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Samuel T. Herring gets low on the island
Future Islands performed as the sun was going down in the gorgeous setting of Artscape Gibraltar Point on Toronto Islands' Hanlan's Point. The setting was lush, shady and spectacular; the weather near-perfect; the bar open. It was kind of a pain to get to (booze cruise ferries that were supposed to leave every hour suddenly were only leaving every two hours). But for frontman Samuel T. Herring, I would have swam across. The same guy who had been casually hanging out in the crowd before his set was so fully committed to each and every tune from the band's awesome album, Singles, plus harder hits from their back catalogue like Tin Man. "He's so earnest!" one music editor next to me exclaimed. Beating his chest, swaying his hips and crouching low near the stage, Herring made us all wish we could pull off sincerity half as well. When he danced, we danced. When he growled, we growled. Also, is it just me? Or are his moves getting smoother and smoother?
Speedy Ortiz namedrops Toronto comic book store
Speedy Ortiz is named after a minor character from the alt comic Love And Rockets, so when the Massachusetts band's frontwoman Sadie Dupuis name-dropped Toronto's the Beguiling as her "favourite comic book store," a sense of hometown pride (she likes us, she really really likes us!) washed over the half-empty Mod Club. Then, without missing a beat, she quickly introduced their tune Gary ("this one is named after our favourite Pokemon character") and ripped through a distortion-fuelled rendition that had the scattering of mostly male attendees whipping their heads back and forth in unison. Speedy Ortiz is much louder and grungier live - they like their guitars slung low - than they are on 2013's Major Arcana, which could explain why they didn't play the album's centerpiece, the slow-burning, heart-aching No Below.
Tim Hecker through a Funktion One
While the owners of the Great Hall work through the long, arduous process of getting a proper liquor license for their downstairs venue the Blk Box Theatre, their powerful high-end Funktion One sound system has been collecting dust in the basement. Rather than let all that wattage go to waste, owner Nav Sangha decided to move the giant stacks of speakers up to the main Great Hall room for NXNE, thrilling all the sound nerds in attendance.
The increased power allowed for crystalline clarity for White Poppy's solo ambient performance and a deafening roar for Fresh Snow's drone rock, but really made the biggest difference for Tim Hecker's experimental electronic set. Playing in complete darkness helped put the emphasis completely on the eerily beautiful washes of sound echoing and surging through the room. In the right hands, a great club sound system can be as much an instrument as a vintage violin.
Alt-country lady Jess Reimer with a side of Bob Wiseman
Jess Reimer's early (and sadly, only) NXNE set at the Cameron House made me wish I had a direct line to folk fest ADs to say, "book this lady, okay?" She plays alt-country as it should be: original, engaging, low on the affectation and high on the musicianship, vocals and songs. As the crowd drifted in, she captured us with her quirky, dark tunes about life on the prairies. With her was her husband Jer Hamm (on mandolin and fiddle) and a Toronto band, including Bob Wiseman, who produced her upcoming album. Though Ron Sexsmith did not show up (Sexsmith sang backup on three of her record's tunes), he wasn't missed much; Wiseman contributed a rousing gospel solo on Reimer's tune about wanting to believe and Reimer proved that 10,000 Miles - one of Wiseman's - makes for a great country song.
Omar Souleyman's Vegas show antics
Omar Souleyman's unlikely rise from wedding singer to international pop star is steeped in his ability to evoke gaiety as you listen to the electronica-infused dabke folk music from his native Syria. At the VICE Island show, the 47-year-old looked like a don, decked out in a traditional outfit consisting of jalabiya and keffiyeh, and sporting a neat and paternal moustache. Despite sharing the bill with hip-skewing, charismatic frontmen Pusha T, Le1f, and Future Island's Samuel T. Herring, Souleyman managed to stand out. His stage act is part Vegas showman, part aged gangster. He doesn't move much, but when he does it's methodic and purposeful - his most strenuous dance move consisted of him gently flipping his wrists back and forth like he was curling a mini dumbbell. Though much of the audience came in unfamilair with Souleyman's music, they left knowing that great things can come in unusual packages.