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)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Toronto Urban Roots Festival @ Fort York Garrison Common (July 4 & 5, 2013)

   Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura: photo by Michael Ligon

The inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival, TURF for short, had a successful first run about a week and a half back down at Fort York Garrison Common, if I do say so. The festival also included extra night shows that took place at the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee's Palace, giving some of the acts an extra time slot to perform. The festival spanned four nights and two full days and had an admirable selection of local and international talent. And if I wasn't totally enamored with the whole lineup [that's just a matter of personal taste], the calibre of acts was decent.

With a new album Desire Lines recently released to promote, Scottish indie pop group Camera Obscura hit the summer festival circuit, much to the dismay of their British physical disposition. While lead vocalist Tracyanne Campbell mentioned to the crowd at TURF that it was nice to be in Toronto again and as the sun started to just set, she remarked something along the lines that the cooler temperatures wouldn't be so bad. Having seen them numerous times in the past, I found the set pleasant if unremarkable if only because the band are sticking to what they do best. I'm not sure if I'd wanted them to evolve their sound but overall I still have a soft spot for their brand of sparkling Scottish pop music and it was good to see them live again. They played a few new songs but it was old favourites like "Teenager", "Tears For Affairs", "French Navy" and their now predictable "Razzle Dazzle Rose" which the crowd savoured.

   Joel Plaskett: photo by Michael Ligon

TSN sports announcer Dave Hodge was a special guest this evening, making reference as to how he was suppose to have introduced this next band in Calgary during the Sled Island Music Festival several weeks prior but which got cancelled due to the massive flooding [and in retrospect how coincidentally TURF got rained on hard on the Sunday Night and then experienced the torrential storms the day after]. Introducing Joel Plasket Emergency, Joel and the band played a great set that had them riffing in classic rock style with Plaskett's clever lyrics and playful stage persona. Plaskett even admitted to being a little nervous but soon he settled into a zone. He'd just played NYC's Central Park just prior, and also Canada Day had just past and so in salute to both countries, the band delved into "True Patriot Love". Plaskett was a great frontman, playing up to the audience, his gangly physique slinking around the mic at times. That I'm not that familiar with his catalogue [although I did recognize a number of the tunes he played that night] is a bit of a shame as he played one of the better sets of the whole festival.

   She & Him: photo by Michael Ligon

I went into duo She & Him's set knowing generally what to expect even though I haven't really heard them all that much - nostalgia-tinged originals and covers, with a heavy nod to the popular music of the fifties and the sixties. There was a crack band of musicians backing them, with notable contributions from their lead guitarist as well as their two female back-up vocalists, The Chapin Sisters, Abigail and Lily. There were covers of Blondie's "Sunday Girl", "Unchained Melody" (originally made famous by The Righteous Brothers), and Buddy Holly's "Rave On". It was a bit of a disappointment that the the band had requested that the audience not take photos, going so far as to have organizers post notices all around the grounds instructing fans to please not use their cell phones to take photos and video and to enjoy the performance that the band was providing in 3D. Ok, I snuck a few photos with my point-and-shoot including the one above. This wasn't the set to necessarily convert me to the band - it felt more pleasant than than remarkable - but it was a nice, soothing way to end off Day One of TURF. The duo's on the road promoting their fourth studio full-length Volume 3 which was released this past May.

Photos: Toronto Urban Roots Festival @ Fort York Garrison Common (July 4, 2013)


   Justin Townes Earle: photo by Michael Ligon

For Day Two of TURF, I arrived during the set of American singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle playing a set for the early crowd at the East Stage. I know of him having passed through town [I believe playing the Horseshoe most times, and maybe the Phoenix Concert Theatre] on numerous occasions but had not ever taken the opportunity to see him live. Seeing him live, Earle in my opinion takes that Elvis Costello approach towards pop music infusing various influences such as country and blues, making his songs wholly satisfying to a pop music fan like me who isn't a country / blues purist. Before ending the set with his last song, Earle commented on the heat ["Sweating like a whore in church"] and then dove into a terrific rendition of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait".

   Fitz and The Tantrums: photo by Michael Ligon

Perhaps the odd-man-out act of the whole TURF lineup was Los Angeles soul / pop act Fitz and The Tantrums. While I wasn't so keen on the band musically [just a matter of personal, taste], I'd give credit to co-lead vocalists Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs keeping up the energy of the set and getting the audience to participate. The band played a cover of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" , which like some other songs during the sets included some pronounced sax work, that sounded straight up like what UK producer Mark Ronson might have produced. As the sun was just about setting, I was ready to end off day two at the East Stage with Arkells.

   Arkells: photo by Michael Ligon

I lived through Hamilton rock group Arkells infancy when they'd formed in 2006 and then had afterwards had probably played Toronto and the GTA more times than I'd been able to keep track. Even when they'd started to get radio play on 102.1 FM The Edge and I'd liked what I'd heard, I for some reason just never got around to seeing them live. I heard bits of Springsteen and The Constantines in the band's sound, and I'd liken lead vocalist Max Kerman a little bit to Afghan Whigs Greg Dulli, adding a soulful grit to the vocals amidst the overall rock histronics. Fans aplenty stuck around for the set, many of them singing along to faves like "Oh, The Boss Is Coming" and "Whistleblower" and then the band ended off the night with Kernan dappering himself up with a white sportcoat and leading the band into a fantastic all-Motown covers set with members of Toronto cover band Dwayne Gretzky on back-up vocals.

Photos: Toronto Urban Roots Festival @ Fort York Garrison Common (July 5, 2013)

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Smokey Robinson @ Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto Jazz Festival (June 21, 2013)

  Smokey Robinson: photo by Michael Ligon

When Martin Fry and Mark White of the UK pop band ABC released their hit song "When Smokey Sings" (a tribute to the Motown living legend Smokey Robinson) back in 1987, it contained the definitive lyric, 'When Smokey sings, I forget everything'. And that was so true as watched Mr. Robinson kick off the Toronto Jazz Festival on on a weather-perfect Friday night, with a free show down at Nathan Phillips Square. I didn't bother lining up for a wristband to secure a spot in the tented area that encompassed the stage but took satisfaction to watch the show from outside the tent catching occasional glimpses and photo opportunites [thank god for the 15x optical zoom on my point and shoot] of the man as he entertained the crowd with a variety of hits. There were many highlights and some of those included his dramatic, more soulful rendition of "Tracks of My Tears" [a song that he said had been penned by a young Stevie Wonder], renditions of songs like "My Girl" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do" [songs Smokey had wrote for The Temptations], and Smokey's classic "I Second That Emotion". Dressed in all white, with his band and back-up vocalists following suit, plus a few dancers who came out later, Smokey later shed the white blazer he started out the evening in as things started to cook. In good spirits for the entire night, Smokey quiped and bantered [about the old Motown days, for example] throughout the night that had the audience stuck on his every word. For me the most sublime song of the night was actualy one I was not really particularly too familiar with, although I was sure I'd heard the song at least a few times in my life, but not nearly enough times and that was his 1965-released song "Ooo Baby Baby" which was really one of the most heartbreaking, romantic songs I've ever heard. The audience singalong on "Cruisin'" for which Smokey had two volunteers from the audience each lead one half of the audience in a sort of battle to outsing each other on the song's line 'I love it when we're cruisin' together', was a great way to end the evening. 73 years old this past February, Smokey is, if you will excuse the pun, still smokin'.

Photos: Smokey Robinson @ Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto Jazz Festival (June 21, 2013)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Review - NXNE (June 15, 2013)

On this fine Canada Day I thought take some time to get up my last slice of NXNE reviews for Saturday June 15. After taking some time out from NXNE for a relaxing afternoon set from Sarah Harmer who was performing as part of Luminato, I had the rest of the day to figure out what I'd do for NXNE. I had some picks for NXNE that night that I was fairly certain I'd try to go to them but I had the rest of the afternoon into the early evening to decide to what to do so with nothing better to do, I went to check out the action at Yonge Dundas Square.

  Moon King: photo by Michael Ligon

I got to Yonge Dundas Square in time to catch Moon King fronted by Maddy Wilde, and Daniel Woodhead who used to be in Toronto indie group Spiral Beach. Where Spiral Beach's lauching point was quirky indie rock that had a conciseness to its instrumentation, Moon King go for a far looser sound, taking elements of punk, shoegaze, and just a tad bit of psychedelia, wrapped up in the energetic reverb-tinged vocals of Woodhead and Wilde. The midday distractions of Yonge Dundas Square prevented me from getting more than a mild appreciation for what the band was doing on stage, but at least what they were doing was interesting. On another note, my thirst beckoned and so I went on a quest to quench it.

  Serena Ryder: photo by Michael Ligon

I had more than a few hours to kill and somehow found myself down on Queen St. near the MuchMusic building where the MMVA's were preparing for their broadcast the day after. Miss Serena Ryder was sound checking, running through a mini-medley of her hits "What I Wouldn't Do" and "Stompa" multiple times. It seemed that it wasn't so much a sound-check as much as the crew and her were trying to get all the camera angles and her marks on the floor right. And by the way, I saw her performance on television the day after and she nailed it. Went to Burger Priest down the street for the first time [thumbs up] and was making my way to the Garrison for the 8 pm set of Toronto band Breeze but the transit gods were not co-operating so instead made my way to Czehoski for the 9 pm set of Swiss singer songwriter Heidi Happy.

  Heidi Happy: photo by Michael Ligon

I know Czehoski has been booked as venue for NXNE for several years now, but it's just the worst as a music venue. It has a small stage at the back of the house with dinner tables and dinner patrons flanking each side of the narrow space that leads to the stage. I watched from the back with a beer I ordered from the bar which seemed like the least awkward thing I could do at the time. Thankfully, it seemed like most of the dinner patrons were trying to be respectful and pay attention to the artist while they actually ate but still the venue just seemed totally wrong. Heidi Happy, I think sensed a bit of distraction at times, but made the most of it with her mostly folk-pop ballads. (She also did an acapella cover of a German-Swiss song that was fun to watch and hear.) Alternating between acoustic and reverb-y electric guitar, she also used a looper quite frequently for rhythms and vocal backing as well as other instruments at times like a mini xylophone. Her overall approach as well as the use of a looper reminded me of Feist. I enjoyed her set although I was a bit disappointed that she wasn't playing with a band since some of the songs of hers I've heard off YouTube definitely sound great fleshed out instrumentally. From what I recall, Heidi Happy has come through town for festival appearances (CMW, NXNE) several times now, so I woudn't be surprised if she makes a return trip in the future.

  Chad Valley: photo by Michael Ligon

I thought I'd shoot over to BLK BOX on the streetcar but hadn't anticipated fire trucks coming down the street and blocking off traffic as well as the streetcar. Fortunately, the traffic delay was only temporary and the streetcar got through and I was off to see UK electro-pop artist Chad Valley at BLK BOX. It's no surprise it's called BLK BOX. It's a room that literally is painted black. Devoid of white light, it was mostly red and maybe some hues of blue illuminating Chad Valley on stage. The brainchild of the project is vocalist / instrumentalist Hugo Manuel. With Manuel behind a bank of keyboards, his soaring vocals (along with his soulful backup singer) helped to propel the vibrant electro-pop rhythms and melodies that reminded a lot of M83. Chad Valley's full-length debut Young Hunger was released in 2012, featuring collaborations with artists like Twin Shadow and Active Child, and something I think I'd like to check out.

  Norman Wong Arts & Crafts Photo Exhibit: photo by Michael Ligon

Fortunately, I was just in the vicinity of the Arts & Crafts Pop Up and decided to pop-in to check out photographer Norman Wong's exhibit. They had a DJ playing and a bar and it would have been a nice chill way to hang out for a bit but there wasn't that many people there which was a shame. Perhaps everyone was down the at the Horseshoe Tavern, if the long lineup was any indication at 11:30 pm trying to get into the venue for Fucked Up's 1:00 am set. I was only swinging by and wasn't planning on catching Fucked Up anyway so I made my way up the street towards Kensington Market to catch my final set of the night as it would turn out.

  Un: photo by Michael Ligon

Having missed seeing their only set during Canadian Musicfest earlier this year, it was fortunate I got to catch Montreal electro-dance duo UN (pronounced like the prefix “un-”, and one of the most impossible names to search on the internet )who were playing the tiny venue Handlebar in Kensington Market. Consisiting of member Kara Keith (whose performed under her own name and with bands like Falconhawk) and Jen Reimer (and according to her website is sound artist and performer based in MontrĂ©al known for creating site-specific performances in resonant urban locations), UN specialize in a spunky synth-pop dance tunes with Reimer's solid, almost metronomic, drum beats and Keith's new-wave-ish vocals. They sparked a fair amount of dancing and leg-shaking for those on-hand and fun times were had. Conceived as a solo project for Keith in 2010, but then adding Reimer shortly after, it took the band three years to release their first full-length, the cheekily named UN Titled, earlier this year.(via ALTSOUNDS) The band had recently gone to Calgary for the Sled Island festival but like most of the bands were affected by the flood but did get to play a backyard show while there with some other bands with all proceeds going to flood relief.(via Mixtape Magazine) How good of them. Hope to see them back around these parts some time in the future.

I'd wanted to have caught Mikal Cronin's 1:00 am set at the Silver Dollar but the twitter feed was all a flutter that it was packed and I said to myself, screw that, and headed home. In my mind, I'm picturing that scene from "Lethal Weapon" and Danny Glover's charcacter Murtaugh saying "I'm too old for this shit". Another NXNE is in the books, but I'll probably be back next year.

Photos: NXNE in Toronto (June 15, 2013)