Thursday, June 13, 2013

Currente calamo: NXNE 2013 (Wednesday)

NXNE 2013 (Wednesday, June 13, 2013)

While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. In the fullness of time there will be a more complete accounting of the night that'll include even more details and recordings.

8 p.m.: Bernice @ The Piston

Trying to ease into the overload of the festival, I decided to simply settle into one place for the night, and this showcase put together by Tin Angel Records had a nice mix of old favourites plus the chance of making some new discoveries. I was entirely pleased to see that the word on Bernice is getting around, as they attracted the most attention and biggest crowd of the night. It was also, even more excitingly, a quiet and respectful crowd (as the venue would have all night), which is great, as decorum can sometimes go by the wayside when shows get filled with passholders who are merely making the scene.

That made this an entirely conducive environment for Robin Dann and her supporting cast, and even if the set got off to a less-than-smooth start (thanks to an errant MIDI cable), that and the various between-song pauses gave a chance for her to draw the crowd in with endearingly awkward banter. The vocal interplay between Dann and Felicity Williams floated on top of the synth textures provided by Thom Gill (who'd show up on stage during a couple more sets as the night moved on) and some subtly-complicating guitar abstractions from Colin Fisher. Soulful as a warm breeze blowing in from St. Lucia and intimate as a letter from a friend, this band is settling into a special place right now.

9 p.m.: Ed Askew @ The Piston

When someone is tagged as a "freak folk outsider", or similar label, it's easy to come to a show ready to find a bug-eyed ranting semi-madman. And that was sort of the hook for Ed Askew, noteworthy for having released an album on the underground ESP-Disk label in 1969. But there's been a life lived in the meantime, with plenty of painting, poetry and music. On seeing the genteel Askew take the stage with solemn casualness, I remembered that reality's always more complicated than a three-sentence bio.

The occasional cough (brought on by allergies) notwithstanding, Askew and his backing duo (on keybs, guit, ukulele, banjo, and what I'm guessing was a tiple) created an understated yet affecting backdrop for his songs. Filled with unassuming vulnerability and melancholy memories, the most "outside" element here was Askew's plainspoken poetry, sometimes delivered in a sing-speak that belied the underlying craft. Ed Askew has existed outside the commercialized record industry for most of his life, a prolific home recorder with few formal releases, but there's now a whole bunch you can explore on his bandcamp — clearly his manner of musical production was just waiting for the world to catch up to him. His set was a quiet gem, and left me with a feeling not unlike meeting an old friend for a walk in the park on a cloudy day.

Ed Askew plays a non-NXNE set tonight (June 13) at Holy Oak, and one more official showcase on Friday (June 14), 11 PM at Czehoski.

Listen to a track from this set here.

10 p.m.: Two Wings @ The Piston

Except for the fact that they are also on Tin Angel, I didn't know anything about Glasgow's Two Wings, though I did recognize local ringer Doug Tielli, who joined them for a few songs on trombone.1 That brassy opening salvo lent the band a soulful vibe, and I was momentarily worried that this was going to get all Commitments-ish. Fortunately, their palette is much broader than that, first evidenced when vocalist/guitarist Hanna Tuulikki added some flute grooves, and then even moreso when the band downshifted into a lean Fleetwood Mac-styled groove. The set even ended with a Yoko-riffic freakout, though that was a bit of a sonic outlier. At their best, the band moved with a sophisticated propulsion that kept itself grounded to a rockin' earthiness. Bonus feature: keep an eye out for drummer Owen Curtis Williams' intense facial expressions, earning you a checkmark if "drumface" is on your NXNE bingo card.

Two Wings play again on Saturday (June 15) at 10 PM at Handlebar.

Listen to a track from this set here.

11 p.m.: Mike O'Neill @ The Piston

This was originally billed as a duo set alongside Devon Sproule, whose album of co-writes with O'Neill will be seeing release on Tin Angel in September. However, with unspecified complications keeping her away, some shuffling last-minute improvisations made this a unique, possibly one-off experience. Drafting some of the musicians who played on Colours was easy, as they had just been on the stage with Bernice. So here we had O'Neill taking the lead for these new songs, complemented by Robin Dann in a support role.

There were plenty of cheatsheats and notepads on stage, but the band got through the set with a rough-edged brio that was thoroughly enjoyable. Given how familiar these musicians are with each other, they managed to keep things from stumbling too badly — and in a few places it managed to soar with a sort of accidental majesty, such as on a set-clinching guitar solo from Thom Gill on "Nobody Tells Me a Thing" that he pushed further and further off the ledge, like it was his own personal "Purple Rain". I imagine we'll have a chance to hear these songs presented "properly" in Devon Sproule's own voice once the album comes out, but for now, this was a unique and memorable set.

Mile O'Neill will be playing a set of his solo material as part of the Murderecords tribute night on Friday (June 14) at 10 PM at The Great Hall.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnite: Marker Starling @ The Piston

I'm always happy to catch a set from Chris Cummings, who played until recently as Mantler. He's now operating as Marker Starling, but the songs and the spirit remain the same. In his customary trio with Matt McLaren (bass) and Jay Anderson (drums), his wurlitzer led the way through songs of sophisticated regrets and guaranteed good times. They'd be joined, for the bulk of the set, by another trio of backing vocalists: Felicity Williams and Thom Gill from Bernice, as well as Alex Samaras.

This configuration first came together for the musical tribute to Cummings' former collaborator Dennis Frey (who passed away last year) and has performed together on a few occasions since. I'd missed all those, and was glad to have the opportunity to hear some older songs from Landau and Sadisfaction get some lush new arrangements. "Regret", "Playing Along", and "I've Been Destroyed" (with its insistent repeating background vocal hook) all shone in this context. And finishing with enough time for one last song after that, Cummings acceded to a request and played the ever-funky "Fresh and Fair" which, not having been rehearsed, got some disco-y impromptu backing vocals. As always, a fabulous time from a wonderful entertainer.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Speaking of Doug Tielli, do note he will be playing a show on Sunday night (June 16) at Double Double Land, headlining a tantalizing bill alongside THOMAS, Grex and Nick Fraser.

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