall, Friday, May 9. Rating: NNNN
Neko Case wears dresses when she plays Massey Hall. "I'm in drag tonight in honour of the venue," said the tomboyish singer/songwriter early in her superb set. Highlights were Kelly Hogan's pitch-perfect harmonies, a banjo-driven That Teenage Feeling, Hold On, Hold On from 2006's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and the big-voiced Night Still Comes. And Case's absent ailing bassist inspired a different approach for the encore, which included a gorgeous duet with guitarist Eric Bachmann and a cover of Justin Townes Earle's Harlem River Blues.
PKEW PKEW PKEW (GUNSHOTS) at the Silver Dollar, Saturday, May 10. Rating: NNN
Toronto party punks Pkew Pkew Pkew don't care for subtlety. During their frenzied 35-minute set, the five-piece fiercely screamed about boozing whilst soliciting handclaps and beer from the riled-up audience. On several occasions, vocalist Brodie Bocelli catapulted himself out into the throng, crowd surfing and moshing and winding up atop the Silver Dollar's bar. Although their gang vocals and revved-up guitar melodies can make every song sound like the same party anthem, their crazed fan base was obviously eating it up.
KING GIZZARD & THE LIZARD WIZARD at the Horseshoe, Saturday, May 10. Rating: NNNN
Fresh from the Austin Psych Fest, Melbourne garage-punk-surfers King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard smoked the Aussie BBQ on Saturday afternoon. The youthful seven-piece includes two drummers, a harmonica player, a bassist, two guitarists and a singer/guitarist who does squats and bounces while singing through a distorted mic. The melodies stayed breezy and weird, the music loose and noisy, and the vibe as carefree as we imagine Australia to be. In the running for best of the fest.
CHLOE CHARLES at the Drake Hotel, Saturday, May 10. Rating: NNN
While Chloe Charles was serenading a small early evening crowd at the Drake, across town at Kool Haus it was being announced that she'd won the award for best soul/R&B artist of the year at the SiriusXM Indies. Her eclectic sound also encompasses elements of folk and indie rock, but it was the more overtly R&B songs that flattered her smoky vocals best in the live setting.
BIZZARH at the Drake Hotel, Saturday, May 10. Rating: NNN
Up-and-coming hip-hop and neo-soul duo Bizzarh give off a very mellow vibe onstage - so much so that they occasionally come across as a little too casual, though their laid-back attitude does suit their drifty psychedelic R&B jams. They still seem to be finding their sound, but it's moving in promising directions.
PYPY at Wrongbar, Saturday, May 10. Rating: NNN
Montreal stoner punk band PyPy played to the small handful of listeners at Wrongbar as if it were a packed club, proving that their sludgy garage rock jams sound even heavier live than on record. Unfortunately, it was harder to get into the rock 'n' roll spirit at this sparsely attended festival showcase than when they're playing for a room full of fans.