Sunday, June 21, 2015

Nick Waterhouse rules Friday at NXNE

San Marina

My Friday's North by Northeast activities got off to a somewhat slow start at the Horseshoe Tavern at 8 p.m. with young quartet San Marina, which played with slow-fast and quiet-loud dynamics but wasn't a particularly dynamic act to watch.

Orange O'Clock
I got my first glimpse of temporary venue NXNE Hub next to see young Sherbrooke, Que. pop trio Orange O'Clock, which recently won out over a few thousand other acts to capture the CBC Searchlight talent contest title. The sound was a bit more slick than I would have liked, but this is a keyboard and guitar-driven group of talented musicians with a singer who has a voice a bit reminiscent of David Bowie that seems to have a good shot at achieving commercial success.

The Sour Notes
Austin, Texas quintet The Sour Notes were staying at my friend Michael's place during the fest and his recommendation led me to the Bovine Sex Club at 10 p.m. There was a heavy '60s psychedelic rock element going on and at times it was a bit spacey for me, but the shorter songs definitely hit the spot.

Shark Week
I stayed around for Washington, D.C. quartet Shark Week, whose drummer had a broken arm but kept the beat surprisingly well to drive the group's indie, garage, surf and psych material. I was optimistic going in, but my expectations were exceeded.

Nick Waterhouse
Nick Waterhouse provided my favourite set of NXNE at midnight at the Horseshoe, where I'd seen him with a larger band blow me away about 15 months earlier. This performance drew Toronto mayor John Tory, who watched from the club's office. Saxophone added a lot to the singer/guitarist's vintage rock and soul sounds. There was lots of energy, the sound was great and Waterhouse is an amiable frontman who has his niche nailed.

Tijuana Panthers
I'd seen Tijuana Panthers in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest Music Festival a few years ago, but the band seemed more confident this time and delivered a much better show of stoner surf that had elements of retro indie rock, power pop and punk, and occasionally left me hearing elements of The Gun Club and Joy Division.

American Wrestlers
American Wrestlers closed things off at the Shoe at 2:15 a.m. and, while I ended up paying more attention to conversations with friends than what was happening on stage, I liked the melodic indie rock that I heard from the quartet.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Surprisingly good NXNE Thursday

I had schedule holes to fill and I wasn't sure about all of the bands on my North by Northeast Music Festival to-see list when Thursday started. But despite a couple of missteps, things turned out much better than I was expecting.

I got an earlier start and arrived at The Garrison's front bar just in time to see Michigan trio Heaters take the stage at 4:20 p.m. There wasn't a lot to set it apart from other psych/drone bands, but I enjoyed its mix of instrumentals and vocal songs delivered with a '60s vibe.

Free Panago pizza was offered after the set, and a couple of small slices hit the spot before EZTV came on. When I saw the drummer wearing a Dwight Twilley T-shirt, I was pretty sure I had made a good choice -- and I did, particularly since there were few alternatives at this hour. The New York City quartet was relatively EZ on the ears with its chiming guitar-driven power pop, but I started noticing the lack of big hooks as the set went on. The group was solid but not that exciting.

Mick Futures
Moss Lime was supposed to play next, but was a no-show, and I found out that Naomi Punk had been moved from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., so I figured my best option was to have another pint and wait for a 7 p.m. set by Mick Futures, which I hadn't planned on seeing. The quartet delivered short, snappy and energetic punk and post-punk songs with indecipherable lyrics. This proved to be the first of a few acts that I ended up catching on Thursday that weren't in my original plans.

The Garrison has the best selection of craft beers of any music venue in Toronto and, during my time there on Wednesday and Thursday, I tried five that were new to me. Here's how they rated:

Good: Great Lakes Brewery Thrust IPA, Duggan's Raspberry Hefe
OK: Cruiser Pale Ale, Spearhead Wheat
No thanks: Old Woody Alt

I had time to kill and a void to fill so I got a steak and cheese sandwich at Subway and a tall boy of Double Trouble Kickin' Ginger Red IPA at the LCBO and had them while watching softball in Trinity Bellwoods Park. The beer was disappointing.

Wave of Terror
My friend David told me that The Comfort Zone was a late venue addition to the NXNE schedule, and he recommended a few acts playing there that weren't on my radar. The first, at 9 p.m., was Wave of Terror. The trio was high on all surf, garage and indie rock quotients and, while its short songs were nothing that I hadn't heard before, I'm a fan of those genres and was satisfied.

Unlike The Garrsion, The Comfort Zone ranks down there with Virgin Mod Club and Revival for having the worst beer selection of any live music venue in Toronto, and tall cans of Pilsner were the best I could do.

The Muscadettes
Montreal's Muscadettes were on my agenda for Friday, but I took the opportunity to see the blonde twin-fronted group at The Comfort Zone. The sisterly connection was evident in their vocal interplay and their guitar and bass contributions were backed by members of one of my favourite Montreal bands, Les Breastfeeders, and a drummer who Grant Lawrence told me was from The Stills. The nine-song set of '60s garage-inspired indie rock was as inspired as that pedigree suggested it would be.

Like at 9 p.m., I had an empty time slot at 11 p.m., so I stuck around for Needles//Pins, a Vancouver trio that played short, melodic punk songs. They were pretty good, but far from great.

I had planned on seeing Gen Gorman at Coaltion at midnight, but was told by the NXNE volunteer working the Comfort Zone door that the club had reached its capacity of 25 for badge and wristband holders, even though there were only 50 people in the club, since people who left and came back were counted twice. If I left and come back like I had planned, I would have to pay to get back in despite my badge. I wasn't informed of this when I first entered the club, and the door person agreed with me that it was a stupid policy, but she had to follow the orders she was given.

I stayed, and it turned out to be a good decision after all. Vancouver's Tranzmitors came on stage wearing suits and played a very high tempo 11-song set. The group follows in the footsteps of Vancouver's Pointed Sticks,  but with more of an emphasis on punk than power pop. Things ended on a high with "Weekend."

Guantanamo Baywatch
The group that I most wanted to see was on last. I missed catching Guantanamo Baywatch in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest Music Festival in March, but the band with the best name of NXNE also turned out to be one of the best bands with an explosively enjoyable mix of instrumental and vocal tunes. There was nothing but good times included in the group's first Canadian performance, which included a nod to our country via an amazing cover of Paul Anka's "Diana."

The music made me dance, or whatever it is I do when my feet and arms are moving, and moshing broke out during the encore that the appreciative audience demanded. There were minimal jiggling breasts and no torture, just a lot of fun courtesy of Guantanamo Baywatch. I purchased its new Darling … It's Too Late album as I left the club and then hit the pavement for the walk home.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

NXNE off to great start on Wednesday

The opening night of the North by Northeast Music Festival was so good that I'm afraid it will only go downhill from here.

My night began at The Garrison with Twist, a four-piece band fronted by BB Guns' singer/guitarist Laura Hermiston. Don't expect the more garage rock-oriented material of her other band, but a larger and more expansive rock sound with atmospheric moments and occasional tinges of psychedelia. Effects are used and things get loud. While I wish Hermiston had a stronger voice, the blend of different elements was quite effective and left me impressed. 

Wreckless Eric
The night's guest of honour was no doubt Wreckless Eric, a 61-year-old, self-described "bubblegum with dementia" artist from England who apparently hadn't played Toronto since 1979. I was lucky to see him in Austin several years ago, but for most of the people I knew in the too-small crowd, this solo performance was their first time.

I consider Amy Rigby's husband's early albums for Stiff Records near classics and was hoping to hear lots of songs from them, but the man born Eric Goulden focused on more recent and unfamiliar-to-me repertoire. The lyrics and between-song banter were very reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock, which can never be a negative in my book. The underrated wordsmith ended the set with his signature song, the much-covered "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World," which had the whole wide crowd singing along. 

Blaire Alise & The Bombshells
I left with a big smile on my face and that didn't leave when I arrived at the Bovine Sex Club to see Blaire Alise & The Bombshells. The trio's combination of '50s pop and garage rock, presented with an old school girl group feel and a modern edge, hit the spot perfectly. It makes sense that the band is from Detroit, a city close enough that welcomed return visits should be in order.

Les Chausettes
I really wanted to stay for the entire set, but another similar group was playing its only set of the festival down the street in The Cameron House's back room and I wanted to see a bit of it as well. Les Chausettes also combine elements of '60s surf and garage rock with girl group pop, but include male/female lead vocals and harmonies. The band wasn't as polished or proficient as Blaire Alise & The Bombshells and I didn't like it as much, but it was still enjoyable and I'd like to see more than the 20 minutes I caught.

Johnson Crook, a roots rock band not affiliated with NXNE, was in the front bar and provided a great intermission soundtrack during the changeover in the back.

Young Massachusetts quintet LuxDeluxe ended my night and was the most eclectic band of it. One song was indie rock with a vague Guess Who influence, some incorporated reggae, ska and wore rhythmic elements, while others were more straight-up rockers. But all of them were good, except perhaps one in which three keyboards were used. This was another act that deserved a bigger crowd than the 25 folks it had at the beginning, and which dwindled as things went on.