Festival Review: NXNE 2014


The Toronto music scene is among one of the best in North America, and it might have something to do with its profuse amount of music festivals. Among those that take over the entire city, North by Northeast (NXNE) is perhaps the most proficient.

The music celebration started on July 18th with shows at the Horseshoe and very short sets. The ban Mutual Benefit took the stage at 11pm and serenaded the small crowd with good drumbeats, piano and strings. Essentially very melancholic, bittersweet, croony stuff that was very reminiscent of Mumford and Sons, and Dan Mangan. The historic band Low took the stage next, and the husband/wife duo stunned the crowd with the spacey slow rock that has influenced so many others. The crowd stood enraptured, as most of those who stuck around or came out to the Horseshoe that night came for Low and knew and appreciated them; and many others were stunned that they were even playing.

July 19th you could see Odonis Odonis play at the Garrison (not the free show at Yonge-Dundas square, which I purposely avoided). The show started at 1am. Last call in participating bars was lengthened to 4am, which is great if you’re boozy and like to party. I had a nap before Odonis Odonis and hardcore punk music isn’t really all that nice to wake up to…at 1am. The music is the heavy grungey stuff that was born in countless garages in the 90s, and the duo is very loud, achieving what all great punky bands should aspire to; waking me up.

On June 20th NXNE began to pick up. The festival was in full swing and most show-goers were running off of little to no sleep and fairly consistent drinking. If you are faint of heart, week long festivals are not for you. If you are of steely stomach and don’t care for the state of your eardrums, you are in your element.

Rah Rah, the band that has opened for others such as Wintersleep, played an unusually early show at the Horseshoe at 2:30pm, and entertained with their soulful, danceable music and variable vocals.

At the Mod Club later that evening (9pm) Alvvays played to a small but enthusiastic crowd. The band is still excellent, with powerful vocals with well-constructed, hooky melodies, and their talent is still raw; they are willing to take risks and it reads in their music. The sense of watching something new with incredible potential is in itself an exciting experience.

Leaving quickly, I was able to catch Spiritualized at Massey Hall at 10pm, which was the show of the week (in this writer’s opinion all good shows should have seating). The show began with ambient technical difficulties, which were masked by some skillful guitar work. The entity that is Spiritualized is the creation of Jason Pierce (J. Spaceman is a much cooler name) and so he appears on stage, the temperamental artist type wearing all white in contrast to his bands all black. But the music is beautifully dark, charged, and is as much moving and emotional as it is direct and powerful. Spiritualized is, in its essence, masterful music-making.

June 21st brought the festival to a close, and my night started off with Elissa Mielke at the Silver Dollar at 8pm. Regina Spektor has nothing on this girl, who could sing about a refrigerator and make it the most beautiful thing in the world.

Zeus played the Cameron House at 9pm, or rather outside the Cameron House, on a blocked street where the sound was just as good outside the barricaded beer area as it was inside. The loud rumbling guitar and drums sounded, like cannonfire bouncing off the walls opposite the stage and firing back, somewhat distorting the sound, which ranged from hard rock with minimal vocals to spacey rock very apt for a beer garden party.

Cutting it kind of close, boogying down to Adelaide Hall to catch Ain’t No Love at 10pm. The group performed their raw, green vocals before a small crowd. Regardless of the sound system at Adelaide Hall, which may not have adequately done the group justice (there had been an incident with sound the night before) the group delivered excellent talent. Thought the group is new and their talent is rough, they are also untouched and are obviously filled with potential, potential that need only be tapped to put them on the top.

Finally, rushing down to Gladstone and Queen to board the Mio Squirtcar (almost named the SquirtRocket which was aptly re-thought and changed) Wintersleep played a 45 minute set along Queen street to McCaul. The tradition has occurred for every NXNE and hosts several performers each night. Wintersleep started off the night late, incredibly it’s not entirely easy to play a show on a moving streetcar, but the party went off without a hitch. Though there was not enough dancing to cause the streetcar to bounce on its tracks, there was enough noise and colour to make every pedestrian we passed insanely jealous. And surprisingly the acoustics were pretty darn good.

Review by Emily Fox |

I decided this NXNE, I was going to party like it was 1999, the year I discovered alcohol and got very drunk for the first time off of vodka (I puked everywhere, it was disgusting). I wanted to capture that spirit again, the spirit of going big, instead of going home, so I took Thursday and Friday off of work, to effectively give myself “recuperation” time each day.

Wednesday night – Greys at Smiling Buddha

After nicely pre-liquoring up at a friend’s birthday dinner, I headed on over to the Smiling Buddha to see Toronto punk band Greys. First off, I hate this venue.. well hate is a strong word, more like, I feel too OLD for this venue. An all ages venue, and I’m very happy that Toronto now has one for younger people who don’t want to go to Kool Haus just to see a show, it’s exactly the type of venue I used to frequent back in my minor days, except my local venue smelled strongly of urine on the way in, kudos to Smiling Buddha, who doesn’t seem to have that issue. Greys were just beginning when I maneuvered my way through to the front. Part of the resurgence of that noisy, lo-fi punk that has been coming out these days, the members of Greys, however, have been migrating through local Toronto punk bands for years. They had a really decent mosh pit happening, and it’s always fun to watch the crowd surfing attempts made by older dudes, who are way too large to be held up by the skinny, waify people in the crowd. I returned home after Greys, even though their music energized me, I was determined to rest up for Vice Island the next day…

Thursday – Vice Island, or as I like to call it – BOOZE ISLAND

4:15pm, we depart on the ferry filled with hipsters. The bar on the ferry is serving expensive alcohol and there’s a DJ. Everyone looks like they took 2 hours to pick out their outfit for the occasion. Much to my friend’s embarrassment, I drop a large bottle of water on the top deck and it splashes all over the back of a dude. I apologize profusely. He is not impressed. There’s nowhere for my friend to escape, even though he wants to pretend he doesn’t know me. The sun is beating down on us as we dock on the island, I comment that the guy is probably thankful for that water on his back now. We walk the ten minutes to the stage area, where we learn that all liquor is free, AND there’s a mojito station, AND they’ll make dark n’ stormy’s, AND they have red bull. All hell breaks loose as I get a drink to carry in each hand to minimize wait time. I become quite drunk, quite quickly. We see Le1f, he has amazing stage presence, the crowd is very happy, dancing hard, I’m quite impressed by him. Omar Souleyman  turns out to be the perfect fit for this crowd, all inebriated concert goers, especially the ones that have been there since the start are dancing like they’re at a wedding (myself included). We make it to the very front for Future Islands, eagerly awaiting one of my bucket list shows. Future Island’s second album In Evening Air  was my break-up record of 2011, it got me through some rough shit, and I wanted to see him recreate it live. He did not disappoint at all, and became the highlight of the entire fest for me.  I have seen a lot of their live videos (yes, including the Dave Letterman performance), but none of it actually prepared me for seeing it in person. His passionate theatrics, pounding on the stage floor, acting out eating what looked like it was supposed to be a soul or a heart, windmilling, dancing like he had bathed in cocaine. His energy was so infectious I didn’t stop moving once during the show, jumping up and down with him, screaming, and throwing my hands up, like he was a boy band (it really was partying like 1999). They took us through a perfect mix of old and new, playing favorites off of In Evening Air like Tin Man, Inch of Dust (they finished off with this), new – Season’s (Waiting On You), Sun in the Morning, and Before the Bridge, off of an older EP. My calf muscles were on fire the next day, and I called it a night after that, because nothing could beat it.

Friday – St. Vincent & Courtney Barnett

Friday was a day of lady musicians, it was, as I now call it, Lauren’s NXNE Feminist Friday extravaganza! I’ve never been a huge fan of St. Vincent, I really liked her first album, have no particularly passionate feelings towards the new album, and have never seen her live. After the show though (also slightly inebriated – of course), it amplified my like for her by 100 times. She has a meticulous choreographed show, so much so, that it was like art pop. Her movements so precise, that I thought she was a robot, or a living doll at times. Every song was reimagined from it’s original form, making even the songs you knew best, especially off the old album, which was much more straight up indie-rock than this more experimental new release. I’d really like an infograph of how much influence her and David Byrne have had over each other musically. You can certainly hear it in her new writing, but whether she was already migrating towards that sound on her own, or if she sponged up influence from him, I don’t know. After St. Vincent, I grabbed my bike, and rode on over to the Silver Dollar.

I caught the last two songs of the UK band Kins, who were VERY good. Everyone look them up. Their last song featured a pounding on the drums so hard, I thought the drummer was going to just whip them into the back of the bar he looked so mad. It was clear that everyone was there for Courtney Barnett though, the young New Zealand girl getting comparisons to Bob Dylan, for her stream of conscious poetic songwriting, and Nirvana, Courtney Love, Bikini Kill, all the lo-fi 90’s punk, for the music. She was absolutely excellent, her band was so into it, her voice, a flawless droning, as she whipped through her short set, a guy on the other side of the stage from me, was almost on stage singing with her, he was so amped. He actually almost hit her in the head with his pint glass at one point. Courtney did a three night marathon at the Silver Dollar, where I’m told, at the very last show, she gave away her guitar on-stage to a lucky fan. I retired at around 2am after the show, to prepare for the one last hurrah before my old body gave out and mummified.

Saturday – Craft Spells & Small Black

After sleeping almost all day, and crying to myself in the mirror over how horribly I felt, not to mention hearing the whispers of my liver quietly asking “whhhyyyy are you doing this to me”, I got ready and headed over to the Garrison for Craft Spells and Small Black. Craft Spells are not really a band you can dance to, there more of a swaying band, their music is distorted and extremely atmospheric, you feel as if you’re trapped in your own dreamland, it’s all a haze and you’re just wandering through melds of colors, or a monet painting. I’ve seen Small Black three times now, and I have to say this was my least favorite, not by anything the band did, they were excellent, I danced all night long, the band was tight, together, playing songs off their new EP; Limits of Desire; and the first album, but the sound was off, I couldn’t hear the singer very well, even right up front. It was as if the sound guy never changed the levels between Craft Spells and them. It didn’t ruin the night, or my experience with them, because the’re absolutely excellent live, I think everyone should see them, and I’m quite surprised they’re not way bigger than they are. The last time they came through, they played at Wrongbar, with only a quarter of the venue full. It was the perfect way to end a great festival, which I know has been ripe with controversy this year, I do have to say, this is the best lineup they’ve had in years, and it really does showcase a lot of new bands, if you can tear yourself away from the bigger ones you’ve been dying to see.

Review by Lauren Morocco ()

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