NXNE — North by Northeast Festival, Toronto, 2010.
Friday, June 18, 2010. Featuring: Mathemagic, Trust, A.A. Bondy, John Doe and Exene Cervenka
8 P.M.: Mathemagic @ The Gladstone Hotel Ballroom
Mostly out of geographic considerations — my plans for the first part of the night had me jutting back and worth on the Queen West axis — the Gladstone seemed like the best of the slim pickings in this timeslot. So, into a pretty empty room to check out local-via-Guelph crew Mathemagic, who had parlayed a decent amount of online hype into a deal with local indie Paper Bag. For what would later be a busy night, the room was disquietingly empty as things got started, a mere handful of people lining the walls as the band took the stage.
Originating as something of a bedroom pop project for Evan and Dylan Euteneier, the band had only recently become a live performance unit, which, um, sort of showed here.1
People toss the term "shoegaze" around a lot these days — including for this band — but to me what I was hearing reminded me of wispy 4AD-styled pop, all echo and fluffy clouds. Pleasant, swirled-up pop, in other words. Musically, this was fine. As a "live rock experience", it was a bit of a failure, with awkward stretches of dead silence between songs, and not a lot of energy in the presentation. The band spent a lot of the set watching their computer screens, as if they were, like, doing karaoke to songs that they themselves hadn't written. "This is hard to watch," commented a friend.
With the bright evening daylight pouring through the windows, the environment wasn't exactly, y'know, chillwave. Which is what I'm informed in the current term for this kind of stuff. The focus was on two laptops on stage, augmented by a midi keyb plus electric and acoustic guitars. There were no amps on stage, and the DI'ed guitars sounded rather trebly and bloodless.2 The mix was also a bit off, too, with the live guitars up too much and overwhelming the rest of the music. To the good, the band was sporting new member Karen Jacobs on vox and a bit of guitar — a very good move by the group. Having her vocals layered into the songs did add to the atmospheric sounds.
The trio played seven songs, the bulk of which were from their self-titled EP, although there were a couple were newer numbers. The last one had the descriptive tentative title "Reggae". For me, given the genre of music they're playing, it's simply tough to make this into an exciting live experience. Add the learning-on-the-job inexperience and we can feel some sympathy for Mathemagic, even while we write this off as a rather lacklustre set.3
9:15 P.M.: Trust @ Wrongbar
It would be a minor kind of festival hell to to hit only places that were just getting going for the night, seeing sets with the thinnest of crowds on hand, waiting while musicians hang around, chatting, waiting for people to show up. Inside Parkdale's Wrongbar, there was pretty much nuthin' going down just after the hour, things looking like they weren't about to get going right away. There was even a stepladder still standing in front of the stage, and, fairly incongruously in a venue that was host to a night of electronic-based music, Mermaid Avenue was playing over the house system as the lights dimmed and the band stepped on stage to soundcheck.
Actually, there would turn out to be a not-bad crowd for locals Trust once things got going. For a relatively new project, this looks to have a built-in fanbase, perhaps of folks familiar with drummer Maya Postepski's solo work on her Princess Century project, or overlap with folks coming in to see Katie Stelmanis (who was up in the next timeslot, and whose band includes Postepski). Self-described as "gothic" on their myspace page4, the collaboration between Postepski and vocalist/keyboardist Robert Alfons specializes in doom-y synthpunk, Suicide-in-a-black-leather-jacket style.5
Alfons handled most of the vocals, and Postepski spent most of the set behind the drum kit. Like the band I'd just come from, these guys are playing to backing tracks, too, but it's funny how much more rock'n'roll it is just by having no laptop in sight. Plus, even if it's minimalist brooding on a dark stage, this band is performing. Oh, and of course, the presence of Postepski's live drumming makes a giant difference. Enough to make this an enjoyable set that felt "live". It helps that you can also get distracted by dancing to it. The band weren't banterers, but that kinda fits the vibe. Most of the music came with a steady, pulsing beat, but a slowed-down one near the end of their seven-song set was quite effective, too. A band to watch.
Listen to a track from this set here.
10:00 P.M.: A.A. Bondy @ The Great Hall
Leaving The Gladstone to check out Trust turned out to be well-worth it, but the decision came with a cost. My first pick for this timeslot was Timber Timbre, back in the same Gladstone Ballroom I'd left an hour previously. But what had been a near-empty room when I left was now crammed beyond capacity, with a significant line outside. I'd more-or-less expected this, and given my strict never-stand-in-line NXNE policy, I had a backup, which happened to be not only just down the street, but also on the same venue I'd want to be at an hour later for my night's most anticipated set. And thus by default, I was checking out Birmingham, Alabama roots singer/songwriter A.A. Bondy. With a bandaged hand and rolled-up sleeves on his white t-shirt, he looked perfectly cast as the sensitive bad-boy delinquent/poet type — all he was lacking was a pack of smokes tucked up his sleeve.
Opener "I Can See The Pines Are Dancing" featured some some nice pedal steel from the drummer. The band would basically have two configurations — the quieter songs featured pedal steel while the bassist added keyb parts when some atmosphere required it. The set opened and closed with the quiet stuff, and then kicked up its heels in the middle. "When The Devil's Loose" had a nice pulse to it6, while "Mightiest Of Guns" showed off the quieter side effectively.
This was enjoyable, though I did find Bondy's look to be a little contrived, in a I-live-my-miserable-lyrics sort of way. Holding up a tangled guitar cord between songs, he commented, "this is my life, right here."7. He was a good enough songwriter, but as is often the case, unless his words latch themselves onto you in some specific way, the overall effect is kind of generic. It left me with the sense that this was fungible stuff that is done as well by, say, a handful of our own local rootsy bands. Of course, I could be wrong in this, as I saw several members of one of those bands clustered right up front, taking this in like they were picking up tips.
Listen to a track from this set here.
11:00 P.M.: John Doe and Exene Cervenka @ The Great Hall
After that set, the place cleared out pretty thoroughly, which was surprising to me, as we were coming up to something that I was genuinely anticipating. But in a festival filled with the buzz of the next big thing, perhaps legends take second place. Or, maybe, some that would have been interested in John Doe and Exene Cervenka had already seen them the night before when they played on the free stage at Yonge-Dundas Square with their seminal Los Angeles band X.
X were never punk purists or reductivists — from the rockabilly leanings at their outset to the rootsy folk and country sounds they'd later move towards, it's not in the least an affectation for the band's main songwriters to strip down to two voices and an acoustic guitar. Thus, the selections from the X catalogue, like opener "Burning House Of Love" felt just right. Some needed more re-arrangement than others — "This is a punk song", Doe said, launching into "Because I Do" from 1982's classic Under the Big Black Sun. But here it was slowed down, the original's breakneck fury replaced by regret, as if positing that country music equals punk plus time. Some, like "Skin Deep Town" (which the pair still seem to have a lot of fun playing) didn't require much re-arrangement at all.
But of course, in one sense, this is all old hat to the pair. Rather than a career deathbed conversion to Unplugged-style stripped-down re-arrangements8, these guys have been doing this for a quarter century, and several of the selections in their set were songs they'd played in their country alter-ego band The Knitters. Covers and traditionals were the theme for these, including "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living" (a Flatt And Scruggs cover)9, "Little Margaret" (a variation of the Child Ballad "Fair Margaret and Sweet William") and the old Carter Family chestnut "Poor Old Heartsick Me" ("Take it, Dave!" Doe shouted as it headed into the solo, a call out to absent guitarist Dave Alvin).
Playing acoustically, the stripped-down songs were coming quickly, including more covers like "Rank Strangers" (performed by many, perhaps most famously by the Stanley Brothers) and "Something To Brag About" (a great duet piece for the pair penned by Charlie Louvin, with Cervenka taking Melba Montgomery's part). Cervenka just sang for the first couple songs of the set, but then picked up her guitar to play on "Lonesome War" (from Sev7en, her 2006 album with the Original Sinners). Doe responded with "The Losing Kind" from one of his own solo albums. The pair, who were married and divorced during X's early 80's heyday, still bicker fondly with each other on stage like an old couple, and were pretty charming throughout the set, which stretched to about forty-five minutes.
The early peak might have come with the title track from 1987's See How We Are, which, topically, sounds like it could have been written last week, its earnest sadness befitting the restrained and dignified-looking elders, its recession-ready laments of "this bottom rung ain't no fun at all" feeling resignedly earned. Similarly, closer "The New World", an anthem to America's lost industrial heartland ("it was better before they voted for what's-his-name") still has a ripped-from-the-headlines feeling. A worthy retrospective on a pair of rich and unfinished careers, I'm glad to have had a chance to give them their flowers while they're living, as it were.
1 "Are you having fun tonight?" asked Evan (or possibly Dylan) Euteneier after one song, before pausing to sort of wince at himself. "What a cheesy thing to say at a concert. Sorry — we're new at this."
2 "Bloodless" might describe the band's look as well. They didn't present as a bunch that you'd be afraid of if you came across them in a dark alley late at night.
3 Afterthought: I should note that this is all to be taken very much as a snapshot of the band as they were at this show, and not necessarily prescriptive of a band that's playing more gigs and learning more about being a live band. I've already seen them play again, and some of the roughest of these rough edges are already being smoothed out, of which I shall say more anon.
5 Since then, the pair has been supplemented on stage by Susan Gale, adding more percussion and generally creating more space for the other musicians. I've subsequently seen them again and they have expanded their scope a good bit, making a good thing better.
6 It also had a guitar tone that might go some way to justifying Bondy's presence on a bill with The Walkmen, whom he will be opening for when they hit town October 9th at The Phoenix.
7 Further courting pathos, he would also offhandedly comment, "I'd like to take this time to tell everybody here that I'm going deaf."
8 Which the band poked some fun at with their own stripped-down album Unclogged.
John Doe: "Here's a song about death."
John Doe: "No! No death!"
Exene Cervenka: "Actually, it's a song about bein' here now..."
John Doe: "... it's about life, that's right."