THURSDAY, JUNE 8
Falling for singer Liela Moss is mandatory - for all genders and orientations - upon seeing the Duke Spirit . A mere tambourine rattle or cold stare can get you fired up enough to overlook the fact that Moss looks like she'd rather kick you in the groin than sign an autograph. Her backing band members are no slouches either. Their 9 pm Reverb set of boozy belting with steady shoegaze chord progressions and hammering blues licks made for an auspicious beginning to the weekend. Later that night, the Brit rock 'n' roll machine filled in for Danko Jones , who backed out of their 2 am Horseshoe slot.
Though Lee's and the 'Shoe are typically NXNE's most overcrowded venues, MapleMusic's up-and-comers night at the Boat was this year's surprise sellout. Midland's Born Ruffians , a barely legal trio playing cerebral indie rock, kicked off the party while Maple bigwigs including head honcho Andy Maize watched wide-eyed.
Next up were Montreal's Land of Talk , who crammed the best parts of 90s indie rock - crunchy guitars, driving drums, heart-snagging vocals, bass line contortions - into their tunes, sans wimpy navel-gazing. Liz Powell 's a dream frontperson, lapsing into near-trances while scraping away at her guitar, but the best part of their live show is how easy it is to watch any member of the power trio, from sock- monkey drummer Bucky Wheaton to slacker bassist Chris McCarron .
Holy Fuck 's Brian Borcherdt gleefully grinned during his latest Dependent signees' set, then chatted up Islands ' Jim Guthrie while local celebs crowded the already jammed joint to see Toronto new wavers Kill the Lights . Polaris Prize executive director Steve Jordan tried to decide whether to cast his vote for the five-piece, while Gentlemen Reg hovered near the bar and high-profile EMI rep Melissa Auf der Maur took mental notes. Kill the Lights ignored all the egos and played a solid, energetic set.
By the time Montreal's the Adam Brown hit the stage, most of the celebs had left. They missed a raucous collection of loud party anthems that didn't suffer one bit from guitarist Shawn Petsche 's nasty cold.
Mark Berube , with his strained growl and wobbly piano/accordion style, is obviously aiming for Tom Waits comparisons. He doesn't quite pull it off - the soul factor felt forced coming from a guy who can barely get a beard going. But Berube crooned his hardest to the receptive Healey's crowd, which left us wondering why such a strong singer wastes his time on broken man theatrics.
One of Thursday's bright spots was a last-minute Free Times fill-in by PEI singer/songwriter Catherine MacLellan (daughter of Gene "Snowbird" MacLellan), who looked as though she'd come straight from the farm to the stage of the folk café. The poised upstart transfixed the crowd with her soulful voice and fingerpicked guitar as she navigated through idiosyncratic changes that made perfect sense in a Joni Mitchell kinda way. Instead of using her set to plug her great new Church Bell Blues (Sandbar) disc, she went off script and performed songs she'd just written that came off like well-worn classics.
Brutal Knights ' punk savant Nick Flanagan eschewed his customary shirtlessness but brought his wicked throaty wail to the packed Silver Dollar , wowing Knights fans and converting non-believers with water-bottle splashes of aggression.
As anticipated, King Khan and his nine bandmates (including a go-go dancer whose pom-pom-waving was as constant as her smile) tore the roof off the blues bar later that night with a raspy-voiced set of horn-cluttered classic R&Belia. Ebullient promoter Dan Burke won a couple of rounds of pool before instructing a few strangers to "watch the merch table," which had been left unattended until that point.
Over at the sweaty Rivoli , Neverending White Lights beamed about their recent tour with Our Lady Peace. Raine Maida lurked sullenly, sharing the crowd consensus that 1 am was too late for overwrought ballads and caterwauling. Chatting up a lass in the corner, Sum 41 bassist Cone McCaslin obviously didn't hear NWL singer Daniel Victor 's self-conscious appeal: "I hear a lot of talking out there - are you still with me?"
FRIDAY, JUNE 9
If there was an award for the most enthusiastic, happy-to-play band, Brisbane, Australia's the Black Arts clinched it with their energetic show at the Crowbar . Throwing together doses of the Beatles, the Shins and the Flaming Lips, the five-piece showed a knack for catchy songs with singalong choruses that echoed Shane MacGowan. Live disco crew Dietzche V. and the Abominable Snowman might've been a sore thumb on the El Mo 's rockcentric Friday roster, but the Edmontonians managed to turn heads and move bodies. The energetic foursome used a live rhythm section to support trance programming, Daft sampling and 80s synths.
We hope those who stuck around for Rod Slaughter 's new incarnation, Novillero , weren't looking for the minimalist design of his previous two-piece, Duotang, since Slaughter led his Winnipeg crew through a Phil Spectorish symphony. Slaughter emoting at a keyboard instead of spazzing out with a bass takes some getting used to, but at least he's still wearing the same Tip Top suit from the Duotang days.
Birmingham, England's Michael Weston King charmed at the Free Times Café . The gent is hysterical in a dry, The Office kind of way and knows how to work a crowd, balancing sensitivity with enough irony to prevent the tunes from descending into mawkishness.
At Rancho Relaxo , Glasgow upstarts El Dog and their frontman, Bob "Dogboy" Rafferty , seemed like they might've have had one too many sips of pre-show brew. How else to explain the slurred yelps and misguided jokes? Though they rocked heavy, their set sounded like it was being emitted from a cardboard box.
NOW's own showcase at the Reverb was busy from the get-go. While it was no shocker that folks flocked to catch solo Stars songstress Amy Millan 's acoustic set, luckier were the early birds who showed up for Do Right! jazz siren Elizabeth Shepherd 's 8 pm scorcher of a set. Walking into the club, you felt like you were in the best Movement night ever - except these hot jazz joints were being assembled live. Definitely not for fogeys. The clear highlight of the evening, though, was local rock posse Femme Generation 's exhilarating, confetti- and streamer-infused post-punk party, which ended in a magnificent onstage collapse.
White Cowbell Oklahoma 's nine-man Duke brothers outfit followed C'mon 's heavy Horseshoe set with two-hours-plus of outrageousness. Scantily clad dancer plus chain saws and grinders onstage = an alarmingly hazardous yet rockariffically rockin' show.
Over at the Silver Dollar , after a goofy self-MC'd intro, Anagram 's Matt Mason pushed people around in the crowd with the sour-faced spirit of a true high-school parking-lot punk before joining his band, including brother Willy Mason (no, not the guy currently opening for Radiohead) to cap off the night with saxxy dark rock.
A Brand , a motley group of Antwerp art rockers, failed to ignite late-night yawners at the Crowbar . The notion that their mash-up of complex rock and club-foot thump would rouse the crowd was a long shot, especially when you factor in the odd chorus line of gruff-voiced singers shouting in unison over blazing electric guitars.
At the Drake Lounge after 2 am, DJ Ben Boles was spinning to a packed room thanks to the hotel's special NXNE late-night liquor licence. Boles's mixing and track selection flowed smoothly as a small, persistent group of dancers battled with chi-chi martini drinkers for floor space.
SATURDAY, JUNE 10
The Bluesers , who kicked off the Silver Dollar 's Saturday showcases, are like the Partridge Family of, well, the blues. They've even got their own Danny Bonaduce in 13-year-old guitar phenom Chris Cotton , who, with his glasses and bowl cut, looked like he should be doing spelling bees instead of shredding face-melting solos over 12-bar electric blues. Bluesy rockers Hunter Valentine made the trek to the Drake pay off with a set of honest, perfectly timed rock 'n' roll. The growing crowd - including pals the Duke Spirit and True North top gun Bernie Finkelstein - seemed duly impressed.
John Kastner had only two days to throw together a squad of rockers before his El Mocambo showcase. Backed by ringers like Sloan's Patrick Pentland on guitar and Treble Charger's Trevor MacGregor on skins, Kastner's crew almost sounded like a band coming off a world tour.
At the Richmond Lounge , T.O. rapper MJ taught guys in tight silk shirts and girls in miniskirts how to groove. Despite the mismatched crowd of club district regulars and ragged hipsters, it was one of the weekend's better shows.
Old-timey duo Twilight Hotel were screwed by their time slot, which coincided with the Oilers game. Hockey fans at the Fox & Fiddle let it be known quickly (and loudly) that country music wasn't on their agenda.
For the Flow 93.5 Showcase at Gypsy Co-op , Michie Mee 's 11 pm rhymefest was followed by very-worth-checking-out mixtape magnate JD Era and his entourage, who came with some neck-breaking tongue-twistas. Upstairs at Hooch , Chicago mic wrecka SB brought a blend of aggressive conscious rap and stimulating lines. He was filming a DVD here - hence the massive camera that obstructed the view for many.
An inexplicably long lineup at the Horseshoe led some to sneak in through the back door. The chief attraction? CRIA's R&B mouthpiece, Jully Black , who spent most of her extra-long set talking about her nine siblings and inviting her mother to the stage. Yawn. Follow-up act the Old Soul 's smart, Elephant 6ish tunes were the perfect antidote to Black's overwrought stories (she actually cried during one song). Too bad their set was overshadowed by an intoxicated Kinnie Starr and a lucky lady friend who were getting busy by the merch table.
One of the night's unexpected highlights had to be Richmond, Virginia's banjo-powered Wrinkle Neck Mules , whose hayseed take on country rock makes the Bottle Rockets sound like city slickers. At the Cadillac Lounge, the Mules' dual vocal attack briefly brought to mind early Uncle Tupelo, though their emerging jam band tendencies could easily steer them full-on into Dave Matthews territory of the most frattish kind. The Mules have been seen wandering around outside Matthews's Haunted Hollow Studios with unblinking stares, so it could already be too late for an intervention.
On the subject of annoying folksingers, Jodi Martin seemed to be lost in a summer-of-love time warp at the Art Bar , where the Aussie bush babe was bent on recycling the old why-can't-we-all-just-get-along platitudes in songs about family problems, geo-political struggles and racial strife. During a brief break to grouse about the noisy karaoke next door at the Drake , Martin opined that there's "nothing better than having a friend," then challenged the audience to prove her wrong.
Art-folk threat Harmony Trowbridge was the polar opposite of Martin during her charmingly shaky (due to the fact that she acted as her own sound person) Free Times set. With a voice like a less affected Jolie Holland, a gift for wordplay and contorted melodies that wind around themselves like the ouroboros made aural, Trowbridge could become a cult star when her new LP comes out. But what gives with the one-drink minimum at the Free Times? The poor server forced to hassle drop-in fans was a huge distraction from a solid set.
Aussies the Golden Age made like the second coming of Sonic Youth at Rancho late Saturday. Their secret weapon was a guitarist who looked like Joan Jett, played like Jonny Greenwood and sang like Kim Gordon. Despite amp malfunctions and volume gaffes, the Golden kids won over the crowd with their alt-rock hodgepodge.
Edge 102-approved punks Cauterize kicked off their 1 am Kathedral set with Josh Slater 's brilliant Castlevania-style guitar solo, then launched into pop-punk bounce that obscured Jesse Smith 's vocals.
The El Mo was rammed and stiflingly hot for the Burning Brides ' closing set Saturday. Ian Blurton was all smiles through his ZZ Top beard as he watched singer/guitarist Dimitri Coats and bassist Melanie Campbell tear through mostly new songs from their upcoming Hang Love album.
HITS & MISSES
Land of Talk
King Khan & His Shrines
Wrinkle Neck Mules
Michael Weston King
The Duke Spirit
Neverending White Lights
My Darkest Days