Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Boat cruise, Yonge Dundas Square and The Great Hall wrap up NXNE

Saturday meant not going to my office and a full day to partake of the North By Northeast Music Festival. And since it was a beautiful day, why not spend three hours of it cruising Toronto's harbour aboard the Captain Matthew Flinders soaking up sun and suds, chatting with folks and enjoying some rock-and-roll below deck.

My invitation aboard the "Bruise Cruise" from M for Montreal came with a free Moosehead beer, which I sipped while wandering around the ship and checking out DJ Jonathan Toubin spinning some great vintage pop, rock and soul 45s, which created a smooth transition for Hooded Fang's performance.
Hooded Fang

The Toronto band's Tosta Mista was my seventh favourite record of 2011 and made my initial ballot for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize to choose Canada's top album. The 25-minute live set lacked some of the subtle exotica lounge charms of the record, but the group's pop hooks and garage rock licks were irresistible.

I went on the deck to talk to friends and have a beer in the sunshine while admiring the view, and I missed Teenanger's performance and the first part of Mac Demarco's set. I wasn't familiar with the artist or his band, but I enjoyed their rootsy rock so much that I was whisked away from a conversation with a lovely woman to take part in a "gay dance party."

Bleached was the headliner and I liked the partial set I caught of the three-woman-fronted, garage rock-influenced, pop-punk act in March at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. The vocals were mixed too low, but that didn't stop lots of people from dancing. "Think of You" from last year's Searching Through The Past was my favourite, but a new song also caught my attention and a cover of The Ramones' "Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World" was a fitting closer for the Los Angeles combo.

I made a beeline for the LCBO after disembarking and picked up a couple of cans of Denison's Weissbier for my walk up to Yonge Dundas Square to see Hollerado. It's been more than a year since I've seen the band and I was due. I arrived mid-set to hear a new song played in front of a good-sized crowd, which clapped and sang along to "Got To Lose." Singer/guitarist Menno Versteeg shot off a lone confetti cannon in honour of headlining act Flaming Lips, who he called the pioneers of the prank. "Americanarama" and an extended "Do The Doot Da Doot Doo" ended things on a major high.

I wasn't familiar with Oberhofer, so I used the opportunity to go across the street to the Eaton Centre for some delicious Indian food from Amaya and to the LCBO for two more cans of band-watching provisions, and still made it back in time to hear some Oberhofer. The quintet leaned to the enjoyable rather than pretentious side of indie rock, so I was satisfied.

Some of Of Montreal's recorded material had left me wanting, but I thoroughly enjoyed a set in Austin a number of years ago, so staying at Yonge Dundas was the best 7 p.m. option. Flamboyant frontman Kevin Barnes and his collection of psychedelically theatrical bandmates show their rock influences more live than on their records, which I feel can tend to be too artsy and precious. And having a number of dancers who made repeated costume changes enhanced the spectacle considerably (one of them crowd-surfed over us from the stage and we were around the midpoint of the square for the set).

The playfulness and music made Of Montreal a good fit for Flaming Lips, and a song list that included "Miss Blonde Your Papa is Failing," "The Party's Crashing Us," "Forecast Fascist Future," "Plastis Wafers," "Id Engager," "Helmdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse" and more ensured everyone in the ever-growing audience had a good time.

I only had fleeting knowledge of Portugal The Man from a few songs I'd heard online, but the music had a quality roots rock edge to it live. One song segued into The Beatles' "Helter Skelter," which was welcomed and was my favourite part of the performance. I feel no need to acquire any albums or see the band again, but it certainly wasn't a waste of 40 minutes. I like Portugal The Man much more than Portugal the annoying car horn-honking soccer fans that plague my neighbourhood every Euro Cup soccer tournament.

The crowd had filled in the closed down Yonge Street when I made one last trip to the LCBO at 8:25 p.m. Where there was no lineup in the store 90 minutes earlier, I waited for almost a half-hour on this second sojourn. I found out about the stage collapse that killed a man and injured others at the Radiohead concert that was supposed to take place at Downsview Park earlier in the day, and it seemed that many of the more than 40,000 people who had purchased tickets for that show squeezed themselves into Yonge Dundas Square as a consolation prize after that gig was cancelled.

Flaming Lips arrived late and each member came out individually starting at 9:30 p.m., with fur collar-clad singer Wayne Coyne bringing up the rear in his signature giant clear inflatable bubble in which he rolled over the crowd. Once he made it back to the stage, he shot off a confetti cannon, picked up a megaphone and watched the release of giant balloons that were kept aloft by fans throughout the show. It was a rock-and-roll circus.

Female dancers in school girl outfits graced the stage for a brilliant run through "She Don't Use Jelly," and things didn't let up with "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)."

Coyne then acknowledged the Radiohead tragedy and directed good karma to the man who died and those who were injured, as well as the band. "Peace be with these hearts tonight," he said before a song that sounded a bit like Radiohead's "Karma Police."

"Waiting For A Superman" and some slower and mellower songs with no on-stage antics followed. Coyne seemed to be quite affected by the day's events, which may have drained him and the performance of a little of the normal exuberance seen at Lips' shows, taking away from the spectacle aspect that most Lips shows possess.

After Coyne made another heartfelt tribute to the people at the Radiohead concert, the set ended with "Do You Realize?" and more of a party vibe again as confetti cannons went wild. There was no encore.

A streetcar was waiting at the corner when the show ended at 10:50 p.m., so I hopped on because I thought it would be the best way to get across town to The Great Hall at Queen and Dovercourt. It took an hour because of all the traffic, so I could have made it just as fast by walking all the way.
Teenage Head

The delay made me miss the Celtic punk drinking songs of The Mahones, but I was right in front of the stage when Teenage Head came on and ripped into "Let's Shake." Pete MacAulay is now fronting the band after singer Frankie Venom's 2008 passing and, while he lacks some of the charisma of the band's founder, his voice could handle the band's garage punk material well. He was joined by guitarist Gord Lewis, bassist Steve Marshall and drummer Jack Pedler.

"Picture My Face" was followed in quick succession by "Wild One," "Top Down," "Take It," "Teenage Beer Drinkin' Party," "Bonerack," "Lucy Potato" and "Infected." It's been 35 years since some of these songs were written and they still sound great, and a lot of us old punks were totally in thrall to them. "Disgusteen" was on the set list, but unfortunately wasn't played. I'd seen Sadies bassist Sean Dean on the cruise earlier in the day and he also made it here. I'm glad he shares my fine taste in music.
The Nils

The crowd thinned significantly, but old school ska on the sound system kept me happy until another vintage Canadian punk band, Montreal's Nils, took the stage at 1:10 a.m. Bassist/singer Carlos Soria (who formed the band with his late brother Alex) said he was 15 when he first played on a bill with Teenage Head, and he just turned 50, and then called the Hamilton, Ont. outfit the best band in the world.

There was no classic after classic like with Teenage Head, but The Nils' brand of punky power pop was enjoyable until it abruptly ended just 20 minutes after the band began. The group returned quickly, however, which was a relief since this was the first (and probably last) time I'd see it. But I was shocked and disappointed that the quartet didn't play what's perhaps its best known song, the timeless "Scratches and Needles."

It was almost 2 a.m. and though there were some other bands I wouldn't have minded seeing playing at other bars until 4 a.m., it had already been a full day and I was a 10-minute walk from my house, so I think I made the right decision in ending my NXNE and going home.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Quality over quantity during NXNE's Friday

My baseball team lost 5-4 and the game meant that I couldn't attend any North By Northeast shows until midnight on Friday, but quality instead of quantity was the order of the night and made the sting of the loss a little easier to take.

I've seen both Andre Williams and The Sadies in a variety of incarnations over the years, but the two of them together is a deadly combination. The 75-year-old singer was pimped out in a red satin suit and red fedora and added new elements to his look with earrings and a beard. He may have looked like an aging ladykiller, but he was behaving like a person a quarter of his age with his come-ons to the young women in the audience.
Andre Williams with The Sadies

Things got hot right off the bat with "Agile, Mobile, Hostile" and then his 50-year-old hit, "Shake a Tail Feather," with The Sadies' Dallas and Travis Good providing a wall of guitar in accompaniment. Upright bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky kept a solid rhythm and Williams' manager added to the ensemble by playing keyboards. Perhaps he felt he had to keep a close eye on his artist, who has a long history of substance abuse that was documented in the 2007 film "Agile Mobile Hostile: A Year with Andre Williams."

Things continued with selections including "I Wanna Be Your Favorite Pair of Pajamas" and a slow doo-wop version of Williams' 1957 hit "Bacon Fat" before he left the stage to "take a pee." The Sadies filled in ably by performing "Pussy Stank" on their own, while accompanied by some sultry burlesque dancing by Caitlin Veitch.

Williams returned wearing a white jacket and fedora and Travis picked up his violin for "She's a Bag of Potato Chips" from 1999's Red Dirt. That was Williams and The Sadies' first album together, and they finally followed it up this year with Night & Day. "Jailbait," another vintage favourite, was followed by "Bad Motherfucker" -- and you have to know that the man was, and still might be, what the title proclaims. Williams and Veitch left the stage, leaving The Sadies to take the song to its conclusion.

You can see a video of Williams and The Sadies performing "I Can Tell" in this video recorded at the show by Matzoh Ball.

Greg Cartwright (The Compulsive Gamblers, The Oblivians) had been quietly sitting backstage during the set, but there was nothing reserved when he took the stage with his garage punk combo Reigning Sound at 1:15 a.m. and opened with "Your Love Is A Fine Thing."
Reigning Sound

The club was packed, and had a long lineup outside, and Cartwright rewarded fans with a blazing hour-long set of soulful rock-and-roll that included "Everything I Do Is Wrong," "Debris," "If You Can't Give Me Everything," "Bad Man," "Time Bomb High School," "I Don't Care If You Ever Come Back Now," "Funny Thing," "If I Can't Come Back," The Compulsive Gamblers' "Stop and Think it Over" (which you can see in this video by Matzoh Ball), a great cover of "Stormy Weather" and more.

I'd seen The Deadly Snakes' Max Danger (who'd worked with Cartwright in the past) backstage, but he was soon on it and urging everyone to demand an encore. It came with a one-two punch beginning with "Drowning."

Cartwright was in fine voice throughout the performance and his band members became a united force to be reckoned with and exemplified what good old rock-and-roll is all about.
No Sinner

Vancouver's No Sinner had the difficult task of following Reigning Sound at 2:30 a.m. Singer Colleen Rennison seemed to be going for a sexy white trash look, and her powerful blues-rock voice combined with the competent musicianship accompanying her gave the performance a Janis Joplin  vibe. The group still needs more in the way of songs, but there's some potential there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Alright on NXNE Thursday

Good Riddance is one of those punk bands I've listened to a bit, but paid little attention to, so I thought I'd give its 8 p.m. set at Yonge Dundas Square a shot.

The tattooo-covered Fat Wreck Chords veterans' music was reasonably melodic in places and more hardcore at other times. The crowd wasn't overly enthusiastic and I felt no urge to leave my perch at a stool and table beside the Moosehead booth in the fenced off licensed area, where I could see the stage on a video screen. Tall cans of Magners cider for $7 were the best alcohol option from both a taste and value standpoint.

"Shadows of Defeat" and "Mother Superior" were the best the California band had to offer.

I have more Bad Religion albums and like a lot of its stuff, but it's always been a group that I felt I didn't impact me as much as my music tastes indicate it should. Case in point: this was my first time seeing Bad Religion (though I sang The Ramones' "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" on stage with guitarist Greg Hetson as part of "Punk Rock Karaoke" at Lee's Palace three years ago).

The port-a-potty line became much longer than the booze lines, but at least I got to hear "21st Century (Digital Boy)" as my bladder expanded uncomfortably. While that was my personal highlight, Bad Religion has built an impressive catalogue over the past 33 years and showed it off by performing "Anesthesia," "Dearly Beloved," "Los Angeles is Burning," "Let Them Eat War," "New Dark Ages" and "Suffer."

I left before the extended set ended so I could grab a couple of pizza slices and walk to the small Kensington Market club, The Detour Bar, to see  a young local band named Alright Alright. The quartet squeezed on to the tiny stage and banged out a set of short, snappy, melodic and energetic tunes that evoked thoughts of the first Strokes album, The Libertines and good, old-fashioned rock-and-roll that rode a surf wave at the end. I'll elevate Alright Alright to Very Good Very Good and will definitely be on the lookout for it in the future.
Alright Alright

I'm a big proponent of Michael Rault and have been singing his praises since I heard his Ma-Me-O debut album in 2010. I saw him for the first time three months ago during Canadian Music Fest and needed to again, though a lineup outside The Dakota Tavern prevented me from seeing his whole set. The young man has a great throwback rock-and-roll sound that brought out some '60s dance steps in the audience and I'm not overstating things by saying his songs stood toe-to-toe with a set-ending, kick-ass cover of Them's "Gloria." Rault's performance reinforced my view that he's one of the most criminally overlooked artists around.

I wrote the bio for Nash and his debut solo album, The Death of Reason, last year and saw him and his like-named pop band for the first time during March's Canadian Music Fest. I was taken with his set and wanted to see him again. Nash is a vibrant performer who appears to enjoy what he's doing and the diminished audience was treated to "Broken Down Satellites," "Super Symmetric," "Good to Go," "Sad Robot Harmonies," "In a State of Mind," "Friendz R Drugz" and "Suit Up."

One buff audience member systematically threw down his possessions and then stripped off his shirt and started dancing until a security member made him put the shirt back on -- to the chagrin of some of the ladies in the club.

The 2 a.m. slot at The Dakota was billed as "Special Guest" and, when it turned out to be The Elwins, I elected to stick around since I'd liked the few songs I'd heard and hadn't seen the band before. The quartet's melodic, '60s-influenced power pop was jangly and danceable, and some songs were ballsier than others.
The Elwins

Nash was dancing to The Elwins' cover of Beyonce's "Countdown." I've never heard the original, but I'm pretty sure that I'd still prefer The Elwins' version more if I had. The set lasted for a few more songs and I was happy I stayed for it. The Elwins are another local band I'd see again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hayes Carll saves first night of NXNE

Nothing on the North By Northeast Music Festival schedule for the first part of Wednesday particularly grabbed me, but I wanted to get out before Hayes Carll's midnight show at the Horseshoe Tavern so I took a chance on young Kingston, Ont. quartet Vorasek at The Hideout.

The bar no longer has Blanche de Chambly on tap, so things were already off to a disappointing start before the alternative rock band even took the stage in front of maybe 50 people. One of the guitarists was white and had dreadlocks. That's rarely a good look, and it wasn't in this case.

Vorasek played "Noise Complaint," which the bassist said they'd received a few of at parties over the years. My complaint was against the group's mediocrity. The lyrics didn't offer as much as the band seemed to think they did and "Bolder," the one song I'd heard previously from the NXNE website that attracted me to it, didn't do much more for me than the other material when performed live. The Yankees-Braves game on the television above the bar was more interesting.

The Parkdale Hookers had been a mid-level choice for the past several Canadian Music Fests and NXNEs, but I'd never made it to a show, so the slim pickings in competition made 11 p.m. on June 13, 2012 the time to finally do it. The Toronto-based, suit-wearing power trio drew about 20 people and started somewhat promisingly with a cover of the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer." The band covered New Order's "Blue Monday" later in the set and I enjoyed the remakes more than the Hookers' originals, which were pretty much comprised of straight-ahead rock with elements of '60s garage and punk. I finally saw The Parkdale Hookers, and now I never have to again.

I noticed Dodge Fiasco's name on the sign outside The Cameron House as I walked by, but since the front bar performance wasn't part of NXNE, I was previously unaware of it. I walked in and the old favourite, which doesn't play too often anymore, had just finished its first set. I thought there might be a chance to return and catch a few songs after Carll's set at the Horseshoe, but that wasn't in the cards.

Carll, who I feel is one of the best songwriters around these days, opened the set with acoustic guitar and accompanied by a steel player for "Beaumont." He followed it with a cover of Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" before another guitarist, bassist and drummer came on stage. It was a pick-up band of Canadian musicians, including talented guitarist Stuart Cameron, but you wouldn't have known that they all just got together for the first time that afternoon. Carll dubbed his new country-rock group The Canadian Cowboys.
Hayes Carll

"Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" segued briefly into "I Fought The Law" and "KMAG YOYO," the Dylan-esque title track from Carll's excellent second album for Lost Highway Records, was a fine follow-up. Carll told an entertaining story about chickens before performing his Ray Wiley Hubbard co-write, "Drunken Poet's Dream." The momentum continued with "Little Rock," "Hard Out Here," "Stomp and Holler" and "The Lovin' Cup" before the stage was reduced to two people like at the start of the show again.

Carll slowed things down for "Long Way Home" to end the set, but the healthy-sized and knowledgeable crowd demanded and received more. The encore began with "Live Free Or Die" and ended with a second song I didn't catch much of. Carll was the last performer of the night and it would have been nice to hear a longer set, but it was still longer than the average music festival gig so I was able to live with that.

Friends who were at the Dodge Fiasco show came by the Horseshoe and, while we were chatting, James "Cricket" Henry gave me his new Millwinders album (I haven't listened to it yet, but I look forward to it) and Teddy Fury bought me a Las Vegas Manhattan. It's not as exotic as it may sound, but it was a nice nightcap.