JACK WHITE at the Air Canada Centre, Thursday, July 31. Rating: NNN
Bathed in spectral blue light that initially made it appear as though he and his five-piece band were wearing white makeup, Jack White kicked off his ACC show in support of second album Lazaretto with High Ball Stepper. Its sparse, repetitive hook and huge, wailing Jimi Hendrix-channelling solos set the unpredictable blues-rock tone for the night.
White's performance seemed largely spontaneous: no set list, off-the-cuff banter that nodded to Stompin' Tom and Geddy Lee (who was apparently in the house), White moving around the stage like quicksilver. It was equal parts disorienting and exhilarating, leaving his band in constant reaction mode. Yet the stadium crowd gamely sang along whenever they had a hook to hang onto, which was often.
The numerous White Stripes selections were more straightforward and memorable than the new material, but the latter held its own. White went deeper into blues and roots even as he rocked bigger, borrowing from Blind Willie McTell and Howlin' Wolf. Lillie Mae Risch's violin-playing and singing were prominent on mellow duet Temporary Ground, and given the eerie lighting, Alone In My Home, with its lyrics about becoming a ghost, was an apt song choice.
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS at the Sony Centre, Thursday, July 31. Rating: NNNNN
Nick Cave seems to have aged in reverse in the 16 months since he and his six Bad Seeds last ignited a Toronto stage. Back then, the 56-year-old Australian musician called upon the assistance of a children's choir and string section to fill out songs from his atmospheric Push The Sky Away album at Massey Hall.
Upsized to the cushy Sony Centre and minus the kiddies, he brought his signature ferocity directly to the people by climbing several rows deep into the crowd to spit folkloric violence at eye level during menacing hits Tupelo and Stagger Lee. Cave waded through waves of outstretched arms that resembled either a Gandhi-esque crowd scene or a zombie apocalypse, depending on the cadence of his booming baritone.
Either way he sounded thrilling, as did the Seeds as they alternated between thunderous live staples The Mercy Seat and From Her To Eternity, slow-burning cuts from Push The Sky Away and piano ballads, including God Is In The House, a satire about suburban paranoia that he tailored to Toronto: "We have a pretty little square / We have a crackhead for a mayor."
Easily one of the year's best shows.
OUTKAST at the Molson Amphitheatre, Sunday, August 3. Rating: NNNN
Day one of OVO Fest was short on surprises but heavy on nostalgia. Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast arrived in Toronto four months after their reunion tour got off to a shaky start at Coachella.
Since then, the southern rap impresarios and their tight seven-piece band have locked into a nice groove. After the opening assault of drum 'n' bass-led B.O.B., the pair continued spitting their fluid, tongue-twisting rhymes over a string of classics - Gasoline Dreams, Skew It On The Bar-B and Rosa Parks - while the band played each song with the non-stop energy of a funk revue.
The duo's diverging tastes were most apparent during their solo mini-sets. Big Boi scored a big crowd response with southern rap jams Kryptonite and Ghetto Musick, while dollar-store-platinum-wigged Andre was more self-conscious, telling the heads to be patient as he crooned She Lives In My Lap and Prototype for "the lovers."
The night's lone surprise guest was a choice one: Bun B appeared for an uplifting rendition of UGK's International Player's Anthem toward the set's end.
DRAKE with LAURYN HILL, USHER, 50 CENT and many others at the Molson Amphitheatre, Monday, August 4. Rating: NNNN
After joining surprise opener Lauryn Hill onstage for his song Draft Day, Drake started the second night of his fifth annual OVO Fest in earnest.
To cap off the indulgent So Far Gone portion of the evening (super-sweet for long-time fans), Trey Songz joined him for their prophetic duet Successful.
The rest of the show continued chronologically, interspersing favourites from Drake's studio albums with appearances by his famous friends: J. Cole, who also played OVO 4; Drake protege PARTYNEXTDOOR, who did an effective but too long five-song mini-set; of-the-moment Compton rapper YG, who donned a retro Raps jersey. Usher was the most memorable, revelling in the crowd love for old faves Confessions and You Don't Have To Call.
Overall, the little things - not the bold names - and Drake's evolution as a showman made OVO Fest V great: the understated but compelling gigundo screen projections matching each song's mood; the video of the artist's courtside lint-rolling for all to see; and Drake's foray above the crowd on a flying T-bar, where he joked, "It's like me and One Direction who would do some shit like this."