Friday, September 23, 2016

GBV and Mekons win Saturday at TURF

Heavy rains through much of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest’s second day probably resulted in a smaller walk-up audience than it deserved, but those that didn’t mind some precipitation and mud at Fort York were well-rewarded.

Lush broke up after the suicide of drummer Chris Acland in 1996, and I only saw the group twice before that, so I was looking forward to seeing lead singer/guitarist Miki Berenyi, guitarist/vocalist Emma Anderson and bassist Phil King with new drummer Justin Welch after they reformed last year. The band’s dreamy shoegaze sounded as lush as ever and, while a couple of songs may have plodded a bit too much for my taste, the 4AD scenesters didn’t seem to have lost much after the long layoff.

The overcast skies and occasional rainfall helped solidify the mood for what was often an atmospheric set on the West Stage that included “Light From a Dead Star” and “Hypocrite” as well as the more up-tempo sing-along number “Ladykillers.”

The Sheepdogs have become quite successful, they’re very good musicians and, whenever I’ve heard them interviewed, they seemed like good guys. But some unknown element has always held me back from embracing the Saskatoon rock band. The group took a few steps toward bringing me on board with its East Stage performance, however, as the members showed how tight and talented they are with songs including “I’m Gonna Be Myself,” “Bad Lieutenant” and the catchy and simple “Southern Dreaming.” I’ve seen Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings perform together and they don’t sound as much like The Guess Who as The Sheepdogs do.

Will Sheff has a completely new band around him now in Okkervil River and I found its new record, Away, almost a complete snorefest. So it was with some trepidation when I arrived at the Rebellion Stage to see the singer/songwriter/guitarist and his new bandmates. Some of the older numbers may have lacked some of the oomph that was present in their original arrangements, but there’s still no arguing that the likes of “Plus Ones,” “Down Down The Deep River,” “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe,” “Unless It’s Kicks” and “For Real” are winners.

Even new songs “Mary on a Wave,” “Judey on a Street” and “Okkervil River R.I.P.” were brought to new life on stage. Mother Nature must have approved, as a rainbow appeared over Toronto during the set. I’ve seen better Okkervil River shows, but this one still exceeded my expectations.

Okkervil River
I’ve been a fan of Luke Doucet through his early days with Veal, his subsequent solo work and now with his wife Melissa McClelland in Whitehorse. The innovative folk-rock duo’s members often shared the same microphone to create fine harmonies and used effects to augment their material, which included “You Get Older” and a slow and moody interpretation of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.”

I would have liked to have stayed longer at the Battle of York Stage, but there was more to see and hear.

It’s probably been at least 20 years since it was cool to like Barenaked Ladies in Toronto, and I haven’t seen the band since Steven Page’s 2009 departure, but I still have a soft spot for the group’s earlier material — and I guess the gold award for its independently released self-titled debut cassette release that hangs on my wall is proof of that.

I arrived midway through BNL’s West Stage performance, just in time to catch a jazzed up rendition of “Hello City,” which briefly transitioned smartly into The Housemartins’ “Happy Hour.” I continued to be impressed with a keyboard-heavy “Narrow Streets,” a faithful version of the group’s old cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Sound Of Your Voice.” Adam Hindle from Born Ruffians joined the cast for “Brian Wilson,” and “Pinch Me” slowly faded from my ears as I walked toward the food trucks for a burrito.

I’m not sure if I saw Ween at The Rivoli in the early ‘90s or whether I’m somehow imagining it, so Dean and Gene Ween’s East Stage performance was either the first or second time that I was in close proximity to them. After a plodding instrumental introduction, Ween opened with “Did You See Me?” and followed it with “Roses Are Free,” “Take Me Away” and “Up On The Hill.” Aside from the countrified and up-tempo “Piss Up A Rope” and “Waving My Dick In The Wind,” most of it was too jammy for me. It was no surprise that there were quite a few Grateful Dead T-shirts in the crowd.

People were pressed up against the barrier in front of the stage yelling out song titles and holding up signs for Ween. I didn’t realize that the group still had such a large and fervent fan base, but this set made me realize that I’m not destined to be part of it. I left for the Rebellion Stage.

I haven’t seen Guided by Voices since before the Dayton, Ohio band first broke up in 2004, and I definitely missed frontman Robert Pollard and company. The kids’ swimming pool full of beer was missing from the stage, but  bottles of Bud Lite and tequila were always nearby for the singer and his latest bandmates: drummer Kevin March; bassist Mark Shue; returning guitarist Doug Gillard; and surprise new guitarist Bobby Bare Jr.

Guided by Voices
The guitars were slashing, the drums were pounding and Pollard was typically prolific. The club was open. I lost track of how many short and punchy songs were played, almost all of them introduced by Pollard, but the group fit a lot of music from the GBV, Boston Spaceships, ESP Ohio, Ricked Wicky and Pollard solo catalogues into 80 minutes. Hardcore fans sang along with many of them, including “Come On Baby Grace,” “Royal Cyclopean,” “Arrows and Balloons,” “I Am A Tree,” “Dragons Awake!,” “Back to the Lake,” “Poor Substitute,” “Tabby & Lucy” and “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft.”

If that wasn’t enough, the band granted my silent wishes by playing three of my favourite GBV songs toward the end of the set: “Teenage FBI,” “I Am A Scientist” and set closer “Glad Girls.” Venue curfew was imminent but the crowd’s resolution to hear more was unyielding so the band returned for a brief encore of “Don’t Stop Now” and “Shocker in Gloomtown.” I have it on good authority that Pollard had to be talked out of doing a cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Guided by Voices
Just when I didn’t think things could get much better, I believe they did.

In addition to the Fort York festival, TURF includes shows at the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace. Some friends and I walked up to the Shoe and we arrived just in time to catch the end of Skinny Lister, which I had seen and enjoyed the day before.

After what seemed like a longer wait than it probably was (anticipation and beer can play tricks with the mind), the eight members of The Mekons trundled on stage. Things couldn’t have got off to a better start, as the band kicked into “Memphis Egypt.” It could have gone downhill after that lofty beginning, but it’s to The Mekons' credit that it didn’t. The group has an extensive and diverse catalogue, a fine new Bloodshot Records album called Existentialism, and a cast of characters that ensures the between song banter will always be entertaining.

You want country? Reggae? Folk? Punk? Roots rock? With The Mekons you can have it all, with violin, accordion and saz augmenting traditional rock and roll instrumentation. On this night the menu included “Beaten and Broken,” “Tina,” Sally Timms’ divine vocal take on “Millionaire,” “Diamonds,” “Abernant 1984/5,” “Fantastic Voyage,” and “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.”

Longtime Jon Langford collaborators Dallas and Travis Good walked on stage for “Orpheus” and randomly came and went for most of the rest of the set, which featured “The Bomb,” “Last Dance” and “Hard To Be Human.”

The Mekons left the stage for a quick breather, some drinks and to exchange pleasantries with Bare Jr., who had made his way from Fort York after his GBV set, before returning for an encore. It began with the slower and more folk-oriented “Afar & Forlorn” and picked up steam with “Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem (which Timms turned into her personal dance party),” “Big Zombie” and the plaintively beautiful “Wild and Blue,” which included Gord Cumming briefly sneaking on stage to play some guitar.

A big finale was expected and it was delivered with “Where Were You?,” the 1978 single that remains the most timeless song from The Mekons’ early punk days.

That called for more drinks and conversation, and most of the band members were happy to oblige and indulge until the whee hours.

The Mekons

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