TURF: This ain’t your granddad’s folk fest

Lucinda Williams, Built to Spill, The Pixies and more rock Fort York

WILCO, NEKO CASE, LUCINDA WILLIAMS, PIXIES and many others as part of the TORONTO URBAN ROOTS FESTIVAL, Fort York Garrison Common, Friday to Sunday, September 18-20. Rating: NNN

In its third year, Toronto Urban Roots Festival felt a bit like the best of the Horseshoe on three big stages, one backed by the Gardiner Expressway.

On Friday, Steve Poltz warmed a sizable crowd at the South highway stage, providing a spot-on pseudo MC intro for himself before touting a record so new he had just gotten copies. Unfortunately the new songs came from the grating edge of an otherwise impressive spectrum, though Poltz’s storytelling entertained. 

Built to Spill’s West Main Stage set was heavy – TURF ain’t your granddad’s folk fest – ending in a pretty faithful head-nodding cover of How Soon Is Now? (the guitar effects, anyway). And the crowd adored North Carolina’s the Avett Brothers at the East Main Stage, though I wasn’t sold until they broke it down to just Seth Avett on guitar and vocals singing The Ballad Of Love And Hate.

UB40 got deservedly big love during their uplifting and nostalgic set, a party that ended with (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You. One of the most magical moments of the weekend, for me, was seeing the band’s horn section driving east toward the stage.

Saturday Lucinda Williams parted storm clouds, saying she draws the line at lightning cause she’s “not ready to die” yet. Well, amen. Williams and her band were rocking, playing amped-up soul tunes from her new album, like Protection and Foolishness (she added political oomph to the latter with asides like “Tax the rich!”). Impeccably timed, the sun peeked out as Williams sang, “Can’t put the rain back in the sky.” In a set that felt brief, Williams unfortunately ended with two covers: Should I Stay Or Should I Go? and Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World (a repeat from her gig at Massey Hall).

Wilco, by contrast, played for a generous length of time, working through songs from their recent free Star Wars release before digging into fan favourites Handshake Drugs, I’m Always In Love, Box Full Of Letters, Heavy Metal Drummer and more. Choir! Choir! Choir! didn’t sing with Wilco, but they pretty much sang with everyone else. They more than earned their VIP passes, appearing alone on the South Stage, then coming back for Rich Aucoin’s parachute-assisted electro set before popping up at the end of Cake to join in on Short Skirt Long Jacket.

Saturday closers Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were a bit of a head scratcher, if oddly celebratory and, in small doses, entertaining. Down a singer (Jade Castrinos is no longer with the band) the L.A. supergroup’s set felt discombobulated and rambling Willy Wonka-like lead man Alex Ebert danced around in loose-fitting clothes in front of kaleidoscopic projections, pulling up kids and super-fans from the crowd and sometimes forgetting to get them off the stage.

Sunday was more consistent, both weather- and music-wise. Cool breezes and sunny skies provided a beautiful backdrop for some of TURF’s heavier daytime fare, like Hop Along frontwoman Frances Quinlan’s throat-shredding vocals (miraculously not sounding worn out after a set at Lee’s the previous night) and the predictable blues riffage of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, whose “cool guy” shtick has grown tired.

The flawless vocals of Neko Case against a vanilla sky sunset – a stark contrast to her set at the first TURF in a biblical downpour – proved she can still bring a house down. Touring for an upcoming box set, Case focused on deep cuts that may have made it a hit-or-miss experience for festival-goers less familiar with her catalogue.

Bringing us home, though, were Pixies, who played it mostly safe with a slew of hits peppered sparingly with tracks from 2014’s Indie Cindy. Still, with impeccable sound and 90 lag-free minutes of music (Frank Black only really stopped once to cut off a song and play something else, suggesting he work off some mystery frustration by playing Tame), the veteran alt-rockers gave the people what they wanted, capping the festival off with their 1988 classic Where Is My Mind?

music@nowtoronto.com | @sarahegreene

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