Thursday, June 17, 2010

NXNE: Day 1

NXNE Day 1

So it being a Wednesday, I decided to take it easy, store up some energy for the coming days (well, the NXNE schedule helped – there really wasn't much going on last night). After taking a while to figure out how the NXNE website schedule worked, I saw some promising acts playing at the CN Tower. Unfortunately, as I learned when I went to the Royal Hyatt to pick up my wristband, that was an invite-only show. I'm not sure why it was featured on the festival schedule with no explanation if it wasn't really open to the public. Strike one, NXNE.

Plan B was to stick close to home and hit up The Mod Club, which was featuring only three bands for 102.1 The Edge's opening showcase. For a weak lineup on a Wednesday night, the attendance was accordingly low. That's one of the sad things about big festivals like this one. Bands can come from halfway around the world to play to an almost empty house. On the off chance that they'll play before or after a more heavily anticipated act, chances are they'll probably be forgotten once the shuffle and bustle of the festival has beaten the sensibility out of every gung-ho concert goers brains. Out of this show, however, only one of the bands wasn't from Toronto, so the other two will have many more opportunities to pull some emotion out of a typically stoic Toronto crowd.

Opening act Ko was one of those lucky Torontonians, although, if you read his bio on the NXNE website, he's been all around the US and Canada, smoking pot and living alternately on the streets and in various rehab facilities. His story lends him some street cred, and he certainly had the largest group of fans last night. It may have been the glamorous 'life on the streets with drugs' biography, or the gruff natural charm he exuded as he strode across the stage, but those who were there to see him were very glad to do so. They jumped and screamed and many of them filmed the whole thing (for future YouTube posts, no doubt). The music was hip-hop, somewhat reminiscent of Matisyahu (although I guess not the reggae part?). The show was surprisingly rock-like, with a guitarist, bassist, and drummer all backing Ko's acoustic guitar and samples. The drummer would play over a sampled beat, which made the whole thing very beat heavy, but the focus was pretty clearly on Ko's lyrics. The last song of the night, “Capable,” had some line about everybody getting high (always a crowd pleaser, just ask Bob Dylan) and one brave soul actually did light up, only to be promptly chastened by a security guard (really, with a crowd of about 30 people, how did you not think you would be noticed?).

Band #2, The Blue Van, was from Copenhagen, Denmark. As the Edge MC noted, these guys know how to party. From the very first song it was clear that these four guys were going to “give it” the whole performance. The bassist in particular went to great lengths to get the skeptical Ko crowd into hand clap mode by grinding his bass, jumping onto unstable-looking amps, and routinely yelling “Woooo!” in a manner usually reserved for 2 a.m. drunk girls hanging out at the Entertainment District. It sort of worked (we are nothing if not polite to foreign visitors). I think the crowd was gradually won over by The Blue Van's relentless garage rock. I liked the extended instrumental solos in particular because they sort-of veered from formula. With a band like this (who cite The Raconteuers and JET as contemporaries) it's hard for them to set themselves apart from every other band out there that sounds exactly the same (of which there are many), so it's good to have something besides excellent rock chops to stand out. The use of an organ on some songs gave me a positive prog-rocky vibe that I enjoyed, but unfortunately there didn't seem to be a whole lot of innovation from The Blue Van. With so many groups experimenting with different instruments/sounds while still working within the garage rock milue, the ones that stick within formula seem quaintly outdated.

(As an aside, who the hell chooses the music for in-between sets at The Mod Club? I've never heard so much Shaggy in my life. And a hip-hop cover of “The First Cut is the Deepest” by Cat Stevens [this sounded like a cover of the Sheryl Crow version, which is what makes it bad]? Who the fuck heard that song and said, “Add a beat and some melodramatic, monotone vocals and that shit is golden!” I also heard “Red Red Wine” and “Baby I Love Your Way” play twice before being cut off another goddamned Shaggy tune. Honestly, it's no wonder why The Mod Club isn't a more popular concert venue.)

I'm going to preface my review of the last band of the night, Still Life Still, by admitting that I didn't stay for the whole set. It was late, I've been sick all week, and I'm pretty sure I got the gist of it during the first half hour. Still Life Still is a young Toronto band signed to indie label juggernauts (sounds like and oxymoron, but not these days!) Arts and Crafts. Is it just me, or does Arts and Crafts have a type? They're like the guys that will only date tall, blue-eyed blonds, only make that a medium-height, black-rimmed glasses wearing “amazing girl” with long, artfully wavy brown hair (incidentally, that's kinda what I look like, sans the “Amazing Girl” mystique). In any case, Arts and Crafts seem to only sign bands that sound a lot like the biggest band on their roster (both literally and figuratively), Broken Social Scene. Still Life Still isn't an exception to this rule, unfortunately. Like Young Galaxy before them, they have that muffled big-band sound complete with duelling guitars, synthesizers, and obscured lyrics. This was partly a technical problem, but I couldn't tell what the two lead singers were saying. The songs were pleasantly poppy, and their performance was full of energy (although not as much as The Blue Van on before them – hard to top, really). There was a song called “T-Shirt” that I really enjoyed, and a few others that had great melodic hooks. This seems like the type of band that may require more close (read: with the aid of headphones) listening to get into.

So, overall day 1 was pretty slow. We'll see how days 2 and 3 treat me. I haven't yet decided where I'm going tonight, but I'm sure it'll be full of hits and misses (like most NXNE showcases). Look for my review of tonight's shows tomorrow.

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