Monday, March 19, 2012

CMW 2012: Strategy + Preview (Part I)

Canadian Music Week is not for you.

We tend to think of CMW* as a buffet-style music festival with simultaneous showcases creating the autohype of too-much-to-see. But CMW is first and foremost a gathering for the remnants of the bloated corpse of the mersh music industry:

This is a once-a-year opportunity to get in front of 3000+ domestic & international industry insiders & media reps. A&R reps, music publishers, talent buyers/agents, promoters & festival directors from 30+ countries all right here.

Amongst peers and people I pay attention to, there's a huge gulf in anticipation levels, from so-much-goodness delight to over-it eye rolling — a level of enthusiasm that's probably directly proportional to the number of times the individual has gone through this exercise before. I am, admittedly, skewing well towards the latter camp, but I shan't let pessimism get the better of me. Even if for every good band, there appears to be ten that are "industry ready from the shoes up!", and even if there's been a much-remarked-upon pattern of interesting bands being announced and then disappearing from the schedule you have to persevere a bit — it is possible to carve your own little festival out of the whole loopy spectacle and hopefully come out the other end feeling okay about the experience. To that end, before getting to my list of bands playing at the festival that I'm willing to vouch for, here's a list of strategies that I have found useful.

#1: You probably don't want a wristband

For years, I bought into the mystique that a wristband brings. So many possibilities! Unlimited access! Etc. etc. But CMW is reaching a fairly audacious price point. Selling for $75, it's not easy to get your money's worth with a full-price wristband. If you're going full-bore from Wednesday to Sunday, then in theory you're paying $15 a night, which isn't crazy. But if you're focused on a more reasonable Thursday-Friday-Saturday, your cost-per-night is quickly getting our of hand. And $35 for a one-day wristband is just plain goofy.

Plus, you're getting yourself into a bit of a crapshoot if you have must-see bands, especially if they're in any sort of high-profile showcase. Over the past few years, CMW has been opening the floodgates on individual show advance sales, which means there's less room for wristband holders. Read the schedule carefully. "Limited wristbands" is just that — sometimes it's not going to be a problem getting in, but at places like Lee's or The 'Shoe, it's just as likely to mean a handful — or even none are admitted. All things considered, if there's a band you simply must see you're as well off buying a ticket for that and settling in for the night.

#2: Never wait in line

If you are going the wristband route, always have a plan B and be prepared to miss something you had been planning on. If you're show-hopping and you arrive at your next spot to find a line — keep going. Unless it's small and the previous set hasn't finished yet, in which case you can count on a certain between-set turnover. There's nothing worse than being stuck outside, so seeing a second-best option is far better than nothing. Be prepared to cut your losses and move along. Which is easier if you're planned for...

#3: Geographical clumping

You should always have an idea of where your next set is going to be and where it is in relation to other venues. And then plan realistically: if you had a 10 o'clock set at C'est What and an 11 o'clock set at Parts and Labour, ask yourself if it's physically possible to get there by whatever means of transport at your disposal. You should have an idea of how far you can get on your bike, on foot or with your Metropass in twenty minutes or so and never set up anything outside that boundary. And always keep in mind what else is nearby. For me, for example, my festival go-to zone is usually along the Spadina/College axis, simply because there's so many venues close at hand. And if it's packed, say, at the El Mo, then I know I'm only steps away from Rancho or the Silver Dollar, or a short hike to Sneaky Dee's or down to Queen Street.

#4: Know your curators

Having backups is easier when you can carve out the crap in that big grid and focus on showcases put together by a trusted authority. Look over all the "Presented by..." lines in the grid for any familiar names. I always know, for example, that I'm going to get no-bullshit rock'n'roll from Dan Burke at The Silver Dollar. Similarly, even if I don't know any of the bands, I figure I could go up the stairs to Rancho Relaxo and take a chance that Two Way Monologues have dug up something interesting. I'd say I'm open to listen to bands picked by, say, Pop Montreal, Hand Drawn Dracula, Resonancity or And similarly, the presenters can serve as useful red flags as well: I'm automatically suspicious of anything under the banner of a commercial radio station or "lifestyle" brand.

#5: Ignore the Corporate Bullshit

On that note, there's a lot of weird industry stuff that you should just resolutely ignore. Whether showcases set up by child-exploiting pay-to-play agencies or the weird spectacle knows as "the Indies", just move along.

#6: Look for the Freeness

Especially if you're not busy during the daytime, you can see some top-notch bands playing unofficial shows piggybacking on the festival. Pound for pound, the in-store lineup at Sonic Boom might be the best distillation of talent at the festival. And the Live Near Bellwoods series is a good chance to get up close with the bands. Both are all-ages.

With that taken care of, here's some bands you should definitely go out of your way to see during the first couple nights of the festival. Weekend recommendations will follow tomorrow. Many of these come with a live recording from my archive, so you can get some idea of what to expect from them on stage — for more audio previews, check out new listings site showgopher, which has a handy grid and streaming audio for most artists.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday's schedule is pretty thin on must-see bands, or even intriguing-looking possibilities. Unless you're super gung-ho, it might be advisable to take it easy and save up your energy for the weekend. But if you are heading out, there's a couple things I'd especially advocate for:

LOOM (Cameron House - Backroom / 8 p.m.)

Also playing Thursday at The Ossington / 8 p.m.

With hazy love-dreams, harps and strings, Brooke Manning blurs the lines between subconscious desires and clouds on the horizon.
Listen! Loom - Around Again

The Jessica Stuart Few (Drake Underground / midnight)

Also playing Thursday at Czehoski / 9 p.m.

A sophisticated, jazzy brand of pop, with Stuart's nimble guitar work and strong vox at the centre. Joni Mitchell comparisons are the easy route here — though Joni never played the koto.
Listen! The Jessica Stuart Few - At My Window

Thursday, Match 22, 2012

The Balconies (Cabin 5 / 11 p.m.)

Also playing Saturday at The Garrison / 10 p.m.

Jacquie Neville is increasingly emerging as a strong frontwoman for this local trio, with her voice up front on most of the band's new material. They started off with plenty pop smarts, now it looks like they've upped the swagger as they head toward the release of their second album.
Listen! The Balconies - Tiger

Lake Forest (Cameron House - Backroom / 1 a.m.)

A cozy and intimate classic singer/songwriter side-project from The Wilderness of Manitoba's Will Whitwam, the material is less straight-up folks-rootsy here than in his main gig, but just as smartly written.

Fedora Upside Down (Cameron House - Front Room / 10 p.m.)

I'm not sure who-all is gonna show up from this sprawling local collective, but the bands that I know — like Balkan folk-punks Lemon Bucket Orchestra or Michael Johnson's Rambunctious — play the sort of music that facilitates interactive fellowship like dancing and singing along to songs you've never heard before.
Listen! Lemon Bucket Orchestra - unknown

Christien Summers (Drake Underground / 8 p.m.)

Young disco up-and-comers with a convincing live set.

Adam & The Amethysts (El Mocambo (Downstairs) / 8 p.m.)

Also playing Saturday at Drake Underground / 11 p.m.

Meditative ruminations from former Miracle Fortress sideman Adam Waito.
Listen! Adam and the Amethysts - Bumble Bee

Old World Vulture (El Mocambo (Upstairs) / 8:30 p.m.)

"Post-rock" is too narrow a categorization for this local instrumental quartet. Instead, they bring more of a sleeker sound — aggressive without being too monolithic.
Listen! Old World Vulture - Last Kicks of a Dying Horse

Broken Bricks (Hard Luck / 10 p.m.)

Mod-ish smarts with a snarling edge. Good old-fashioned rock'n'roll sweat.

HotKid (Hard Luck / 11 p.m.)

Another high-octane rock unit, this duo features the Sound of Saturday Night — a Flying V guitar and the city's most Animal-istic drummer.
Listen! HotKid - unknown

The Pack A.D. (Horseshoe Tavern / 11:30 p.m.)

Vancouver scuzz-blooze delivered with hair-flinging intensity.
Listen! The Pack a.d. - Crazy

Army Girls (Parts & Labour / 10:30 p.m.)

One of the city's fast-rising bands is quickly adding some ace new songs as they move toward their first full-length. Carmen Elle evokes love + loss with shredding guitar and a beautiful voice.
Listen! Army Girls - The End of Days

Little Girls (Parts & Labour / 1:00 a.m.)

There's something underneath all the murk and reverb — a hypnotizing Joy Division-esque groove.
Listen! Little Girls - unknown

Modern Superstitions (Silver Dollar / 10 p.m.)

With all the coiled potential of a pack of hoods and JD's hanging out by the smoking door, Modern Superstitions bring a crisp edge to a classic rock'n'roll sound.
Listen! Modern Superstitions - No Shame

Shotgun Jimmie (The Great Hall / 9 p.m.)

So aw-shucks and off-the-cuff that you might not notice that you're still humming these songs to yourself a few days later.
Listen! Shotgun Jimmie - Mind Crumb

John K. Samson & The Provincial Band (The Great Hall / 11 p.m.)

Don't expect anything radically different from The Weakerthans vocalist to what he brings to his main gig — which means if you care about closely-observed details in songs where the words matter, you're in for a treat.
Listen! John K. Samson - The Last And

* A note on nomenclature: for years both the industry showcase and music festival components were known as Canadian Music Week. But as of 2009, this was deemed to be too simple and straightforward, and the music portion was "rebranded" as Canadian Music Fest, under the aegis of the larger Canadian Music Week. I see no reason to put up with this and will simply refer to everything as CMW. This year, the name situation has been made more ludicrous with the addition of a top-level sponsor that has been smushed into the festival's name. I don't know what product they're selling, and frankly I don't care. I have no plans to acknowledge them by name and I suggest you do the same.

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