Festival Review: Toronto Urban Roots Festival 2014

Violent Femmes
Violent Femmes at Turf | Photo by Kayla Baker

Toronto seems to have blossomed into music festival city in the last few years. TURF has to be one of the best run, and organized of the ever growing list. Set times were longer than normal fest times, ranging from 50-90 minutes, giving festival goers ample time to catch any acts that may have overlapped. Taking place at Fort York, three stages spread across the grounds, the two main, called East and West, which, as you can expect, got it right, on the compass. With such a chill vibe, one could catch acts from a Friday still hanging out on a Sunday, watching the other bands. It just oozed comradery, and unlike the normal shitty Toronto attitude, it was more akin to a Newport Festival, or a Laurel Canyon jamboree. Gary Clark Jr., was playing frisbee with the singer from Beirut. It certainly brought out the hippie that resides deep inside of me, unlike Osheaga, with brings out the stress, and frustration of trying to dodge through the crowds to make it to everyone on your schedule.



I arrived after work, and immediately ran to the South stage, the smallest of the three, to catch Lucius, the folk pop female duo. It took a couple of minutes to adjust to the setting, the South stage was almost directly below the Gardiner Expressway, such a weird visual to see when you’re watching a band. The two gorgeous front-women of Lucius were matching in outfit, hair, makeup, and harmonies. Absolutely gorgeous vocals with spare instrumentals at times, just accenting the rich a Capella. The backing band, which was also completely symmetrical, were clad all in the same grey suit, 2 half drummers were set up on each side of the singers, each with a floor tom, snare, and a crash. Each lady had a snare, keyboard, and tambourine. The vocals drowned in the beginning sometimes, the sound a little too low, but this had nothing to do with the band’s performance, and the played pretty much every song on their still small discography.

Andrew Bird

After Lucius, I ran over to check out Andrew Bird. If the man had a super-power, whistling would certainly be it. At times he sounds like Sleeping Beauty, singing to the animals in the forest, I was just awaiting the birds and squirrels to gather around him and his band, and sway along with all of us to the gorgeous lyrics and vocals. Halfway through the set, Bird’s backing band gathered around him, as if we were at a tiny little pub, where the stage was only large enough for them to cram together and play, somethng straight out of the 30’s.

Gary Clark Jr.

Shaking things up entirely, after the mellow and soft Andrew Bird, was Gary Clark Jr., who gained many comparisons to Dan Auerbach when his debut came out. The man is more akin to a mix of Jimi Hendrix and Junior Kimborough than Auerbach. He has a style all his own, and mannn is it dirty. His guitar playing, not, his actual clothing style, he puts my own wardrobe to shame. He ripped through his set, every song carried with it a guitar solo, that seemed unplanned, and more like a compulsion, a calling to Clark Jr., a necessity. The guitar like an extension of himself.

Local Natives

Local Natives
Photo by Ben Telford | @bentelfordphoto

I caught Local Natives once before at Mod Club, after they released their first full length Gorilla Manor. Since then they have tightened their sound ten-fold. Every man in the 5 piece shares their vocals in the harmonies. Playing a wealth of songs off of Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird, including a beautiful a Capella start to Warning Sign, with all three men singing, Who Knows, Who Cares, which the crowd enthusiastically sang along to. At one point the guitarist’s strap came off, and the roadie came to fix it, quickly and efficiently, the crowd, was more excited about that than the entire set. They actually started a chant for the roadie, demanding to know his name. Quite amusing.

Deer Tick

I caught Deer Tick at their Lee’s Palace show the night before, not much changed set wise, but playing the South stage, outdoor, which was at the bottom of the hill, leaving many of the attendees to sit, or lay, which is great for me, when my feet are killing and I just want to collapse on the ground, but for a punk folk act like Deer Tick, they feed off of the crowd, and the more relaxed set up, definitely affected their energy. More subdued, they seemed to just go through the motions. Playing a good mix of old and new, they didn’t engage with the crowd much, but had a few good moments on-stage, including one where both guitarists McCauley and O’Neil held their heads together, like two bulls attacking one another, playing hard. Their Lee’s show was much more lively, but still tame compared to some of the stories I’ve heard in the past, which McCauley, actually whipping his dick out. I was a-okay with him not doing that.


Shovels and Rope – Club Series – Lee’s Palace

I unfortunately couldn’t make the festival Saturday due to a wedding, but the wedding, what’s the term? Lubed me up? Quite nicely before seeing husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope at Lee’s Palace. Unfortunately due to the “lubing”, I can’t recall any of the song names, but by golly, was that atmosphere incredible. From South Carolina, they embody everything I want my music from the south to be. When they play, the invoke a vision of sitting on a dilapidated porch, in the middle of a beautiful green setting, willow trees, high, wild grass, a heavy heat and  the sun going down. Yes, it’s that specific. Shovels and Rope consists of a guitar and a drumset played by both Michael Trent and Carrie Ann Hearst, harmonies between the two, and even song alterations, based on who wrote which. Perhaps one of the cutest couples I’ve ever seen on-stage. She oozed charisma, the entire time I was watching them, I could barely take my eyes off of her. Quipping between songs, sometimes speaking for Trent, she kept slyly joking about holding a Midnight Ramble. Since the show started at midnight, I would say, that’s the actual closest to a Midnight Ramble I’ve come, but if they were hosting one in the south, I would drive myself right down to see it immediately.


Paper Kites

Quite hungover, I slowly biked over for the last day of TURF, I caught the last two songs of Aussie band Paper Kites. a 5 piece with soft vocals, 90’s-ish lo-fi grunge, varying between dreamy pop.

Jenny Lewis

I could have gone home after Jenny Lewis and been completely satisfied. Jenny Lewis has been in the entertainment business for decades, she even had an acting role with Angelina Jolie in the movie adaptation of Foxfire. Playing with Rilo Kiley for years, then branching out on her own solo, and collaborating with some amazing musicians, including Jonathan Rice, Ryan Adams, The Watson Twins, Zooey Deschanel and more. She absolutely charmed on stage, with a flawless voice, that carried across the park, clad in a matching rainbow pant-suit with a shooting star and pastel purples and pinks, along with a guitar with the same pattern, Lewis quipped “I’m dressed like an adult party clown!”, she played mostly songs off of her new album Voyager, but to my absolute surprise and delight, she payed A Better Son/Daughter, off of Rilo Kiley’s first full length The Execution of all Things, I actually almost welled up with tears of excitement, hearing it for the first time live in ten years.

Gogol Bordello

Another complete mood-changer, was Gogol Bordello, the gypsy-bunk band whose merry members ran around the stage as if we were seeing a theatre spectacle. An eclectic mix of members, and a fiddler player that looked like he was Santa if Santa was in a bike gang, always smiling, laughing and playing. Gogol, the classy fucker he is, always had a red wine bottle in hand, which he whipped around spraying it on the audience, and photographers in the pit. I can’t imagine that being a great smell or feeling in the heat of sun. There was a dedicated mosh-pit kicking up dirt, for the entirety of Gogol’s 1hr 20 minute set, during which, the band never lost an ounce of steam for.

Man Man

Last set of the day, experimental indie-band Man Man graced the South Stage, its lead singer Honus Honus, clad in a glittering poncho and animal mask, he commanded attention on-stage. Changing outfits between songs, he donned a fur pimp coat, an alien mask and blue cape, and then threw it all off, casting it aside, to focus on playing, stomping his feet while playing piano, screaming into the microphone, the performance was so animated, the dedicated merry band of fans that refused to sit on the hill in silence, jumped up and down, dancing endlessly, it included even Gogol Bordello himself in the VIP area right at the front of the stage. Even though the fatigue of the three day binge had caught up with me, it was worth it to go out with a bang.

Review by Lauren Morocco |

July Talk
Photo by Kayla Baker | @kaylasheaphoto


The second year of TURF (Toronto Urban Roots Festival) included a more diverse and legendary line-up than year one, and much better weather; but then, the universe owed us for last year’s almost constant downpour. TURF is not just about supporting local musical talent, but supporting local food and wine, sustainably (a nod to the presence of the David Suzuki Society), and demonstrating the importance of outdoor festivals and Toronto’s music scene, which some may consider flags behind cities of equal or greater size. The consistent appearance of Jeff Cohen, owner of the Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace, who put on the event last year and lost money, and who would most likely lose money again this year, drew the crowd’s attention to the fundamental purpose of the festival; the politics of outdoor concerts. Toronto is the 3rd largest city in North America for the sheer amount of live music available here, but our outdoor music venues “suck the big one,” to use Cohen’s own words. In our relatively short summers, we should make the most of our outdoor green spaces and have music festivals “every single fucking weekend.” And he isn’t wrong. Edgefest has expanded their day-long festival to take up three days throughout the summer, and festivals such as Field Trip have become weekend festivals instead of single day fests. TURF remains, as does RiotFest, however festivals like AllCaps (a weekend-long music festival that took place on the island) died last summer, as did festivals that barely got off the ground such as Grove Fest. Cohen blames Mayor Ford, in regards to music and green spaces, stating that his pro-music stance (remember, Ford made a special trip down to Austin to partake in the revelry that is SXSW) has changed in the wake of the crack scandal, and music is no longer his main focus, or his focus at all. “Vote Olivia Chow!” yelled July Talk singer Peter Dreimanis at the crowd on Day Two, and perhaps a change is what we need.

It is important for the sustainability of our music scene to support local talent, or at least North American talent, which the festival seemed to be keenly interested in this year. Born Ruffians, with their well-constructed and hooky lyrics (and profanity, oh my!) held a relatively early time slot, which was perhaps an angle to draw in fans to the show, and thus to the festival. Brooklyn-based band Lucius, with their two year long touring stint and their sudden and unexpected rise to popularity performed a medley of songs from their album Wildewoman. Andrew Bird, who later this month will be performing at the Vancouver Folk Festival with the likes of Wintersleep, Great Lake Swimmers, and Born Ruffians, performed with his newly formed band, combining traditional string instruments to create a smokey, folky feel, and an old pair of gramophone horns built by Chicago-based artist Ian Schneller spun around to throw the sound further than the amplifiers could reach. In certain songs, it was almost as though Bird had taken the bass-lines from such famous songs as “The Way” by Fastball and built his songs up off of them. His innovation (plucking violin strings in such a way to sound like steel drums, combined with whistling) is what sets Andrew Bird apart from other current musicians. His small stature adds to his impressiveness. Deer Tick broke festival protocol with their loud rock/pop; their music soaring above the 85 decibel limit. However, if 80 decibels is equivalent to the sound of a garbage disposal unit, or an industrial dishwasher, or an average factory, or a freight train; and 90 decibels is the equivalent to a busy urban street, or a diesel truck, or a food blender, then 85 decibels is practically silent, especially compared to the fact that the festival grounds are flanked by a thundering highway and a set of busy train tracks. Beirut closed down day one of the festival with a huge crowd and familiar songs (thanks to radio play), mentioning the fact that Hurricane Arthur cancelled their flight here, but they drove up instead in order to make it, although the allure of getting paid might have also had something to do with it, but we can’t really blame them for that.

The Violent Femmes brought the second day up to par with the first, impressing the crowd with their complete first album, created some 30 years ago. For a band that has been around since 1980 (albeit with hiatuses in 1987 and 2009) they have managed to stay popular and relevant. It would be interesting to see if they will release a new album, or if all the recent touring is merely a way to earn some money (and not always a very efficient one, what with touring costs.) By their definition, Gaslight Anthem has emerged out from under the shadow of punk music, and made the genre their own, changing what it means to be “punk” in a world where growing up is necessary to success. They played many songs from their new album “Get Hurt,” set to be released August 16th. Hey Rosetta kicked off the evening portion which consisted of all Canadian bands with their dulcet vocals lending a sense of Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire to the warm, dusky night. They created mellow, slow songs without adding any feeling of melancholia, and faster songs with a touch of bittersweetness. Their music was an interesting balance of unpredictability and familiarity.

July Talk always makes an effort to connect to the crowd, and day three was no different. Set to become one of Toronto’s most successful new bands, the onstage charisma between Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay alone shows that, regardless of their success, the band is still having fun. A mad dash across the lawns and a push through the crowd brought me and Leah to Jenny Lewis, who single-handedly blew all other acts out of the water, proving that she was the powerhouse and driving-force behind Rilo Kiley’s success. She played many songs from her Rilo Kiley days, to the utter euphoria of the crowd, and also showcased her new album “The Voyager,” set to be released on July 29th. She is intimidating, charismatic, yet modest; tiny, which seems to be a trend among fantastically talented women, all characteristics I noticed while standing near her as Jeff Tweedy impressed the crowd with his solo songs, proving that he, also, should not be identified by his previous achievements alone. His twangy guitars lent a psychedelic, mellow atmosphere to the evening, a different mellowness than that which Neutral Milk Hotel carried on with on the opposite stage. Their calming, rhythmic music provided another side of the same coin in regards to low-key, atmospheric sound.

By the time the weekend drew to a close, it was all clearly about the music, but almost overshadowing the festival was the politics involved behind it. If Jeff Cohen’s almost constant barrage of encouragement for the people of this city to become more involved and actively supportive of the music scene here did not strike a chord with at least a handful of people, then regardless of the music, the festival did not accomplish its aim. Toronto is a city that breeds great music, and without the support of the people it may struggle, however, if festivals such as TURF continue to return year after year, drawing in both legends and rising stars, it is clear the fight is not over yet. We are stronger than we realize.

Review by Emily Fox |

For all our of TURF coverage, click here.

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