Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review -- Canadian Musicfest (Thursday March 22, 2012)

  Cold Specks @ The Music Gallery: photo by Michael Ligon

The second night of this year's Canadian Musicfest had even milder weather than the night before, so nice in fact that on top of me not having to work the next day, it made me long even more for summer to come. Surprisingly, though I wasn't working the next day, I surprisingly had a very light Canadian Musicfest planned for the evening. My night was centered around the Cold Specks show at The Music Gallery at 9 pm and I'd also planned on checking out Chinese singer-songwriter Helen Feng's electro dance-pop solo project Nova Heart at 11 pm at Comfort Zone but had nothing else on tap for the rest of the evening.

I figured after work I'd head down to Sonic Boom for their Canadian Musicfest instore sessions. I was almost certain that I'd miss most if not all of Miss Martha Wainwright's set (which in fact I did miss all of it) but coming up next after her was a set by Upstate New York's Simone Felice of The Felice Brothers, a band I'd vaguely heard of and had heard good things about but had not ever heard. With a few hours to kill before the Cold Specks show I headed to Sonic Boom and arrived just a little in to Mr. Felice's set. From Mechanical Forest Sound's account, there'd been a good crowd on hand for Martha Wainwright, so it was a real shame to see how sparse the audience was for Mr. Felice. With two drummers, and members on backup vox and slide guitar, and Mr. Felice on acoustic guitar, the group performed a good set of melodic, country-rock tunes. Felice's backup vocalist Simi Stone (who also performed with Felice in his more recent band project, the more glam / soul influenced The Duke and The King) was a particular highlight, especially on the last song of the set, with her expressive, bright, vocal style. And as the last song winded down, and Felice and Stone smiled and made eye contact with each other, I couldn't help feel how terrific that was. Too bad more people weren't there.

I figure I had another half hour or so before heading down early to The Music Gallery for Cold Specks so I decided to stick around for Toronto's Great Bloomers who were up next. I'd never seen the band live although I'd had an opportunity several years back when they performed at an NXNE kick-off party at the Distillery District which I'd not stuck around for. In my mind, I'd pegged them as a country-rock act (I think based on reviews I may have read about the band in the past) akin to say Oshawa's Cuff The Duke but that isn't entirely an accurate description of the band's music. Although they were all new songs to me, Great Bloomers' vocalist Lowell Sostomi did inform the crowd [which had inflated to a healthy size almost without me noticing] that much of their set night were new songs. There was certainly a countrified pop sound to some of it but also a certain heaviness - this ain't no bluegrass. While the band looks young, they were surprisingly tight and competent musicians and even moreso was I impressed with the songwriting and melodies. I also loved that they performed a cover of Television's "See No Evil". I look forward to seeing the band live again and with their recent signing to Canadian indie label Dine Alone Records who are set to release their sophomore full-length this year, I wish them much success. Look out for Sostomi on the streets of T.O. - he said he lived in the neighbourhood and offered some advice of how well plopping a hundred bucks on some records can help one feel better, rightfully giving props to the store for sponsoring the festivities that day.

I decided to head down a little early to The Music Gallery to secure a place in line for Al Spx aka Cold Specks. With the 23-year old recent signee to Arts & Crafts, who'd been hyped up by the British music press and has already performed live on Later With Jools Holland in the UK, I was expecting the show to be one of the hotter tickets (well actually it was a wristband-only show, but you know what I mean). Having arrived at the venue about a half hour before the 8:30 pm doors, I was surprised to find a small random group of people loitering around the courtyard. A proper line hadn't even formed. As 8:30 approached more people did arrive and as the buzz of the crowd arriving seemed to louden, they let open the doors letting people in finally. We we corralled in the lobby area of the building to enjoy a drink or two, seemingly until capacity for the show was reached and then we were let into the church to fill the pews, waiting with anticipation for the show to start. With only a few samples available on the internet, I'd like what I heard, her old-time, gospel/spiritual influenced blues. I hadn't expected it but she had a bad in tow, including a drummer, guitarist, cellist and a saxophonist. Full-sounding at times, but at others skeletal fragments of percussion and strings, what remained most impressive overall was Cold Specks soulful, spiritual vocals made all the more stunning within the pristine acoustics of the church. This is what shows at The Music Gallery are made for. Although her banter was minimal, she was also charming and humorous at times, even hamming it up for the crowd with a surprisingly soulful yet still playful version of "The Theme From Fresh Prince of Bel Air". She finished off the night with a quick encore done accapella, solidfying her as my highlight and perhaps the highlight of many others in attendance, of this year's Canadian Musicfest. Having performed a good amount of songs throughout the hour-or-so long set, I'm guessing these will appear on her debut full-length in the future.

Nothing may have been able to top that set that night but the set by Nova Heart at the Comfort Zone was a worthy closer to my evening. Led by vocalist Helen Feng, with a guitarist, a bassist and pre-programmed dance beats, it was an enticing set of sinewy guitar, pulsating bass lines, and sultry vocals and dance beats. While it was a small crowd on hand, it was a little less noticeable perhaps given how dark it was inside the venue, with only a bit of blue/red light illuminating the trio onstage. Of all the frontpersons of the acts I'd seen during this year's festival, Feng practically outshined all of them with her energy and stage presence, her writhing to the beats, her at-times cooing vocals and other-times banshee-like screams. Book-ended on either side of her were her guitarist and bassist, the guitarist who seemed to be in perpetual shoegaze stance and her bassist in robotic bass plucking mode. It was the latter playing off the dance beats quite nicely which provided the groups' songs their groove. Quite a disappointment that there weren't more people on-hand for this. I'd have imagined they'd have rocked the Wrongbar crowd had they been booked at that venue instead. Props to Dan Burke for bringing them to Comfort Zone anyway.

PHOTOS: Canadian Musicfest (Thursday March 22, 2012)
Myspace: Simone Felice
Myspace: Great Bloomers
Myspace: Cold Specks
Myspace: Nova Heart

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review -- Canadian Musicfest (Wednesday March 21, 2012)

  Sea+Air @ The Painted Lady: photo by Michael Ligon

Another year's edition of Canadian Music Week / Canadian Musicfest has come and gone and one of the most striking aspects of this year's edition as how mild the weather was. It was pretty much the mildest weather for Canadian Musicfest I've ever experienced to the point it almost felt like NXNE. Consider that, in stark contrast several years back, The Breeders, who were on their reunion tour stopped in during Canadian Music Week to play a show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, right smack dab during a blizzard (well, heavy snowfall). While the weather was on our side, the major criticism of this year's festival was how less enticing the lineup was. To some extent I'd agree, but on the other hand, with a little research and a little luck I think I caught a good percentage of good to great acts. All's well that end well. Over the next week or so I'll be posting my reviews of each night of Canadian Musicfest, so stay tuned. Now let's begin.

Somehow I'd confused the Cold Specks show at The Music Gallery to be on the first night of the festival (Wednesday March 21, 2012) and after work killed time for a few hours until later on in the evening to head over to The Music Gallery. Little did I realize that the show was actually the NEXT night (after consulting the internet on my phone). Fortunately I did have other options for the night and so proceeded with those.

First stop of the night was, the Cameron House backroom which all these years I'd never been to. Already into their set when I arrived was Toronto's LOOM, aka singer-songwriter Brooke Manning. Playing with two other members as a trio, with Brooke on vocals/guitar, the songs were full of ebb-and-flow sonic washes of keys, strings, guitar and vocals. The vocals/lyrics weren't to the extent of being inaudible but Brooke's laidback timbre did definitely possess a quality of being another instrument in the mix. Given the intimate-sized venue thankfully people did come out early to catch her. Pretty at times, and more difficult listening at others [it wasn't always as melodic as I would hope], but it was definitely intriguing music.

Fortunately, I didn't have to travel at all to catch my second pick of the night which was Dutch singer-songwriter Thijs Kuijken whose band name is I Am Oak. And while later on in the set he would mention to the audience that he usually performs with a band, for this set he was playing solo with just him on acoustic guitar. A slim, bespectacled gentleman, dressed casually in a plaid shirt and light jeans, his set of acoustic, folk-ish tunes were in my opinion several notches above what could be easily have been dull material. Lyrically as well as Kuijken's acoustic guitar playing were great overall but my only criticsm really was that vocally Kuijken's nasal vocals, quite adamantly located midrange in the vocal spectrum, made the whole set blend into each other. It's a similar effect when I listen to someone like Mark Kozelek for example, if that's any help. On a non-music note, Kuijken humoured the audience with his observations like how less hectic CMW was compared to SXSW (but in a good way), how QUIET the audience was and how POLITE Canadians are, how he brought too many sweaters on his trip and not enough socks and that he bought socks earlier in the day and asking us if we have any pigeons in Toronto, that last query being in reference to a song he had just song which was I believe above doves or birds or something.

After a comfortable stay at the Cameron House, the venue-hopping portion of the night began as I jumped on the streetcar to head to westward to The Painted Lady on Ossington Ave. to see German duo Sea + Air. The Painted Lady one of the city's most intimate venues, I'd expected it to be comfortably packed like when I saw when I saw Australia's Dead Letter Chorus there at last year's Canadian Musicfest. The venue was by no stretch empty but there was a little more elbow room this time compared to when I was there last year. The duo comprised of Daniel Benjamin on vocals / guitar /drums and Eleni on vocals / keyboards performed material with a sensitive, baroque pop quality, with Eleni's intricate keyboard arrangements and Daniel's forlorn vocals. A little sombre at times, but then again the duo showed their versatility especially when Daniel switched to the drumkit eventually segueing into a bombastic drum performance that reminded me a lot of Toronto's own Paul Banwatt of Rural Alberta Advantage. It took me by surprise, as well as a few others. It was an enjoyable if brief performance. Daniel did have a few humourous bits of banter including calling their album at the merch table the best thing to come out of Germany in 40 years and then later on informing the audience about their upcoming Canadian tour which'll take them to good cities like Saskatoon; for some reason that last part drew a chuckle from a few audience members.

I'd intended to call it a night, but with the mild weather, the time still being before 11 pm, and finally with my energy level still being pretty good for a Wednesday night (even with having to work the next day) I decided it might be a good idea to try to check out one more set. I decided to check out Toronto's Young Empires who were playing The Great Hall Basement not too far from The Painted Lady. I'd never been to the basement venue of The Great Hall before. A somewhat dingier venue than The Great Hall's upper level facilities, it was a more than appropriate setting for an electro-dance-rock party. I arrived there just as psych-rock outfit Krief were finishing up and after some time setting up, Young Empires finally took to the stage. The venue was a little-less than half-full when I arrived but did fill up more by the time Young Empires reached the stage. To capitalize on their recent wave of success (the release of their first EP, recent radio-play, touring and such), the band and especially frontman Matthew Vlahovich exuded energy on stage to try to get the crowd along for the ride and yes there were definitely some who were really into it. However, in my opinion, there's a quality on record that doesn't quite translate onstage. Their best song, in my opinion, is still "White Doves" which on record has a quality that I imagine should rev up even a Glastonbury-sized audience but then hearing it live (and this time being the third time I've seen the band) it just doesn't match up to those euphoric expectations. The band's strength, in my opinion, lies in their musical direction, their fusion of electronic, rock and pop influences somewhat mirroring one of my favourite acts of all-time, New Order. But with only an EP's worth of material, with most of it ranging from alright to decent but not matching the greatness of "White Doves", the band are off to a good start but still have a long way to go. I wish them luck.

PHOTOS: Canadian Musicfest (Wednesday March 21, 2012)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Canadian Musicfest Picks (2012)

Canadian Musicfest 2012

It's that time of year again when music festival season kicks off in Toronto with Canadian Music Week and it's music series Canadian Musicfest starting tonight. Time and time again, CMF has failed to live up to the excitement and anticipation of Toronto's other city-wide music festival North By Northeast which happens in June and seems to get better with each passing year. And if CMF hasn't been on par with NXNE, it's not to say it has nothing to offer. I'm sure with a little research and a little luck, one's bound to uncover a gem or two, and that's generally been my experience with most Canadian Music Week / Canadian Musicfests in the past. I perceive a general apathy towards this year's lineup based on the chatter over social media and with Canadian Musicfest this year happening the week after Austin's SXSW (the mother of all city-wide, multi-venue music festivals), it goes further to emphasize how modest Canadian Musicfest really is. But with the festival about to kick off, I finally buckled down and researched / sampled the list of artists participating in this year's festival and here are the one's I am recommending:

Bear Hands
Fri Mar 23 (midnight) -- Sneaky Dee's (Young Lions Music Club Showcase)
Video: Bear Hands - "Crime Pays"

Obviously not deterred by whether band names derived from names of animals are still in vogue, this Brooklyn, NYC outfit's sound seems catered to the indie rock crowd.

I Am Oak
Wed Mar 21 (9 pm) -- Cameron House, Backroom
Thu Mar 22 (8 pm) -- The Ossington
Sat Mar 24 (8 pm) -- Cabin 5 (Filter Magazine Showcase)
Video: I Am Oak - "Curt" (live)

What I've sampled of this Dutch folkie [his real name being Thijs Kuijken] with acoustic guitar seems more than pleasant enough. His moniker is actually the name of the band but I'm not actually sure if he plays with a band. I guess this is where things get confusing.

Voltaire Twins
Fri Mar 23 (9 pm) -- Wrongbar (present by Union Events)
Fri Mar 23 (midnight) -- Painted Lady
Sat Mar 24 (3:50 pm) -- El Mocambo, Upstairs (Aussie BBQ, Sounds Australia and Stage Mothers)
Video: Voltaire Twins - "Animalia" (music video)

Aussie synth-pop duo Voltaire Twins are made up of siblings Jaymes and Tegan and they create voluptuous electro-pop confections from what I've sampled. Their Romulus EP was released late last year and is available on iTunes.

Wed Mar 21 (8 pm) -- Cameron House, Backroom
Thu Mar 22 (9 pm) -- The Ossington
Video: Loom - "Eypllion" (teaser 1)
Video: Loom - "Eypllion" (teaser 2)

The moniker of Toronto's Brooke Manning, LOOM straddles the line between indie-folk sensibilities and a willingness to experiment with other sonic textures with intriguing results.

Nova Heart
Thu Mar 22 (11 pm) -- Comfort Zone
Video: Nova Heart - "Lackluster No. 3" (Takeaway Show for La Blogotheque)

How could you not like or at least have your interest piqued by a band whose name is the same as the song-title of a Canadian new wave classic? The project is the solo effort of Helen Feng, born in Beijing but raised in the US and Canada and who's already had an illustrious music career in China since 2002 when she was hired as VJ for MTV China. La Blogotheque shot a Takeaway Session with her recently [see the link above] and given their impeccable musical tastes plus the fact that I was impressed with Nova Heart's Takeaway Session I'm looking forward to checking them out.

Housse De Racket
Sat Mar 24 (11 pm) -- Wrongbar
Video: Housse De Racket - "Chateau" (music video)

The Parisian duo, with incestuous musical ties to their fellow musical countrymen, having been in-demand session musicians-for-hire with Air and Phoenix, are following in their footsteps with their own electro-pop music creations. Already on album #2 entitled Alesia, could this be the band's breakout year?

Fri Mar 23 (midnight) -- Wrongbar
Video: BadBadNotGood - "The Odd Future Sessions Part 1"

A free-jazz trio consisting of pianist Matt Tavares, bassist Chester Stone Hansen, and drummer Alex Sowinski (who apparently usually plays with a pig mask), they all met while attending Humber College. It's nothing new, the band's fusion of hip hop and jazz, but I can see why the kids like 'em - they groove. BADBADNOTGOOD released their first two albums in 2011, both for free off of their official Bandcamp.

Spoek Mathambo
Fri Mar 23 (11 pm) -- The Great Hall
Video: Spoek Mathambo - "Mshini Wam"

Fusing hip hop and Afro-beat influences with a decidedly modernist sonic approach, he's as exhilirating as the first time you'd heard M.I.A. One to watch.

Big Scary
Thu Mar 22 (8:50 pm) -- Sennheiser Lounge Library Bar (Sounds Australia)
Fri Mar 23 (9 pm) -- Lee's Palace (Windish Agency Showcase)
Sat Mar 24 (4:30 pm) -- El Mocambo, Upstairs (Aussie BBQ, Sounds Australia and Stage Mothers)
Video: Big Scary - "The Apple Song" (music video)

Spunky Aussie indie-rock, drums / guitar, girl / boy duo consisting of Jo Syme and Tom Iansek whose debut full-length Vacation was released this past October.

Chains of Love
Fri Mar 23 (11:30 pm) -- El Mocambo, Downstairs (Dine Alone Showcase)
Sat Mar 24 (9:20 pm) -- Horseshoe Tavern (Collective Concerts)
Video: Chains Of Love - "Lies Lies Lies" (live @ Bitmore in Vancouver, April 20 2011)

The Vancouver Motown-influenced, indie outfit made a good impression on me during last year's NXNE and so here I am recommeding them to give others the opportunity to check them out.

Cold Specks
Thu Mar 22 (9 pm) -- The Music Gallery (wristband-only show, doors 8:30 pm)
Video: Cold Specks - Holland (music video)

A recent signee to Toronto's Arts & Crafts label, this 23-year old (whose real name is Al Spx) from Toronto's west-end recently toured the UK with Timber Timbre and while over their made an appearance on seminal television music show Later With Jools Holland. Mixing currently popular indie-folk sensibilities with that of old-time gospel spirituals, she makes a stark musical statement.

From Indian Lakes
Sat Mar 24 (5 pm) -- Sneaky Dee's (Travis Porter + livemusicto)
Video: From Indian Lakes - "We Never Dream"
Video: From Indian Lakes - "The Canyon" (Acoustic Live Show)

The young quintet, all the way from Yosemite Valley, California have travelled a long way to get here for the festival, and it'd be a shame not to check them out. Both full-band and stripped-down acoustic performances exist on YouTube to check out revealing a versatile act whose emo-tinged songs are thoroughly satisfying.

Fri Mar 23 (11 pm) -- El Mocambo, Upstairs (Dine Alone Showcase)
Video: Hacienda - "Savage"

I saw the San Antonio outfit when they acted as The Black Key's Dan Auerbach's backing band a few year's back when Auerbach was touring his debut solo effort Keep It Hid - they were TIGHT. Fuzzy, blues-inflected, rock n' roll may just be what the doctor ordered.

Janes Party
Thu Mar 22 (11 pm) - Rancho Relaxo (Two Way Monologues & Green Shades Showcase)
Video: Jane's Party - "What you believe in"

If Sloan's pop music aficionado Jay Ferguson formed his own band, Janes Party might be it.

Last Year's Men
Thu Mar 22 (11 pm) -- Silver Dollar (NeXT)
Fri Mar 23 (11 pm) -- Silver Dollar (NeXT & Untold City)
Sat Mar 24 (midnight) -- Silver Dollar (NeXT)
Video: Last Year's Men - Troika 2010

From the American musical hotspot Chapel Hill, NC this young band combines "...the buoyant melodies of ‘50s and ‘60s pop and rock with a youthful pop-punk sneer...". They're good enough that Mr. Dan Burke booked them for a three-night stint at the Silver Dollar during Canadian Musicfest. I was surely impressed by the samples I checked out especially the YouTube video link above.

Minus The Tiger
Thu Mar 22 (10 pm) -- The Ossington
Fri Mar 23 (11 pm) -- Painted Lady
Video: Minus The Tiger - "Follow Me Down" (music video)

A four-piece band fronted by dutch husband-wife team of songwriter Anne Broekman on vocals and her husband / producer, Maarten Besseling. Their bio draws comparisons to The Knife, TV On The Radio, Lykke Li and Kate Bush and what I've briefly sampled is none too shabby.

Fri Mar 23 (1 am) - Garrison (presented by Red Bull Music Academy and New Forms Festival)
Video: Nautiluss - "Bleu Monday"

One half of the now-defunct Thunderheist, Nautiluss is Graham Douglas Bertie's new project which their bio describes as an "...amalgamation of influences spanning from early 90s electronic to hip-hop to UK bass music and everything in between." He's released a few twelve-inches (both on vinyl and digital) so far through Hemlock Recordings.

Sea + Air
Wed Mar 21 (10 pm) -- Painted Lady
Sat Mar 24 (10 pm) -- Free Times Cafe
Video: Sea + Air - "Take Me For a Ride" (live session)

German duo made up of Daniel Benjamin (vocals, concerto guitar, drums, cymbals, bells) and Eleni (vocals, harpsichord, organ bass pedal, drums) with a decidely baroque style to their musical compositions.

Thur Mar 22 (1 am) -- Rivoli (Music From Ireland)
Video: Squarehead - "Midnight Enchilada" (music video)

This Irish garage pop trio's silly name fortunately doesn't detract too much away from the group's sunny, pop melodies. The band's Wikipedia page prominently features an entry that states that Morrissey went to see the band live at Workmans Club in Dublin in February 2011. And you know if Morrissey speaks, people listen.

Sydney Wayser
Thu Mar 22 (9pm) -- Sneaky Dee's (Audio Blood Showcase)
Video: Sydney Wayser - "Wolf Eyes"

This French-American, New York-based singer-songwriter has been through Toronto for past festivals on several occasions but none of her appearances I'd taken in so far. Two albums since 2007 she has a third full-length scheduled for release later this year. From the samples of her work I'd heard ranging from playful folk-y eccentricities to urgent pop-rock confections, perhaps overlooking her past few Toronto music festival appearances was a mistake. Hopefully, not again this year.

Young Empires
Wed Mar 21 (8:15 pm) -- The Great Hall - The Black Box (basement) (Pirates Blend Showcase)
Fri Mar 23 (11:30 pm) -- The Hoxton (w/ Dragonette)
Sat Mar 24 (8:20 pm) -- The Indies @ Canadian Room
Video: Young Empires - "White Doves" (live on George Stromboulopoulos)

I've touted the talents of Toronto dance-rock outfit Young Empires since their pre-label days when their song "White Doves" made my Fave Songs of 2010 list. With their just-released debut effort Wake All My Youth and recent radio airplay, the band is just hitting their stride.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

(An Evening With) The Walkmen @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto (March 2, 2012)

The Walkmen
  The Walkmen @ Phoenix Concert Theatre: photo by Michael Ligon

In celebration of 10 years as a band since the release of their debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone in 2002, NYC's The Walkmen embarked on a tour earlier this year, with Toronto making the cut for a stopover. With six albums to date, their last being 2010' Lisbon and with a new album scheduled for later this year, the band had much material to choose from when they stopped over for a show at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre a little over a week ago.

With no opener, and the night being billed as "An Evening With The Walkmen", the band divided the night into two sets with a short intermission in between. In all honesty, I'm really not that familiar with them but their their 2004 single "The Rat" (which the band busted out as their second song of the night) I will state is one of the best rock n' roll singles of the last 15 years. It seemed a little premature to bring out "The Rat" so early but the band did a admirable job representing all aspects of their sound throughout the night, from other garage-influenced rock n' roll songs, to mariachi-flavoured tunes(including a four-member horn section), and more mellow, troubadour-style numbers. Overall, it was an invigorating evening. As a tenth anniversary celebration (since the release of their debut album), it seemed less of an event (except for the unconventional two-set format) than it should have been but then again, the band aren't calling it quits just yet, with plans to release their seventh album later this year. Let's see what they have up their sleeve next.

Check out more reviews of the show over at NOW, Exclaim, and The National Post.

MySpace: The Walkmen
Photos: (An Evening With) The Walkmen @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto (March 2, 2012)