Monday, December 17, 2012

NXNE 2011: Friday

NXNE — North by Northeast Festival, Toronto, 2011.

Friday, June 17, 2011. Featuring: Persian Rugs, The Young Things, The Vandelles, New/France, OFF!, Heavy Cream, No Joy

N.B.: I had written some contemporaneous notes about the festival here. This redux version comes with a few additional observations as I have now had time to properly go through my recordings.

8 p.m.: Persian Rugs @ The Silver Dollar Room

"Thanks for coming early. Or loading in, or whatever you're doing." It felt a little jarring to roll into the Silver Dollar so early, with daylight leaking in through the back door out to the smoking area — it's like seeing Joan Rivers without makeup or something like that. And indeed, it was pretty quiet in the room as the band took the stage. Drummer Matt Rubba faced the situation with humour, calling out the band's name and inventing a fictional new hometown for Persian Rugs after almost every song.

The band's amiable, low-key stage presence endears me to them, but really, I broke my informal embargo on seeing bands that I'd seen before more to see how their songs and stagecraft were evolving. The vocals were passed around some, but keyboardist Kaye Hamilton is the best of the band's singers and rightfully had the most leads. But the variety otherwise generally works when deployed correctly: guitarist Ian Jackson has a serviceable range that gave a sleepy edge to "Phone Call From the Lake" and Matt Rubba's plainspoken vox powered "It's What You Think", complete with a suitably fun fakeout ending.

It's easy to underestimate the talent required to pull off unassuming modesty, but Persian Rugs have a fuzzy, jangly line on a very cardigan sort of sound, just like the light blue one Jackson was wearing. Seeing them live felt like time well-spent with some previously undiscovered Sarah Records band.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9 p.m.: The Young Things @ Comfort Zone

After that, ducked downstairs to the much-less daylight-afflicted Comfort Zone to check out The Young Things, a NYC quartet with a scrappy, somewhat-retro garage sound. Showing a bit of "industry" ambition, they had a friend passing out copies of their debut EP ... is the killer, to the crowd while they knocked out the songs from it nearly in order.

There were hints of a Beatles-y melodic sense, and that would come out a couple more times — as would a decent talent at arranging harmonies. That would be tempered by an equal enjoyment for a scuzzier kind of rock, as evidenced by "All My Friends Are Junkies" — although, to be honest, they didn't quite make me believe that claim. That back-alley tendency in their sound was faced head-on with a Strokes cover — which was perhaps a bit too on the nose.

This was all enjoyable enough, though when the band left the retro-y sensibility behind, like on "Talking Too Loud" (or on the warmed-over blues-isms of "It's So Easy For You To Lie") they veered too much toward a safe, homogenized radio-ready pop sound. Obviously, that's no more or less original than the garage-y stuff, but for me it's nowhere near as compelling. My prognosis was that this is a band that needed to get more primitive in order to progress.

10 p.m.: The Vandelles @ Comfort Zone

The Vandelles were also up from the Big Apple, and one could tell that they had that palpable buzz that The Young Things were clearing coveting. All at once, the area in front of the stage was suddenly filled with photographers staking out space.

And I could get what the excitement was about when they started playing, a blast of reverb and "Be My Baby" drumbeats. Leading off with "Way Through You" (which their bandcamp cheekily suggests was "released 06 June 1966"), the band was showcasing some tracks they were getting ready to record (and which have now been released on their Strange Girls Don't Cry album).

No complaints with what they were doing, but I couldn't help comparing the band to Chains of Love, who I'd seen the night before — a comparison that illustrated The Vandelles' limitations. Chains of Love dove more forcefully into the pool of their musical influences and went deeper into their shtick, going full-out in their stage appearance. Here, however, Vandelles vocalist Jason (no last name given) played in sandals and cut-off jeans, though bassist Lulu (also no last name given, and fighting a bad back by playing while braced against a tall chair) looked more the part.

And musically, the band were willing to get a little sloppy and could even hint at some Jesus and Mary Chain velocity, but it felt too much like these were ill-fitting sheets draped over songs that really didn't invest themselves fully in the sensibility they were playing at. The fact that they would more recently be selected to open some touring dates for JAMC implies that maybe they're a better fit with that sound than I was giving them credit for, and as they closed with a trio of songs from their Summer Fling EP I was certainly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Listen to a track from this set here.

11 p.m.: New/France @ El Mocambo

Crossing the street, I went to this on a hunch, finding something interesting in a blurb mentioning that the band featured "ex and present members of local stalwarts Groovy Religion and La Casa Muerte". Besides the notion of a band mixing together musicians from different generations, the Groovy Religion connection intrigued me.

And, indeed, this band would have no less than Groovy Religion's William New on vocals. Perhaps this linkage of players (who didn't immediately look like they all belonged in the same band) arose from the same ethos New has displayed as a founder of Elvis Mondays — an essential community-building role in T.O.'s indie scene stretching from the 80's to today. Guitarist Roy Pike looks to be of the same vintage, but I can't dig up much about him — and he lacks an index entry in Have Not Been The Same.

Regardless, he did an ace job trading corrosive riffs with Bo Frantz (the Casa Muerte connection, making the band's moniker a bit of a play on words on its two founders' last names) in a stereo back-and-forth of bracing minimalism. The sound was tied together by Jenny Charlton's Mo Tucker-ish drums, played standing up with mallets. There were some superb moments here, with that guitar give-and-take and New tersely sing-speaking his lines in a voice somewhere between Art Bergmann and Iggy Pop while staring down the crowd with a thousand-yard stare beaming out from under his wild nest of hair.

New clearly didn't always feel the need to be the focus, and when not singing, he'd sometimes simply wander to the back of the stage, facing away from the crowd, while the guitars duked it out. And while there were a couple points where things were a bit out of sync and the drums skipped a beat, on the whole this was a rewarding moment of no wave-ish menace. "Moment" is key here — although I did get another chance to see this unit, my understanding is that it was not built to last and is no longer active. Bo Frantz has shifted gears to the promising new Das Rad, while William New endures as William New.

I'd posted one track from this set here — but given that it seems like you won't be able to hear these songs anywhere else I've added another one here.

12 a.m.: OFF! @ The Horseshoe

As the New/France set moved along, there was a shifting dynamic in the crowd at the El Mo, with a different cadre of folks building up at the front anticipating a reunion set by Rusty. That wasn't my scene, so I headed out and ducked down Spadina to Queen Street.

I had something more ambitious in mind, and for once I was going to see one of the more-hyped bands at the festival — which meant, of course, that I was dubious that I'd be able to get in. But with a plethora of good bands playing at midnight, I figured I'd be okay in settling for one of my Plan B's — so much so that I was more than mildly surprised when I managed to get into a packed, sweaty 'Shoe just minutes before OFF! took the stage.

Though I don't have an immense background in hardcore, I do like to feel the energy of it every once in a while, and this new group of veterans seemed like a can't-lose proposition. Fronted by Keith Morris — original Black Flag vocalist and founder of the Circle Jerks — the band includes Burning Brides frontman Dimitri Coats on guitar and Rocket From The Crypt/Hot Snakes drummer Mario Rubalcaba. Rounding out the lineup is bassist Steven McDonald (of Redd Kross fame), younger than the others but emerging from the same Californian milieu.

"Stephen and I go back to a place called The Church in Hermosa Beach," Morris told the crowd. "And we hope that we can transport some of you back there tonight." Evoking the golden age of west coast hardcore (right down to the Raymond Pettibon cover art on the albums) is the band's stock-in-trade.

Even with a slim catalogue of songs to their name, the band had no problem filling out their timeslot when Morris' raps and introductions were considered. Highly entertaining (if a little erratic), Morris discoursed on post-9/11 politics with as much direct intensity as he welded in considering what to do with the errant shoe that had been flung onto the stage. The two things, it turned out, didn't have anything to do with each other, though the possibility was discussed. It also provoked some audience interaction:

Dude in crowd: Play a song!

Morris: Dude, what's your hurry? It's fuckin' Friday night. Where ya goin'... mom and dad gonna show up in the SUV?

When they did focus on the music, the band started at the beginning of the first of their EP's with "Black Thoughts", following it with a couple more of its mates (including an excellent "I Don't Belong") before pausing for a break for Morris to offer forth some more discourse. That set the pattern of two-three song rapidfire bursts followed by pauses for Morris to banter. Both parts of the performance — banter and music — were equally entertaining and just standing back in the crowd watching (I didn't need to be near the frothing moshpit) drained me. But still, great fun.

Listen to a couple quick songs from this set here.

1 a.m.: Heavy Cream @ Comfort Zone

Headed back up the street for another band that I'd seen before, mostly because when I'd first seen bouncy Tennessee crew Heavy Cream at CMW they were suffering through a set with terrible sound. I was able to get the impression that this was my kind of thing, but it was hard to really appreciate them. And though they were battling with some issues here as well — as the last band of the night, they were suffering from a drumkit that was coming apart at the seams — this was a much better showing.

It took 'em a couple songs to get warmed up, but the one-two punch of "Watusi" and "I Know This" was quite fun — sorta like a meeting of the minds between Be Your Own Pet and The Ramones. The band was a constant blur of energy, especially from vocalist Jessica, who exhibited classic frontwoman magnetism, bouncing and shimmying without missing a note.

They played a fair number of songs that would later turn up on this year's Super Treatment, which was produced, notably, by Ty Segall with a lot more oomph than their earlier recordings. And even when the songs might have sounded a little silly ("Summer Bummer" was one title here) the band was seriously into it. The set was over in a flash, leaving a most pleasant aftertaste.

Listen to a track from this set here.

2 a.m.: No Joy @ The Silver Dollar Room

And, making the night close out full circle, it was back upstairs to see another "secret guest" that was pretty widely advertised in advance. I was pretty eager to get a chance to see Montréal's No Joy, whose Ghost Blonde album had really impressed me. Live, the four-piece brought a bit more animation to their shoegazey tunes than I was expecting — the title track, which lead off the set, got some more "push" that isn't there on the album from the drummer.

That wouldn't be expressed with much physical animation, mind you — singer/guitarists Jasmine White-Glutz and Laura Lloyd (the co-founders of the band) were shoegazers in the most literal sense, playing doubled over, their long blonde fair almost constantly obscuring their faces. Sort of the Thurston Moore school of guitar playing, just as there was certainly a bit of Sonic Youth in the band's music. They weren't much for banter, coming and leaving the stage without saying a word, preferring to build up segues between songs (on a couple occasions with sampled film dialogue) instead of creating dead time that might encourage audience interaction.

The set was mostly material from the album, though it did closing out with an extended run through The Shangri-Las' "He Cried", the bassline holding steady to anchor a few minutes' guitar noise to close things out. The musicians weren't inclined to acknowledge the audience but the set definitely made a solid impact on me.

Listen to a track from this set here.

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