review and photos by Michael Thomas
I’m notorious (at least in my own mind) for not acting on my own recommendations. For a few years now I’ve been dutifully recommending all kinds of bands to check out during the major Toronto music festivals but haven’t actually seen most of them. Mostly this is because I want to try and balance my schedule out with bands I haven’t seen, or perhaps the band I recommended was a little too far away to be able to catch anything before or after. Anyway, yesterday night I decided to actually follow through with one of my own NXNE suggestions. But first, the day shows.
It was sunny but a little cloudy as the first day of the Great Heart Festival (put on by Young Lions Music Club) went underway at Trinity Bellwoods Park. After a bit of trouble finding the spot (I got to get temporarily lost with Olenka of Olenka and the Autumn Lovers, so that was cool), the first act was… Olenka and the Autumn Lovers.
The unplugged quality of the Great Heart Festival suited the band well. With just a guitar and violin for most songs, Olenka wove intimate tales like “Warsaw Girl” and “Odessa” among some new songs from a new 7″. Some of the song titles she gave were “It’s Alright” and “Through the Branches.”
Though she was in a hurry and could only do three songs, Maylee Todd put on a typically energetic performance, even though she and her backup band had never performed unplugged before. She sang “I Tried,” followed by “Baby’s Got It” and then “Hieroglyphics.” Todd’s occasional laughter made the songs all the more endearing.
It started to get grey when Kalle Mattson and his band took the “stage.” Just like Olenka and the Autumn Lovers, the unplugged sound really suited the northern Ontario-based band. Mattson’s voice is distinct, and his bandmates on drums, guitar and sometimes even horns supported him well. Mattson played some new songs, including “In the Morning Light,” a song he wrote with Jeremy Fisher. The song, predictably, was beautiful.
At this point rain was beginning to threaten, and I ended up leaving Bellwoods for the Arts & Crafts popup shop located near the Great Hall. After checking out a bunch of cool portraits, I ended up seeing two full sets by two fantastic acts.
First of the two was recent A&C signing Reuben and the Dark, a five-piece band from Calgary. While talking to Tiana Feng before they went on, I jokingly said “Don’t they know we’re busy media people?” One of the members of Reuben and the Dark might have taken me seriously and actually started their set because of my false anger. So if you’re reading this, Reuben and the Dark, please know that I was never serious about being busy.
The set, on the other hand, was magical. They began with all five men of the band singing a cappella, which was a stunning way to begin, and quickly the band wove an intricate web of music that could sometimes be heavy on instrumentals, so heavy that just watching the band on their instruments was entertainment enough. Lead vocalist Reuben Bullock was also quite personable between songs, at one point even trying out a joke on the audience (it didn’t land, but damn it, he tried.)
And then the pop-up gallery got a big dose of some good old-fashioned rock and roll courtesy of Michael Rault. Though I was familiar with his latest release Whirlpool, I had seemingly missed endless opportunities to see him live. Seeing him live was nothing less than a treat, as Rault is more or less the embodiment of what a 60s rock icon would look, act and sound like. His songs also tend to be on the short side, so his roughly 45-minute set had more tunes than I could count. He played with three other people, but ended the set with a bang by covering (solo) an old blues song. That was the moment when I (and likely anyone else who hadn’t seen him before) knew he was the real deal.
It was then time for me to finally start hitting the showcases. At 8 p.m. I walked just a few steps west to the Drake Hotel, where I saw a well-attended set by Eastborough. I recalled being charmed by her voice and ukulele on her record Your Place, but hearing some of those songs live made all the difference. I had almost forgotten the urgency of “Soft Step” but remembered it again through Stefani Guzman’s great rendition of it. Guzman and her band also played several new songs, the best of which is called “Summer Youth,” a song influenced by her Costa Rican heritage. What made the set all the more amazing was that Guzman had apparently recently had surgery but still decided to play, even if she had to sit through the whole set.
It was then that I finally followed through on one of the suggestions I made for NXNE: I camped out at Creatures Creating for the first night of Wavelength’s three-night stay. Night one featured a pretty diverse lineup (as is Wavelength’s forte) in an unconventional venue—I don’t actually know what Creatures Creating is during the day. An art gallery? I have no idea.
Starting the night was Toronto one-man band Home Alone, who played a very introspective set that mostly matched his introspective music. It rarely featured any vocals except for a few songs, instead relying on guitar (occasionally) or long samples. The moodiness that Home Alone’s music created was a bit nullified by the random outburst about smoking marijuana that came later in the set, but it was still enjoyable.
Following that was Miss Elizabeth, my personal highlight of the night. Consisting of Tom Avis and Odie Ouderkirk, both on synths with Avis contributing vocals, the duo absolutely kicked ass. They even employed some dry ice, adding extra drama to an already passionate performance. The audience responded in kind.
And then the venue filled up for a radically disorienting set from Petra Glynt. While I had heard of her before, I was not prepared for the assault on the senses that is her music. She could be playing with samples, vocalizing or drumming, or all three at once, so it seemed. With Glynt you either get her or you don’t; I noticed a few people who didn’t and thus walked out. But the majority of the audience bought into it, and there was more swaying and dancing than I’ve seen in some time.
Finally, my night ended with PROGRAM, who unfortunately were hampered by technical difficulties early on and suffered a bit for it. No one seemed to be patient enough to stick around, which was unfortunate, because the band really poured their energies into their set.
It was bit of an anti-climactic end to my night, but that’s okay. Not everything can end with a bang.