NXNE 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
Gordon Downie
“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)
Gordon Downie
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.”
Josh Finlayson + Julie Doiron Gordon Downie

Jonny James @ Cameron House

“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 James
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 @ Horseshoe Tavern
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)
The Populars The Populars The Populars
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….

Royals @ Horseshoe Tavern
Royals
“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)
Royals
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
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 Byrds rip-off…

Big Sugar  @ Horseshoe Tavern
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)
Big Sugar
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
Big Sugar w/ Ian Thornley Big Sugar Big Sugar


Friday, 6-June 2003

SOCAN – Songs and Stories Panel @ Holiday Inn on King
The 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:

Kazzer
“The man 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)
Kazzer
“Kazzer” 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.

Holly McNarland
“Canadian 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)
Holly McNarland
For whatever 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.

Nathan Wiley
“A singer-songwriter 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)
Nathan Wiley
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.

Lynn Miles
“Canadian 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)
Lynn Miles
Lynn was 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.

Andrew Walker @ 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)
Andrew Walker
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.

The Miniatures @ 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)
The Miniatures
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
Matt Mays & El Torpedo
“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)
Matt Mays & El Torpedo
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 Tavern
Skydiggers
“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)
Skydiggers Skydiggers Skydiggers
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 Brothers.
Skydiggers + Cash Brothers
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 evening.
Skydiggers + Cash Brothers


Saturday, 7-June 2003

Steve Earle – NXNE Keynote Address @ Holiday Inn on King

Steve Earle
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:
Steve Earle

“Just An American Boy” (work in progress) Film World Premiere @ Bloor Cinema
Steve Earle + Amos Poe
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…

Driveway @ Clinton’s
Driveway
“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)
Driveway
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.
Driveway

A Northern Chorus @ Clinton’s
A Northern Chorus
“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 Northern Chorus
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!

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All pictures (c) Steffen Paulus 2003