NXNE: Day Parties and a Dance Marathon

The Elwins performing outside of Long & McQuade. Photo: Elena Gritzan

by Elena Gritzan

Some of the best NXNE experiences are not even on the official schedule.  While the evenings are packed full of sets in venues across the city with a variety of emerging and amazing bands from Canada and beyond, the city’s musical landscape gets especially interesting with small shows in unconventional locations during the afternoon hours, especially on the Saturday of the festival.

My day began at 2 pm to see Keswick, Ontario band the Elwins.  Performing at the intersection of Bloor and Concord as part of Long & McQuade’s Customer Appreciation Day, the endearing and upbeat four piece serenaded the sidewalk and caused a fair number of people walking by to pause and listen with a great deal of interest.  A signature part of an Elwins live show is being taught to belt a chorus: “What’s a fox, what’s a fox without a tail?  Spread your wings, spread your wings and learn to sail!”  The ten to fifteen of us congregated there did our best to shatter some eardrums or at least get some funny looks.

Next stop was the Yonge Street Urban Outfitters, to catch another set by Young Magic.  They completely won me over Thursday night at Wrongbar, and the appeal was just as strong the second time.  Equal parts dreamy and noisy with electronically generated percussion, they filled the second floor of the shop with their sound.

There was definitely no shortage of barbeques happening on Saturday.  I chose the “Synthbeque” hosted by Silent Shout in the space behind gallery Milk Glass Co.  I was thrilled enough by the soundtrack in between sets (I don’t think I’ve ever heard songs by Happy Trendy in a public setting before), but the three bands I saw made my choice a very good one.  First was Young Liars, who were full of tight poppy energy.  They are a band I had been meaning to check out for a while, so I’m glad I got the chance to witness their fun electro set.

This was followed by a set from Toronto’s Sexy Merlin.  His signature drum-dance was the beginning of what would be a long night of moving to music.  Instead of his usual full drum kit set-up, he had just an SP-404 and some drum pads, but his distorted, echoey vocals and impeccable percussive compositions sounded full and infectious as always.

Goose Hut at the Silent Shout Synthbeque. Note the gathering of passer-bys in the back! Photo: Elena Gritzan

Then came Montreal band Goose Hut’s second ever performance in Toronto (their first, I caught at the Silver Dollar the night before), and I am even more sold on their harmony-laden sweet synthesizer/drum dance music the second time around.  A group of children who had been walking through the alleyway behind the stage took notice of the three-piece band jumping around, and came up to peer over the back stage wall, hands over their ears (most entertaining set of photos I have ever taken of a band, I think!).  At one point, the singer cut his hand on his guitar, spilling blood all over it, and the stage seemed to be in a constant state of disrepair (one song inexplicably stopped halfway through), but Goose Hut had everyone on their side anyway.  People twirled and spun around with great enthusiasm.  They are embarking on a Canadian tour further west (next stop is on Tuesday in Winnipeg), and I would definitely recommend you catch them if you have the opportunity.

That brought me to 9pm and the start of the actual official shows.  I hopped over to the Garrison down the street for the start of the Pop Montreal showcase.  This meant a set from Sean Nicholas Savage, Montreal crooner and master of weird pop songs.  He wore a red dress as he sailed through his songs, winning everyone over with his one-of-a-kind style and quirky charisma.

Sean Nicholas Savage at the Garrison. Photo: Elena Gritzan

Solo electronic experimenter Mozart’s Sister is very good on record, but I was still surprised when she was absolutely brilliant live.  She sets up her beats and then moves away from the sampler, twisting her body to the music and delivering passionate and powerful vocals.  I do not necessarily want to make a Grimes comparison (although Claire Boucher herself has been a very vocal supporter of Mozart’s Sister), but she has an amazingly inventive ear as a producer of electronic tapestries and the creativity to work layers of her voice on top of it.

The dancing continued with Jeff Barbara, who along with a guitarist and bassist created synth grooves.  Wearing neon green sunglasses, he made a very dramatic frontman.

Dancing all evening can take a lot out of you (at this point, it was midnight, and the danceable songs had been going on since Sexy Merlin at 7:30), so seeing Carnival Moon at Czehoski was a welcome change of pace.  Plucked harp and bowed violin combined with some beautiful vocal harmonies.  The room was a sauna (what is it with this place?), but the music left me feeling warm in the best way possible: Carnival Moon is creating perfectly haunting folk music that pulled me right in.

After a quick tea break (long days of music are exhausting, even if amazing and completely worth it), I headed to the Silver Dollar.  My ultimate mission was to see Toronto’s Cam Findlay as Kontravoid (memories of his thrilling heavy industrial dance music from an April Wavelength showcase was the only thing keeping my eyes open at this point).  The act immediately proceeding, an electronic duo called Automelodi, were a welcome surprise.  They made fast synth-heavy music punctuated with drum machine crashes, all sung over in droll French.  It even felt like it was over too soon – I would definitely have been more than willing to continue to participate in the frenetic dancing happening close to the stage.

3am brought with it the final event of the night, my highly anticipated Kontravoid.  He moved through a fast-paced set with absolutely no breaks between songs.  Most of the songs from his self-titled LP were presented to an increasingly wild crowd (only opener “Darkest Hours” appeared in a shorter version, and the order of the songs remained true to album except for a shuffling of “Dead Eagles” into the middle of the set, likely to prevent ending on a slower note).   I remember thinking after my first Kontravoid set that I had never danced so much in my life, and that record was probably beaten on Saturday night.  The venue was delightfully full considering it was essentially the middle of the night, and I am so glad that many people got to experience Kontravoid’s magic.

14 hours, six venues and 11 bands later, Saturday was a wrap.  NXNE is a marathon, but one that is intensely rewarding and exciting.

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