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JEFF TWEEDY, NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL, VIOLENT FEMMES, BEIRUT, JENNY LEWIS, ANDREW BIRD and SHOVELS AND ROPE at Toronto Urban Roots Festival, Friday and Saturday, July 4 and 6. Rating: NNNN
Violent Femmes' Saturday afternoon set was triumphant: they ripped through their 31-year-old eponymous debut, in order, and then delved into Hallowed Ground material, sounding even better live than on record. They let a fan come up to play tambourine on Add It Up and had the crowd ecstatically dancing and singing along. Not bad for a resurrected band that jokingly referred to themselves as "your dads."
But what Jeff Tweedy pulled off the next day was subtler and more of a coup. The bulk of the Wilco frontman's set was songs the audience couldn't sing along to because they'd never heard them before. Tweedy's debut solo album, Sukierae, is due out in September.
One-upping the Femmes on the dad front, Tweedy joked, "It took me 18 years to do this solo record because I had to grow a drummer." His son Spenser was playing drums behind him. The new band's stripped-down, straight-ahead arrangements allowed Tweedy's lyrics, humour and charisma to shine, even as his guitar-playing occasionally fumbled. He tied new songs to some of his oldest and best: Jesus, Etc, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Give Back The Key To My Heart, California Stars.
Afterwards on the main stage, Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum appeared to be a reluctant rock star amongst a ragtag assortment of freaks and geeks more than a cult figure backed by a cohesive band. The audience ate up songs from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, though, especially Two-Headed Boy and The King Of Carrot Flowers, and Mangum's vocals, especially when backed just by his acoustic guitar, were the most distinctive and haunting of the fest.
Other weekend highlights were Beirut's melancholy melodies and brass; Jenny Lewis's song craft, sass and incomparable ownership of the stage; Tift Merritt and guitarist Eric Haywood doing double duty in Andrew Bird's Hands of Glory band; and charmingly scrappy duo Shovels & Rope trying out new material on the crowd.
More pics and video here.