Toronto’s North by Northeast – or NXNE – is the younger cousin and orienteering opposite of the behemoth Austin music extravaganza South by Southwest. Over its 17 years, the festival has swollen to 7 days of concerts (ranging from cozy church acoustic sets to sprawling punk moshing at Yonge and Dundas Square), films (mostly music-centric documentaries, including this year’s highly touted Better Than Something: Jay Reatard) and interactive conferences (if you were a musician and could get advice from Brian Wilson, wouldn’t you?).
As with any event attempting to cram >600 bands into a few rock-filled days, it has its downsides. As per the SXSW model, the majority of sets are hosted by bars instead of outdoor stages; between dreaded line-ups, safety capacity, and city sprawl, show hopping presents some challenges. Some shows had limits on wristband admittance, require patiently camping out in cue or purchasing additional tickets for entry.
The festival concert becomes a new challenge for the hometown crowd. Unlike insouciant visitors – free of other responsibilities and able to party through the night and recover in the daytime – locals have to play the balancing act between maximum music absorption and minimal sleep/work disruption. Thus, we opted for a version of NXNE for the slightly risk-averse Toronto music fan: mostly music we knew, with a couple of wildcards. As a change of pace, this festival is presented through two points-of-view (sometimes coalescing, sometimes contradicting): Kevin Kania and Sabrina Diemert. We tried to keep our snark to a minimum.
The Meligrove Band
We interviewed the Meligrove Band last year just prior to the release of their 2010 album, Shimmering Lights. I’ve caught the stalwart members of the Toronto music scene in a few shows since. I had my fingers crossed for new material, but was pleasantly surprised as they launched unannounced into the Ramones discography. It looked good on them: leather jackets with white tees, face-shielding hair, and silly antics, including a sparkle-shooting gun to close ‘Pinhead’, and some very literal props during ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’. They even covered ‘California Sun’, which is in fact a cover itself. Meta. — Sabrina Diemert
Somehow I came into the possession of a Meligrove Band t-shirt featuring a tiger shooting lightning bolts out of its mouth. This was all the motivation I needed to start off NXNE with the Nevado Records showcase. The band walked out decked in matching leather jackets, white t-shirts and jeans, and started playing. When they started playing ‘Judy is a Punk’ three songs in, it finally hit me that the Meligrove Band had become a Ramones cover band for a one-off show. Certainly an attention-grabber, though if NXNE is a showcase for your own stuff, the Meligrove Band may have missed an opportunity. Still, I’m sure people were intrigued enough by the Ramones stunt to check out the band behind it. — Kevin Kania
The Paint Movement
I’ve seen the Paint Movement once before, and I recall walking away happy. The band has a lot going on, and at times doesn’t seem to know what it wants to accomplish. The big line-up including two saxophonists led to a lot of variety, but not a lot of cohesion. Still, they were pleasant enough, if not especially memorable. — Kevin Kania
Being totally unfamiliar with the Paint Movement, I fell back on my (at times contemptible) first instinct for assessing new material: what or who does it sound like? With their chaotic layering of harmonies, hushed male vocals balanced by sprightly female ones, and prominent horn sequences, every tune reverberated to me of tracks from Broken Social Scene’s self-titled 2005 album. Not necessarily a bad thing, I thought as the band bounced through their set making jokes and lamenting the theft of a guitar earlier that day, but nothing groundbreaking. I predict that their second album, set to release in the fall, will get a fair bit of CBC airplay. — Sabrina Diemert
Why isn’t this band more popular? The sum of their cleverly circular tongue-in-cheek references to hipsters and pop culture, zany stage antics and hapless touring adventures is a lovable, ubiquitously Canadian group of rogues. They were up to their usual antics on Wednesday, with spirited dancing, choral singing and attempted handstands. — Sabrina Diemert
Getting more press for their horrible luck (like their equipment being stolen and their rehearsal space being flooded) than their excellent music, Library Voices were the highlight of the night. Seeking to heal the nation after the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss (despite one of their own wearing a Bruins jersey), their energetic brand of pop packed the Rivoli. Their set consisted mostly of Denim on Denim with some new material from the forthcoming Summer of Lust sprinkled in to the set. The set finished with their two strongest songs, ‘Haunt This House’ and EP-track ‘Step Off the Map and Float’. — Kevin Kania
Given that this was a Nevado showcase, having Yukon Blonde as the special guest for the night wasn’t much of a surprise, but it’s always a pleasure to finish the night off by listening to a song like ‘Wind Blows’. — Kevin Kania
The Forest City Lovers
Thursday night was ushered in at the Music Gallery – a church which was ironically as hot as hell – by The Forest City Lovers. Kat Burns’ delicate vocals were highlighted in the airy atrium. However, presumably the ambient-sensitive locale prevented the inclusion of a drummer (unless we missed something), which left the songs lacking the driving force evident on Haunting Moon Rising. And while the show was calm and beautiful, most of the sweat-drenched crowd was grateful when Burns announced their closing song, ‘Don’t Go’, with a contrite addendum that unlike the song’s proclamation, we were free to leave the heat. — Sabrina Diemert
In order to get some prime real estate for PS I Love You, we made our way to the Horseshoe Tavern a little early. Unfortunately, Royal Bangs didn’t impress, which was foreshadowed by the lead singer’s vocal aerobics during the soundcheck. — Kevin Kania
It sounded to me like he was trying to warble a ballad from A Little Mermaid. Other concert-goers seemed to be enjoying themselves and the band was lauded by different media outlets, so I guess that counts for something. Personally, I second Kevin’s tweet at the time: “Royal Bangs? More like Peasant Bangs.” — Sabrina Diemert
PS I Love You
While always a show-dampener, technical issues are particularly frustrating. In the scheme of a festival concert. NXNE runs under the fairly traditional set-up of 1 hour performance blocks; between set-up, soundcheck, and take down, the individual sets are lucky to hit the 45 minute mark. The Ca Va Cool favourites blew a fuse immediately after performing the title track from their Polaris nominated ‘Meet Me at the Muster Station’, leading to a somewhat shortened yet still high energy set. Their bad luck happened to follow them when they blew another speaker at their secret show at the El Mocambo later that night. Sabrina’s fingers were crossed for a John O’Regan cameo, but no luck. — Kevin Kania and Sabrina Diemert
With a three-night residency at the Silver Dollar, Crocodiles came with a bit of hype. Unfortunately, the only thing I left with was the fact that Brandon Welchez is kind of a douche. Decked out in sunglasses at night, Crocodiles’ lead singer seemed incredibly infatuated with himself, acting like a brat, spitting beer, and generally showing something between disdain and disregard for his audience. I’d comment on the music if I could remember any of it. Being married to a Dum Dum Girl must be nice. — Kevin Kania
I don’t disagree with Kevin’s assessment of Crocodiles show; however, this was partially why I got a kick out of the show. I’ve been to many a’ concert in my day and witnessed a variety of performing personas: excited, appreciative, nervous, quirky, moody, bored, indifferent, but never this level of haughty, showy, condescending coolness. The swagger! The sunglasses inside at night! The fact that he managed to hit the ceiling with his spit! All of this juxtaposed with the Crocodiles’ Black Rebel Motorcycle Club-esque dark garage rock left me tapping my feet with a slightly incredulous grin throughout the show. I don’t condone this kind of asshat behaviour in real life, but it sure as hell made this concert more interesting. — Sabrina Diemert
Remembering good things from their opening slot for Hey Rosetta! earlier this year, we decided to kick off night three with St. John’s Gramercy Riffs at Sneaky Dee’s. After a brief run-in and chat with Handsome Furs on Queen Street, we caught the tail end of their set, and thankfully managed to hear ‘Come Home Darlin’. — Kevin Kania
Toronto’s Ruby Coast turned out some enjoyable poppy rock, and became one of the poppiest bands I’ve seen to cause a mosh pit. I always worry that Sneaky Dee’s second floor will give way whenever that happens. I was eager to see Paper Lions up next, but I had to make my way over to the Horseshoe. — Kevin Kania
Is there a point when you’re too old for punk rock? Lead singer Keith Morris, of Circle Jerks and the original lead singer for Black Flag, is in his mid-50s, and is still capable of inducing spontaneous mosh pits during punk rock supergroup OFF!’s two minute jams. The set was filled out with Morris ranting on numerous topics, including the state of war, government, hockey and French fries, or in other words, being punk to the point of self-parody. I’m not one for hardcore punk, but the stream-of-consciousness asides and the ongoing saga of finding the owner of a shoe thrown on stage made this an interesting diversion. — Kevin Kania
The Pack A.D.
Near the dawn of this young decade, the noisier-than-expected two-person band seemed to be a trend. Japandroids, The Black Keys, Broken Bells, P.S. I Love You and others were reiterating the fact that multiple musicians weren’t necessary for hard-rocking albums or high-energy shows. One of my favourite groups to emerge from this niche were The Pack A.D., two spunky East Vancouverite gals who had the spastic Horseshoe crowd moshing to their bluesy rock. While Maya Miller cursed and plotted to reassemble her drum kit with “fucking duct tape”, guitarist/singer Beck Black looked slightly hangdog as their launched into their single, ‘B.C. is on Fire’, which was written after raging forest fires but was uncannily appropriate in the wake of hockey riots. — Sabrina Diemert
The capstone of my NXNE 2011 was discovering Deerhoof as the secret headliner for The Horseshoe’s Friday night show. Breaking into their superbly retro cover of ‘Let’s Dance the Jet’, the crowd took heed and drunkenly swayed and jumped along. The endearingly awkward Greg Saulnier (usually on drums, but always compelled to banter at concerts) commented that “72.5% of Deerhoof vs. Evil was recorded in Toronto”, garnering him some excited drunken hometown-support cheers. The exuberant set was almost exclusively songs from their 2011 record (which I unabashedly love), peppered with some old favourites. Luckily, I escaped the thrashing dance-a-thon relatively unscathed and satisfied. Most underrated band out there, hands down. — Sabrina Diemert
After hearing of the massive line-ups that occurred during Friday’s Dum Dum Girls/Cults bill, we decided to make our way to Lee’s Palace a little earlier. We managed to see the tail end of Guards’ set, which seemed enjoyable enough. — Kevin Kania
The first of two one-man bands hit the stage with an extended lineup. Playing with an actual band necessitates a change in style, and we received a fuller, more vibrant take on most of the tracks from Gemini. For something billed as shoegaze, it was remarkably energetic. Album stand-out ‘Chinatown’ was likewise the highlight of the set. — Kevin Kania
Being completely unfamiliar with Twin Shadow, the Toronto show was much the same as Jan’s Primavera experience, though George Lewis Jr. had on an amusing hat. This was perhaps in preparation for this fall’s Clean Cuts Tour, in which he will sport a different hairstyle in each city. — Kevin Kania
The fresh signees to Sub Pop first gained my attention for their sampling of Jon Brion’s ‘Phone Call’ track from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Again, the duo had an extended live lineup, and played songs from their forthcoming LP. It fit the hazy, shoegazey trend of the night, and was a good cap to the NXNE experience. — Kevin Kania
Tags: Crocodiles, Deerhoof, Grammercy Riffs, Guards, Library Voices, Memoryhouse, OFF!, PS I Love You, Royal Bangs, Ruby Coast, The Forest City Lovers, The Meligrove Band, The Pack A.D., The Paint Movement, Twin Shadow, Wild Nothing, Yukon Blonde