Monday, December 24, 2012

NXNE 2011: Saturday (Part 2)

NXNE — North by Northeast Festival, Toronto, 2011.

Saturday, June 18, 2011 – Part 2. Featuring: Peelander-Z, catl, Biblical, Bad Cop, B-17

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. Notes on the first part of this long night can be found here.

Midnight: Peelander-Z @ Comfort Zone

After the relatively sedate button-down orderliness I just left, this was a bit of a fun-aneurysm. Walking into a Peelander-Z set already in progress is like picking up volume seven of a manga series, leaving you wondering how the particularly strange scene in from of you came about. Stories of the band's gleefully absurd live shows are legion, so I thought I knew what I was going to get as I hustled down into the Comfort Zone — but this was more than I was expecting. Within the first couple minutes of my arrival there were on-stage costume changes and an invasion by inflatable monsters.

The band was formed and based in New York City, but it's easy to situate Peelander-Z in the trippy technicolour turbo-mindwarp pop culture of Japan, where all the members originally hail from. Or so one story goes. The band counters such facts with their own cosmic origin story, like a Saturday-morning cartoon version of Sun Ra.

And like a cartoon the songs were introduced with title cards, giving the notion that each segment was more of an excuse for madcap audience participation tactics. In that kind of environment, it's somewhat true that the music was secondary, or at least designed to facilitate the sensory overload. But there's no small amount of fun in their Ramones-y velocity rock, especially given how it could stop and spin off in any direction, from hardcore shout-along to bouncy jazz groove.

Audience participation was pretty much mandatory — but hardly something that had to be enforced. Besides singing along — the lyrics were pretty easy to pick up ("Mad Tiger!" "Ice Cream!") — there were tin bowls and sticks passed out to the crowd for percussion as well as a sort of limbo contest where a rope was passed over the crowd at about shoulder level, forcing everyone to duck. Oh, and there was human bowling.

There was so much going on that I couldn't even begin to account for it all here. The set ended with the band picking out members of the crowd to replace them on stage, and at the end, after all the brightly-uniformed members were introduced by their colour-names, the audience was declared to be "Peelander Toronto". This might sound goofy — and maybe it is — but there something so unself-consciously fun about the whole affair that it transcends any such limitations you might put on it. Next time they come around, don't doubt and don't get hung up on words like "gimmick" — just go.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

12:40 a.m.: catl @ Comfort Zone

The sensory overload didn't end there, as catl's side-stage mini-set started as Peelander-Z's last notes were still fading. "Side-stage" is actually a rather generous description, as the trio were simply set up on the floor in the wing leading towards the bathrooms. So there'd be no separation from the audience here, and soon enough keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Kirkpatrick would be dancing in and with the crowd while Jamie "catl" Fleming plowed onward with his locked-in guitar grooves.

Dancing's an important element here. Always a sweaty celebration of the greasy get-down blues, catl succeed in that they re-invest the genre with propulsive hip-shaking energy, here provided by now-departed original drummer Johnny LaRue. And down in the Comfort Zone's dim blacklight depths, the band was in fine form. They'd already played a full set upstairs earlier in the night as well as three previous between-set quickies like this one. Concert promoter Dan Burke — who tends to run his venues more like semi-autonomous parallel events during NXNE — has had a fair few good idea in his time, but catl-powered festival showcases has to be right up near the top of the list.

Though a good chunk of the packed house fled after Peelander-Z finished, there was a good cohort of folks ready to boogie. With twenty minutes to fill between mainstage sets, the band had time for four songs, three of which were extended groovers — leading with the excellent loose-limbed swing of "Hold My Body Down" — plus the frenzied rush of Hasil Adkins' "Chicken Walk". Playing loose and ragged, this felt just superb, a rejuvenatin' burst that gave me a second (third?) wind that carried me through the rest of the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1:00 a.m.: Biblical @ Comfort Zone

The Illuminati was the sort of hard rock band that just wasn't on my radar, so it's unlikely that the merits of bassist/vocalist Nick Sewell would have brought me out to see successor band Biblical. I am, however, an enthusiast for all things Steamboat-related, so a band that includes Jay Anderson (drums), Matt McLaren (here on guit) and Andrew Scott (guit/organ) is going to intrigue me, even if they're working on something out of my musical comfort zone. But Biblical has no traces of Steamboat's feel-good soul groove, instead taking its cues from Sewell's propensity for chugging hard-rock. Local stoner-metal titans Quest For Fire come to mind, but take that amped up a couple notches and veering occasionally from Hawkwind-like drift (thanks to Scott's organ work) into Ace of Spaces velocity.

The talented lineup gives the band some room to deviate from mere heavy metal thunder. Musically, they were more than willing to stretch things out, such as on the more groovy/less menacing "Oubliette", which felt like it'd fit in a "no commercials for forty-five minutes!" extended set on the classic rock station. Also, McLaren's smooth lead vocals on a couple tracks (including "Eyes Of Lies") made for a contrast with Sewell's throaty growl. But it's his gruff voice and meaty bass-playing that really stood out here. He was clearly having fun with this, stepping down into the crowd in the slowed-down middle of closer "Nickel & Dime".

Splitting the difference between cough syrup and trucker-grade speed, this was a bad-news boogaloo that had just the right evil late-night lurch. Heavy music is going through one of its periodic critical re-appraisals right now, so there's no reason that this isn't as accessible to PBR-hoisting Pitchfork readers as unrepentant leather jacket-wearin', devil horn throwin' rawk fans.

Listen to a song from this set here.

2 a.m.: Bad Cop @ Silver Dollar

Headed back upstairs to close things out with the late-night rock'n'roll portion of the programme. I got up in time to catch the tail end of Crocodiles' final set of the weekend. There was a packed crowd for that, but as soon as they finished, a lot of people split, leaving plenty elbow room. At this point of the night, the floor was a sticky mess of spilled beer but the no man's land filled back up when Nashville's Bad Cop took the stage.

I had seen them before — well, sort of — but it was hard to really get the measure of the band that time, as lead singer Adam Anyone (who looked a bit like Paul Robinson in The Diodes' heyday) hadn't made it over the border, and the set consisted of instrumentals from the remaining pair. Making it across intact for NXNE, and bringing an adjusted four-piece lineup, this was a whole different story. Still, even after the first song, basically a garage-y rocker, I wasn't sure what I was going to be getting, but as the band got warmed up, the set leaned increasingly to no-frills punk. After a few songs, a paid of balding middle-aged dudes even tried to start their own pit in front of the stage.

They were definitely getting more exciting from song to song, mostly animated by Anyone's stage presence — as the vernacular goes, he gave good face, with animated eyes and constant motion. In fact, it was after he put down the guitar he'd been playing for the first few songs and went full-on frontman that things really took off.

He certainly brought an edge to the proceedings, presenting songs about being "young and stoned" and "doing everything you want, all the time". There was also, as banter, comments like, "this song is about spending most of your childhood in a Tennessee jail. It's called 'Fried by Lightning'". This would have been a perfect match with Teenanger, who'd played the same stage earlier in the night. It turned out to be an exciting and worthy set, so hopefully they'll be able to get back into the country again.

Listen to a song from this set here.

3 a.m.: B-17 @ Silver Dollar

Three in the morning and the bar was even emptier now, and as I walked around between sets bit of broken glass kept getting caught in the treads of my shoes. Given the length of the day, I didn't know if I'd have been able to maintain much enthusiasm for anyone playing a 3 a.m. timeslot, but this was one of my most-anticipated bands of the night. Perhaps a bit unusual for a band playing their debut performance, but B-17 were being billed as an Optical Sounds supergroup, with Action Makes vocalist Clint Rogerson on bass, alongside Nick Kervin (of the Easy Targets) on drums and a pair of Hoa Hoa's (Calvin Brown and Richard Gibson) on guitars.

Gibson handled some of the vox — the split would even up a bit more later on — but here mostly handled the more tuneful guitar parts while Brown threw down with some ace feedback-drenched wah-wah. In their nascent state, the band was well-formed, but not as honed as they'd get over the following year. One got the sense that the DNA of their influences were still being absorbed — a cover of "Real Cool Time" made sense, and there was otherwise a feeling that the songs were still closer to rewrites of covers that the quartet was surely jamming on together while getting their bearings.

There were a couple of the signature songs that would make it to their debut EP (which is now a thing), including set opener "Bad Situation". "Wishing Won't Make It So" at this point didn't have its title or chorus, but its skeleton was there in a set closer listed as "Sabbataph". Like that song, the project as a whole would become sharper and more focused over the months to come — especially as it became clearer that this was more than just a mere side-project — but this was absolutely an auspicious début.

And from there time to stagger home, exhausted, with another year's NXNE complete.

Listen to a song from this set here.

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