Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Currente calamo: NXNE 2014 (Thursday)

NXNE 2014 (Thursday, June 19, 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.

There's no limit to the ways that you could conceptualize and organize a music festival. But for the moment, let's look at two alternatives. On the one hand, you could look at all the wonderful bands in the world and try and gather some of them in to wherever you are — and then adorn that agglomeration of talent with some locals, who would then have a chance to bask in the visitors' glow. Another way would be to start from the richness that's abundant where you are, shine a spotlight on it, and ask a few fellow-travellers from other places to join in and share in that.

NXNE seems to be moving increasingly towards that first model, crafting some sort of rock'n'roll Luminato with big-tent events as the spectacle to pull in a broader public — all to create a one-off extravaganza of musical wonderment. But the folks closer to the grassroots in the local music community — bands, promoters, writers, fans — are suspicious of that approach, seeing it as something of a circus that shows up once a year and then leaves, instead preferring a festival that would act as a culmination of the multifaceted musical richness in our city, a way of showing people who are less focused on the music scenes that there's something special going on here, week in and week out.

I think it's the increasing tension between those two different worldviews that led to such open enmity this year between NXNE and its discontents. All the more so given that the festival's m.o. seemed to be shifting to a like-it-or-lump-it/y'all-are-mere-pawns approach toward a lot of people who work really hard during the other fifty-one weeks of the year to make this a "music city" in ways that no industry-approved panel would think of.

Wavelength, even in its current "professional" incarnation, has a track record of working in that bottom-up vein. Its annual anniversary festivals and summer ALL CAPS extravaganzas feel like they're a summation of a lot of grassroots effort instead of a top-down diktat on what next season's styles are going to be. But their ecumenical pragmatism has them willing to partner with all sorts of entities, so it's no surprise to see them hosting a NXNE showcase.

But in a serendipitous chance for comparison, it just happened that WL was simultaneously hosting another show on this same night, at Calgary's Sled Island festival. Now, I haven't been, but from artists and fans alike I've heard nothing but great things about the festival, a lot of it revolving around its community-spirited ethos. (In a marked departure from the NXNE model, I am told that "branding" opportunities are rigourously eschewed, and that no venues were temporarily renamed after American beer companies.)

For me, one of the biggest questions in the back of my mind is: why is SXSW such a tantalizing model for NXNE's organizers?1 Does everything have to be an overstuffed corporate shitshow? There is an alternative.

8 p.m.: Juan Wauters @ The Garrison

Dropped into The Garrison for an appetizer before my musical main course. I was checking out Juan Wauters more out of schedule/geographical convenience than on his merits as a member of (the now possibly-defunct) The Beets, who I'd relegated to the fun-but-inessential bin. He certainly brought his visual flair along from his other project, carefully assembling an elaborate, multi-panelled collaged backdrop (American Flag, illuminated wrestler, etc.) behind him before playing. As the set started, i was worried that this was going to be straight-up anti-folk, overstuffed with contrived naivete.

As it turned out, Wauters did grow on me. It's such a fine line, but as the set proceeded the songs seemed less Moldy Peaches and more Jonathan Richman. The gimmick-y backdrops and so on might catch people's eyes, but they also mean it takes a little longer to get to the heart of things — but I think in the end there was something of merit there.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9 p.m.: ZONES @ The Great Hall

And then, back into The Great Hall for a second night in a row. After the previous night's awkward times things felt a bit more comfortable right off the bat. Perhaps just seeing General Chaos' swirling lights put me into Wavelength mode, but even if it was on the quiet side for the first half of the night, there was just a less alien/alienating atmosphere.

I was surprised to note that that the giant white spaceship-evoking PA's from the (now defunct?) BLK BOX in the basement had been brought up at some point since the end of the previous night's show. A bold move, and one that must have caused some headaches for the sound tech who had to figure out an entirely new sound system on the fly — one evidently capable of pushing out massive amounts of bass.

That rendered opening act ZONES into something of a soupy haze, but that's actually not too far off the mark from what Derek McKeon is aiming for with this project. Joined by Kat Murie, there was a pleasing drifting, loopy quality here — and a sense that musical textures at at least as important as any rhythmic or melodic elements, though these are, at heart warped psych-pop songs. McKeon already seems eager to move beyond the sound he developed on his rather tasty Real Time tape, so it'll be worth keeping an eye out to see where this project is heading. (possible answer: deep space via the heart of a tropical jungle.)

Listen to a track from this set here.

10 p.m.: Twist @ The Great Hall

Twist, another duo who performed next, actually employed a similar set of tools — guitars, yes, but also drum machines and rhythm tracks — but here they were employed in a much more straightforward direction in the service of pop tunes. Originating as a bedroom project by the BB Guns' Laura Hermiston, this trades her band's rock velocity for a cleaner sound. I don't think this is all the way there as a live entity yet — on stage it was sound a little too spare and mechanical and Hermiston doesn't bring the easy charm she exhibits on stage with the BB Guns — but there's some fabulous tunes here, and in the end, that helps to get this over. Recordings are on the way, and the best is yet to come from this project.

11 p.m.: White Poppy @ The Great Hall

Vancouver's White Poppy (they bandonym of solo performer Crystal Dorval) pulled things back away from the popsong structures found on her more-recent recorded material, presenting a set-long suite of nearly-ambient textures. Ocean waves peaked and fell behind the music, occasionally disappearing for awhile and then returning as Dorval mixed together treated guitar, ebow, and keys to complete her series of dreamscapes, eventually working up into a thrumming rhythm before the calming waves returned. I was not familiar with her stuff at all, so this counted as the festival's first big discovery for me.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnight: Fresh Snow @ The Great Hall

It was impressive that Dorval had held the room's attention, even as the crowd was quickly in the process of doubling and redoubling for the night's headliners. It would be a triumphant night for locals Fresh Snow, having just been named to the longlist for this year's Polaris Prize — no mean feat for an instrumental band that had first released their album on tape on the small (but rather well-curated) Reel Cod Records.

But now there was a sense of celebration — if not inevitability — as the band took the stage in their expanded form, with Laura C. Bates on violin and a three-piece horn section.2

Showing a dramatic sense (as well as a commitment to noise/drone forms) the set began quite simply with the band taking their place one-by-one and building up the volume before crashing into a song. From there, the band was pretty much at the peak of their powers, with the audience up front jumping along. Although they tend to hide their faces behind masks on stage, they do have a dramatic sense of showmanship, with the set here ending with the horns and violin leaving the stage and continuing to play as they wound their way through the crowd to the exit at the back of the room. I've seen the band a fair number of times, so the power of their performance was no surprise to me, but it seemed to be a pointed announcement to anyone else that that longlist acknowledgement was no accident.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 a.m.: Tim Hecker @ The Great Hall

After that visual feast, the switch was (literally!) flipped as Montréal's Tim Hecker took the stage in his customary total darkness. The room was pretty full now and it took the crowd a few minutes to settle into the idea of this, to just listen as his ambient dronescapes were lowered like a blanket over the room.

On realizing that there wasn't going to be anything to see here — and no point in trying to take any pictures — I also decided to just focus on the sounds. I was on on the balcony, and I'll confess that I simply found me a little empty space and lay down. As it happened, I was around nearly up at the front, and those giant stacks were almost underneath me — and now their low-range power was being harnessed. In fact, it felt like I was getting a lower-back massage courtesy of Hecker's low-end vibrating the balcony floor below me.

Given that his last couple times in town had been in some acoustically-lovely church spaces, I was worried that the sometimes-unforgiving confines of The Great Hall would be less compelling, but everything really came together here, and it sounded rather excellent. Mix in the darkness, and conditions were ripe to evoke a sort of hypnagogic drift that forestalled most analysis (my notes at one point simply say, "whoa.") Quite excellent.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Still to come: petitions, "WHY NXNE SUCKS", and backyard vibes.

1 One insider shared with me their theory that SXSW is such a powerful model for local industry types largely because the annual trip to Austin is essentially their Spring Break, and to attempt to replicate the experience here is an effort to recreate their happy place. In which case, they added, what we need is more of these folks heading to Sled Island, to Iceland Airwaves, etc, etc.

2 I made out Karen Ng and Nick Bulligan, but perhaps the internet can fill me in on who the trombonist was?

1 comment:

  1. Um, NXNE takes SXSW as a model because it literally is an offshoot of said festival? Not to say that's a *good* thing, but NOW mag's silver-spoon socialist founders decided to piggyback on South By's formula precisely because it was already successful (in a boring mainstream big-festival way, natch). Smart thoughts here otherwise...