Thursday, July 3, 2014

Currente calamo: NXNE 2014 (Friday)

NXNE 2014 (Friday, June 20, 2014)

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

In the embers of Wednesday's bad vibes, there were also a few glimmers of light. As part of their philosophy of proposition over opposition, Weird Canada had started an online petition calling for the abolition of the radius clause, and it quickly took off.

By Friday morning, it was three thousand signatures strong — powerful momentum heading into a panel discussion that NXNE cheekily entitled "WHY NXNE SUCKS". And then, with head-'em-off-at-the-pass PR aplomb, the festival announced the radius clause's abandonment via a press release, mere minutes before the panel was to begin.1

Full disclosure: I was not at this panel discussion, and I was fairly dubious about the whole thing. The fact that the panel was composed entirely of "complainers" with no-one from the festival on hand to formally respond gave the whole thing a "if there are any questions, you may direct them to that brick wall over there" sort of quality. That institutional disregard seemed to come right from the top with NXNE President Michael Hollett referring to the people invited to the panel as "[t]he people who say the most crazy shit about us online".2

After the fact, there was a range of evaluations of how the panel went.3 Most seemed to think they'd been given a hearing (though they weren't on stage, it appears that several festival staff were in the crowd) and some were thankful that the festival showed some willingness to listen. Some felt that this was merely a first step, and that local musicians could organize and press for more changes — or even boycott next year's festival. (read a couple reflections on the experience here and here.)

I have no strong opinions or nostrums to offer. I'm personally more interested in and dedicated to some of the bands that are playing at NXNE than I am in NXNE, and in terms of having a rich cultural experience in my city, I don't feel that I'd be that much more poorly off without it. The festival has a lot of clout, but it's not a hegemonic force — it needs a lot of local bands to fill out the bills, and beyond that, it needs them to sell a certain idea of "cool": that the obscure band you're seeing in a tiny club today may be the band playing Yonge-Dundas Square or Massey Hall in a couple years. It also needs that narrative to sell to starry-eyed musicians, but selling that as a career development strategy is no better than convincing someone to buy lottery tickets as a retirement fund. So as far as I'm concerned, I'll get behind any strategy that serves the interests of musicians and the wider music community rather than the interests of the festival. NXNE ain't going anywhere, so the planning for what that strategy is going to be next June needs to start now.

1 p.m.: Bloodshot Bill @ 159 Manning (backyard stage)

But I digress. As I said, while the panel was getting going, I was settling into Tim McCready's back yard on a rather pleasant and sunny afternoon. Unlike in years past, his day-long backyard BBQ extravaganza was now an official NXNE event — but the spirit of the thing and the curation (done by McCready and Justin Peroff, with an assist from the M for Montreal crew) didn't feel changed by that. The first half of the day was especially well put together, so I made the effort to get myself down there for the un-rock'n'roll early start.

Bloodshot Bill, an old-school one-man rock band also looked perhaps a bit out of place at this hour, his natural environment being sweaty, confined quarters in the late hours. But even sitting down, he exudes so much energy it's hard not to get pulled in. Even if no one took him up on his offers to play any requests, the relaxed early crowd was having a good time. A chugging run through "California Sun" was a perfect pairing with the backyard vibe.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1:45 p.m.: Beliefs @ 159 Manning (living room)

Heading inside, Beliefs were getting ready to play to a crowded living room, which counts as a pretty intimate way to see anyone play. This was no mere rec-room jam, either, as host Tim McCready had the crew from Soybomb HQ out running sound at the various stages. It would turn out that this living room would have a more elaborate sound system than several venues I frequent on a regular basis.

The band meanwhile, has been playing newer songs than the ones on their album for a while now, but this set included a couple brand-new ones. Anyone that's relying on the recorded output from Jesse Crowe and Josh Korody are now only getting a fraction of the story — especially in witnessing how Crowe's lead vocals are becoming an increasingly important element, and less hidden behind a haze of effects. Korody remains busy both at his Candle Recording studio (music recorded there was all over this year's Polaris longlist) and his other bands, but hopefully that next Beliefs album will emerge soon.

Listen to a track from this set here.

2:30 p.m.: Twist @ 159 Manning (backyard stage)

Back outside, Laura Hermiston (also known for her work in the BB Guns) looked more relaxed on a backyard stage than when I'd seen Twist the night before at The Great Hall. The stripped-down nature of her tracks (guitars, drum machine, basic backing tracks) fit right into the chilled-out vibe — the sort of thing that you could lean back on the lawn and nod along to.

Listen to a track from this set here.

3:15 p.m.: Soft Hell @ 159 Manning (basement)

And then the action moved down to the crowded confines of the basement's rehearsal space, where it quickly grew hot, close and sticky. A rather perfect environment in which to hear Soft Hell, the post-hardcore-ish group with host Tim McCready on drums. Sounding a bit like Wipers on a particularly aggressive tear, this was LOUD, and soon the volume and heat had reduced me to a puddle. When this was done, I had to head up the street to grab a Slurpee.

4 p.m.: allie @ 159 Manning (living room)

Further cool, soothing vibes came courtesy of local neo-soul songstress Allie in the living room. Accompanied by beats plus live instrumentation from a guitarist/bassist, she displayed vocal chops and some tasty songwriting. I don't see a lot of R&B-type music, but I'm always impressed when I see someone who can bring smooth vocal dexterity without tipping over into show-off-y oversinging. In a mildly surreal twist, her next gig after this living room set would be at Massey Hall the next night, opening for Rhye. [her Strange Creature EP is available as a PWYC download over on her bandcamp.]

Listen to a track from this set here.

4:45 p.m.: Light Fires @ 159 Manning (backyard stage)

In the backrooms, Regina is everybody's darling, but here she showed that she likes to work in the daylight as well. Light Fires sets are always an entertaining, high-kicking experience, and here it was a thrill to see Regina win over a backyard of new fans as she delivered her songs, with a monologue (from her forthcoming one-woman show!) and some cross-training to boot, as she climbed onto the geodesic dome structure that had been constructed to provide some shade. Fabulous!

Listen to a track from this set here.

5:30 p.m.: Death Hymn Number 9 @ 159 Manning (basement)

The day's second basement set got even more intense than the first — I suspected something might be afoot when I came down to find a group of corpse-painted lurkers setting up their gear. There's not a lot of reliable information on LA's Death Hymn Number 9 out there, and while their claims that they were "a former backing band to Motown's greats, until abandoned at a routine gas stop in Baton Rouge in August 1965" aren't literally true, it hints at the heady, swampy mix of punkrock, shoutin' soul and sheer velocity the band has mastered. Like a sockhop in a graveyard that erupts into a switchblade fight.

6:15 p.m.: Sacred Harp Shape Note Singers @ 159 Manning (living room)

On a different sort of gospel tip, the performance by the Sacred Harp Shape Note Singers was a big highlight for me at last year's BBQ. There's something mighty powerful in this music — the plainsong harmonizations emphasize fifths instead of thirds, which lend it a baroque, churchy feel. And there's no doubt that this is a faith-based tradition, even if ensembles such as this are in for more for the musical than spiritual transcendence. This isn't really a performing group, per se — it's unusual for them to have concert-style events like this, as their usual performances are fully participatory, join-in-and-raise-your-voice type affairs. A wonderful break from the day's hurly-burly, this music puts one in a slower, human-paced mindset, and it remains quite glorious to hear.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

7 p.m.: Xiu Xiu @ 159 Manning (backyard stage)

After that, I headed out into the backyard, where it sounded like a fire alarm was going off. That would turn out to be Jamie Stewart, taking his Xiu Xiu project in an unexpectedly harsh noise direction. Sounding not unlike a jet preparing to take off, this was the opposite to the prevailing good-time vibes on offer during the day. I have no doubt this alienated a sizable proportion of the crowd — I could hear people loudly proclaiming so as they fled the aural onslaught — but I will confess this was kinda right down my alley. Whether this was an abstracted extension of — or reaction against — Stewart's well-known penchant for artistic vulnerability was hard to tell, as he generated his audio chaos and then split without comment. (It also led to the day's most inspired segue: Joel French, who was DJing, jumped in hard right at set's end with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", and the immediate contrast was joyful to behold as several people burst out laughing at the sudden relief.)

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

7:45 p.m.: Invasions @ 159 Manning (living room) / 8:30 p.m.: Canailles @ 159 Manning (backyard stage)

In fact, that was more to my liking than the more conventionally crowd-pleasing stuff that followed. It be that I just needed a bit of a break and I could hear the BBQ calling out to me but I couldn't focus too much on Invasions' celebratory alt-rock taking over the living room. After that, the bark yard was overtaken by a full on roots-punk hoedown, courtesy of Montréal's Canailles, Reminiscent of a slightly-less-scruffy United Steel Workers of Montreal, they were totally winning over the now-crowded yard, but it just didn't do much for me.

10:20 p.m.: K.C. Accidental @ 159 Manning (backyard stage)

And then the night's capper. I must confess, I probably never thought to myself, "I'm sure waiting for that K.C. Accidental reunion to happen." And yet, once this was announced, I did find myself intrigued. Never a thriving live unit (we were told from the stage that this was the band's sixth gig ever) this late 90's/early naughts project by Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin was mostly noteworthy in an ex post facto sort of way as being a key gathering point for a lot of the folks that would later congeal into Broken Social Scene, and their two albums were a laboratory for the noodly/ambient postrock experimentalism that would bloom on BSS' Feel Good Lost.

Live, the band contained three members of the BSS axis (Spearin, Drew and Metric's Jimmy Shaw) as well as a drummer and keyboardist that I didn't recognize. With only an hour to play before the evening's eleven o'clock curfew, a series of sound troubles had me looking at my watch. That wasn't enough to get the band to cut to the chase — even on a deadline and while traipsing through his younger self's songs, Kevin Drew's present-day stage demeanour still prevailed, tending towards messianic mumblings and primal scream invitations.

But still, when this was cooking, it was very good stuff. Once they did get going at about twenty past the hour, the band started in anti-anthemic style, with an unrushed slow-building number. "Anorexic He-Man" (from 98's Captured Anthems for an Empty Bathtub) was a sly dance jam, with Charles Spearin playing a turntable, not DJ style, but just an old record player held up against his chest, dropping a needle hither and thither on a record.

Heading up to that curfew, the band dropped a couple songs from their set list and heat their peak with the very BSS-ish "I Can't Find My Car", which came with a (presumably spurious) story from Drew about its release as a single in Hungary and their time spent there touring with Stone Temple Pilots. ("It's a very 90's song," he concluded, which may be the nugget of truth behind it all.)

Not knowing, as usual, how to end a set, Drew then pushed past the curfew with a closing jam ("in drop D", he noted to the crowd). So yeah, there were a few wayward elements, but for a resurrection of a band that was hardly more then a bedroom recording project in its heyday, this was a huge success, good enough that one might hope to see the reunion continue a little longer.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnight: Oneohtrix Point Never @ The Great Hall

For a nightcap, I headed over to The Great Hall, to check out an artist I probably wouldn't see at a regular gig. I knew that Daniel Lopatin (who performs as Oneohtrix Point Never) is revered by people who take electronic music seriously. But I have longstanding reservations about the live possibilities of laptop-based music — even if I take it on good faith that they're not checking their email (to haul out a modern-day cliché) I'm just never quite sure what their performative task is, and less sure that their knob-twiddling is going to entertain me.

Playing with laptop/mixer/MPC, Lopatin was mostly hidden behind a large performance console, leaving the projections on the screen behind him to add a visual element to the show. Projectors seem to have a tendency to not want to project at key moments, and getting the kinks worked out caused a bit of a delay in getting things started here. Once they were going, they were a nice complement to the music, glitchy computer generated objects that looked like a 3D CAD program that had had some sort of a breakdown.

Musically, this was enjoyable stuff, but live, it was a perhaps a bit too in-between headphones and dancefloor — one woman danced up front, one dude pumped his arms in triumph in the middle of the audience, and quite a few heads could be seen nodding. My preference leans towards the less beat-driven stuff, and there were indeed some tasty moments here and there. On the whole, I was neither won over nor turned off by this as a live experience, but it indicated that I should be paying closer attantion to Lopatin's output.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 The press release (no link: it is not posted on NXNE's media page) that announced this change tellingly acknowledged an elephant in the room in presenting it as a deal with CMW, which had encroached on NXNE's turf by moving its festival forward to May this year. This was contra the statements of Festival Director Christopher Roberts who would not acknowledge that the radius clause was related to CMW's move.

2 Re-labelling dissent as "crazy" is a classic move employed by the Powers That Be, and it's fascinating to see Hollett going down that path. This is the sort of thing that NOW, where he remains Editor/Publisher, would get up in arms about (and rightfully so!) when used as a tactic by a bully like Rob Ford. Oh well, perhaps one's activist "brand" doesn't matter so much when you've got Budweiser on your side.

On the whole, the Hollett interview with Billboard is one of the most fascinating artifacts of NXNE 2014, and a good start for a reality check for anyone that still thinks of NXNE as a scrappy, band-centric festival and not a brand-centric machine. The notion that NXNE could have, say, partnered with a local brewery instead seems as distant from their mindset as the fact that keeping developing local artists off local stages for a month-and-a-half might be to their detriment — perhaps not a great embodiment of the corporate ideals of one arm of a firm that wants to grow and expand "without taking on the soul-destroying characteristics of other large organizations".

3 "Reaction to the move has been overwhelmingly positive," reported NOW, which does a less-than-stellar job at providing transparency with regards to the fact that it is essentially reporting on a subsidiary of itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment