Monday, June 23, 2014

NXNE Saturday: a day in the sun and a night at the Shoe

Michael Rault

My fourth and final day of the North by Northeast Music Festival took advantage of the sunshine and warm temperatures with several outdoor sets.

The first was by Toronto's Michael Rault, who I'd fallen hard for on his 2010 Ma-Me-O debut album and 2012 Whirlpool EP. His seven-song Living Daylight comes out this week and, while I like it, I don't find it as much fun as its predecessors. While he's still playing short love songs, the sound is a little more straight-forward rock than the '50s and '60s-influenced material that attracted me to him. I felt the same way about this performance at the St. James Park Gazebo, but will spend more time with the record and see Rault again the next time I get a chance.

Beach Day

Florida's Beach Day was my favourite discovery of last year's NXNE, so I was delighted when the quartet fronted by singer/guitarist Kimmy Drake took the stage after Rault. The set opened with an instrumental and the rest of it was filled with '60s-influenced girl group pop and garage rock that captured the park's summery vibe perfectly. The performance was nicely balanced between songs from the Trip Trap Attack debut ("Walking on the Streets," my favourite "Beach Day," "Boys") and those from the forthcoming Native Echoes ("The Lucky One," "I'm Just Messin' Around," "All My Friends Were Punks") before ending with a rousing cover of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Want To Dance."

I'm not really into the sand and surf lifestyle, but I'd be happy to make almost every day a Beach Day.

I stopped at Banh Mi Boys for a braised beef sandwich and kimchi fries that I took in with me to the patio that had opened on the street beside The Cameron House for the day. The delicious food was washed down with a recently released and not as tasty Brickworks Batch: 1904 cider.


Ferraro's Cosmo, Gianni, Tally and Tom Ferraro provided my dinner soundtrack with a set that incorporated covers (Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Michael Rault's "Let Me Go Out," The White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba,"   Dion's "Runaround Sue," The Chords' "Sh-Boom") with originals that slid in easily among them. Cameron House sound man Frank joined the young band for an entertaining rendition of his namesake Frank Sinatra's hit "That's Life."

A drunk punk who danced himself out of his pants and exposed his butt outside the fenced-off area kept hopping the railing and was very forcibly removed a couple of times by being thrown back over those same railings to provide a bit of drama before the next set started. I got a taste of Sam Cash on Thursday night and got the full experience with his three-piece backing band The Romantic Dogs at his label's party outside the Cameron House. 

Sam Cash

The group performed tunes from its Stand Together, Fall Together debut and quite a few new numbers in a 15-song set full of catchy, upbeat, well-written roots rock. Cash reprised "Steal My Car" from Thursday, showed off his whistling skills in "Fall Together" and proved overall that he's more than capable of producing songs that should be commercially viable. Again, like on Thursday, Cash was joined on stage by Cameron House Records artist Whitney Rose for a run through Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" to close things off.

I'd planned to see a couple of acts at The Paddock, but a friend inside the club caught my attention and I ended up chatting with him while sitting at the bar over a few pints while listening to a surprisingly eclectic-sounding set by Toronto rock act Zeus outside as background music via a nearby open window.

I'm a longtime Rheostatics fan, but haven't been as enamoured by former singer/guitarist Dave Bidini's Bidiniband project, although I like the songs live more than on record. I was also quite happy to hear him perform his old group's "Horses" when I arrived at the Horseshoe Tavern near the end of the set.

Joel Plaskett

I think Joel Plaskett is a national treasure and I've written about him frequently over the years. A group of friends share my affection, so we got together to sing along to almost every song from the frontman and his backing band The Emergency. The club was packed as the extended set opened with "A Million Dollars," and the momentum never waned through: "You Let Me Down;" "Precious, Precious, Precious;" "Penny For Your Thoughts;" "Deny, Deny, Deny;" "You're Mine;" "Through and Through and Through;" "Natural Disaster;" "Park Avenue Sobriety Test;" a solo acoustic "Harbour Boys;" "Rollin', Rollin', Rollin';" "Work Out Fine" mashed up with Lorde's "Royals," Manfred Mann's "Doo Wah Diddy" and Sam Cooke's "Cupid;" "Love This Town;" "Nowhere With You;" "Extraordinary;" and an encore composed of a new song and "Wishful Thinking."

If you like clever lyrics and irresistible hooks, but you've never seen The Joel Plaskett Emergency, I'm telling you to remedy that situation as soon as you can.

The Felice Brothers

The crowd thinned out considerably for a 1:20 a.m. performance by The Felice Brothers, who were supporting their new Favorite Waitress album, but those who remained were quite enthusiastic. My friends bailed and my energy was flagging, but I stuck it out because I've enjoyed the New York City quintet's take on folk, roots, rock and Americana every time I've witnessed it before. Violin and accordion were sometimes added to guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, there were some audience sing-alongs, and a couple of slower numbers were offset by some more kick-ass tunes to keep spirits raised.

The Felice Brothers were called back for an encore that included my favourite song of theirs, "Frankie's Gun," and a favourite of countless bands who I've seen cover it: Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World."

The bar was still serving, but I'd had my fill, so it was a walk home and then bedtime. While a handful of clubs were hosting bands on Sunday, my NXNE had come to an end.

NXNE Friday begins with Pizza and ends with Spoon

The Pizza Underground

It takes a lot for a band to get a journalist out to see a band play at 10:30 a.m. when clubs had extended their liquor licences until 4 a.m. the two previous nights. It takes a lot less to piss people off. The Pizza Underground managed to do both on Friday.

Home Alone child star Macaulay Culkin and friends Matt Colbourn, Deenah Vollmer and Austin Kilham (Phoebe Kreutz didn't make the trip, so Toby Goodshank filled in) have formed a band that performs Velvet Underground and Lou Reed songs, but with the lyrics changed to be filled with pizza references. As a huge VU and Reed fan who likes pizza, and was curious about the Culkin factor, I had to check it out.

But the promised 10:30 a.m. start turned into 11:40 a.m. for reasons that weren't explained to the 100 people who showed up at The Edward Day Gallery. Things took so long that the group's giant pizza slice backdrop fell down, but the stage crew had time to rig it back up again well before the group appeared. Luckily, there was free Panago pizza and Vitamin Water to quell any possible revolt.

Once things got rolling, they were pretty much as expected. The tunes were recognizable and the changed lyrics were pretty sophomoric. Medleys allowed the band to fit a lot of songs into a small time frame and not drag on the joke for too long. And several jokes were told between songs to fill time. The comedy quotient was turned up a notch when Goodshank dressed up as Kurt Cobain to sing Nirvana songs in the past tense. It was fun, but the novelty again wore off quickly.

Odds with Steven Page and Chris Murphy

The delayed start time threw off my work/play schedule for the rest of the day, which I wasn't happy about, but I had time to vote in an advance poll for the upcoming federal by-election in my ward on the way to the Horseshoe Tavern to see a 3:50 p.m. set by Odds as part of the Hidden Pony Records fifth anniversary party. I was a big fan of the group's power pop and it had significant success from 1987 until it went on hiatus in 1999. The band reformed in 2007 to play occasional gigs and has released an album and two EPs that haven't resonated with me like the earlier work.

A healthy crowd was on hand to hear old favourites like "Make You Mad," "Write It In Lightning" and "Eat My Brain" as well as a few less familiar newer songs. Former Barenaked Ladies member Steven Page came on stage to join the group for a mash-up of BNL's "It's All Been Done" and Odds' "It Falls Apart." He stayed on stage when Sloan's Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson came up for a mash-up of Sloan's "Underwhelmed," Odds' "Someone Who Is Cool" and The Beatles' "Hey Jude." The Pursuit of Happiness' Moe Berg was also in the crowd, but we were denied a chance to hear "I'm an Adult Now" mixed with "Jack Hammer" as the entertaining set came to a close.

Congratulations to Hidden Pony founder "Parkside" Mike Renaud on the first five years, and thanks for the beers and burrito.

I moved on to the M for 159 Manning house party so see Death Hymn Number 9, but the group's basement performance was so packed that I couldn't see anything and decided to head further west to the SOCAN-SESAC mixer at The Edward Day Gallery. I chatted with several friends and had a free beer and hot dog before it was time to hit the clubs for more music.


I'd never been to the Smiling Buddha Bar before, but it was hosting acts I was interested in so I made the trip. The venue seemed a bit sketchy, but it had a decent selection of Ontario craft beers to put me at ease.

Ottawa's Boyhood came on at 8 p.m. The quartet utilized two keyboards, guitar, bass and pre-programmed beats, but I was most attracted to the female singer's austere vocal delivery that fit the band's minimalist approach. Unfortunately most of the songs sounded too similar for my tastes and I ended up bored through much of the set.

Tess Parks

Toronto's Tess Parks, fronting three other musicians, performed dark and mysterious-sounding film noir guitar music. I'd compare it to Mazzy Star, but with more
oomph and a heavier psychedelic element. I would have liked to have heard more, but Parks played an extra short set and told me as she was walking out the door that she was off to see Spiritualized at Massey Hall. That connection makes sense.

My preferred 10 p.m. shows didn't fit well with the rest of my schedule, and I had planned on being at The Garrison for a couple of hours anyway, so I went early and saw Brooklyn, N.Y. duo Weeknight. Guitar, synthesizers and pre-programmed backing tracks produced a dark and brooding sound that wasn't bad but wasn't my cup of orange pekoe.


The crowd had filled in significantly by the time Beliefs came on at 11 p.m. to hear songs from the Toronto band's self-titled debut album from the Hand Drawn Dracula label. Guitarists Josh Korody and Jesse Crowe shared lead vocals on songs that built to big crescendos in an impressive set that  had a lot of energy and wasn't mopey like some bands of this ilk can be. Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine are influences, and this performance prompted thoughts of a less experimental Sonic Youth.

Crystal Stilts

I've enjoyed past performances by Brooklyn's Crystal Stilts and took advantage of another opportunity to see the Jesus and Mary Chain-influenced group. It's dark but not as brooding as some might expect, as more upbeat numbers were mixed in with slower ones that my friend compared to Joy Division. That verve shone through on one song that was even a bit reminiscent of Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11."

The Marvelous Beauhunks


A rather lengthy walk got me to Rancho Relaxo after The Marvelous Beahunks had already started its 1 a.m. set. The Oshawa, Ont. band formed in 1990 and reformed in 2010 after an 18-year layoff, and it plays a mix of power pop and old school punk. There was a bigger audience than I expected, so folks are obviously happy that the group is back, and I'd like to catch more of it sometime in the not too distant future since what little I heard was right up my alley.

The Horseshoe was the final stop of the night for a 2 a.m. "secret" performance by Spoon that wasn't advertised ahead of time. The word must have got out, however, as the club was packed. The critically acclaimed Austin, Texas indie rock band was headlining a free public show in Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday night, but it was much better to see it in an intimate club with friends since I'd seen it play larger venues before.


The Britt Daniel-fronted group showcased songs from its long-awaited eighth album, They Want My Soul, which will be out in August. But older fan favourites including "Don't You Evah," "I Turn My Camera On" and the set-closing "Black Like Me" drew the biggest responses. The crowd demanded and received an encore and went away happy after hearing "The Underdog."

Friday, June 20, 2014

NXNE 2014: Thursday rockin' on the 501

Shannon and The Clams
I've unfortunately missed Shannon and The Clams on past visits to Toronto and during the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and I didn't expect that I'd be riding a streetcar the first time I caught the Oakland, Calif.-formed group.

MiO, which makes liquid water enhancer, enhanced its marketing by commandeering one of Toronto's streetcars and taking it back and forth along Queen Street. The customized 501 "Squirtcar" is inviting bands and fans to take a ride for three nights during the North by Northeast Music Festival, so I hopped on for a round trip.

Shannon and The Clams is a trio that masterfully blends doo-wop from the '50s and girl group pop and garage rock from the '60s while giving them a 21st century spin. It's a testament to a band's concentration if it can play nine songs while rolling along without missing a beat, and Shannon and The Clams pulled it off. Bassist Shannon Shaw and guitarist Cody Blanchard (who's also a member of Hunx and His Punx) shared lead vocals and infused a playful spirit into their tunes. While it was almost as much fun to see the reactions of pedestrians and motorists as they gawked, pointed, waved and snapped photos as we drove by as it was to watch the band, I definitely want to see it again in less cramped quarters.

Bloodshot Bill

I'm a fan of Montreal one-man band Bloodshot Bill and his mix of rockabilly, garage and surf rock. I last saw him open for Catl two months ago, and from his opening cover of The Rivieras' "California Sun" through nine more mostly original songs until  the ride came to an end, he was as entertaining as ever. His vocal gymnastics and guitar work, augmented by foot pedal-powered drum and cymbals, would make any commute a lot more fun. Bill asked for a cold beer, which I would have appreciated as well, but I was content with free bottled water and MiO.

The Demos

Beer was waiting at Hideout, where I arrived just after The Demos had begun their 11 p.m. set. The young Rochester, N.Y. band's "Nervous" is a perfect piece of summertime power pop that deserved to be a hit. Nothing else in the repertoire lived up that high, but it's brand of melodic, straight-ahead rock and roll and classic '70s power pop (with one Strokes-like tune thrown in for good measure) would make me want to see it again as an opening act. I'd just recommend making better use of the keyboards, which were under-utilized until the closing number.

Gay Nineties

I'd heard good things about Vancouver's Gay Nineties and think that its new "Letterman" single/video is another summertime song that should be getting widespread exposure these days. If you like Hollerado, you should like this song. I was surprised to see that the lead singer/guitarist had long hair and was wearing a bandana. That didn't fit the mental image I had of the band. Five songs into the set, I realized that the group's other songs weren't doing anything for me so I hit the Rivoli exit.

I've seen Alejandro Escovedo a number of times, but I'm unsure if I can add one more show to the list after walking in on the Austin-based singer/songwriter/guitarist's last song with Poi Dog Pondering violinist Susan Voelz at the Horseshoe Tavern. Oh well. I'm sure I'll see him again.

Whitney Rose

I stayed at the Shoe for a set from what Six Shooter Records founder Shauna de Cartier called "the future of Americana" in her introduction. It featured three young singer/songwriter/guitarists performing three of their own songs each while joining a talented back-up band that included under-appreciated guitarist Nichol Robertson.

Whitney Rose is small but has a very big and dynamic voice that at times can sound as sultry as she looks. Her music has an air of classic country about it and it would be great to see her succeed in the modern world.

Joe Nolan

Joe Nolan is a roots artist that Six Shooter is big on, seemingly for good reason based on what little I've heard.

Sam Cash is the son of former L'Etranger member (and now Member of Parliament) Andrew Cash, and he's definitely the most rocking of the three. He fronts a band called The Romantic Dogs that I look forward to catching soon.

The three of them took turns singing lead on a spirited cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" to end the night. 

Sam Cash

I don't know if Rose, Nolan and Cash are the future of Americana, but I'd be happy if they played a decent role in the future of Canadiana.

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.