The 2007 edition of North By Northeast was one of the most successful to date, featuring 450 acts performing in an astounding 40 venues over four sweaty nights.
With a lineup that skewed toward heavier guitar-oriented acts, topped by three stellar performances by Swedish psych stars Soundtrack of Our Lives and shockingly great reunion shows by Dinosaur Jr., Urge Overkill and the Diodes, straight-up rock 'n' roll reigned supreme over all other genres.
That's not to say emerging artists didn't make an impact. Montreal-based Galaxie Award winners Handsome Furs and Tampa rappers Yo Majesty justified their pre-NXNE buzz, while promising artists like Les Breastfeeders and Pride Tiger proved they're more than ready for prime time.
Thursday, June 7
An hour before the sturm und drang of the NXNE showcases began Thursday night, music biz sharpie Joe Boyd got this year's festival off to a quietly entertaining start by reading from his revelatory memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music In The 60s, to a spellbound crowd at the NOW Lounge .
Later, at the Horseshoe, reclusive Cotton Mather mainman Robert Harrison, who'd come all the way from Austin to debut the latest from his new Future Clouds and Radar project, looked more like a post-psychedelic Wild Bill Hickok than his typical moddish self. The bearded and bushy-haired Harrison bashed out beautifully misshapen pop mini-epics, bringing to mind his stellar Kontiki-era work, only with a much funkier beat battery.
Over at the Boat, an amped-up Les Breastfeeders were turning the half-filled venue upside down while 60 people stood in line outside. Those who gave up on waiting for people to leave missed a rambunctious set by Pride Tiger, who were blastin' the boogie Thin Lizzy-style.
Fans of the Ghost Is Dancing had no such capacity issues to deal with for the sprawling collective's midnight set of infectious indie rock at a sweltering Sneaky Dee's, much of which was off their new The Darkest Spark disc. One of the best gigs at the fest.
The Gladstone 's Art Bar is great because if you can draw 20 people, you've sold the place out. But that intimacy can be intense, as it was during songbird Christa Couture 's performance, which felt like you were eavesdropping in her bedroom.
Her acoustic DiFranco-inspired songs were loaded with heavy subjects like her childhood battle with cancer and coming to terms with one's sexual orientation, leaving a rapt group hanging on her very tender and thoughtful lyrics.
Just next door, Vancouver's Hey Ocean! made up for a dubious first impression - whitey-white prairie kids beatboxing over funk bass lines beat out on a Steely Dan-style five-string and countrified guitar arrangements - and won over the Gladstone Ballroom crowd barely two songs into their pleasant set.
Following Hunter Valentine at the Drake, Brampton indie kids Five Blank Pages tore a chapter out of the Eric's Trip book of moody, unassuming 90s alternative. Noyan Hilmi and lady friend Pinar Ozyetis traded innocent indie vocals over droning, low-grade-distortion guitar sound, bouncy Rentals-style keyboards and a rhythm section filled out by new addition Rajiv Thavanathan and Noyan's sis Chelen, who added sugary vox to offset her bro's dourness.
The mood changed when Calgary crew Woodpigeon took the stage, filling the dimly lit Drake with the sunshiny jangle of their harmony-heavy orchestral pop tunes.
The sound was less than ideal. The Pigeon posse's more delicate offerings, particularly the tunes off their Songbook disc, deserved a better setting, but the cranked-up guitar of their newer, more rock-oriented material sounded great.
Friday, June 8
A rousing Lee's Palace set by a seated Sunparlour Players - now slimmed down to a three-piece - made for an enjoyable kick-start to the Friday night showcase showdown.
Down at the the Cadillac, Brooklyn-based urban cowgirl Jan Bell was less than successful in her efforts to charm the standoffish crowd into honking and oinking along with an audience participation number.
Accompanied by Hilary Hawk on banjo and local upright bassist Rachel Melas, Bell was much better at crooning the creepy Carter Family-style folk ballads from her wonderful new Songs For Love Drunk Sinners album.
Winnipeg's Boats might not have known it, but they had the dream audience for any aspiring band. The Boat (appropriate venue choice) was filled with indie label reps, journalists and fellow musicians, who responded to the band with surprisingly loud applause. And even if the tunes weren't your bag, two overexcited dancers provided a ton of entertainment.
Next up at the Boat were the Shondes, who refer to themselves as a group of left-leaning Jews from Brooklyn. If only they paid as much attention to their music as they do to their politics.
Down at the Drake, hirsute pub rocker Peter Elkas sweated through a well-received set. Sporting a neatly trimmed Andy Gibb beard and a suit 'n' and vest combo similar to that worn by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Elkas's 70s vibe fit perfectly with his sensitive singer/songwriter rock.
The crowd, which included a doe-eyed Feist spotted sitting near the stage, swayed to his gentle ballads and grooved to his up-tempo numbers.
At the Cadillac, Brighton, UK, twangers the Jamestown Union tried their darnedest to convince a half-cut smattering of foot-stompers that Brits can honky-tonk, too. Nah.
Local favourite NQ Arbuckle fared much better. The Bruce Cockburn-sounding tunesmith moved through a set of booze-and-cigarette ditties while Melissa McClelland, Luke Doucet, Ron Sexsmith and Moe Berg clapped vigorously.
Judging by the Friday-night crowd at Kathedral - young and fashionable, with tight jeans, bang-heavy hairdos, obscure hardcore band shirts and studded belts - it was reasonable to assume emo was in the cards.
First up were Oshawa's Cauterize, who sounded pretty much like Taking Back Sunday. They're decent players who certainly understand pop song dynamics, but they lack originality.
Burlington-based Sydney, who also sounded exactly like Taking Back Sunday, followed. They even did that sing/scream thing with earnest-sounding vocals and lots of choreographed posturing designed to reflect how much they're really feeling the music. Nevertheless, the crowd responded well.
Upstairs at NOW's Reverb showcase, we caught Montreal's awesome Hollerado . They dressed like the Beatles and sounded kinda like Joel Plaskett, but all four members (including the drummer) shared vocal duties. They were incredibly charming and tight-sounding. A shame there weren't more people there to see them.
The grungy Comfort Zone hosted one of NXNE's best bills, the Pop Montreal/NeXT showcase featuring hot talent from La Belle Province. Weirdly, though, the joint was suspiciously empty during the raucous one-two punch of bubbly bilingual indie rockers Hot Springs and snarly striped-shirt garage-punk bashers the Nymphets .
It filled up by the time Handsome Furs duo Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry climbed onstage at midnight, cracking appreciative jokes about prop cheques and their obliviousness to having won the Galaxie prize.
In contrast to their stunningly tight set opening for Arcade Fire at Massey Hall a month ago, the duo's CoZo appearance felt messier and more uncoiled, as though they were playing off the sweaty beer-soaked energy of the late-night crowd.
They still sounded way huger than a two-piece, with Boeckner's raw, bloodied-heart vocals echoing over hiccuping programmed beats, hollow guitar chords and synth hooks.
Just down the road at the El Mo, a spry-looking Andy Cairns and his lively Therapy? crew were showing the packed club they could still rock like men in their 30s, while out on the street the rag-tag Friday-night posse of Urge Overkill 's swankily chapeaued Nash Kato, Teenage Head 's Gordie Lewis and Ramones producer Daniel Rey made idle conversation about Hamilton high school rivalries before heading over to the Silver Dollar .
Some 20 minutes after the scheduled 1 am start time, Swedish rock royals Soundtrack of Our Lives 's stage technician was still tape-measuring the height of each cymbal of the drum kit. Funnily, the first thing Soundtrack drummer Fredrik Sandsten did upon taking his seat behind the kit was readjust the height of all his cymbals.
The set started on a melancholic note with fantastically robed frontman Ebbot Lundberg soulfully revisiting Love's Signed, DC, but soon TSOOL were blasting away at their glorious riff-rock anthems one after another with full-bore fury.
Two and a half hours of non-stop rock action later, the sweaty Dollar crowd looked just as spent as the band heading for the upstairs dressing room, but that didn't stop anyone from screaming for an encore.
The Soundtrack crew made a U-turn and returned to the stage with drinks in hand to slam out a few more numbers, the last one seeing Lundberg belting it out while jumping up and down on top of a wobbly table. It took all of club booker Dan Burke 's strength to keep him from tipping over.
Though there was a poor turnout for Republic of Safety 's 1 am set at the Reverb, the revamped post-punk squadron gave every ounce of blood, sweat, tears and intelligent social critique in their beings to the handful of loyal slam-dancing fans.
An unexpected, if totally surreal, highlight was the sudden appearance of ex- Organ frontwoman Katie Sketch, who bum-rushed the stage to play mock sax (using a real instrument), sending fantastic Republic leader Maggie MacDonald into a fit of giggly ad libbed lyrics.
Later in the night, watching the Drake rake in copious cash after 2 am thanks to its NXNE-extended liquor licence, you had to wonder why the pushed-back hours can only happen during festivals. The bar was jammed till 4 am, and the fancy footwork was on full display deep into the night, thanks to DJ Shit la Merde and his dance party crew.
Saturday, June 9
A modest turnout of frizzling black-clad rockers and curious tourists with hip pouches mingled awkwardly as the Diodes ' Paul Robinson and crew attempted to recreate some 30-year-old new wave magic at Dundas Square on a scorching-hot afternoon.
They actually sounded good, which made you wish you were watching them in a boozy, dank rock club after sunset (like Sneaky Dee's, where the Diodes played later that evening).
Other than not getting into the hot show you wanna see, the Six Shooter BBQ is probably the most SXSW-style experience you can get at NXNE.
The family-friendly (kids' tent?) label showcase/party saw local boy wonder Justin Rutledge doing an impromptu solo concert on a milk crate, TSOOL mystic frontman Ebbot Lundberg queuing for free veggie burgers and Jian Ghomeshi working the crowd.
One of the neatest discoveries of the fest was Brooklyn duo She Keeps Bees, who got screwed with one of those forgettable venue-time slot combos (Saturday, 10 pm, at Holy Joe's).
Only half a dozen people showed up to see singer/guitarist Jessica Larrabee - a dead ringer for Cat Power's Chan Marshall both sonically and visually - and drummer Andy Laplant .
Larrabee seemed pissed when she launched into her final track, a haunting a cappella Appalachian blues lament, but cheerily handed out free CDs and T-shirts while proclaiming her love for Toronto after the show.
The award for the most fucked-up attitude of the fest goes to the Drake - specifically, the debacle surrounding the smokin'-hot ticket that was Pop Montreal 's dance-floor-oriented Saturday night showcase.
A mile-long lineup poured from the Drake Underground, up the stairs and out the front door by the time Thunderheist kicked off their thumping 11 pm set. The narrow corridor leading down to the basement was literally packed wall-to-wall with increasingly frustrated patrons, many of whom hadn't been adequately warned that re-entry to the popular showcase was not guaranteed.
The irritated bouncer blocking the door to the Underground didn't seem to care about badges, wristbands or people who'd actually bought tickets to get in. Nor did he pay attention to folks who tried to keep order by waiting patiently in line. Even the members of closers Lesbians on Ecstasy had a tough time getting in.
And, hey, if you were a model-like chick, the same rules didn't seem to apply. WTF? We're talking about the Drake during an official music fest, not a disgusting NYC booty club.
Worst of all, the Underground seemed barely half-full when we made it in for Yo Majesty 's midnight set.
The trio's singer, Shunda, wasn't there (due to border hassles), but red-and-white-clad rappers Shon B. and Jwl B. held it down for the rowdy scenesters. Folks rushed the stage when the synth line from Salt N Pepa's Push It dropped over Yo Majesty's track Kryptonite Pussy.
But while the crew kept popping off one nasty-ism after another, you could tell Yo Majesty are still a bit new to performing live. Thankfully, they had ample support from Fat Femme Mafia 's topless hotties and former Vazaleen go-go kids John Caffery (of Kids on TV ) and Princess Lo Superstar . Between songs, Shon B. teased, "We gon' owe you money for this after the show?"
The queer-positive vibe of their set and Lesbians on Ecstasy's dykecore dance-floor assault were cool to experience during NXNE, but the crowd wasn't totally on the same wavelength.
The backpackers seemed baffled by the chubby girls dancing topless (clearly missing the fat activist undertones), and one particularly loathsome douchebag decided to take "art" photos by shooting up chicks' skirts.
The Toronto return of Urge Overkill at Lee's was set up to be the grand finale of NXNE 2007. Just as if it were scripted, Nash Kato and King Roeser were greeted like conquering heroes when they took the stage at 1 am.
They started off shaky, but the Chicago foursome soon settled into a stone-solid groove while Kato ran through his entire cache of guitar-star poses gleaned from Paul Stanley.
The delighted crowd hollered for more, and the Urge boys looked only too happy to oblige with a song selection that spanned their entire career. The silly grins beaming from the stage suggest they could be back to stay.
turn it up
Soundtrack of Our Lives
Future Clouds and Radar
turn it down