Review: NXNE 2015 (including Jessica Pratt, Frog Eyes, Eric Andre, and more)

Frog Eyes
Photo by Benjamin Telford

The Festival

While I’m not one to judge whether this is an entirely good or bad thing, NXNE in 2015 was more like SXSW than any previous iteration of the now two-decade-old festival. There were a greater amount of shows in unconventional (frequently public) spaces, the Advanced vs. Clubland (read: wristband) ticketing system was a fairly successful venture to ensure the fest’s overall accessibility, and, inevitably, there was the presence of plenty of branding. Branding! BRANDING! I’m hardly one to ignore the financial realities of getting the nuts and bolds of a multivenue, multiday event like this in order – sponsorship is a must, and Austin is obviously aware of this as South By continues to expand year after year. There’s nothing wrong with NXNE taking a similar route, there’s just a touch of cognitive dissonance in getting lulled into a trance by, say, some folky lullabies and to walk into the next room over and be bombarded by HTC talkboxes… but I digress.

In the way of programming, the festival opted to favour putting pedestals under some up-and-comers, some already in the throes of the hype train and some that seem like North By would be the closest they’d want to get to it. This proved to be to the advantage of attendance distribution, it seemed, as with one notable exception, most of my nightly itineraries were met with venues at close to capacity (more on that later). Obviously everyone knew to check out the fairly stellar lineups at the free Yonge-Dundas Square blowouts – down to three days of outdoor programming as opposed to the prior four or five, for whatever reason – but the following comprises the five best club sets I saw during the festival’s duration. I hope you did too.

Jessica Pratt (Berkeley Church, July 18)

The best set I saw this NXNE was also perhaps the most innocuous in the way of setup. Armed with little more than a nylon string acoustic, a sideman on a Stratocaster, and the kind of voice that marries understated drama and emotional heft with ease, LA-based Jessica Pratt delivered an all too short opening set to the eclectic Vans/Pitchfork co-presented showcase. While it seemed most attendees were still trickling into the concert hall area of the maze-like renovated Berkeley Church (props to them, it really is looking beautiful these days), those who made it in on time were treated to Pratt and her compatriot in excellent form, playing faithfully passionate takes on tracks culled mostly from January’s On Your Own Love Again, though her underrecognized self-titled debut from 2013 also got some much appreciated attention (by yours truly) with “Midnight Wheels” being a set highlight.

Pratt is a staggering songwriter, equal footing in the kind of nocturnal solemnity of Nick Drake, split with the realist sensibility and control of Joni Mitchell or Bill Callahan. That said, her compositions are fresh and original, and she and her accomplice played with the kind of quiet majestic confidence reserved for those who’ve been playing shows for decades. Now in her mid-20s and two records in, the road is open for Jessica Pratt, and one would be wise to catch her in smaller venues while they can.

Pick a Piper (Painted Lady, July 18)

Brad Weber is a busy dude. When not in road warrior mode as drummer in the live incarnation of Caribou, he’s heading up the show in Pick a Piper, a drum-heavy Toronto-based groove factory comprised of Weber and collaborators Dan Roberts and Angus Fraser. Their midnight set at a bursting-at-the-seams Painting Lady was a sight to behold and a sound to hold in, with Weber pulling his best limbless Muppet imitation at a standing drum kit while Fraser and Roberts filled out the rest of the space with keyboards, samplers, and of course, more drums. Everything was rhythm-oriented but not at the expense of the songs, which numbered maybe six for the entire set (they were lengthy explorations).

That said, all the material aired out was a satisfying mix of pop songcraft and dancefloor tension. The set-closing “Dinghy in a Quiet Cove”, from their 2013 debut, was probably the set’s standout moment, but the couple of new tracks they played from their forthcoming record (at this moment without a title) hinted that Pick a Piper won’t be going through a sophomore slump in the slightest. The current musical climate seems dominated by the kind of beatific vibes Weber & co. have in spades, and this set indicated they’re poised to strike big later in the year.

Frog Eyes (Mod Club, July 20)

The Mod Club played host to one of the most anticipated club shows of the festival on Saturday night, with the somewhat unexpected but welcome pairing of Angel Olsen, Riley Walker, and Frog Eyes. While I sadly had to leave the venue after the latter’s opening set, there was enough high drama and musical excellence in Frog Eyes’ 40-minute set to sate me for the next six months (so please, come back soon).

Opening with a quick declaration that, due to the nature of the brief set, the band would simply attempt to cram as many songs as possible into their allotted time, Carey Mercer and the 2015 incarnation of Frog Eyes were off to the races, hitting the sweet spot between melody and cacophony that only they can. Original drummer Melanie Campbell was back behind the kit for their NXNE appearance, providing the kind of frenetic percussion that marked their material prior to Carey’s Cold Spring. It made the proceedings seem all the more special, as the band’s lineup has been in flux since its inception and, at least to myself, her drumming is one of the chief ear-anchoring aspects of the band’s unique sound.

While the set was mostly a showcase of new material for a record supposedly coming out in August, the quartet delivered a pair of Tears of the Valedictorian classics – “Idle Songs” and “Bushels,” the latter of which was a much cleaner version than that which appears on record, though missing none of its pathos. The new stuff also sounded great, and a rousing take on Cold Spring’s “Claxxon’s Lament” was a powerful punctuation at the much-too-early end of the set. Them’s the breaks at a festival, though, and it’s always somehow satisfying to be left wanting more.

Eric Andre (NXNE Hub, July 20)

While this site’s URL highlights that it’s obviously a music-focused endeavor, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Eric Andre’s ridiculously great standup set in my festival highlights. Headlining a night (really, it was an early evening) of comedy at the bright ‘n shiny NXNE HQ at Queen and Spadina, Andre walked a perfect tightrope between the over the top absurdity he’s known for thanks to three hilarious seasons of The Eric Andre Show, and a more grounded sensibility essential to the moral and physical logistics of performing to a live audience.

Touching on everything from his father’s anachronistic tendencies (he still thinks the show’s network, Adult Swim, is a pornography channel) to the absurdity of those who haven’t gotten past homophobia in 2015 (“what do they have, homophobic ESP?”), Andre’s standup was animated and just the right mix of arbitrary and hilariously meaningful. NXNE nailed the booking on this one; here’s to hoping they further up the ante on the comedy front for the 2016 installment.

Mission of Burma (Lee’s Palace, July 20)

I mentioned earlier that there was one notable exception for the fairly well attended overall statistics of what I saw of NXNE’s club shows. Sadly (not in general, but on a personal level, to me), this was the showcase at Lee’s on Saturday night, with the almighty Mission of Burma headlining. That said, facing a crowd of about a quarter of Lee’s capacity, the Boston post-punk legends absolutely killed it, performing with the kind of visceral intensity most bands of any genre can only dream of.

Mission of Burma are the strange example of a reunion that has proved considerably more fruitful than their initial brief run, with the trio releasing four acclaimed records over the last decade, vs. the lone LP, EP, and smattering of singles from their original early 80s run. Guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, and drummer Peter Prescott share songwriting and vocal duties (mostly) evenly, and indeed, watching them kick out the jams onstage instills the thought that this band may very well be the perfect example of an artistic democracy in motion.

As they were last up for the evening, they were fortunately not beholden to the constraints of NXNE set time limitations. Playing for about 80 minutes, it was safe to assume everyone in the room, fans and band alike, were considering this a proper Mission of Burma show. Again unusual for a “reunion” act, the set was mostly comprised of material from the last four records, though older classics like “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” and “Outlaw” gelled perfectly with their new material. Really, there was nothing at all unsatisfying about this set, so who cares about attendance? Those elsewhere were missing out, as Mission of Burma proved that they are forever.

Review by Adam Kamin | @A_Kamin

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