Norther Than Easterly: What Does It All Mean?

By Jack Derricourt

“Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy yourself” – The Editor 21/06/14

I got a clear mandate from Grayowl’s grand inquisitor, Michael Thomas, at the start of NXNE. While I was stressing out about combinations of bands, and the right system of concentric circles to follow in order to maximize my coverage, he came out with the above wisdom via text. And so, with the glory of Grayowl to uphold, I ventured into the blear-eyed world in search of musical madness, trying to take in as much as I could muster.

With all the talk about things wrong with the festival this year — the 45 Day Radius Clause (thankfully now abolished) as well a  general disinterest in the affairs of local music supporters — I couldn’t help but feel all gooey inside seeing some of the Canadian artists in the context of a big, city-bound music festival. True, most of the money for the festival is dedicated to bringing big names from other places for Torontonians to oogle and coo over. But to see little bands like Old and Weird and Ark Analog curated alongside some of the biggest names in contemporary music — and done very tastefully I might add — was a real pleasure.

The blending together of artists was masterful and intoxicating. By the final Sunday, I was concussed with music. I had been covering shows for five days straight and my bones were starting to feel like goo beneath my skin. Somehow, a few conclusions graced my mind, letting me know that, yes, I had learned something about the festival this year.

In terms of biggest successes, I had made a few decisions. Spiritualized at Massey Hall had been my perverse favourite performance going into the festival, and it stayed that way as things continued on. The crowd made it more than anything: the hall had been packed for hours leading up to the headliner, indicating that hardened rock and roll fans were single-mindedly waiting for the gospel groove of Jason Pierce. They roared with the songs and made the whole gig magical. Maica Mia at Handlebar and the Edward Day Gallery were hypnotic, and you can expect a Grayowl Interview with these heavy hitters soon enough. And Juan Wauters provided the psychotic enthusiasm of a whole football tournament in front of his carnival stage set up, night after night at the Smiling Buddha.

I have only one real disappointment from this year’s NXNE: Perfect Pussy left me cold. I don’t think this is any indication of the band’s worth, merely proof that I have somehow mutated into a post-rock, psych-loving stranger compared to the all-out noise junkie I once was. The language they spoke at the Buzz Records showcase at the Great Hall on the Saturday was a distant cousin of my own vocabulary, and I found it very hard to enter into their constant noise. The act that played before them, HSY, threw cat food, scrambled his vocals through a box of grit, and screamed rather than spoke; and yet I connected with his performance. Perfect Pussy might have swept people’s imaginations by breaking a bass in half at the Horseshoe the night before, but that afternoon in the hall, I could find nothing to love in their music.

And of course there are regrets. I missed Mac DeMarco, in all his many forms around the fest. I didn’t even realize Joel Plaskett was playing at the Horseshoe until the day of, and by then I’d already committed myself to Courtney Barnett’s graceful airs at the Silver Dollar. And the greatest downfall of all, I didn’t get to see Reggie Watts blow the musical comedy world out of its seats. I guess there’s always next year.

More than anything else, I have to make one of those conclusions that feels right to state after you attend a festival for the first time. NXNE is just as overwhelming as the city it resides in. On any given night of the festival, there was too much to choose from, too many avenues to follow, and it most certainly came down to missing out on one side of things in order to investigate another. The sheer multiplicity of it all is captivating: it’s a big, urban festival for big, urban music fans. Sure, there might be some changes that can be made to support the wider musical community in Toronto, but I have to say that NXNE is on the right track.

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