Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bryce Clifford opens NXNE with a flourish

The North by Northeast Music Festival got underway on Wednesday and, although there wasn't a full slate of venues participating, there were enough to ease my way into things.

The Hot Karls
 The Dance Cave, that "bad decision bar" above Lee's Palace packed by drunk and dancing young people on Friday and Saturday nights, has recently started booking bands to try and fill a void earlier in the week. It threw a party from 6 to 9 p.m. to help bring that to people's attention and, while it was sparsely attended, I caught up with some friends and the free Collective Arts Brewing Rhyme & Reason Extra Pale Ale and make-your-own tacos from Big Fat Burrito were delicious and kept me happy.

The same can also be said for the event's entertainment: The Hot Karls. This three-piece band is the much less pedigreed, Guelph, Ont. version of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The group plays fun and energetic versions of familiar songs and the opening set I caught before moving on consisted of covers of:

The Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face;" Tommy James and The Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now;" The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love;" The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian;" Gloria Jones' "Tainted Love;" Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough;" The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?;" The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go;" Weezer's "My Name is Jonas;" Blink 182's "Please Tell Me Why;" The Presidents of the United States of America's "Lump;" Third Eye Blind's "Semi-charmed Life;" Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag;" Blink 182's "What's My Age Again?;" Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way;" and The Village People's "YMCA."

Olivia and The Creepy Crawlies
I strolled down to Rancho Relaxo to see London, Ont. sextet Olivia and The Creepy Crawlies at 9 p.m. The frontwoman played ukulele and about 50 people enjoyed a set that varied in tempo, with the quieter numbers having less of an impact. The group put a cute, rustic spin on The Strokes' "Last Nite" that certainly didn't lack for energy, and the set ended on a high note with a song that had a spirited second half.

The only band I had highlighted for 10 p.m. was a fair hike away and I had planned on being at Rancho for the next slot, so I elected to stick around for Bella's Bartok, a Northampton, Mass. outfit that incorporated acoustic and electric guitars, drums, trombone, trumpet and occasional accordion into its eclectic sound that mixed elements of klezmer, folk, roots rock, Balkan and Gypsy music. The first song was pretty annoying but most of the succeeding numbers were luckily a little less so. It seemed that they were going for something like Gogol Bordello so masterfully achieves, but they fell far short.

Bella's Bartok

Bryce Clifford cut his teeth musically in Ontario, but has been living in Austin, Texas for several years. It's easy to get overlooked in the "live music capital of the world" -- which is filled with talented singers, players and writers -- but Clifford proved that he deserves to be on the city's A-list even if he doesn't become one of the songs he performed: "Country Star." He's an exceptional guitarist and his two-piece backing band, Brother Superior, lived up to the second part of that name in driving the rhythm. 
Bryce Clifford and Brother Superior

Considering Rancho's location, "College St." was an appropriate choice in a set that fused roots rock with punk energy in a lot of songs, but also dialed things down a bit in places. While keeping pretty true to the originals, Clifford added his own variations to The Clash's "Rudy Can't Fail" and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears" (which I had heard The Arkells perform three nights earlier during its Motown set at the MuchMusic Video Awards after-party at The Horseshoe Tavern) before closing with another original.

Clifford excels in music as much as his brother Brad does in brewing, and his beers will be taking over the taps at Toronto's Get Well tonight (June 19) as part of Ontario Craft Beer Week.

I've never been a big fan of Har Mar Superstar's dance-rock, but I'd heard the man born Sean Tillmann puts on entertaining shows and my schedule was light, so I returned to Lee's Palace to check him out. He emerged wearing a cloak of many colours, accompanied by a guitarist, drummer and pre-recorded backing tracks. He soon changed into another sparkly cape for a song that had James Brown influences and showed me that I prefer his more '60s R&B and soul-oriented material over the more in your face pumpers. 

Har Mar Superstar

I would have enjoyed Har Mar Superstar more if I was with a group of somewhat buzzed friends who wanted to let loose and dance a bit, as it seemed like most of the 200-or-so people on the floor appeared to be. And I couldn't get the image of a younger and shorter Ron Jeremy out of my head as I watched, which was enough to make me bail after 25 minutes.

I arrived at The Paddock just after 1 a.m. to see young Calgary blues artist Mitch Belot's solo set. He alternated between electric and acoustic guitars while also playing a kick drum and showed off a rough-hewn voice that belied his age and fit his songs well. Almost half of the 20 people in the audience seemed to know him personally, as he attends Humber College, but he deserves wider exposure. He can play, has some real songs and a lot of promise. Belot and his friends Robyn and Maddie joined me for a drink after his set, and it was a warm and friendly way to end the night.

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