Saturday, July 20, 2013

Toronto Urban Roots Festival @ Fort York Garrison Common (July 6 & 7, 2013)

   Frank Turner: photo by Michael Ligon

I'd already started the first two days of TURF missing the first openers each day and the weekend was no different. I didn't have the motivation to start the last two days of TURF early for a number of reasons including the combination of heat and uncertain weather conditions as well as the idea of being at the festival for up to 11 hours a day for two days straight. So I took a later start for the Saturday, checking in with UK folk/punk outfit Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls who are currently amassing success and radio play with their sunny, raucous single "Recovery". The comparisons to Billy Bragg I guess are somewhat relevant though Turner sings with a far more subtle British accent and Turner and company only sound latter-day Bragg when he was perhaps more radio-friendly. Highly enjoyable set in terms of the energy of Turner and his efforts to get the audience involved such as when he had the entire audience crouch down to the ground and then jump up when the band leaped back into song. There was a nod to Canada with his solo cover of The Weakerthans "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" and then during the encore a solo Turner came back to play a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" as a GO Train on the nearby tracks came by during the song, in my opinion giving the song some added ambience.

   The Lowest Of The Low: photo by Michael Ligon

Next up for me were Toronto band Lowest of The Low. As vocalist Ron Hawkins was almost alluding to in his introductory banter, he felt humbled, almost feeling undeserving to be playing a late set in the day[that'd normally go to a higher profile act], but brushed that off with a bit of humour, thanking the organizers for giving them the later set as they wouldn't have done well in the heat/sun of the early afternoon as pasty white dudes or something along those lines. There was a bit of nostalgia hearing some of those old tunes ["Bleed A Little While Tonight", "Eternal Fatalist"] which were always faves of mine every time I heard them on CFNY 102.1 FM back in the day, but the band also played more recent material which sounded as vital as ever.

   The Hold Steady: photo by Michael Ligon

It was almost three years since I'd last seen The Hold Steady perform live in Toronto and so this was one of the sets of the festival I was most looking forward to. As the band is prepping the release of a new album which'll hopefully see the light of day this year, the band took to playing some new tracks as well as of course some audience faves. Frankly, I can remember gravitating to any of the new tracks that were played and found more pleasure in tried and true favourites like "Stuck Between Stations", "Chips Ahoy", "Southtown Girls" and the the Frank Turner-augmented encore song "Stay Positive". I think as the sun started to set, the band were hitting their stride. Seemed the audience near the front of the stage may have been having the most fun. I was more than midway back and it was far more mellow back there, but in the end it was a pleasurable set although not the most raucous one I'd hope for.

OK, the headliners for this night, the Irish-American outfit Flogging Molly, were a mere afterthought for me. I figured they deserved a chance so I made a point to stick around and at least watch part of their set from afar. Specializing in Celtic folk punk rock that's equal parts The Pogues and The Clash, their thickly Irish-accented frontman Dave King was an enthusiastic, energetic vocalist. He was also more than a bit of a comedian in a style like he was telling jokes at the local pub, but also in a good-natured way shone the spotlight at different points in the night on each of the individual members of the band including his wife Bridget Regan who demonstrated her talent on violin and tin whistle. About, a half an hour or so into their set I'd had enough, and so took off for home to rest up for the last day of the festival.

Photos: Toronto Urban Roots Festival @ Fort York Garrison Common (July 6, 2013)


   Whitehorse: photo by Michael Ligon

The last day of the festival for me was all about establised favourites, Neko Case and Belle and Sebastian but there were a bunch more acts to sift through before getting to them. I'd hope at the very least to have made if for the 3 pm scheduled set of indie rock veterans Yo La Tengo but was about an hour off schedule and made it during the set of Canadian folk-country duo Whitehorse consisting of the married couple of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. The duo seem to have been garnering success, at least critically, even making the short list recently for this year's Polaris Music Prize and I'd been interested in checking out how well they gelled together musically given my casual familiarity with their individual music. Although I didn't catch their whole set, what I could ascertain was they fit just as comfortably musically, as they did as a married couple. No, it wasn't a matter of them ever being lovey-dovey on stage [although that would kind of have been sweet] but that both artists were equally confident and talented, alternating vocals and providing somewhat minimalist yet muscular instrumentation through their guitars as well as percussion and a looper. Impressive.

Not knowing either of the following acts, both Aussies, group The Cat Empire and singer-songwriter Xavier Rudd, I stood back in thr crowd for both sets rather than expend my energy to get to the photo pit [for which I'd been approved for, by the way]. Of the two, The Cat Empire were quite the entertainers with their mix of jazz, ska and latin influences, and even as the downpour of rain came, that did little to dampen the spirits of many that were dancing. At one point, their vocalist was successful in getting some to perform the Greek circle dance which a select group of people rose to the challenge.

On the other end of the spectrum was singer songwriter Xavier Rudd's spiritual vibe and laid back reggae grooves over at the East Stage. Performing with a drummer/percussionist Rudd mostly sat down singing and playing guitar and this was a set for the next hour or so. I mean it's all pleasant and chill, but I don't get his success.

   Neko Case: photo by Michael Ligon

It's been about a year and a half since I last seen Miss Neko Case live when she opened for The National at their show at Air Canada Centre in December 2009. I've had this policy for a few years now I will make every effort to see Neko live every time she comes to Toronto, and so TURF was a no-brainer. It was one of the few sets I really wanted to take advantage of my access to the photo pit. To see Neko and hear her soaring, twang-inflected vocals up close was euphoric as usual and as the photo pit's three-song policy reached fruition, the second major downfall of the day began, first slowly then with vigor. At that point I had no choice except to take off for the VIP tent in order to put away my camera. But as the rain continue, Neko and band under covered stage, continued on and the set list was pretty sweet containing a lot of faves like "The Tigers Have Spoken", "Hold On, Hold On", "This Tornado Loves You" and "Favorite" as well as some new ones. Her number one, Kelly Hogan, as usual provided her sublime background vocals as well as her comedic skills playing off Neko's quips superbly. The rain lightened up and stopped near the end of the set, enough that I can enjoy the a bunch of songs outside of the tent and actually SEE Neko. And even with the rain, this was probably one of my favourite sets of hers ever.

   Belle & Sebastian: photo by Michael Ligon

It's been a few years since Scots Belle and Sebastian came to town for a show at Massey Hall in October 2010 and like I'd mentioned above for Neko Case, I've always made it policy to see Belle and Sebastian every time they come to town. I'll always hold the band's shows at Massey Hall near and dear to my heart and while an outdoor show doesn't quite maintain that same intimacy, it was a still a very good set. The rain held off and for the next 80 minutes or so, the band performed a set of mostly audience favourites. Favourites included the serene "Lord Anthony" for which Stuart donned his chapeau and "Dirty Dream #2" during which a volunteer from the audience was brought on for the spoken word verse but rather than speak it, she sung it, although none for the worse as far as the audience was concerned who gave the girl a rousing cheer. Several members of the band took turns playing rounds of Scrabble with a girl from the audience which was so unusual and funny. "Your Cover's Blown" was perhaps the disco-iest I've ever seen the band. The band pulled out many people from the front of the stage which broke out into a full on dance party as the band performed "The Boy With The Arab Strap". And as the end of the set neared, I took off for a brief bathroom break as the band broke in to their classic "Judy and The Dream of Horses" and then later ended the night during their encore with another classic, "Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying". It was definitely a fan's set, and it's always a pleasure to see them. Best banter of the night goes to band member Stevie Jackson who had collaborated on a musical theatrical production Paper Laced With Gold with Toronto's Maggie Macdonald and Stephanie Markowitz last year when he came to town and even apparently had one line in the production, which he even graciously reenacted for the audience. Comedic timing at its best.

I think next year I'd prefer a good solid two day lineup, even if it means overlapping sets, rather than the two nights, and two full days format they had this inaugural year. Props to Collective Concerts for organizing such a great event at Fort York Garrison Common, a venue in the heart of the city. Hope to see TURF next year!

Photos: Toronto Urban Roots Festival @ Fort York Garrison Common (July 7, 2013)

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