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My Friday night got off to a great start thanks to AroarA's spellbinding 8 pm set at the Silver Dollar. The small crowd was made up largely of photographers who never put their cameras down, but that didn't stop the Montreal art-pop duo from turning on their charisma full blast.
Lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Ariel Engle oozes a sultry mysticism. In a satiny pink and black hooded cape/dress, she sang flitting melodies in a strong, soulful, utterly commanding voice while plucking hypnotically rhythmic lines from her electric and cigar-box guitars.
She also worked a Roland 404 sampler, weaving in ambient sounds, additional beats and harmonies, and, near the end, a gorgeous piano part.
But guitarist Andrew Whiteman (a founding member of Broken Social Scene) is just as integral. His guitar-playing chops impressed throughout, often drawing from Eastern music influences both ancient and contemporary. The final song found him and Engle sing-chanting "Be with the spirits" as a fog machine worked its ambience behind them.
Downtempo dramatic and hugely emotional. The crowd ate it up.
A quick stop into Rancho Relaxo for Patti Cake's showcase wasn't nearly so fulfilling. The local group led by singer/rhythm guitarist Kritty Uranowski, flanked by two female backup singers, has bombastic energy to spare, but on this night it came off as a whole lot of hollering.
Technical issues with Uranowski's guitar were also clearly driving her crazy, though that frustration led to hilarious, sassy, cuss-filled banter between songs. Sadly I didn't stick around long enough to see whether her promise to buy drinks for whoever danced the hardest came to fruition.
A quick bike ride down Bathurst to the Hideout brought me to the band I was most excited to see at NXNE: Saskatoon's Shooting Guns. They play instrumental stoner rock built on Iommian riffs and psychedelic keyboards that sometimes bring Sleep or Rainbow to mind.
There was a worrisome lack of bodies at the start, but shortly after 10 pm the place filled up, heads began to bang, and the music subtly crescendoed into a heavy, psych rock swirl of awesomeness. The five-piece isn't scared of repetition, and knows just how long it can take to hit that hypnotic sweet spot.
Then I was off to the Great Hall for Sloan's Murderecords 21st anniversary celebration. Trying to get inside the building was chaos - huge lineups for both the Great Hall and the other for the Blk Box downstairs, bouncers yelling about being over-capacity, fans complaining that they'd spent fifty bucks on tickets and needed to get in.
My media pass swept me through the worst of it, though I was relegated to the balcony since the main hall was full. Aside from the extreme volume, the balcony turned out to be the best place to be, with a perfect view of the four shaggy-haired former Haligonians directly below. They played their Peppermint EP front to back, and tacked Same Old Flame and Stood Up onto the set's end.
Downstairs at Blk Box, the Young Lions showcase was in full swing. The crowd was appropriately young, and PBR was the beer of choice, as opposed to Sloan fans' Stiegls. We awaited Still Life Still for what seemed like an eternity, an impression enhanced by the fact that the band stood onstage the whole time, seemingly ready to go.
Once the sound issue was worked out, the Arts & Crafts five-piece kicked into a set of danceable, layered indie rock that they executed with gusto straight out of the gates. Singer/guitarists Brendon Saarinen and Eric Young have the curious habit of singing in unison for part or all of the songs, and it helped give oomph to their light voices.
"We're releasing a record in August," said Young to much cheering from the crowd. "It's been four years, so we're really happy to be playing shows and touring again."
Back upstairs, the Super Friendz were kicking out the indie pop jams big time. It couldn't have been easy following Sloan, but the reunited Murderecords band delivered one of the fieriest performances I've ever seen them play. (And I've seen them play A LOT.)
They tried to end with 10 Lbs but the crowd wasn't having any of it. A Super Friendz chant went up the moment they left the stage, and though it's unusual for bands to play encores during festivals, the four-piece returned for a few more songs, including a blistering rendition of Karate Man.
Unforgettable: Matt Murphy extending the end of the Super Friendz instrumental theme song finale over and over and over again, to his band's amusement. I don't think he ever wanted to leave that stage.