Toronto’s North by Northeast music and arts festival is a week-long, world-class event that just finished its 19th year and the word on the street is that it was better than ever. Like that other, more famous directional seven day affair in Austin, NXNE is not just a music festival, although that side was by far the event’s biggest attraction. As if a lineup consisting of over a thousand bands weren’t enticing enough, NXNE hosted a conference of industry-related presentations, film screenings, art installations, and as of 2013, comedy.
North by Northeast proved to be a refreshing change of pace from the escalating absurdity of similar events. In contrast to the no-chance-in-hell-of-attending superstar sets at the festival with the opposite heading, nearly every showcase was easily accessible despite the tens of thousands attending the events on any given day. So relaxed was the atmosphere at NXNE that there was rarely ever a need to separate the wristband wearers from the badge-sporting press since lines only formed shortly before some of the most popular acts were set to take the stage.
In Toronto, a formidable music scene is not just tolerated but actually fostered thanks to a loving embrace among the populace and financial support from the Department of Canadian Heritage for events such as NXNE. During what locals refer to only as “North by”, music seemingly overtakes every bar and nightclub in the city at night, except here those curfews and last calls extend to 4:00 a.m. and beyond. Like SXSW, there are also official daytime showcases and off-the-grid, invite-only parties with free food and alcohol and even a boat party.
Due to the prevalence of mostly unknown and unsigned acts, the majority of NXNE’s “buzz bands” are literally word of mouth sensations, in contrast to coming from the internet music media machine. In addition to artists from every genre imaginable throughout Canada, NXNE hosted plenty of international acts on its myriad stages. If local punk experiments aren’t your thing, how about Taiwanese shoegaze, septuagenarian superhero soul men, or perhaps some much ballyhooed dad rock from Brooklyn? At NXNE, there were at least a few dozen somethings for everyone.
The pleasures of the Comfort Zone, courtesy of Paula
Comfort Zone has an infamously sketchy reputation among locals, specifically the tendency of club goers to drop the hardest of illicit substances here and stretch the concept of “after hours” into a post-noon stumble. Maybe it was the jetlag from two delayed flights and the sleepless night that preceded them, but the venue’s notoriety would have been too much to resist, even if BRAIDS had not been on the lineup. Yet here they were, and since the Montreal natives became an act not to be missed after holding their own when supporting the thunderous thrills of Asobi Seksu back in 2011, my NXNE adventure truly began at Comfort Zone.
Clearly I was not the only one that had BRAIDS on the “must-see” column of their list, because this dark, dank, hole-in-the-floor became promptly packed, although not full, by the time opener Paula took the stage. Comfort Zone apparently lacks any lights except of the black variety, so Paula is illuminated by colorful projections that made the band a living, breathing psychedelic backdrop. For just over half an hour, frontman David Carriere’s dropped pop hooks among a mish-mashed chum of new wave, punk, and most everything that made people jump in the latter years of the 20th century. In the present day, however, the masses remained still but expressed vocal approval.
BRAIDS’ debut Native Speaker is a likelier soundtrack to tales on the Shroomery than the home of k-holes and GHB-induced pass-outs, but the band recently ditched the guitar for a more danceable direction. As a result, the set of synth-heavy songs from the In Kind // Amends EP and their upcoming sophomore album Flourish // Perish was less akin to floating in space and more about being hypnotized into a swaying trance as Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s dream pop melodies hazed into tribal rhythms. Even the soundcheck was a delight, thanks to her drawn-out, sing-song deliveries of “cheeeeeck.” Apparently the crowd truly came to life two hours later during Standell-Preston’s dance outfit Blue Hawaii, but by then I was across town.
Getting down at Boys Noize
Alexander Ridha is the rare producer whose beats are ones both fist-pumping brosteppers and holier-than-thou techno snobs can agree upon. It’s this universality that has Boys Noize headlining arena-sized HARD events and Sahara tents, but at NXNE he’s headlining the 650 capacity Hoxton with a $15 cover charge, which early bird badge and wristband holders do not have to pay.
After receiving a tip that I could still actually get inside the Boys Noize show, I sprinted to the Hoxton and arrived right on time. Departing the Comfort Zone before Blue Hawaii hurt, but as someone who never ventures into dance tents and EDM-centric events, the opportunity to see Boys Noize in such an intimate setting had to be taken.
It paid to go against type, because during that two-hour stay, my body joined others in movements I never imagined possible for a set that deconstructed any sensations of exhaustion and transformed them into pure exhilaration. U.K. electronic masters Disclosure were not part of the NXNE lineup, but 2013’s arguably biggest breakthrough sensation was nevertheless present in spirit. At the one-hour mark, Ridha dropped Disclosure for a second time, inciting a nearly riotous reception. Everything after that was a sweaty, blissful blur.
Journeying from the Mountain to the Beach
A noon showcase at Urban Outfitters following a vodka tonic fueled late night? Surprisingly, I made it to the home of hipster commodification right on time for Decades’ 12:00 p.m. set, except I was at the wrong Urban Outfitters. Luckily Toronto’s public transportation was still reliable at this point and I made it to the correct location on the other side of town just as Bear Mountain were finishing their soundcheck.
The Vancouver synthpop group made sure to hook the modest crowd of mostly music journalists early by incorporating a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” a couple songs into their set. Despite their best efforts of a band that pummeled on the skins as well as a drum pad and featured a guitarist that spent more time in the crowd than onstage, a dance party never ensued, likely due to the proximity to overpriced vinyl. It was easy to imagine Bear Mountain inciting a scorching clusterfuck in a darkened club, however.
Florida’s Beach Day followed with something completely different in the form of retro surf pop. Toronto isn’t known for its beaches, but the Hollywood trio was more than adept at warping the laws of time and space for a journey to the band’s namesake through their recently-released (and mildly disappointing) full-length debut, Trip Trap Attack. They may over indulge with their sun-stained, nostalgic reverence to The Beach Boys and 60s AM pop, but it’s their infectious on-stage enthusiasm that sells ’em best.
When Still Corners tried a new set
Urban Outfitters isn’t a traditional venue, so dream popsters Still Corners used the small stage as an opportunity to try a completely new setup that had been only been rehearsed at a hotel. Compared to their other Toronto performances, only vocalist/sequencer Tessa Murray and guitarist Greg Hughes graced the stage for the first half of the set. In this stripped-down form, the delicate exquisiteness of Murray’s vocals behind the lushly layered beats of Strange Pleasures. Even when joined by the rest of the band, Still Corners remained in subdued mode, which the adorable dogs in attendance certainly appreciated.
Over-indulging on poutine at least once a day
Fresh-cut fries, gravy, and cheddar cheese curds. What’s not to love? And for diversity, toppings from syrup-drenched bacon to pulled pork are readily available. Inexplicably, the ubiquitous Canadian treat has yet to become popular in the States. Just as attendees from far away could enjoy the national comfort food during their time at NXNE, they could also gorge on bands that rarely, if ever, appear outside Canada. Poutini’s pulled pork variation was the best, and the convenient location near the Drake Hotel couldn’t be beat.
M for Montreal actually hosted a free poutine party at Sneaky Dee’s with musical accompaniment from acts such as The Luyas and special guest Majical Cloudz, and despite the promise of free food, there was barely a queue when the doors finally opened. The vibe at NXNE is so relaxed that even the rare official event with free food was easily accessible. Badge, wristband, or neither, it was come one come all, at least for a while.
Ditching a meticulously planned schedule on a moment’s notice
Broken Social Scene recently resurfaced from hiatus for the Field Trip festival, and five days later Andrew Whiteman has remained in town with Ariel Engle for his latest project AroarA. The wife and husband team musically reimagined Alice Notley’s In the Pines as a series of songs, and onstage their sound was reminiscent of Feist in the best way possible. Specifically, this was less of a folk show and more surprisingly heavy. After witnessing their Silver Dollar Room performance, I’m still uncertain what ghost science faux-folk actually is, other than enthralling.
My carefully detailed itinerary for Friday night included a double dose of déVah quartet, a local sting section that reportedly played an enticing blend of pop, prog, and metal, the mysterious ALVVAYS, either Montreal indie popsters The Luyas or Taiwan shoegaze outfit Manic Sheep, and one of the many 2:00 a.m. “special guests.” Reality once again eviscerated expectations as Urban Outfitters tweeted that at 11:00 p.m. Dan Deacon was to make a special guest appearance at the tiny Drake Hotel Underground. Someone at the Silver Dollar told me that I’d never get in, so I decided to debunk her claim by hailing a cab with a fellow photographer, abruptly changing the course of the evening.
Upon arrival at the Drake, we were greeted by not a line but fewer than 20 people milling around a basement waiting for a set that would prove to also be the polar opposite of chaotic. Consisting of Future Islands’ William Cashion and Bruce Willen of Double Dagger, Peals performed on the floor in a beyond-Godspeed level of darkness, illuminated only by a lamp and then a string of blue holiday lights. The duo’s slow-burning post-rock instrumentals delicately painted the festival’s most soothing atmosphere to a crowd stunned into silence. Under the veil of darkness, Peals illuminated how rewarding an early arrival can be.
When Absolutely Free made us get over DD/MM/YYYY
Quitting while ahead is understandable, but doing so before reaching the top of one’s game? Not so much, but that’s how Toronto experimenters DD/MM/YYYY concluded. Most of the band moved on to form Absolutely Free, and just as with DD/MM/YYYY, their set was noted for complex time signatures and a rolodex of instruments. The difference is that the emphasis is less on ADHD hyperkinetic noise and more on warm, synth-heavy grooves so hypnotic that Absolutely Free’s appearance at the Drake was one of the week’s best sets. DD/MM/YYYY, I hardly knew ye, but now I barely miss thee.
Hiding onstage during a Dan Deacon dance party
Spirits were so high at the Drake Hotel’s basement bar for Dan Deacon’s second NXNE set that few in the capacity and beyond the crowd seemed to mind a 20 minute delay due to technical issues, which Deacon compared to feet suddenly being able to move as hands and vice versa. Finally, after a 20 minute delay, the party started with Deacon instructing us to imagine Martin Lawrence’s giant crying face on the ceiling and to raise our hands as if to bask in his tearful glory before bedlam erupted, pausing only to allow Deacon to lead a dance-off and orchestrate a dance tunnel.
Deacon traditionally works his laptop, pedals, and miscellaneous brightly colored gadgets from a folding table situated on the floor rather than onstage, so there’s an ever-present feeling of danger at his sets. As the crowd became increasingly free of worry and filled with unadulterated joy as they worked their bodies regardless of rhythmic sense, the chance that someone would crash into the table and break it became greater with every passing moment. It actually happened at the previous night’s Horseshoe Tavern appearance, but here at the Drake the abbreviated surreal dance party finished without incident with an appearance from “Crystal Cat”, save the occasion bruise or missing toenail or three.
The Bruise Cruise
Thanks to Panache Booking and M for Montreal, anyone not too hung over to queue at noon could enthusiastically declare that they were, in fact, on a boat. Rather than a few days in the Caribbean, this edition of the Bruise Cruise Festival sailed around Lake Toronto for two hours with a couple hundred lucky early birds. A watery excursion with sunshine, alcohol, and free humus is always a treat, but the real party was below deck in a floating, wood-paneled legion hall.
Upholding the Bruise Cruise tradition of showcasing noteworthy rock bands that play it loud were We Are Wolves, who paid homage to where it all began by closing their set with Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. Local stars and internationally hyped trio Odonis Odonis unleashed a hard and fast set of lo-fi surf rock, while the omnipresent Mikal Cronin on his third of four NXNE sets teased “Come Sail Away” as an intro to a blistering “Situation”. Stealing the afternoon, however, was Fat Tony. Backed by beatmaster Tom Cruz, the Houston emcee wowed with clever, sexually-charged rhymes. In his own words, “I’m an animal, even though I’m more smooth than Barry Manilow.” Well played.
When Moon King trumped a much-needed nap
Moon King formed from the remains of Spiral Beach after other members moved on to Doldrums and Austra, and it’s those associations that landed the Toronto natives a coveted spot on my check-out list. After a day at sea, I needed to reestablish my land legs in the comfort of an air conditioned hotel, but the smaller than expected space of Yonge-Dundas Square was on the way, so I figured why not stick around for a while.
That potentially self-destructive decision was rewarded with a hyper-kinetic set of fuzzed, psych pop that proved invigorating for the swarm of fans camped out for Saturday’s headliner Billy Talent. The local stars were at their best whenever Maddy Wilde synched with Daniel Benjamin on vocal duties and propelled those hard-hitting shoegaze textures with warmly striking harmony.
For my night of punk rock at the Horseshoe Tavern, I was tipped not to miss Single Mothers because their intensity rivaled that of hardcore heroes Fucked Up. According to Google Maps, the journey from my hotel to the Horseshoe Tavern for a night of punk rock was a mere 22 minutes. In reality, it took three times longer thanks to streetcars that surfaced once an hour (if at all) rather than the alleged every six minutes, which is exactly why I missed Manic Sheep and a surprise White Lung set the previous night. But on the bright side, I arrived just in time for catl.
Sarah Kirkpatrick and Jamie Fleming play that short, dirty, down in the Delta brand of explosive rock, and on a recent tour of the southern states, catl were apparently referred to as the “best thing to come out of Canadia.” Yes, catl is based in Toronto. As Fleming slung his battered relic of a guitar and pummeled her standing drumkit, the duo wowed with their impressive stage presence and command of blues rock during songs such as “Hey Hey!” and “Fuck You Blues”. Perhaps it’s their outsider perspective that the genre needed to once again freshen.
When White Lung kept it short
To honor the brevity of rowdy Vancouver quartet White Lung’s 15 minute set, here’s a recap in just as many words: Gripping, visceral, and intense. Everything fun about punk without all the bullshit posturing. I want more.
Iceage frontman Elias Bender RÃ¸nnenfelt’s declaration of cold war on photojournalism
“All the people with big cameras, please go to the back, it’s annoying.” Sure, why not? It’s not like the job of those people is to document and report on this performance, but oh wait, it is. Admittedly, I loathe having my photo taken, and regularly pull a Beyoncé as I un-tag myself from undesirable Facebook photos, so the likelihood that I’ll ever start a band is nonexistent. I had already retreated from the front of the stage after White Lung, eventually finding a safe zone behind Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham, so the diva statement no longer applied to me, but it was still off-putting.
Fortunately for our angst-ridden frontman, his order was transformed into a statement of endearment as his perpetual annoyance fueled the rage of Iceage. While the Danish quartet shook the legendary venue with a brand of punk rock as apocalyptic as their namesake, it was through their jagged melodies and neck-breaking tempo changes that Iceage proved to be worthy of all the hype in a market flooded with interchangeable acts that play hard, loud, and fast.
A massive hip-hop finale
I had willfully skipped most of the action in Yonge-Dundas square in favor of more intimate events, but Sunday night’s closing party was one that I could not miss. Prior to the hotly anticipated arrival of Joey Bada$$, the DJ mixed some Notorious B.I.G. to get the crowd pumped and shouting along because no DJ can ever go wrong with dropping Biggie. Brooklyn’s rising star deserved this warmup, because his flow harkened back to some of hip-hop’s greatest legend, showcasing a prowess far beyond his 18 years of age. Besides ripping through highlights such as “World Domination” and “Summer Knights” from his 1999 mixtape, the prodigious emcee also debuted a new, untitled track from his forthcoming Summer Knights EP. If this MF Doom-produced joint is any indication, the best is yet to come from Joey Bada$$.
Lamentably, Big Boi canceled his headlining performance two weeks before showtime due to a knee injury, but unlike other festivals that merely bump everyone up a timeslot, NXNE delivered a last minute replacement in fellow Atlantan Ludacris. Backed by a full band, Ludacris had the massive collection of fans, curious onlookers, and an alarming number of pets nodding and mouthing along throughout the hour. Local digits 647 and 416 were represented in “Area Codes”, naturally, and the stream of bangers was all just a buildup to an a cappella “Raised in the South” that segued into the one-two set closing punch of “Move Bitch” and “Get Back”. We may have wanted Big Boi, but Ludacris’ hit-filled set was more than a worthy consolation.