OVER THE TOP FEST 2006 at the Drake (1150 Queen West), the Music Gallery (197 John), Sneaky Dee's (431 College) and the Boat (158 Augusta), tonight (Thursday, May 4) through Sunday (May 7). All shows all ages. $7-$15. Check www.overthetopfest.com for full festival schedule and individual show details. Rating: NNNNN
Unlike many larger-scale, business-skewed music fests where the focus is on signing the next hot money-maker or beating peers to the punch at anointing the year's defining rock 'n' roll trend, the reach of Eric Warner's Over The Top fest never exceeds its grasp. That's partly because, as clichéd as it may sound, the wunderkind promoter's focus really is on the music. His strategy - hand-picking individual dream bands, ensuring they'll be available on his desired dates and then building a cohesive showcase around each one - may seem almost stupidly simple, but it's surprisingly out of step with the way Toronto's other high-profile music fests operate.
"Canadian Music Week and North By Northeast accomplish what they're doing quite well," insists the almost excessively diplomatic Warner. "But my focus is on each individual show, making sure the acts mesh stylistically and, most importantly, creating an event where every component is open to all ages."
Warner's philosophy comes with its share of obstacles: focusing on all-ages events limits the number of usable venues, and painstakingly selecting more interesting bands who need to be compensated for their performances means it's not yet financially feasible to issue all-access Over The Top wristbands.
I catch up with Over The Top participant Christopher Paul Richards, aka bedroom-tronic troubadour Ris Paul Ric, somewhere in the wilds of upstate New York. Though his old band, cult Dischord post-punk crew Q & Not U, hit the city a bunch of times before folding last year, he's only performed as Ris Paul Ric for T.O. audiences once - not coincidentally, it was for one of Warner's Over The Top launch parties last fall.
Q & Not U fanatics might be a bit discombobulated by the more intimate, melodic arrangements, kinder, gentler aesthetic and downtempo loops of Richards's new incarnation. He worked with Canuck soundscape shaper Tim Hecker on Purple Blaze, his debut Ris Paul Ric disc, and claims the stripped-down feel is in many ways a reaction to Q & Not U's boisterous assault. Nevertheless, the DC-based artivist insists his new work shares an ideological foundation with his former band's politically charged sophisticated dance rock.
"I can hear helicopters overhead while I'm writing songs. Every day I see motorcades, and I can walk down the street and pass the White House. It's hard for people living in Washington not to feel very, very close to what's going on."
On the other end of the spectrum are Toronto's Bicycles. Not only are they repeat Over The Top participants (vocalist/guitarist Matt Beckett vaguely remembers being part of the inaugural fest, which coincided with the year his band was founded), but their jubilant, huggable tiny perfect pop songs eschew global issues for more personal subject matter.
"It probably wouldn't work if you tried to write a political song that sounded like the Archies," he cheerfully explains. "I mean, Drew (Smith) and I try to write songs that are as close to being true and autobiographical as possible. In our case, that gravitates toward lovey-dovey boy-girl stuff."
No surprise the Bicycles dubbed their long-awaited debut album (slated for release on Fuzzy Logic at the end of this month) The Good, The Bad, And The Cuddly. It packs 17 tracks of horn-heavy, harmonized, major-key ditties about crushes and French girls into its efficient 39 minutes.
Beckett claims they've been reworking the delightful album for the last four years, and though mixing ace Jose Contreras (By Divine Right) finally convinced them to let their baby go, he has a few minor regrets.
"I wish it were more excessive! We had tons of tracks on every song, but I still want to figure out a way to get even more in there. Queen was a huge influence on the album, if that's any indication."
And now that the Bicycles are preparing for their first real tour (they'll be supporting UK buzz kids the Boy Least Likely To out west and in the States at the end of May), they've got another problem they have to figure out by the time they play the fest's fab matinee rockstravaganza/BBQ Sunday (May 7) at the Drake.
Beckett groans. "I still can't figure out how we're going to pull it off live. We have to fight the impulse to add members. We were practising with one of my roommates as an extra guitar player, and it sounds so much better, but we can't keep that up. It feels like cheating."