Wednesday, June 19, 2013

NXNE 2013: Moments of Transcendence

[Note: I got sidetracked thinking about stuff. Apologies for the rambling musings; some more proper notes and many sounds from NXNE will start flowing soon.]

Sacred Harp Singers @ 159 Manning

I was heading down for the Manning BBQ — Tim McCready's all-afternoon, all-evening party with all-around good vibes — which is generally considered to be one of the coolest things happening during NXNE. Enroute, I stopped off to grab a mickey of rum, knowing that there's a 7-11 on the corner of Dundas and Manning, and that I could grab a slurpee and fix myself what is known in Winnipeg as an "after-school special". That, plus some free beers made a sunny day even brighter and kept me pleasantly socially engaged.1 With bands on a backyard stage and playing in Tim's living room, this was as casual and close-up as you can get — pretty ideal by my standards. I saw some friends play some cool stuff, and some people that I didn't know play some cool stuff, and when I came in from the backyard at the end of a set out there, I found a group of Sacred Harp singers were huddled in a square in the living room.

Sacred Harp is a variation on shape-note singing, a sight-reading method with a simplified musical notation designed for communal singalongs. I've come across this before (mostly at Kith & Kin's holiday wassails, from which I recognized a couple faces in this ensemble), and I really love this beautiful music, even if I don't have any connection to its churchy Protestant origins. As the ensemble finished their song, I was spotted and got waved into the middle of the group and suddenly found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor, voices on all sides of me. In a full ensemble setting, this is where the group leader would stand, not just to conduct, but also to enjoy the honour of listening in the best-sounding spot where all the voices meet. And though I felt a little conspicuous being in the middle and not off to the side, I got over myself once I could basically just close my eyes and soak in the music.

And I was powerfully moved. As someone who experiences a lot of live music, I enjoy a lot of it, but it's not all that often that I'm swept right up into it like this. It's not just a matter of having had a few drinks and not just a matter of, like, digging it — it's being pulled into it in a whole different way, unexpectedly and all at once.

Regardless of your opinions pertaining to the disposition of souls, it's hard not to react to this without pulling out that whole vocabulary of metaphors of religious experience — although surely the music was engineered to prime just that sort of response. It's not my vocabulary — I'm sure I'd be more comfortable labelling it as an unmediated I-and-Thou moment — but, like, whoa. There was a feeling of ascension, like a column of light from on high had been sunk into my skull, beaming something down. Like floodgates opening, I was filled with melodies and colours and joy. Very trippy and healing, like a spiritual carwash.2

It was so emotionally involving that I wasn't really paying attention to the way I was sitting, and as the recital wound down (the punk band in the other half of the room being nearly ready to play) I sort of came back into myself and realized my foot was totally asleep. I was being extra careful as I stood up, and it was only when I put my weight on my other foot that I realized that one was even worse off and I nearly went down in a heap on top of the alto section. More than a little embarrassed, I quickly shuffled out of the room to find a place to stand for a minute, flexing my foot and realizing I'd managed to fuck up my ankle. Such is the worldly cost, I guess.

Machines don't capture all the spirit, but you can listen to a couple sacred songs from this set here.

Majical Cloudz @ Sneaky Dee's

I did manage to see one more fab living room set, and then it was time for me to head off for my night of NXNE proper. I limped up the street, got myself another slurpee, mixed myself a medicinal-strength after-school special, and took it for a shuffling walk up Dundas street. My timing was pretty good and I managed to catch a couple sets in the DIY basement retreat at Wavelength's showcase, which felt like a more humanistic setting than some of NXNE's more corporate outposts. Low ceiling, loud music, swirling lights. (And, speaking of transcendent possibilities, I also [deleted: 108 words].)

And from there I headed over to Double Double Land, which was surely an even less-likely festival venue, where I caught the compressed noise-diamonds of Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt. That more or less took care of the planned part of the night, and after grabbing a drink at the convenience store to give a good home to the last of my rum, with a sort of homing instinct I pointed myself toward the Silver Dollar, where a friend had suggested that Jef Barbara at one o'clock might be worth checking out. I arrived there just as Mikal Cronin's midnight set was finishing, and ran into another friend who said he was heading over to Sneaky Dee's. I shrugged and joined in with a "why not" sort of attitude and thus ended up catching The Luyas, who I like fine enough.

And after that, through a complete lack of any planning whatsoever, I ended up being there for the "secret guest", who turned out to be Montréal-based buzz act Majical Cloudz. This pleased me in a way: I'd checked out a few tracks and was surprised at the depth of my dislike for them ("Coldplay for hipsters," was my reaction) relative to the excitement they seemed to be generating among some people I know. That made this a chance to revisit my opinion, as I am definitely a person who can be won over by a good live performance.

I was not won over.

I would go so far to say that while I'm guessing that this was probably someone else's transcendent moment at the festival, I left thinking that it was totally bogus. Vocalist Devon Welsh (his nose and eyebrows making him a dead ringer for Bert the Muppet, shaved head notwithstanding) is being sold as an intense frontman making direct emotional contact with the crowd, but at this show at least, that mostly just translated into a broody diva act: complaining about the on-stage sound throughout, he moaned, "something feels terribly not right," at one point, proceeding to comment that his voice could give out at any time, and implying that like a too-delicate bloom he could simply perish from this earth at any given moment.

I'm not against shtick. In fact, in the right context, I quite like it. But when shtick swaddles itself in those tired vestments of "authenticity" and tries to pretend that it's utterly disingenuous spontaneity, it tends to completely turn me off. Plus, no amount of ersatz "intensity" can elevate what is some fairly dull material (provided by stoic knob-twiddler Matthew Otto) — although I might have been wrong with the Coldplay crack, as live it sounded more like slowed-down versions of INXS' power ballads.3 By set's end — oh goodness, oh quel surprise! — the burdens of it all were just too much for Welsh, who jumped to the foot of the stage and crouched down, the audience around him following suit, a contrived simulacrum of intimacy that just left me rolling my eyes.

You can judge for yourself, and listen to a track from this set here.

Lean Left @ The Tranzac

Saturday, my ankle still a little sore, I went to see some bands play on a patio and I dropped somewhat-warily into a VICE party in a parking lot where I felt under-tattooed and under-American-Apparel-ed.4 Anyways, after that, I headed to the Tranzac, for another show whose very existence under the NXNE banner pleased me greatly.

Tad Michalak's Burn Down the Capital shows consistently look beyond fashion and trend to bring the unusual and unclassifiable to town, and I was obliquely pleased that somehow his shows over the weekend were, at some level, equal options to everything else on the festival grid. As a great fan of both the sax work of Ken Vandermark as well as the guitar interplay of Terrie Hessels and Andy Moor (of Dutch punk lifers The Ex) , I would have gone to this in any event — but I was pleased that this was part of my "festival experience".

Running into some friends, I ended up with a spot right up front, and after an engaging performance by Andrea Parkins and an amazing set by THIGHS, as Lean Left set up on the floor in front of the main hall's stage, I realized I was going to have Hassels (and his amp and his astonishing guitar) right in front of me. Once the band was set up, Hassels rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet a couple times like a tennis player preparing to serve, and then everyone launched into it. Vandermark's sax and Paal Nilssen-Love's drums were flanked by the two guitar players. They were acting as much percussionists as anything else, especially Hassels, who played his guitar with a drumstick for much of the set — sometimes thwacking the body, sometimes the strings, or occasionally just using it like he was trying to pry the strings off.

This was so fascinating that some early sound problems (the sax was very low at the start of the show) didn't matter to me at all. There was so much unfolding from each of the musicians from moment to moment, but I was mostly mesmerized by what was right in front of me, which was hard not to do when I could occasionally feel the long, untrimmed ends of Hassels' strings brush against my legs a couple times as he swung around especially close to me. And a few minutes later, Hassels held the headstock of his guitar down against the surface of the table beside me, grinding the tuning pegs back and forth, leaving a few new scratches on the table's surface in the process and sending rorwing rumbles through the amp.

And once again I was totally engaged in the moment. While the music that Lean Left created was melodically unstructured, it had an instantaneous internal logic that held it all together. There's something truly powerful about improvised music where the performers are listening and reacting to each other with such easy closeness — and when it's unfolding right in front of you, it can really blow you away. The set felt like it flung past me in a rush, and all I could do was hang on, grinning. The best set I've seen all year.

A recording ain't the same, but listen to an excerpt from this set here.


As someone who goes to a fair number of shows, I've oft thought about why I go to shows. People head to gigs for a whole lotta different reasons. I mean, everyone likes music, generically speaking, but a lot of the time, heading to a gig is mostly a chance to gather with old friends and occasionally encounter new ones. In fact, over the years I've come to admire people for whom that's a primary function, as they're the ones who seem more well-adjusted, less fixated on the music as a thing-in-itself. But what can you say for those wide-eyed ones over at the side who show up hoping for (but never necessarily expecting to get) that rare spark, that moment of true bliss — that moment where you're transported a little bit beyond yourself? Ah, that little taste of transcendence. (It's no wonder music enthusiasts are subject to a lot of easy junkie metaphors, always trying to recreate that perfect first high.)

The thing is, even when you go in with big expectations, most of the time the highest reasonable expectation is "really good", and not "mind-blowing". And the more stuff you've ever seen, the less likely you are to have your mind blown. This is probably why I kinda admire the people who basically let their tastes of their younger selves ossify, and stick with that stuff, going back to it again and again for a sort of contact high of remembering how life-altering it once was. I've never (yet) hit that point where my taste is fully composed, though, and that retrospective-glow thing just doesn't work for me, which is maybe why I dislike any sort of reunion shows.

Ironically, of course, I headed from The Tranzac to go see a reunion show, catching Tangiers' ten-years-ago-already reunion at The Garrison. It was good, but once again just back in that realm of merely good. Having tasted something far stronger right before, it didn't make as much of an impact on me, and though there were many late-night options open in front of me, I knew it was time to call it a night.

Having those experiences on back-to-back nights seems like unusual luck — having those moments of dare-I-say-it transcendence are really rare, like once or twice a year rare. They can't happen all that often because there's such a wide range of internal and external factors coming together — from one's own mood, to being in the right spot in the right room, to the musicians being especially on, to having listened to everything else so far in your life and being primed for this next thing to be a catalyst that creates some unexpected new connection. But it's that whole not-because-they-are-easy-but-because-they-are-hawd thing that gives those moments their exceptional value.

And maybe that's why I reacted so strongly, in a negative way, to that Magical Cloudz set. In the name of having captured that essence, it seems like it's selling a cheap reproduction of it. And yet, and yet... what is the standard by which I can call bullshit on this? How am I supposed to judge the quality of someone else's experience? A younger version of me would have been as likely to have been totally fucking impressed by that set as to have ranted forcefully about Welsh's jive-assed "my feelings are so real they hurt" shtick. Anyways: nowadays, I've got other, better things to worry about. Namely, to get out there, and soldier on every day, and hope that once or twice a year that that thing happens.

1 Though when I had a chance to meet the housecat, I momentarily thought I was going to be done with people for the day, just like in that comic.

2 It's probably frowed upon to "monetize" this sort of thing, but an enterprising sort could totally rent out that central spot as a therapeutic treatment.

3 Ribbing aside, one singer that Welsh brought to my mind after some thought was Fatima Mansions' Cathal Coughlan, and the comparison is illustrative, as Coughlan starts, on the surface, from a similarly emotive place as Walsh but then delves into a more interesting pathos by moving — knowingly — over the top. He could also tear into a contrasting rocker to offset the ballads — a move that Welsh doesn't seem to be interested in.

4 When I described the scene later to someone later, with a big parking lot full of people drinking free beer juxtaposed against five porta-potties, they cogently concluded, "that, right there, should be a VICE 'don't'".

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