The line-up at the first (and hopefully not the last) Toronto Urban Roots Festival, was wide-ranging and incredibly satisfying. The final day, which landed on Sunday, July 7, consisted of such great musical talents as Yo La Tengo, Neko Case, and Belle and Sebastian. With non-stop music stretching from 12 pm to 10 pm, it’s remarkable that the crowd stayed as upbeat as it did, yet even in unpredictable weather, Toronto came out to show it’s devotion to international (and national) music, both new and old.
Kurt Vile and the Violators — 2pm
Starting in the afternoon, with threatening skies overhead, Kurt Vile and the Violators took the east stage and rocked the large crowd. The indie rock, loud and imposing near the speakers, sent Vile fans into a frenzy. Halfway through the set, the sky opened up and poured, but Vile fans met the sudden downpour with cheers (only the VIP fled to their tent). The water messed with Vile’s electronics and the band had to stop midway through and Vile resorted to his acoustic, playing Peeping Tomboy until the electronics were sorted out and the band could go back to the exciting momentum they had been building. Luckily, the fans getting drenched were rewarded with the sun and with Jesse Trbovich’s saxophone solo. Vile’s unique, indie underground sound brings to mind 70s New York in more than just his appearance, and with their old-school style bring their music to newer audiences, Vile is guaranteed to pleased listeners for years to come.
On the west stage, Yo La Tengo emerged to a wet and dripping audience, and within moments Ira Kaplan himself dripped (in sweat). The band declared that with the backdrop of green trees reminding them of their newest LP, Fade, they were going to “take you into our living room,” starting their set with a series of quieter songs, which YLT is noted for; a rest for our ears after Kurt Vile’s CBGB-esque 70s rock. Kaplan launched into “I’ll Be Around,” and as the living room music morphed into the band’s typical alternative rock style, the audience started to catch the vibe. As Kaplan moved on to “The Point of It,” a foot-tapping relationship ballad strung along with his gentle guitar the good-natured audience swayed. Later, the band played “Autumn Sweater,” from their album I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, one of several catchy, pop-y songs that interspersed the performance. Yo La Tengo’s folky guitar was definitely a crowd-pleaser.
The band from Hamilton has moved to Toronto! With a cheery hello, Whitehorse entered the stage at 4 and played a jaunty, folk/rock instrumental song that consisted of telephone’s enlisted to create echoing, haunting melodies, allowing the duo to carry on lyrically while their own voices still sounded in the background. The band played “Killing Time is Murder” from their self-titled album, and had a thrilling drum-off against each other before moving into their song “No Glamour in the Hammer,” a love song for the gritty, western Ontario town of Hamilton. Regardless of the town they call home, the crowd didn’t hold it against Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, enjoying their combination of indie/folk/blues/alternative/country (there’s no one genre to slot these guys into!) even amid the second downpour of the day.
A brass and ensemble band always leads to a jazzy and upbeat indie/alternative feel, and Australian band The Cat Empire knows it. Felix Riebl, lead singer and percussionist, has quite the set of lungs, and played his bongos with incredibly fervor and rhythm, resulting in the excellent, crowd-moving, ska that the band is known for. Despite the third downpour of the day, erupting over TURF as Riebl sang the lyrics “as the rain fell again,” the crowd couldn’t be dampened, and the latin jazz feel of the band moved people to dancing. Bare foot. In the mud. Harry James Angus, trumpet player and vocalist, encouraged the crowd, which consisted mainly of bobbing umbrellas, with his impressive scat singing and his exuberant trumpet. The Cat Empire is always the perfect remedy for a rainy day.
Xavier Rudd — 6pm
Didgeridoos and drums abound. Xavier Rudd is perhaps one of the most accomplished musicians around, if only for the impressive array of instruments he can play. Adding a touch of environmentalism to TURF (somewhat suitable and somewhat ironic) Rudd’s music added a bluesy vein to the festival. His surfer-esque appearance seemed to contradict his meaningful lyrics, but the spirit was overwhelmingly atmospheric and trance-like, with heartbeat-like percussion and soaring vocals. The didgeridoo itself was beyond impressive. The very mellow, melodic music also appeared almost as a soundtrack to a film, and brought to mind a certain level of nostalgia and sentimentality, suitable due to the environmental and ecological lyrics. With quite a loyal fan-base in Canada, the crowd trudged across the now swampy grounds to reach the east stage and sway barefoot in the mud.
Case is personable with the audience, greeting the rain-soaked Torontonians with “can you handle all this love?” and opening her set with “That Teenage Feeling,” a melodious and melancholic song about love. The band played several of their new songs, and even in the fourth downpour of the day, Neko remained upbeat, infact, Case rocked the rain, adding it and incorporating it into the atmosphere on her set as if the concert was intended to come with the rain all along. The rain drops were lit by the stagelights and the audience forgot they were standing in a rainstorm. Instead of Yo La Tengo’s living room, we were now in a warm and cozy cabin with Neko Case. The harmony between Case and was perfect, fitting together like two pieces of a puzzle. Neko Case remains one of the few people who sound just as good live as she does in her studio recordings, every note hit perfectly, every guitar strum exactly on beat, culminating in a beautiful tour de force that could never perform as wonderfully if it were, heaven forbid, separated. Close to the end of the set, Hogan played a tiny tambourine while Case entered into a guitar solo that took the crowd above the rainy skies. The love Case has for Canada, due to her long history with the country, was evident in every song; her music was a love song for the country, and a gift to every Torontonian standing in the rain. She praised her beloved fans for sticking it out, and, with regret and sadness, left the stage.
Closing down the festival was the much-loved band from Scotland, and they opened their set like a full-on concert, the instrumental start, and Stuart Murdoch’s onstage dance moves, getting the crowd going. Belle & Sebastian are known for their quirky, narrative songs that mix emotions and ideas. Similar to the Shins in their ability to tell a complete and fleshed-out story in a span of a few minutes, Belle & Sebastian wasn’t just about the music, but the performance itself. Stuart praised the crowd for sticking it out in the mud, then started singing Song for Sunshine, ironically, as the sky opened for yet another bout of rain, followed by The Stars of Track and Field, which was soft and melodic in the growing night. The crowd started singing along, and the magnetic band had grabbed hold of us all. A trumpet floated up from the brass section of the band and brought soul to the dusky night. The full ensemble band fleshed out the music in a very rounded way. Later, Stuart called a woman onstage, who helped him sing the song Dirty Dream #2; Stuart interacting with the crowd during the spaces between songs. It began to seem like each song was paired with an act which engaged the audience, as Stuart stood on the divider between the crowd and the VIP section to belt out another song, then calling another girl on stage for a game of Scrabble, then ending the night with a dance party of concert-goers on stage, commenting “it’s a bathnight!” at the sight of one girl’s bare, muddied feet. Belle & Sebastian were all about the people during TURF, with their soft tones and melodic music inspiring an interconnectedness amongst the wet and muddy beautiful people. There was a feeling of camaraderie and contentedness, even as the band left the stage after their encore; even the security guards around the exits were cheery, and the people sliding in the mud were supporting each other. Such, I suppose, is the power of Belle & Sebastian.