Tuesday, September 29, 2009

White Lies, Heaven @ Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto (September 26, 2009)

Update [Sept 30/09, 11:46 pm]: Review now posted below!

White Lies @ Phoenix Concert Theatre: photo by Michael Ligon

Since the last time UK's White Lies played live in Toronto back on March 31, 2009 at Lee's Palace, I'd thought perhaps a little momentum in their popularity upswing may have been lost. There was an understandable buzz with them when they played Lee's Palace given their debut album "To Lose My Life"'s recent release at the time and their NME-approved status, and God knows how Toronto loves its NME and UK bands. Press on the band seemed to have quietened down since then and promotion for their show at the Phoenix seemed almost non-existent. So while the show (an early one at that) this past Saturday night at the Phoenix Concert Theatre was not sold out there was a healthy attendance. Further, I was taken off guard by how warmly received the band was and it seemed their popularity and fan devotion had only gotten stronger.

Local post-punk mopesters Heaven opened the show. They seem to be a relatively new band as I'd never heard of them before. Unfortunately I'd missed most of their set by the time I'd arrived but what I'd heard seemed enjoyable if somewhat dreary. Not necessarily music to slit your wrists to but maybe for wallowing in your own self-pity. Ok, I'm being sarcastic. Actually, I'm quite enjoying some of the samples on their MySpace some of which present some nice atmospheric, shoegazey, female-sung melodiciscm. They're a band I'd watch out for in the future. They'll be playing the opening band role when they open for Jeremy Jay on November 8 at a venue TBA then for UK's The Big Pink at Lee's Palace on November 29.

At this point in White Lie's career so far it's already apparent they've run the course touring their debut album and it's almost inevitable the band'll take a break after this tour to write new material. Fans were quite vocal singing along with the band at many times during the show. Unexpectedly, the band's music somehow encouraged periodic episodes of body-surfing to the dissatisfaction of security who'd practically threw a few patrons(who'd ended up on stage after they're body surfing experience) back into the audience. But so was the enthusiasm of the audience that night and the band seemed genuinely in awe of the overwhelming response. Generously, the band played their debut album "To Lose My Life" in its entirety, throwing in 'Taxidermy'(which is the b-side to the 'To Lose My Life' limited edition 7-inch single) as well as a band cover of Portishead's 'The Rip' which wasn't nearly as effective as Portishead's original version but still was enjoyable. At first, I'd thought that having their band name emblazoned on a backdrop behind the band was a bit presumptuous, but then witnessing Toronto's stirring response to the band and the show, I realized they've totally earned it.

Photos: White Lies @ Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto (September 26, 2009)
MySpace: Heaven
MySpace: White Lies
Video: White Lies - "The Rip" (Portishead cover) live @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, September 26 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Joe Pernice, Kate Boothman @ Dakota Tavern (September 28, 2009)

Update[Sept 30/09 12:43 am]: review now posted below!

Joe Pernice, Kate Boothman @ Dakota Tavern (September 28, 2009): photo by Michael Ligon

It's funny that it took an American artist, that is the Boston, Massachusetts-born Joe Pernice (although currently living in Toronto with his wife Laura Stein - yes that Laura Stein ex of Jale) to finally get me to the Dakota Tavern in Toronto. It's not surprising that he chose the Dakota Tavern to play his first show in four years considering that it's apparently steps away from where he lives. I found the Dakota Tavern to be a quaint little country-western bar, and with the stage back-lit illuminated with white Christmas lights it conjured a nice vibe for the artists playing the stage that night.

Opening the show was local folkie Kate Boothman. While her soothing rootsy-folk tunes backed with acoustic guitar and her subtle vocals were decent, up against the fleshed-out melodicism of Mr. Pernice they were really no match. When another Toronto folkie singer-songwriter Julie Fader joined Kate it fare a little better with the dual acoustic guitars and subtle vocal harmonies. Perhaps another time I'd have enjoyed it more, especially if the crowd hadn't been so chatty.

The occasion to bring Mr. Pernice out of his reclusiveness was the release of his debut novel entitled "It Feels So Good When I Stop" for which he'd also recorded an album's worth of covers. His current tour has him reading excerpts from the book as well as performing tracks from its soundtrack and perhaps a few old Pernice favourites. From reading excerpts of his novel to his between song banter, Joe's acerbic wit was mightily on display. Although I haven't picked up his novel, the segments he read were exhaustingly clever and humourous to the point that I wondered if the whole book was like that I'd imagine my cheeks would hurt by the end of it. Joe complained about a problem with his joints[if I recall correctly, I think it was his finger] several times throughout the evening, which somehow led to him praising the free health-care we have in Canada. Acid-tongued as he may have seemed at times, I got the feeling that he's probably a real nice guy most of the time.

Joe alternated between reading excerpts from the book than playing some tunes, with the musical portion including selections from his soundtrack. Admitting to a his admiration for Dick Van Dyke, Joe performed a plaintive cover of the "Mary Poppins" classic "Chim Chim Cheree" initially drawing a few chuckles but with everyone soon realizing how deadly serious Joe was and how quite lovely a tune it was. Later Joe read an excerpt from the novel that if I recall correctly involved a character going to a Sebadoh concert with Joe's musical response being a splendid cover of Sebadoh's "Soul and Fire". At the conclusion of the literary portion of the evening, it was all Pernice as Joe performed a lengthy set of Pernice-penned tunes that stretched to his Chappaquiddick Skyline and solo('Big Tobacco') output and stirringly concluded with a brief selection from his Scud Mountain Boys days. He shone a humourous light on himself mentioning how he's released like ten albums in his various configurations and how his sister points out that still no one knows who he is. That's not entirely true of course as his diehard fans would argue, but relatively speaking it is criminal that he's not reached a wider audience. Will it take selling the movie rights to his novel? Hey, if Nick Hornby can do it.

Chromewaves has a review and photos from the show also. Update: Bob from It's Not The Band I Hate, It's Their Fans now has his review and photos up.

Zoilus has some interview outtakes with Mr. Pernice.

Photos: Joe Pernice, Kate Boothman @ Dakota Tavern in Toronto (September 28, 2009)
MySpace: Kate Boothman
MySpace: Joe Pernice

Saturday, September 26, 2009

... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, The Secret Machines @ Lee's Palace (September 22, 2009)

Update [Sept 28/09, 10:48 pm]: Review now posted.

Trail Of The Dead @ Lee's Palace: photo by Michael LigonLast Tuesday night's bill at Lee's Palace featuring Trail of Dead and The Secret Machines, if it didn't have a name could have been dubbed the "Fuck You Major Record Labels" tour. When Trail of The Dead's 2002 album "Source Codes and Tags" came out they were on the cusp of stardom with that album and a previous EP prior to that being released by Interscope Records. But after releasing a few more albums through Interscope, the band left the label in 2007 due to their perception of their label's lack of support for them. The band went the independent route for their latest album "The Century of Self" released earlier this year in February through indie Justice Records. On the same front, The Secret Machines, after having some initial buzz and having released a few albums through Reprise since their debut album in 2004, left the label and released their eponymously-titled third album in October of 2008. I guess this explains why I hadn't heard much from either band recently.

NYC-by-way-of-Dallas trio The Secret Machines opened the show with their brand of spacey, psychedelic, indie rock. Sans Rhodes (apparently, a key instrument of theirs from what I read) and using drums, guitar, bass and vocals, the group still sustained an atmospheric rock quality, sort of like American cousins to Spiritualized. So while the audience seemed a little distant literally and only slightly curious, I was a lot more taken by them since the first time I'd seen them in 2004 at The Docks opening for Interpol, when I was more distracted(hey it was The Docks - now known as Sound Academy - same shitty venue). The lamps that provided the backlit illumination on stage did much to create a appropriately mysterious vibe for the accompanying soundtrack, even if it made photo-taking difficult.

It's been a good four years since I'd last seen Trail Of Dead live when they played a ferocious show at The Opera House in 2005. Prior to that I'd caught their set at Coachella in 2004, although that's pretty much a blur. The last time they played in Toronto was earlier this year in March. However, reading my review of their show in 2005, I was reminded of how intense of a live act Trail Of Dead are. Concentrate that energy into the smaller capacity Lee's Palace and things are bound to burst at the seams.

Hardcore fan or not (I'm definitely more of a casual fan) it was hard not to be drawn into the band's energy on stage. Taking individual ingredients like the double-drumkit assault, lead-vocalist Conrad Keely's bordering on screamo-vocals, drummer/co-vocalist Jason Reece's energetic performance and the unbridgled enthusiasm of bassist Jay Phillips and it was a recipe for an intense show. At other times, they exuded a more introspective tone(relatively speaking) during less chaotic moments. When member Jason Reece held up a cardboard sign with one of their older song titles "How Near, How Far" it was hard not to read into that a certain sentiment that perhaps he was trying to communicate - they were a band who'd always been on the outskirts, even on a major label, and now were going back the indie route. Mr. Reece may have possibly not intended to communicate anything other than the song title itself but the sentiment's appropos nonetheless. A new beginning though it may be for Trail of Dead but they don't seem to mind at all.

chartattack has a review of the show also.

Photos: ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, The Secret Machines @ Lee's Palace (September 22, 2009).
Myspace: The Secret Machines
Myspace: ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sloan @ Coca-Cola Zero Fans First Tailgate Party outside Air Canada Centre (September 16, 2009)

Sloan @ Coca-Cola Zero Fans First Tailgate Party outside Air Canada Centre: photo by Michael Ligon

The 'big' show no doubt was U2 at Rogers Centre that night but a few hours prior to Bono and company taking the stage, Sloan were outside Air Canada Centre playing the Coca-Cola Zero Fans First Tailgate Party. Sloan and hockey - how Canadian is that? Ok, so I don't watch hockey and I wasn't trying to score free tickets to the pre-season Leafs vs. Bruins game (which the Leafs ended up losing), but rather there just to see Sloan play. Still, in celebrating the occasion it was funny to hear drummer Andrew Scott speak in an abrupt hockey-coach voice and tell the fellas, "ok, we got to step it up". Seems Chris Murphy's had at least semi-recovered from his recent injuries, back playing bass at least part of the set, although he'd relegated himself to tambourine and background vox for "Everything You've Done Wrong" and at one point sat out a song which I believe was during one of Andrew's songs. Still with Chris not entirely healed I'm assuming, keyboardist Gregory MacDonald and drummer Taylor Knox (to take over Chris' occasional drumming duties) were still along for the ride since the last time I'd seen them play with Sloan at the Virgin Festival at the end of August.

It seems as both Sloan and their fans have gotten older, Sloan's shows have become mellower. They're no longer the snotty kids they were back in Halifax in 1991 (by my vague recollections of their earliest interview appearances on Much Music back in the early 90's) even if Chris Murphy seemed like the same likable smart-ass he's always been. Sloan still rocked as they pulled out a bevy of hits like "Everything You've Done Wrong", "The Lines You Amend", "People Of The Sky" and "Money City Maniacs". They haven't approached full-on "dad rock" just yet". But in the literal sense of those words "dad" and "rock", the band brought out two young children, a boy and girl, who I presume were the children of someone in the band(I think they're Andrew's kids) to shake some toy maracas and provide some handclaps for their last few songs. Like the funny uncle, Chris Murphy pretended to unknowingly back into the boy while he was playing bass which had the boy in giggles and then proclaimed jokingly to the crowd that their next song "The Other Man" wasn't for kids, and that the kids should get off the stage which they didn't. A strange but ultimately unique and enjoyable ending to any Sloan show I've ever seen as guitarist Patrick Pentland positioned the mic lower for the children as they took turns, with their unlimited youthful abandon, shouting into it. Future rock stars in the making.

Photos: Sloan @ Coca-Cola Zero Fans First Tailgate Party outside Air Canada Centre (September 16, 2009)
MySpace: Sloan

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nick Cave @ Indigo Books and Music - Eaton Centre (September 16, 2009)

 Nick Cave @ Indigo: photo by Michael Ligon
Nick Cave @ Indigo: photo by Michael Ligon

The interminably nice although sharply witted Nick Cave stopped by Indigo Books and Music in the Eaton Centre a few nights ago for a Q & A with Edge 102.1's Alan Cross and to sign copies of his newest novel "The Death of Bunny Munro". Although casually familiar with his music, I've never delved into his catalogue with any pointed effort so it was really more curiosity that drew me to stop by for his appearance at Indigo. A deeply committed fanbase (many which were in a lineup that wrapped around the edge of the store, waiting to eventually get their copies of Nick's new book signed) and other curiosity seekers made for a good turnout for the event. Mr. Cave proved himself to be higly personable taking the time to speak, take photos, accept gifts, and sign copies of his book for fans.

Although Mr. Cave's a long way from being a tech-head [he not jokingly it seemed asked the audience what an iPhone 'app' was] he did go as far as to release an Enhanced Edition for iPhone of his new book as he mentioned at Indigo. The Enhanced Edition's features include giving users the option to hear him read the novel or listen to a soundtrack created by Nick and Bad Seed Warren Ellis.

Alan Cross' had a lengthier conversation with Nick for Explore Music, although I'd presume some of those same questions were asked/answered during the Indigo appearance.

eye's Stuart Berman provides more detailed coverage of the event. The Savvy Reader was also there.

Photos: Nick Cave @ Indigo Books and Music - Eaton Centre (September 16, 2009)
Myspace: Nick Cave

Monday, September 14, 2009

Caribou Vibration Ensemble @ The Opera House (September 10, 2009)

 Caribou Vibration Ensemble @ The Opera House: photo by Michael LigonCaribou Vibration Ensemble @ The Opera House: photo by Michael Ligon

I suspect that if Caribou's Dan Snaith's high school music teacher (presuming Dan took a music class or two and or took part in band in high school) was to have attended the Caribou Vibration Ensemble show at The Opera House last Thursday night, he or she would have been very proud. The show spanned a spectrum of sonic textures, rhythms, vocals and melodies and simply was musicality at it's best. Sometimes less is more, but in this case more was great, if not better. For the occasion, which was basically a warm up gig for Caribou Vibration Ensemble's show at All Tomorrow's Parties which went down in Monticello, New York this past weekend, Dan assembled a bevy of musical friends that included Ahmed Gallab aka Sinkane, a few Born Ruffians, Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, Koushik and perhaps a few others (yes, I didn't know every one on stage, and there was a person or two I couldn't see from my vantage point near the right front stage).

Apologies to anyone expecting a review from me of opener Koushik's set. Unfortunately I got to the venue later than expected and only caught the taileend of the set. The last song was a extended multi-drum / percussive jam quite a bit different from the downbeat groove-tronica samples I'd heard on Koushik's Myspace. However, with Koushik Ghosh also taking part in Caribou Vibration Ensemble, he actually sung lead on a dreamy, hypnotic groove number that was closer in line to his own music.

Caribou Vibration Ensemble's set was a multifaceted one, with a dizzying array of instrumentation including percussion(including a watermelon!), multiple drumkits, flute, trombone, sax, vibraphone, tambourines, shakers, keyboards, guitar, and some electronic noodling, as well as a vocal choir on at least one song. But as schizphrenic as Caribou sometimes comes across musically, spanning influences such as electronica, jazz, psychedelia and indie rock, it's the concept of rhythm that seems to tie it all together, and yes there was no shortage of it. Sinkane's Ahmed Gallab and Caribou's Brad Weber maintained a double drumkit assault for most of the set with a third member or sometimes Dan himself joining in on a third kit. Energies convalesced into all-out chaos at one point as both Ahmed and Brad stood over and on top of their drum kits in a delirious effort that had the audience spent by the end of it. And that wasn't even the set closer.

A particular highlight of the evening was the minimalist choral group rendition of "Melody" substituting the original's psychedelic pop overtones for something much more subtle and intimate - so intimate in fact that although it was Dan and five others singing the song in unison albeit quietly, you wished that the sound guy turned up the levels a little. Many of the songs showcased Caribou's more rhythmic side, reflected visually by almost constant bordering-on-epileptic strobe light effects. As Dan jumped from keys/electronic noodlery, to guitar, to drums and back to keys/electronic noodlery, most of the time singing lead (when not handing out lead vocals occasionally to guests like Junior Boy's Jeremy Greenspan or Koshik's Koushik Ghosh), I'd observed that he maintained the most humble of personalities. While Dan's humble in his own right, the very nature of his Ensemble seemed to be a showcase for the various talented artists that composed it. A musician's musician Dan is, and not a rock star, and that probably was all for the best. But with the spectacle, both aural and visual, put on display by Caribou Vibration Ensemble last Thursday night at The Opera House, I'd take that over rock star attitude any day.

Photos: Caribou Vibration Ensemble @ The Opera House (September 10, 2009)

More review/photos/coverage over at Chromewaves as well as eye, Exclaim, and NOW.

MySpace: Koushik
MySpace: Caribou

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart, The Depreciation Guild, Cymbals Eat Guitars @ Horseshoe Tavern (September 7, 2009)

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart @ Horseshoe Tavern: photo by Michael Ligon

A not-sold-out-but-healthy crowd came out this past Labour Day Monday for a New York City triple-header featuring The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, The Depreciation Guild, and Cymbals Eat Guitars. Toronto-loving PoBPaH have rolled through several times over the last 8 months [has it been 3 times?] but this time came promoting their recently released "Higher Than The Stars" EP. Pains drummer Kurt Feldman's band The Depreciation Guild are an obvious opener for PoBPaH as they've done on previous occasions. Having seen PoBPaH and TDG at their debut Toronto performance at Lee's Palace back in February 2009, I already knew what to expect from them, but was looking forward to seeing Cymbals Eat Guitars after being pleasantly intrigued by some of their MySpace samples.

It was Cymbals Eat Guitars who opened the night with a small crowd on hand although the crowd was at a distance from the stage when I'd entered the venue. Sporting a sound that from my musical frame of reference alternated between the fractured, askew guitar pop of Pavement and the heavier, atonal guitar crunch of Archers of Loaf, the crowd seemed a bit unsure at first but eventually patrons made their way closer to the stage. Perhaps with the added confidence of the crowd being closer to the stage, or maybe just by coincidence, the material and melodies just seemed that much stronger. Much credit to chief songwriter and vocalist Joseph D'Agostino whose gritty vocals and squall-filled guitar playing were exceptional. Their debut album "Why There Are Mountains" was released independently this year and has been picking up its share of buzz.

It's somewhat redundant I think to review TDG's and PoBPaH's sets even if both bands came supporting new product - The Depreciation Guild came promoting their new seven-inch / digital-download single "Dream About Me" and as I'd mentioned above PoBPaH have a new EP. As "genre" bands - the indiepop-shoegaze sound of PoBPaH and the more thoroughly entrenched shoegaze sound of TDG - they're about as musically good and as enjoyable as they're gonna be as long as your a fan of those genres. TDG's set continues to utilize a video projection cast against a white backdrop behind the drummer showing various colourful square patterns as if an Atari video game system had just gone on the fritz. TDG were quite upfront with their influences with tracks echoing the melodic guitar bombast and beats of My Bloody Valentines' "Soon" and the more atmospheric guitar sounds of Cocteau Twins.

PoBPaH seemed a little more mellow this time around. While their Toronto debut at Lee's Palace back in February had a little more rock crunch in the guitars, their Labour Day set seemed closer in sound to their album, with the guitars and vocals coming through with more dreamy effect. "Young Adult Friction" for me remains their best song to date(the alternating boy/girl vocals and the song's melodic urgency echoing the best indiepop songs I've ever heard) so it was a little surprising for me that they'd pull that song out as their second song rather than close their set with it or play it during the encore. In terms of stage presence, their book-ish quality was apparent though I wish they had a little more to say between songs - although keyboardist Peggy Wang did get in a good one in when she thanked the crowd for coming out on Labour Day and rationalizing that at least we didn't have to hang out with our parents.

Photos: The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart, The Depreciation Guild, Cymbals Eat Guitars @ Horseshoe Tavern (September 7, 2009)
MySpace: The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart
MySpace: The Depreciation Guild
MySpace: Cymbals Eat Guitars

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Irma Thomas @ Harbourfront Centre (September 6, 2009)

Irma Thomas @ Harbourfront Centre: photo by Michael Ligon

I had the great pleasure of seeing the "Soul Queen of New Orleans" Irma Thomas down at Harbourfront Centre this past Sunday night. To see her talent on display live, one wonders why she never achieved success in the sixties on par with her contemporaries back then like Aretha Franklin and Etta James. She'd actually covered the song "Time Is On My Side" back in 1964 a month before The Rolling Stones covered it although the Stones achieved much greater success with it, scoring their first top ten hit with it[via Wikipedia]. The crowd at Harbourfront was decidedly mixed with younger music fans with an appreciation for soul and Motown and older fans reliving youthful memories gathered together. I'd made myself to a standing area along the left side of the stage as the band and an unseen vocalist were midway into a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and then a band member took the mic to introduce Ms. Thomas to the crowd. The set included covers of the aforementioned "Time Is On My Side", a stupendous performance of Etta James "At Last", a scintillating version of George Gershwin standard "Summertime" and a well-intentioned(although misguided) cover of Tina Turner's "Simply The Best" but it was the unfamiliar soul tracks which were the most invigorating to me. So while the covers were for the most part fantastic, "Time Is On My Side" being dynamite, it wasn't an oldies-station-vibe I was seeking that night. The unfamiliar soul tracks [if anyone has a set list, it'd be most appreciated] showed the vitality of a woman who'd been criminially overlooked for much of her career and for some like myself have only just discovered her. I was also quite satisfied to rediscover how vital of a genre that soul music is and realize perhaps that that one Otis Redding CD in my music collection is hardly sufficient. Much props go to her band who were top-notch musicians and to Ms. Thomas herself for not only her fantastic performance but her charming and humourous banter with the crowd. The born-and-raised New Orleans lady mentioned Hurricane Katrina and thanked Toronto for anything, anyone may have done to help out the City of New Orleans during and after the crisis, which segwayed into her cover of Tina Turner's "Simply The Best", which as I previously mentioned was a well-intentioned although ultimately misguided cover, a pockmark on what was otherwise a brilliant performance.

Photos: Irma Thomas @ Harbourfront Centre (September 6, 2009)
YouTube: Irma Thomas - "Time Is On My Side"
YouTube: Irma Thomas - "Wish Someone Would Care"
Just a reminder that my photos from Virgin Festival(August 29-30, 200) are now up if you're interested - Day One, Day Two. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Virgin Festival @ Molson Ampitheatre (August 30, 2009)

  Pet Shop Boys @ Virgin Festival: photo by Michael Ligon
Pet Shop Boys @ Virgin Festival: photo by Michael Ligon

Day two of Virgin Festival was more successful in it's festival vibe compared to day one with both the crowd and the bands basking in each other's enthusiasm. Even if I wasn't totally enamored with some of the acts performing it was at least satisyfing to see the crowd as well as the bands having fun.

First act of the day was French Canadian acoustic pop artist Coeur De Pirate but unfortunately I didn't arrive in time to catch her. I'd arrived a little after her set ended with grey clouds looming overhead although next act Norwegian electro-rock act Datarock did their best to bring some sunshine metaphorically to the festivities. Decked in red track suits, they brought a party vibe to the small crowd on hand with their set of electro-rock tunes, augmenting their sound with sax, guitars, keys, beats and drums. I'm not too keen on them myself but I'll give them props for their success in getting the small crowd on hand into it.

Danish band Mew, handpicked to open dates for Nine Inch Nail's current tour, were fortunate enough to also be added to Virgin Festival. I do commend Virgin Festival organizers for including them, especially as a main stage act, considering how obscure they are here in Canada. While they might be generally unfamiliar to Canadians at least their sound fit right in with the largeness of the venue. Mew's sound alternated between an epic, sometimes atmospheric quality with washes of synth and guitar, and a more succinct sound with clearer punctuacted guitar and drums, but it was vocalist Jonas Bjerre's higher-register vocals which tied it all together. Hey did anyone think Jonas looked like what Joel Plaskett might have looked in his youth? Someone dig up Plaskett's high school yearbook photo. Difficult to read how well-received they were by the half empty venue but I liked it.

My first foray of the day to the Virgin Radio stage was to see Toronto's Fritz Helder and The Phantoms. Quite a thin crowd at the beginning with the numbers only increasing slightly as the set progressed, it didn't seem to phaze the band at all. Even with guitar, bass, keys/programming and drums, there's a thin quality to their glammy, electro disco rock sound but they made up for it with an energetic and visually entertaining stage presence, as much in their dancing, voguing as in their outrageously glammy wardrobe and make-up. They're like Madonna, Prince and T-Rex, with a little hip-hop flavour all rolled up into one. How could you not be entertained by that?

It was New Orleans outfit Mutemath that I next caught over at the main stage. They specialized in a proggy brand of emo rock, with humming, moaning keyboards infiltrating the more conventional guitar rock histronics. Many seemed enamored with them and not only because vocalist Paul Meany at one point successfully handplant-flipped over his keyboard without killing himself nor because of the band's final raucous collaborative drumming outro. But such things made it definitely a memorable performance. And yes, they got a standing ovation from the crowd on hand.

I've read a few reviews of Cold War Kids' set at Virgin Festival and the consensus seems to rest with pondering why this band had such blogger buzz a year or two ago. But based on their Virgin Festival set, their general lack of charisma, and plodding indie rock tunes you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Not terrible by any stretch, but sometimes being average is worse. Actually, they had one Gang Of Four-ish song that was actually decent but other than that I wasn't terribly impressed. If anything, they may have fared better on a small stage. Don't get me wrong - my general lack of enthusiasm for them wasn't necessarily the crowd's reaction as I'd observe more than a few persons who were definite fans of them.

An unknown entity from the outset, Montreal's Silver Starling played the Boardwalk stage with a good degree of success. With the sonics balancing melody with a bit of guitar histronics and subtler sounds like glockenspiel, there was also the benefit of male and female vocals. There was a bit of an atmospheric quality at times but at the same time there was a succintness to their which kept their sound from floating off into the stratosphere.

The party really started with N.E.R.D. back at the mainstage with the band's fusion of hip hop and rock influences. But moreso than the music, it was lead singer Pharrell's constant frontmanship that kept the crowd pumped, giving the ok to bring random fans, both guys and girls, onstage to party with them and his constant shout-outs to Toronto. Whether your a fan or not, they're the time of band that every music festival needs.

Back to the Boardwalk Stage it was for me to catch Toronto's The D'Urbervilles and really anytime you can catch their spastic indie rock and bespectacled lanky frontman John O'Regan's equally spastic dancing it's always a good time.

Hopping back to the main stage, I decided to sit in for Our Lady Peace's set. I'm not particularly a fan of there's at all but their tune "Somewhere Out There" does connect with me on one level. They played a mostly greatest hits set plus some other tunes I didn't recognize including a new song called "Paper Moon" which they introduced as inspired by Neil Young. It was most admirable to have witnessed frontman Raine Maida run up to the 300's when his prompting for the 300's and 400's sections to stand up didn't exactly transpire but once he got up there the sections stood up en mass, mostly to snap a photo of Raine up close. When the band closed with "Naveed" the sun finally started to peak out.

Back to the Boardwalk stage it was for me to catch that stage's final act of the day, Detroit's The Von Bondies. While garage rock isn't necessarily my thing these days, The Von Bondies did it more than well. They shredded, although not necessarily devastated the Boardwalk stage, but of the bands that played the Boardwalk Stage that weekend, The Von Bondies were probably the only band that could have played the main stage and fared more than well.

80's alternative dance-pop outfit Pet Shop Boys were a band that I'd always admired and liked although they were never at the level of any other 80's bands I loved like New Order, The Smiths and Echo and The Bunnymen. Their Virgin Festival set did nothing to change that but on the other hand their live show was absolutely spectacular. The stage production was fantastic featuring video screens, cool lighting, dancers, costume changes and a lot of geometric patterns. Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant was in fine vocal form sounding as good now as ever and with the band pulling out the band's synth-pop hits ('Suburbia', 'Go West', 'It's A Sin', 'Always On My Mind', 'Left To My Own Devices', 'West End Girls') it was a flashback to the eighties which I truly enjoyed.

Preceding Nine Inch Nails headlining slot, there was enough time to catch Boardwalk Stage headliners Plants and Animals. I was excited to see them after becoming more of a fan of them after seeing them play in Barcelona, Spain in June - yes, there was the novelty of seeing a Canadian band in Spain, but their performance(which was an outdoor one in a park as part of the Primavera Sound Festival) did much to convert me to their music. There's a jamminess that intermingles with melody but overall they present a joie de vivre that's so terrific to witness. And when they sing "Bye Bye Bye" and then the crowd joins in in unison it's so undeniably beautiful. Fortunately for the larger crowd that had gather for their set they'd set up their instruments outside of the tent playing under the blanket of a starry night with a few lamposts and a few stage light illuminating the area. Lovely.

At long last, Nine Inch Nails took to the stage for what had been billed as their last large-scale show ever, pulling out all the stops with an incredible light show and an emphatic musical performance. Whether it was fierce goth rock anthems like "Head Like A Hole", "Closer" and "March of The Pigs" or more subtle, audience-lighter-inducing songs like "Hurt" it was awesome to witness even if I'm not the biggest NIN fan. Particularly angst-ridden lyrics like "Head like a hole, black as your soul, I'd rather die than give you control" and "Bow down before the one you serve, your gonna get what you deserve" don't necessarily resonate with me on any level but man are they sure fun to sing.

So ends another instalment of Virgin Festival. Even with all it's problems I truly miss the festival vibe atmosphere of the Toronto Islands. Molson Amp just doesn't cut it in that respect. Perhaps they should have made the entire venue general admission which would have promoted a more communal vibe, allowing spectactors to wander around. But when you have security guards to confront every where you walk, it really stinks. I'm happy that Virgin Festival even happened at all but musically I wish it could have better - compared to the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, and Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal which were two other music festivals I'd attended this year, Virgin Festival drastically pales in comparison. Oh, and I was disappointed that there wasn't a dance/DJ tent this year - there's something comforting about hearing beats off in the distance. This year we had to contend with hearing people play Beatles Rock Band. It just isn't the same.

Photos: Virgin Festival @ Molson Ampitheatre (August 30, 2009)

MySpace: Datarock
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MySpace: N.E.R.D.
MySpace: The D'Urbervilles
MySpace: Our Lady Peace
MySpace: The Von Bondies
MySpace: Pet Shop Boys
MySpace: Plants and Animals
MySpace: Nine Inch Nails

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Virgin Festival @ Molson Ampitheatre (August 29, 2009)

  Nils Edenloff of RAA @ Virgin Festival: photo by Michael Ligon
Nils Edenloff of RAA @ Virgin Festival: photo by Michael Ligon

For Virgin Festival's fourth annual installment in Toronto it took place down at Molson Ampitheatre moving from the relative comforts of Toronto Islands which hosted the event the first three years. On the other hand, this year's Virgin Festival wasn't suppose to take place in Toronto at all but rather at Burl's Creek Park in Oro, Ontario just north of Toronto. However poor tickets sales and complaints about the location evenutally led to the change of venue to Molson Ampitheatre. For better or worse, that's where it took place over the weekend. Thanks to the folks at Segal Communications (handing the media accreditation requests for Virgin Festival Toronto) for approving me a reviewers pass for this year's festival [a photo pass would have been nice but hey whatever].

Although mostly overcast weather conditions predominate the weekend I'm thankful that the rain kept away although if it had come, the one good thing about the main stage being at Molson Ampitheatre was that it was covered and I had seating in an area which was mostly covered as well. But otherwise Molson Ampitheatre really sucked the energy out of the crowd for many of the acts that played its mainstage - no offense, but many of the acts weren’t seasoned enough to play such a big stage and it would have been more enjoyable to see them on the the second stage(Virgin mobile stage). So with iPhone in hand I hastily jotted down random thoughts about the acts I say as the day went on.

Unfortunately, I missed first main stage act Mates of State - I hope they weren't too discouraged to play to a mostly empty venue but I'm sure their sunny keyboard-drums driven pop music was enough to put a smile on at least a few faces. It was with Toronto's Valerie Poxleitner aka Lights, playing the main stage that I started my day off with. Whenever it happened, I'm glad she's lost the Wonder Woman-esque headband that I used to see her wear cause she looks so much more adorable without it. I think I caught a tune of hers on Much Music, a radio-friendly synth-pop ditty that I didn't think much of but while her live set does maintain her radio-friendliness, it also displayed that she does exude a certain amount of charm and likability and a level of musicianship(on keyboards and keytar) that proves she isn't just a pretty face. If I were to heard on the radio sometime, I won't be so quick to change the station.

Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear were the next band I saw. Quite frankly they'd have fared much better playing the much smaller second stage (Virgin Radio stage). Although I'm not too familiar with them I appreciate their creative approach to pop music. I'd refrain from calling them pop music although they do have underlying pop sensibilities. Their music encompasses vocal harmonies, subdued rock instrumentation and has a an ebb and flow, building to crescendo quality. As much as I appreciated it, and as I'd also heard other people vocalize their appreciation, I think they'd have been better off playing the second stage.

Speaking of second stage, it was off to the Virgin Radio stage (located on the Ontario Place grounds) where I went to check out Toronto's Thundereist. I'd caught them earlier this year playing the WinterCity festival in the most frigid temperatures imaginable - perhaps much of there energy during the performance was just to keep warm, but it was also a fun spectacle to witness especially with the b-girl dancers the band brought along for that show. This time around it was just the Thunderheist duo of producer Grahm Zilla and MC Isis as well a live drummer that joined them for the show. MC Isis admitted that it was a little weird playing during the day [and having to play a stage that overlooked a waterslide, no less] but whether it be the daylight or the subdued crowd, there was a lack of excitement to the set. Perhaps more of the blame should go to the crowd - MC Isis put in some effort with some funny banter and even climbing to the edge of the stage to sing over the crowd the Toronto's notorious reputation for mannequin-like non-responsiveness once again prevailed.

A certain part of me is saddened that Sloan's ranking in the main stage lineup couldn't perhaps have preceded headliner Ben Harper or even penultimate act Pixies. Rather Sloan were relegated to fourth last act of the night, preceding Paolo Nutini. I only wish they were much more popular than they really are, especially with them approaching 20 years in the music industry. As with all the acts on the main stage leading up to that point, it was just disheartening to see all the empty seats in the 200-400 sections. But what the biggest indie band Canada did prove was that they had some appreciative and devout fans in the audience especially responsive to the band's biggest hits like "Everything You've Done Wrong", "The Lines You Amend", "The Good In Everyone" and closer "Money City Maniacs". For the most part the crowd seemed a bit subdued - even during a fan-favourite like "People Of The Sky", the crowd seemed eerily still, and not much crowd participation seemed to take place, even during the 'ba, ba, ba, ba ba' part of the song. Three additional members joined the band adding an extra presence although the crowd seemed laid back only finally until set-closer "Money City Maniacs" prompted the crowd to finally start clapping.

Scottish born Paolo Nutini was next up on the main stage. With a crack band accompanying him that included trumpet, sax, harmonica, ukulele, guitar, drums and bass Paolo's music spanned bouncy folk rock, ragtime-ish numbers, breezy, summery folk pop and blues-tinged rock with his slightly vibrato-tinged vocals guiding the songs along. I'm not too partial to his music but neither is it the worst thing I've heard. For the record, there were many in the audience that were enjoying the set. In particular, there was a group of bare-chested dudes as well as several girls wrapping themselves with large European flags who were dancing enthusiastically during most of the set. Such evidence of fan appreciation does showed that his third-last-act-of-the-night ranking in the lineup behind Pixies and Ben Harper was perhaps well-deserved.

It was then off to the third stage (Boardwalk Stage) to catch Toronto's The Superstitions. The female-led young four piece played a set of garage pop tunes that were enjoyable on first impression. Melodic yet gritty they do have a tight set of tunes which I found surprising from such a young band. Lead vocalist Nyssa who sang for most of the set barefoot has the sort of voice that's mature beyond her years, and one gets the impression that she does have the capability to really belt it - if only she did it more often.

A real festival atmosphere started with Paolo Nutini's set with the venue starting to fill in and the audience becoming more enthusiastic but it really kicked in to high gear with Franz Ferdinand. Franz Ferdinand kept things uptempo for their entire set playing hits like "Take Me Out", "This Fire" and "Ulysees" and once again frontman Alex Kapranos proved his arguably the best frontman of any rock band out there at this moment, at least in my honest opinion, providing visual stimuli with his energetic stage presence and guitar playing as well as backing it up with his thoroughly energetic vocals. Although I consider "This Fire" as one of the best set closers in recent memory, it made an earlier appearance in their set this time around. But really, to see the audience fist pumping in unison and singing along to the song's chorus ('This fire is out of control, I'm going to burn this city, Burn this city') it was a pleasure to see the crowd finally really having fun.

Who better to follow up then Pixies. I'd seen them twice in the past - November 2004 at Arrow Hall and prior to that in May 2004 at Coachella in California - it's been a while. As with those past shows, The Pixies continue to churn out the hits for fans. Kicking off with a fierce rendition of "U-mass"[so, so good to hear Frank Black scream "It's Educational!"], they played practically everything I wanted to hear ("Head On", "Wave Of Mutilation", "Planet of Sound", "Here Comes Your Man", "Debaser", "This Monkey's Gone To Heaven", "Where Is My Mind", "Gigantic"). In perhaps a nod to Canadians, they also included their wonderful cover of Neil Young's "Winterlong". The crowd was pretty much enraptured with their whole set. The Pixies were definitely should-have-been headliners. If you wanted more proof you'd have witnessed the mass exodus of people exiting after The Pixies finished. Poor Ben Harper.

Before Ben Harper and Relentless 7 took the stage, some like myself made a bee-line to the Boardwalk Stage to catch Toronto's own The Rural Alberta Advantage. Already a crowd on hand and actually the band starting a tad earlier than their 9:10 pm set time, I managed to eventually get right to the front (perk of having a media wristband!). The crowd being a mix of current fans and I'm positive, new converts, the band were as convincing as ever playing a selection of tunes from their debut full-length "Hometowns". Armed with what's their bread and butter, that is acoustic guitar, drums, glockenspiel, tambourine, handclaps and vocals, and maybe a few other things, they played their indie acoustic folk tunes with as much enthusiasm as you'd expect from bands that are amplified. But really it's the melodies and lyrics that are the ultimate selling points. I'm sure they won over a few new fans.

Out of a sense of completion rather than enthusiasm, I stuck around for headliners Ben Harper and Relentless7. The crowd had thinned out more than a bit after The Pixies but there still remained a devout number of music fans that made it a little less discouraging for Mr. Harper. Thank God it was dark - I could only imagine how empty the lawns might have been at this point. It's not that I don't think Ben's talented. On the contrary, he's very talented as he displayed with his soulful vocals and virtuostic skills on the steel lap guitar. His band Relentless 7 played the blues-rock angle although less about technical virtuosity and more from a casual rock n' roll angle. For those who remained back for his set, many were enthusiastic for Ben as he and his band wandered through various styles and tempos. An enthusiastic response from the crowd brought back Ben and band for a one song encore which was a cover of a heavy metal song, whose title can't place but the chorus goes like 'a ah ahhhhhhh ahhhh, a ah ahhhhhhh ahhh ah' (I know The Roots also covered it at Osheaga at the beginning of August). And so ended Day One.

Photos: Virgin Festival @ Molson Ampitheatre (August 29, 2009)

MySpace: Lights
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MySpace: Thunderheist
MySpace: Sloan
MySpace: Paolo Nutini
MySpace: The Superstitions
MySpace: Franz Ferdinand
MySpace: Pixies
MySpace: The Rural Alberta Advantage
MySpace: Ben Harper and Relentless7