NXNE: Open space, close quarters

review and photos by Michael Thomas

While lots of Toronto venues are wide open spaces, Friday night of NXNE taught me that showcases can happen in places that can’t hold 100+ people comfortably.

Owen Edwards of James and Blackburn
Owen Edwards of James and Blackburn

The first “venue” I saw artists had as much space as you could possibly get—Trinity Bellwoods Park for day two of Young Lions Music Club’s Great Heart Festival. Kicking things off was James and Blackburn, or more accurately just the band’s lead singer, Owen Edwards. Sporting just an acoustic guitar, Edwards sang four nice folk songs, the last of which was apparently about cosmic travel on a train (perhaps Edwards is a fan of Galaxy Express 999)?

Eagle Lake Owls
Eagle Lake Owls

Following him was a band I was guaranteed to pay attention to based on name alone- Winnipeg’s own Eagle Lake Owls. According to the photo on this band’s website, their Bellwoods setup didn’t seem to be too far off from their plugged-in setup. They had some great harmonies and quite the mix of sounds thanks to the use of unconventional instruments (a suitcase drum is always awesome, by the way).

BB Guns
BB Guns

The next set by BB Guns was proof that anything can and will happen in Trinity Bellwoods.  The band was apparently halved for acoustic purposes, so likely their songs have extra dimensions, but even stripped down to a trio the songs shone thanks to the great vocal harmonies. The unexpected part happened at the end, when a random woman from the park began dancing to the right of the performers.

Nicholas Doubleyou and the B Squad
Nicholas Doubleyou and the B Squad

Nicholas Doubleyou and the B Squad proved to be quite the surprise to me and probably others. Though Nicholas was sporting a guitar that cost $10 and his bandmate had a mandolin he had just rented hours earlier, the songs shone thanks to Nicholas’ manic energy. It showed in both his physical presence (constantly moving around) to his vocals (they sometimes turned into screams). Nicholas also turned out to be quite fun to listen to between songs.

Donovan Woods
Donovan Woods

Finally, Donovan Woods proved to be as talented as I imagined he would be, which was quite a lot. He also happened to be as sarcastic as I predicted, which was a lot. Despite him warning the audience that he was fighting a cold, his voice didn’t betray any signs of sickness. Instead, he went through some great tracks like “Put On, Cologne” and “My Cousin Has a Grey Cup Ring.” In between he talked about things like how the former song was on CBC Radio but not enough to long list him for the Polaris Prize, earning sympathetic noises from the onlookers. He even played the hilarious Toronto national anthem he wrote for The Grid, finishing by saying “It was poorly received.” But his set in general was very well-received, and he definitely got the most applause of any of the performers at Bellwoods.

Akua
Akua

Then it was time to begin the night shows. Those began for me with Akua‘s set at Hard Luck. Akua Carson played a very palatable mix of electro-pop and soul with the help of synths, a drum pad, loops and samples. It didn’t take long for the audience to begin to move forward to get a better look as Carson continued on getting further and further into a zone of cool. Emerging from her set was like emerging from a dream.

Psyche Tongues
Psyche Tongues

I then ventured over to the Black Box, beneath the Great Hall, to first check out Psyche Tongues. I went to see them partially because of J. Francis’ review of their EP Flavour Canyon, in which Francis said he really wanted to catch them live. When I caught them live yesterday, I could immediately see what the review was talking about. Psyche Tongues were happy to be playing some good old-fashioned rock and roll. The guys switched guitars quite a bit but never let the momentum dip to dangerous levels. Basically, Psyche Tongues are super cool and you should check them out now before the rest of the world clues in.

Weaves
Weaves

I stuck around the venue to take a chance on Weaves, a band that apparently doesn’t have any physical merch but is already getting quite the following. Jasmyn Burke is the main attraction here, as her charisma carried many of the songs. While I wasn’t particularly thrilled with Weaves’ sound at first, I did warm up, particularly when they unexpectedly played an uptempo song that got a lot of the crowd dancing, or at the very least swaying.

Then I visited two much smaller venues. The first of the two was the Free Times Cafe. The little bar is an intimate venue, which here means “filled with tables and chairs.” The room could only comfortably hold a few dozen people, and the relaxed atmosphere suited the music of Tyler Butler just fine. His set had a few songs from Violence in it but his new material was certainly as endearing. It’s always refreshing to see how much impact just a man and his guitar can have.

DSCN1089

I closed off my night at the ridiculously packed Central, to see seven-piece Toronto band Beams. They were just launching into “Be My Brother” as I entered. It was my first time seeing a singing saw on stage, and the band overall was more energetic than I thought possible as the band’s standing members swayed in their spots. They especially brought new life into songs that were more straightforward rootsy.

It’s a good think Central staff removed some of the tables, because the crowd there to see Beams seemed to grow with every passing minute. Beams covered Just Rivers with great skill and great enthusiasm.

Another long day, but with gems along the way.

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