For more coverage of NXNE check out our NXNE Festival Guide at www.nowtoronto.com/nxne/ Rating: NNNNN
Tuesday, June 7
The star-stacked White Ribbon Benefit Concert once again doubled as the launch of the annual NXNE music fest, but the well-dressed group of adults quietly seated on folding chairs on the floor of the Phoenix was an early indicator that this year's event might not be the rock 'n' roll blast of years past.
The mismatched partnership of po-faced Alexisonfire nerdlinger Dallas Green and T.O. soul siren Jully Black fulfilled those fears as they bellowed their way through a straight-up take on Lionel Richie's corny classic Hello and then yelped it up on Madonna's banal Love Don't Live Here Anymore. Painful.
Host Jessica Holmes announced that Hawksley Workman would appear with a special guest when a bearded white-haired man appeared with a guitar in hand and fumbled with a patch chord. The crowd seemed to mistake him for a roadie - or perhaps Hawksley's dad.
The grinning Workman stepped forward to a rousing hand and introduced the mystery man as his songwriting inspiration, Bruce Cockburn , causing the entire audience to do a double take.
Their duet was pleasant if lacklustre, but things didn't really start poppin' till Ron Sexsmith followed a swing through Kirsty MacColl's They Don't Know with a surprisingly soulful rip through Stevie Wonder's I Was Made To Love Her.
Afterwards, Cockburn returned with a searing solo acoustic version of Blind Willie Johnson's Soul Of A Man and finally received the roof-raising cheers he deserved. His inspired take on Pete Seeger's Turn! Turn! Turn! - observing the songwriter's exclamatory intent - seemed tough to follow, but the supergroup fronted by Jim Cuddy , John Kastner and Alex Lifeson rose to the challenge with wall-shaking versions of Neil Young's Don't Cry No Tears and the Beatles' Rain.
The Barenaked Ladies took it up a notch, with Steven Page suggestively gyrating to George Michael's Careless Whispers before bringing Cockburn out for the anticipated closing blast through Lovers In A Dangerous Time.
Thursday, June 9
Funny, funky multi-tasking van- City MC/singer/songwriter Josh Martinez got the crowd all hot for the Most Serene Republic Thursday night at the Reverb with his smoothed-out blend of hiphop and R&B. Though the aesthetic was a bit Backstreet, homey still achieved a successful quota of hands in the air among the spare bored faces of strictly Arts & Crafts fans awaiting the Republic rockers.
Stopped in at the Funhaus for the Gasoline/Liquor & Poker showcase. We expected some average lunkhead thrashing from yer typical Queen West rawk band but were quite tickled by psychobilly crew Big Jeezus Truck 's surprisingly tender run at Del Shannon's Runaway. Too bad the cavernous venue was pretty dead.
Having had our fill of leathery rock types, we headed back to NOW's showcase at the Reverb , where cover kiddies the Most Serene Republic - fresh off a pre-show interview with MuchMusic girly-boy VJ Devon Soltendieck - nervously launched into their shimmering, shambling indie pop epics.
EMI labelmate K-OS nodded peacefully as the crew tried to keep it together during a set marred by poor sound ( Adrian Jewett 's vocals were way low) and technical gaffes.
Post-show, keyboard whiz Ryan Lenssen seemed devastated, but he shouldn't've been. MSR may have buckled slightly under the pressure, but neat tricks like the lag-filling impromptu Coldplay cover (Jewett pulled off hysterical Chris Martin-mocking lyrics) and trombone solo hinted at loads of potential. A year from now, after time on the road, they'll be your new favourite band.
Ballistic Edna 's midnight showcase at the Bovine had a "we're not quite polished yet" feel (possibly due to the fact that only three of the four members hit the stage), but frontwoman Fran Giagkou 's got it goin' on in the charisma department. Watch out for her.
Brian Borcherdt and his Holy Fuck hooligans, on the other hand, got the blissed-out crowd dancing to their Silver Apples-style loopy, beat-heavy live electronic ruckus. In front of arty projections, Borcherdt flailed about punching pedals while frenetic bassist Kevin Lynn looked ready to backflip off the stage. Considering the dearth of electronic music at NXNE, Holy Fuck's set was a dance-floor highlight.
Back at Funhaus , C'mon 's Ian Blurton demonstrated why he's one of T.O.'s coolest rock gods. We didn't stay long, but let's hope some smart suit did so Blurton gets more much-deserved attention south of the 49th.
Meanwhile, Stirling delivered a stylish 1 am set at Lee's , but somebody tell lead lungs Matthew Booi to step away from the piano and stick to guitar mode. He ain't no Chris Martin.
Finished the evening at the Reverb with the sweaty, drunken shenanigans of over-the-top orch-rock army the Old Soul . Although barefoot, polo-shirted frontman Luca Maoloni looked like he'd snuck in from a suburban golf course, the band's set felt like the best late-night house party jam of all time - partly because, by 1 am the place had cleared out and the remaining audience members were either wasted, Old Soul affiliates (like Universal A&R dude Dave Porter ) or both. And we couldn't help but snicker at a caustic lyric about "playing NXNE for $100." Awesome.
Friday, June 10
Said "What's up?" to nastymouth electro-rapper Peaches , who was chilling outside the Gladstone around the time Fembots were gettin' on. We considered getting her to go to Richmond Lounge to freestyle battle Masia One (who was rocking the mic as part of thecyberkrib.com's showcase) 8-Mile-style, then thought better of it.
Outside the Comfort Zone , Dan Burke was in circus-barker mode, desperately trying to herd people into the downstairs sweatbox for the second night of his anti-NXNE mini-fest, while on the other side of College a real crowd was forming outside the El Mocambo for - believe it or not - the Yoko Casionos . Despite their sweet harmonies, it was difficult to see the appeal in their unabashedly Police-influenced bland, reggaefied pop. Still, a grinning Moe Berg looked impressed.
Since the Exit , who were supposed to play next, cancelled out, we headed south to the Horseshoe just as the blustery bashing of Ireland's Sundogs filled the El Mo . Sidestepping sets from both Selina Martin and the Meligrove Band , we were right on time to see the young and energetic pride of P.E.I., Two Hours Traffic , cranking it up. The fresh-faced proteges of Joel Plaskett had some catchy tunes and delivered them with enthusiasm, yet all their moves came off too well-scripted.
At the Rivoli , we were pumped to see bemused Ladies & Gentlemen frontman Thom D'Arcy accept the $3,000 Galaxie Rising Star Award before shimmying through a set of the space-age, synth-charged soul-pop from the band's upcoming Small Sins (Boompa) disc. The white outfits, happy harmonies and muscular hand-claps added to the Ladies & Gents' slick aesthetic, although D'Arcy had a hard time taking his eyes off the cheque propped up on one of the keyboards. Keep an eye on these locals - they're new wavily accessible without being boring, and liable to explode in the next year.
Back at the El Mocambo , you could tell the Grates were in it to have fun, based on the way charismatic singer-girl Patience Hodgson kangaroo-bounced across the stage. The Brisbane threesome, who mixed one part White Stripes and two parts Go! Team, put on the most exciting displays at the festival thus far. The way the sweaty crowd took to the fab songs from their The Ouch The Touch (Dew Process) EP suggests that bigger things lie ahead. You'll definitely be hearing more from these Aussie kiddos, especially if Interscope signs them. But you didn't hear that from me.
Things suddenly got darker at the El Mo when Montreal metal maniacs Priestess took the stage. The first few rumbling bass notes drew the scraggily bearded Bo Bice types like hairy moths to a flame, and when the black-clad Priestess dudes began to grind away in full-on late-70s fashion, the head-banging faithful crowding the joint were sent into a neck snapping frenzy. Watch for Indica to release the as-yet-untitled Priestess album in early September. It'll be huge.
Saturday, June 11
Saturday started strong with the frenetically angular indie rock of Montreal's Lovely Feathers at the Gladstone . Since their performance at Canadian Music Week they've gotten way tighter and even more ridiculously entertaining to watch. Fronted by two endearingly nerdy guitar bashers who play off each other with yelpily sung vocals and dance like someone slipped an angry crayfish down their shorts, the Feathers kick out jams that are a little bit Weezer (circa the Blue Album), a little early Costello, a tiny bit klezmer pop and a little bit Dexy's Midnight Runners.
Next up was prairie piano popster Andrew Spice at the Art Bar , where the sound was horrendous. When Spice started up, his vocals were inaudible, and backing guitarist/bassist Jordan Kern might as well not have been there. Making matters worse was the high-decibel karaoke hoedown taking place next door.
Although Spice was hard-pressed to be heard over the drunken 500 Miles singalong blasting through the wall, things calmed down long enough for the singer/songwriter to play a spare new tune accompanied by a simple single-note progression. It was one of his stronger songs; the talented crooner would be well served if so many of his arrangements weren't just piano parts doubling his vocals.
Over at the Cameron , Montreal franco-rock squad Malajube started late and stormed through a sweaty set of head-banging, synth-driven pop with guitar solos that Van Halen would've been proud of, stopping only to offer a brief "merci" and a half-hearted disclaimer about speaking very little anglais.
There wasn't much shaking on Saturday till Edmonton's mighty twosome of Gravy and Whitey, aka Whitey Houston , began to test their amps at the Reverb with a heaving stoner rock blast that was equal parts Death from Above 1979 and the Illuminati.
As if bass-beating frontman Whitey needed to prove he was the craziest man in the sweltering house, he played the whole set in a fur trapper's hat while a perspiring hottie in a white dress shook her maracas to the grind. They ripped into I Got Fucked By Liberty Mutual for a crowd-pleasing closer, and then halfway through replaced the name of the auto insurance company with Long & McQuade, to the delight of many musicians present.
Oh, by the way - if you happened to find a ring of keys outside Suspect near Queen and Bathurst late Saturday night, could you give Dave Porter at Universal a call immediately? He needs some sleep and his food's going bad. Thanks.
Over at the Black Bull , the Saturday-night regulars seemed unimpressed with Milton Mapes . Not that the Austin twangers were having an off night; their Crazy Horse-inspired jams were more engaging than anything they've recorded. It's just that the parade of Paris Hilton clones clearly didn't want any swarthy fuds in plaid shirts wailing about death and decay to spoil their sexy.
Lucky those fashionistas weren't at the Gladstone round midnight, where we saw a couple of the most disappointing shows in our NXNE history. First up was Friday Morning's Regret , who followed up a decently bland alt-country ditty with thoroughly mediocre emo-ish alt-rock, including an Against Me! cover. That was soon followed by a set of painful alterna-psych silliness from the Daybreak , whose likenesses you can find on posters all over Queen West. Remember gross Constantine Maroulis, aka the tongue-waggling other rocker dude from last season's American Idol? His band is probably just like the Daybreak.
Later, ran into Ian Blurton and Katie Lynn Campbell of Torockers C'mon (but you knew that already) and the DFA1979 dudes over in Parkdale at the Vice-mag-sponsored private Club OV's party. Basking in the glow of hipster love and neon beer signs, Toronto's No Dynamics brought a barrage of bass-less rock with Vanessa Fischer 's power-belt vox, followed by Bush League' s walnutty energy topped off with a scoop of Malajube's high-charge aggression.
NXNE hits and misses
Ladies & Gentlemen
The Lovely Feathers
Friday Morning's Regret