by Michael Thomas
After a string of huge lineup announcements, expansion and a bit of controversy, the supersized 20th edition of NXNE’s music portion hit Toronto. The first day of any music festival is always a little lighter on the schedule, but there was plenty to see last night.
Starting off my night was Monomyth at the Drake, and they served as a great act to kick things off. They’ve perfected the art of dry stage banter, getting in several choice lines like “it’s so new it’s purple, like a baby” and the most blase utterance of “are you not entertained?”
Musically, the Halifax band rocked a mix of psychedelic pop-rock, and their performance was like a slow descent into a bag of tricks. Oh look, their drummer really kicks ass. Oh look, they can seamlessly switch vocalists. Wait, they can do harmonies? Feedback-laden guitar solos? A tempo fast enough to start a mosh pit? Despite their dry demeanour, their energy never dipped, and are just more proof that Halifax will never cease to be the hyper-creative community it has a reputation for being.
Next up was Glory Glory, who play some very upbeat and on-the-nose pop-rock. The band is propelled forward by its guitar-centric approach and a tireless energy. During their 30 minutes or so of playing there were only two brief patches of total silence; there’s something to be said for a band that keeps things going. Since their Zombies!!! days the band’s songs have gotten a lot tighter, as recently shown on their great So Long EP. The only unfortunate part of the set was the sparse audience—with more people their songs would have had everyone moving.
Things took a strange turn with the next act, Nicole Ariana. While the first two acts had an—for lack of a better word—”indie” vibe, Ariana’s music seems thoroughly focused on penetrating the mainstream (which isn’t to say that one is better than the other; only that it was strange in contrast). Her R&B music is quite competent, with some great production and even a live drummer, but it seriously jarred with what came before her. The songs about that used words like “hustler” and “chronic” just didn’t seem to fit. That being said, the noticeably larger crowd was quite pleased throughout as Ariana navigated through a slew of downtempo tracks.
AA Wallace appeared next, and the synth master, plus a two-piece backing band, brought a seamless soft disco onslaught. With little words in between, the band played a set with no stop in the music, with interludes between songs keeping things going. Starting with a new song, the band also played a bunch of (disambiguation) songs like “Offline,” “Lipstick and Stethoscopes” and the excellent “Temporal Suspension.”
Wallace himself is a treat to watch—while electronic music can often be seen as dispassionate, Wallace was always grooving to the music or shaking a tambourine, to the point where his whole table of electronics shook too. His backing band was great too (a guitarist and a drummer) and added that little bit of extra kick. Wallace was undoubtedly the finest act to cross the stage that night.
A change of venues was in order, so it was off to the Dakota Tavern, where Ottawa’s Her Harbour was playing the midnight slot. It seemed like a perfect time for this eerie and haunting band to play, at the hour when night rolls into morning. Gabrielle Giguere along has a dynamic and powerhouse voice, at times vibrating like an opera singer and at other times a mournful wail. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. She also packs a top-notch backing band (keyboards, plenty of bowed guitars and drums) to add an extra bit of eerie. The songs themselves were spacious and affecting, but if only the busy bar could have shut the hell up—Her Harbour is best enjoyed in so-quiet-you-can-hear-a-pin-drop silence.
Finally, the eerie gave way to the joyous with Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, all the way from Victoria. Sporting a large cast of instruments and musicians to play them, this group never failed to sound new with every song. With primarily an accordion, double bass, violin/fiddle, djembe and guitar, the band could sound like anything from music you’d hear at a European cafe to what you’d dance to at a 1950s prom. Unsurprisingly, the band’s versatility quickly endeared them to the audience, so when it came time to sing along with the band or to clap to a rhythm, there was no problem whatsoever. It was a solid end to a promising first day of NXNE.