Beards, Glasses and Blazers: Passion of the Weiss at Toronto’s NXNE Festival

Aaron Matthews doesn’t recommend the Texas-Style BBQ in Toronto. Now in its 17th year, NXNE is the closest thing Canada ever gets to SXSW; 5 days of live shows sprawled across over 20 venues in...
By    June 22, 2011

Aaron Matthews doesn’t recommend the Texas-Style BBQ in Toronto.

Now in its 17th year, NXNE is the closest thing Canada ever gets to SXSW; 5 days of live shows sprawled across over 20 venues in downtown Toronto. The city has to close off Yonge Street, the main thoroughfare, just to accommodate the number of pedestrians and fixed gear bikes dashing from show to show. My festival experience with the Dodos on Thursday night, squeezing into the packed Phoenix Concert Theatre. The San Francisco three-piece kicked out a full set of percussion-heavy jams structured around drumming and vicious strumming. Meric Long’s anxious shout drew the crowd while Logan Kroeber’s rollicking drumming enlivened more upbeat numbers like “Fools”. Though the group’s energy was impressive, the alternation of clashing drums and furious strum got repetitive after a time, even with instrumental breaks in between.

The band soon ceded the stage to fellow SF residents Deerhoof. Now, Deerhoof aren’t an easy sell to the unacquainted. The band writes music that is simultaneously spiky and twee. It’s music that convulsive, schizophrenic and deeply rocking, Greg Saunier’s virtuoustic drumming providing a dependably offkilter anchor to the beat. Now nearly 20 years into a recording career, Deerhoof have no easily charted limits. The quartet can easily jump from loose, cutesy pop to psychotic borderline metal to warped jazz within the length of a setlist. All with a tiny Japanese woman wearing Tommy Gnosis eyeliner barking over top: Satomi Matsuzaki is a strangely magnetic frontwoman. She rapidly launched high kicks, jumped back and forth and directed traffic in between singing and playing the bass. Greg Saunier is as virtuoso a drummer as you’ll find in indie , unleashing frenzied, explosive bursts of percussion without ever losing control of the fractured groove. “The Perfect Me” pairs a galloping cowbell groove with pulsing keyboard with Satomi’s exhortations to “meet me over the mountain”. Deerhoof closed out the set with fan favourite, “Come See The Duck” cued cheers from the crowd as Satomi gesticulated wildly while exhorting the gathered masses to view the titular bird. Hard to make out what she’s saying but damn if the gestures aren’t catchy.

Ty “Livingston” Segall

Next it was off to see Ty Segall, yet another Cali based rocker. Taking the stage with a drummer and bassist, the guitarist/singer kicked out a series of buzzsaw riffs while thrashing . Ty turned into a writhing mass of sweaty blonde hair as he ripped through newer songs like the distorted moans of “My Head Explodes”. Segall gets a fair amount of comparison to Kurt Cobain round these parts and it likely comes from his shared fondness for wrapping air-tight melodicism in barbed wire riffage. “The Floor” was the straight-up raver of the night, alternating a three-chord acoustic sequence with pummelling riffs and eerie backing vocals. A tight moshpit formed across the floor as Segall thrashed around. A worthy heir to the garage rock throne Jay Reatard vacated last year, replacing much of the darkness that the Memphis legend brought to his music with a sunny romanticism.

I closed out Thursday with Fucked Up’s incendiary midnight set. Heavily bearded and positively Rubenesque, frontman Damien Abraham started the show with his shirt off and things only got more hectic from there. Moshing starting almost instantly, while Damien held court over the thrashing masses crowd in between anguished bellowing. He dedicated “I Hate Summer” to all the slightly fat kids out there, floaty guitar broke up by Damien’s yelled anticipation of the crisper seasons to come. “The Other Shoe” saw Damien leading the crowd in a singalong over chunky, start-stop riffs, while early favourite “Crusades” delivered a surprisingly complex tale all but undeciphered beneath Damien’s tortured barking. All the more glorious for it. By the time the band bowed about half past 1, the crowd slowly oozed out the venue, drenched in sweat and blessed with an eminent and constant buzzing in their ear.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Friday’s highlights included London’s own Art Brut, who ran through most of their “Weekend” series of songs in an all-too-brief set: “Good Weekend” got frontman Eddie Argos thrashing about like a sweaty Alfred Molina while boasting about his brand new girlfriend. In between renditions of Brut classics like “Emily Kane” and “My Little Brother”, Argos took the time to fill the crowd in how the protagonists on the songs were doing since. His little brother’s married now, apparently, and only listens to music on YouTube. The band channeled their obvious punk rock influences more coherently in a live setting, delivering perfect shoutalong choruses as Argos talk-sung and awkwardly danced. It was a glorious reminder of how Art Brut are simultaneously perfectly suited for rock and roll and completely unready for the big time. I mean this in the best possible way. Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Paper Lions closed out my night with a set of perfectly springy, Wings-esque pop rock. Bouncy mover “Don’t Touch That Dial” was the show-stopper. By the time they closed with a melancholy cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”, everyone was swaying. It’s really sad that most people don’t know any part of the song but the chorus used in movie trailers.

Saturday was the last day of true concerts, offering the ramshackle one-man band styling of Dirty Beaches live at the free outdoor show. Taking the stage to a mostly empty Yonge and Dundas Square, Alex Hungtai did a kind of karaoke routine through a severely distorted mic to his pre-recorded backing tracks, occasionally pausing to rip at 2 or 3 chords to send vicious blasts of sound out. Dude was so rock n roll he even ashed a fingernail-sized cigarette right before he hopped onstage. Without a live band, his ballads fared the best with the karaoke approach: Hungtai’s falsetto coos on “True Blue” distilled everything emotive and beautiful about Elvis ballads and the Everly Brothers’ body of work into a few seconds. But rockers like “Sweet 17” didn’t come off quite as well without the muscle of a live band behind Hungtai.

You Know We Keep That White Girl

The highlight of my night was Taiwanese quartet White Eyes, who practically ignited the stage at sleepy blues club the Silver Dollar. The four kicked out prime garage punk, leaking squalls of noise in between incomprehensible lyrics. They tossed the attendees a bone in the form of Ramones-esque “oh oh oh” singalongs while frontwoman Gao Xiao does Karen O one better, screeching, stomping and leaping about the stage barefooted and clad only in an orange and white striped poncho. “Kiss Your Eyes” began as a kiss-off to an ex before Xiao started shouting in Taiwanese over a throbbing bassline that shook the walls. I was initially impressed with the band’s youthful energy, only to find out later that the band’s existed since ‘94. To revise the maxim: Damn, Asian really don’t crack. Still doesn’t explain why their drummer appeared to be 12 years old, no Scott Pilgrim. Easily one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen.

Sunday closed the weekend out with two nostalgia-bating sets from 90s hip hop holdovers. Digable Planets have been stripped down to Doodlebug, and two ringers standing in for Ladybug Mecca and Butterfly. The set was functionally sound, backed by a live band and DJ, but it was hard to shake the ever-present stench of failure lingering in the air. Presumably Ladybug and the man now branded as Shabazz Palaces had more pressing engagements.

While The Pharcyde closed the night by demonstrating how to do a throwback show right. Though they were missing Fatlip, truthfully he wasn’t all that missed and the trio of Imani, Bootie Brown and Slimkid3 more than compensated with energy and engagement. Backed by a keyboardist and drummer, they kicked off with the golden ignorance of “Ya Mama”. The trio then kicked right into “Drop” and ran through a number of classics from Bizarre Ride and Labincalifornia. Bar a few weak solo tracks from Tre and Imani, the group efforts brought twice the energy you’d expect from three rappers pushing forty, even finding room for an impassioned Nate Dogg tribute. Singing along to “No Fun” in a public square is something everyone should experience. Naturally they closed with a faithful rendition of “Passin Me By”, bolstered with a gleeful crowd singalong. “Oh Shit” was the perfect encore, the track’s thudding jazz bass line rewinding the clock to ’92 for a few glorious moments as the two word chorus echoed through Toronto.

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