Toronto, Ontario, Canada, June 5-7, 2003
After several trips to SXSW in Austin I finally had the chance to experience
its Canadian “sister” event NXNE in Toronto. A smaller festival (just over 300
bands compared to 1.000 in Austin) in a bigger city, the focus at NXNE is
clearly on Canadian bands. While SARS was still a hot topic for the media,
the virus didn’t have a visible impact on the festival, although a few bands
chose to bypass the city.
Thursday, 5-June 2003
Gordon Downie &
The Country Of Miracles @ Yonge-Dundas Square
“Singer/songwriter and poetic improviser Gordon Downie is one of Canada's
most treasurable artists. Since 1983 he's fronted Kingston, Ontario's beloved
trad rock band the Tragically Hip, and Downie's lush and charming lyrical
stories have garnered the Hip many fans across the globe, particularly in
pockets of New York and Michigan. Downie, however, is the charging force
— not only as a lead singer, but also as an artist. The clarity in his songwriting
exudes a passion, a poignant sensibility for the most simplistic and the
most complex. Aside from his band duties, the new millennium saw Downie making
time for a solo career.” (MacKenzie Wilson, allmusic.com)
I arrived at Toronto’s newest concert location in time to see Gord &
his band, which consisted of Julie Doiron, “Skydigger” Josh Finlayson, and
The Dinner Is Ruined members Dale Morningstar, Dave "Stovepipe" Clark, and
Dr. Pee. Most band members kept swapping instruments throughout the show,
and everyone onstage and the sizeable crowd seemed to enjoy the gig despite
less than perfect weather. I took a mental note to bring Gord a new shirt
the next time I see him, as he was wearing the same one that he wore throughout
the “In Violet Light” Tour with the Tragically Hip. Live, his quirky solo
material took on an almost roots-like quality, but Gord always found places
to insert his trademark rants, including one about this (distinctly concrete-covered)
square “being overgrown with trees and filled with naked people lying in
the sun, just like they do in Berlin.”
Jonny James @ Cameron
“Jonny James seeks out authenticity in all that he does and this reflects
in his music. Originally from Guelph, Ontario, Jonny has accomplished a
lot for his mere 25 years of age. At 17 he recorded his first full-length
album, produced by Ian Blurton, with his band, Troll, and has since played
with the likes of Emm Gryner and Toronto's Memory Bank (named after a Troll
song).” (Biography from artist webpage)
Jonny and his rhythm section had just returned from a tour as the backing
band for Canadian songstress Emm Gryner and seemed to be in high spirits. The
band was tight, but their Roots-Rock material seemed somewhat plain, so I
decided to move on.
The Populars @
“These roots rockers have played over 1,000 shows and recorded some fine
albums as the backing band for Mike Plume. They're now creating a buzz on
their own, having notched a record deal and recorded an album at Hip studio
The Bathhouse. (NXNE band info)
Over at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern things were a lot more appealing.
The Populars rocked hard, and there was very little to remind you of the
fact that this was Mike Plume’s backing band on stage. They delivered a very
energetic set sounding a lot like Norway’s BigBang, with plenty of echoes
from old Cream albums. Nothing wrong with that….
@ Horseshoe Tavern
“Formed in 1999 in the Toronto area, this group led by former Change of
Heart singer Rob Higgins created a large buzz around the area with its spacy,
Primus-like funk music blended with some highbrow, intelligent rock ideas.
In 2001, the group performed at various festival and musical showcases, including
Edgefest as well as at the North by Northeast Festival. The group's debut
album, Foolscap, was released in 2002 and was produced by Rush guitarist and
vocalist Geddy Lee. The album was also recorded at Lee's home studio, Reaction
and the Signal to Noise.” (Jason MacNeil, allmusic com)
The Royals cranked it up even further with their highly energetic, arena-ready
melodic Alternative Rock. Not bad at all.
The High Dials
@ Horseshoe Tavern
“The High Dials have been making noise in many guitar pop circles with
their great album "See!" -- an original melodic amalgam of early Who and
Elvis Costello.” (NXNE band info)
The High Dials steered things back into calmer pop territory with their
Rickenbacker 12-string driven sound. Highlight of the set was a cover of “Hazy
Shade Of Winter”, but overall it was not much more than a slightly boring
Big Sugar @
“These blues-rock veterans cleverly infuse dub into their adrenalized sound.
They released both French and English versions of their latest scorchin'
disc, "Brothers & Sisters, Are You Ready." Earplugs advised for their
high-decibel shows. (NXNE band info)
While I own most CD’s Big Sugar have released to date, I never had the
chance to see the band live. This actually wasn’t to change as this set
was billed as “Big Sugar like you’ve never seen them before”. The biggest
part of this 2hour+ show was played as a duo: Big Sugar leader Gordie Johnson
worked triple duty on vocals, guitar and playing the bass lines with foot
pedals connected to a Moog Taurus, with Eric “Speedstick” Paul on drums.
Despite this they sounded huge, and the capacity crowd loved their set.
Big Wreck’s Ian Thornley, and Kelly “Mr.Chill” Hoppe joined them for the
encores. More pictures from this show can be found here…
Friday, 6-June 2003
SOCAN – Songs and Stories Panel @ Holiday Inn on King
purpose of this panel was for a group of songwriters to give live demonstrations
about how their music and lyrics evolve. What it ended up being was a moderator
asking questions about the background of the artists rather than their songs,
giving them almost no chance to showcase how they actually write songs.
There were four participants:
born Mark Kasprzyk has always been a unique force. Growing up in rural Binbrook,
Ontario, Kazzer became fascinated with hip-hop in his mid-teens and – much
to the chagrin of his parents – soon sought out the urban culture that awaited
him in nearby Hamilton. […] The end result is a disc that is steeped in
old school hip-hop, pop and hard driving rock while defying any true demographic."
(Bio from Artist webpage)
was apparently unable to play his songs just by himself, so he had brought
along another guitarist, plus a DJ, which was a bit odd in a setting like
this. It would have been nice to hear how his material would stand up in
a purely “unplugged” setting, but I guess he wasn’t confident enough to
present his songs this way.
native Holly McNarland, a competent singer, songwriter, and guitarist, began
her recording career around 1995 with the independently recorded EP she titled
Sour Pie. She was 21 at the time. The EP carries six tracks, and was completed
in less than a week's time. That debut was strong enough to land McNarland
a contract with MCA Canada. Many compare her emotionally dark and oftentimes
angry music to that of strong female artists like Fiona Apple and Alanis
Morrisette." (Charlotte Dillon, allmusic.com)
reason, Holly seemed extremely nervous and uncomfortable throughout the
first two rounds of songs. The two tunes she played were fantastic and very
well received, but after her second song she just wandered off stage, sat
down in the audience and skipped the last round. Strange.
in the tradition of Tom Waits and Ron Sexsmith, he supplements his well-crafted
lyrics with an organic groove that serves as a perfect backdrop to his words.
What’s been achieved on Bottom Dollar is something rarely seen – a debut
album that hits the mark dead-on.” (Chart Magazine, Canada)
I had never
heard of Nathan before - he is very young, but his songs were undoubtedly
some of most impressive ones played this afternoon. Very refreshing, reminding
me a bit of US songwriter Josh Ritter.
singer/songwriter Lynn Miles, who is known for her plaintive singing and melancholy
muse, is often compared to the likes of Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams.
The Ottawa native entered Carleton University with the intention of studying
music, but soon dropped out to write songs and perform at the bars and coffeehouses
of Canada's capital city.” (Erik Hage, allmusic.com)
clearly the most seasoned songwriter of the group and seemed very much at
ease with her material and with the format. Good songs, solid performance
– no surprises.
@ Black Bull
“Formerly leader of The Mummbleducks, he works with rock, folk and alt-country
textures on his first solo CD, "Floating Shift". Produced by Jeff McMurrich
(Danko Jones), it features Tim Drummond (Dylan, Neil Young), Colin Cripps
and Gavin Brown.” (NXNE band info)
Started the evening at the Black Bull, where I was able to catch the tail
end of Andrew Walker’s performance. The songs I heard sounded solid, and
were pretty standard Alt.Country fare. Not bad, but nothing out of the ordinary.
@ Horseshoe Tavern
“Nothing tiny about the talent of this sextet. Power pop meets classic
and modern rock, and a recent deal with EMI Music Publishing has them fast-tracked
for success. A second album is being recorded with Dan Achen (Junkhouse).”
(NXNE band info)
This young and energetic six-piece delivered a very mixed and uneven set.
Some songs worked quite well (when they tried to sound like Cheap Trick),
others suffered from overloaded, keyboard-centric arrangements.
Matt Mays & El Torpedo
@ Horseshoe Tavern
“As a member of internationally acclaimed alt-country band The Guthries,
he has already tasted success. That will surely keep coming in his solo
career, as he's a world class singer/songwriter. Matt's self-titled debut
features contributions from Mike O'Neill (Inbreds) and Blue Rodeo’s Bob
Egan.” (NXNE band info)
Things started off with Matt receiving the NXNE “Rising Star” award (a
Can-$3000 cheque), then he proceeded to rock the fully packed venue. Not
being familiar with his solo material, I wasn’t sure what to expect and
ended up being positively surprised. Compared to the sound of the Guthries,
the “El Torpedo” dual electric guitar attack infused strong Rock elements
into the usual Alt.Country longing of the pedal steel. The crowd loved it
and minutes after he finished his set, all available copies of his strong,
self-titled debut had sold out.
Skydiggers @ Horseshoe
“Fifteen years at the forefront of the Canadian roots rock scene qualifies
them as legends, but scintillating new disc "Bittersweet Harmony" shows
they're not resting on any laurels. Gorgeous vocal harmonies and soulful
songwriting are their trump cards.” (NXNE band info)
Just like the previous day, the audience was in for a special treat for
the final set of the night. After performing 4 songs from their latest Bittersweet
Harmonies release, the Skydiggers were joined not only by their ex-band
mate Peter Cash, but also by Andrew Cash, collectively known as The Cash
Plenty of guitars on stage, and the crowd even got to hear a few Cash Bros
songs from both of their releases, as well as old Skydiggers favourites.
It was long after 2 a.m. when everyone returned to the stage for one final
encore, a rousing rendition of “Slow Burnin’ Fire”. A great way to end the
– NXNE Keynote Address @ Holiday Inn on King
After stating that he would normally “rather be sexually assaulted by a
large farm animal” than do a keynote address, Steve Earle proceeded to speak
for about 10 minutes about music-related topics such as the current state
of the music business and more political topics such as Freedom of Speech
and the Death Penalty. After the prepared speech he took questions for about
45 Minutes. Some random quotes from the session:
- When someone
in the audience complimented him on his work and stated that she owned all
of his CD’s he quipped “Thanks, my ex-wives appreciate it.”
on the subject of downloading music: While he made it clear that he has
nothing against people recording and trading recordings of his live shows,
he is strongly against illegal downloads of officially released material.
However, he mentioned that he learned from his son that people are downloading
songs because they don’t want to spend $15 on a CD which contains only one
or two good songs on it. His conclusion: “there is a direct correlation
between the quality of music released by major labels and revenues” - both
are down dramatically.
- Earle on
the hopeless task of running profitable label: “Owning a record label is
a bit like owning a Pickup truck, when everybody wants you to help them moving”.
He admitted that E-Squared used the following years’ operating budget to
finance artist recordings, joking that he was lucky to get away with it
and didn’t end up in jail (again). As it is usually the case with Steve Earle,
there were many controversial topics but certainly not a dull moment.
“Just An American
Boy” (work in progress) Film World Premiere @ Bloor Cinema
With both director Amos Poe and protagonist Steve Earle in attendance,
the NXNE Film Festival premiered this documentary of the controversy around
the song “John Walker’s Blues” and Earle’s tour during that time. It was
labelled “Work in Progress”, and judging from what was shown there is still
a lot work to be done. While the film has its moments, live footage seems
to be taken from various tours and the quality of audio and video leaves
much to be desired. Recommended for fans only…
“Alumni of Made and Superhalo team up to create inventive material in the
alt-roots field. Influences range from Ryan Adams to Coldplay, and a recent
self-titled EP hinted at great things to come.” (NXNE Band Info)
The absolute highlight of Saturday and one of the best shows of the festival:
not knowing what to expect, Driveway’s set just blew me away. There are
few similarities between their current sound and that of their previous
band Made, which released two solid Alt.Rock CDs between 1996 and 2000. Driveway
heads more in the direction of Alt.Country heroes Whiskeytown, or a harder-edged
version of the early Jayhawks. At times the performance was somewhat loose,
apparently due to the amounts of alcohol consumed by the band before the
show, but never to a point where it would have ruined the impact of their
songs. If their self-released EP, which features three songs recorded and
produced by Keith Cleversley (who has worked with The Flaming Lips and many
other bands) is any indication of what to expect from their upcoming full-length,
it will be on the top of my shopping list.
Chorus @ Clinton’s
“Exclaim termed their 2001 debut, "Before We All Go To Pieces," "a balanced
musical epic". It reached the Top 20 of the national campus charts. Flute,
viola and violin add atmosphere to their evocative sound.” (NXNE band info)
A group of shoegazers playing dreamy pop soundscapes – it all seemed fairly
anti-climatic after the previous band. It might have had something to do
with the fact that they didn't bring violin or Viola, so it seemed like a
good opportunity to return to the hotel before 2 a.m. for once…
Overall NXNE was a fun
experience, and a good opportunity to (re-)discover some of the great bands
the vast Canadian music scene has to offer.
Thanks to Kate Ryans and Pat Goguen!
Click here to
return to the TurnItUpOrTurnItOff.com homepage
All pictures (c) Steffen