On the evening of Thursday, June 19, two Gazette editors arrived in Toronto for the North by Northeast Music & Film Festival and Conference: Adam Szymanski, an Arts and Entertainment editor well acquainted with the arts scene, and Jaela Bernstien, managing editor and rookie in the indie music scene.
Over the course of three days, the two experienced the festival from varying viewpoints and with considerably different expectations. What follows is a breakdown and review of the festival from these two perspectives.
Itinerary: Tail end of Arts & Crafts show at The Courthouse
Szymanski: Given the reputation of the Arts & Crafts label, we figured it would be worth checking out their showcase. While it was better than staying in and calling it an early night, The Stills performance was a bit of a yawn.
I was hoping The Stills' live show would demonstrate something more than their underwhelming recorded music. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The Stills are still attempting to ride the indie garage rock wave of the early 2000s, albeit without the chops or swagger of the era's flagship bands like The Strokes. The crowd was pretty small and not into it either. There was a weak call for an encore, which a bigger band might have snubbed, and The Stills came out to please the stragglers. I was left itching for some better performances, and felt as if the festival hadn't really started yet. That all changed on Friday.
Bernstien: From the history of Broken Social Scene to the importance of bringing Canadian music to the headlines of our excessively American-focused media, Adam and Carly briefed me on all things indie on the way to Toronto. I arrived at the Courthouse hyped up for a unique experience, but instead walked into a set less fresh than a Rihanna remix, and no more alternative than Great Big Sea.
I won’t sell them short — The Stills had catchy hooks and kept the quickly diminishing crowd dancing. However, they made several key mistakes, which meant their overall performance was sub-par. While typically the onus is on the band to pump-up the crowd, The Stills were the opposite, making only minimal effort to involve the audience. In fact, at one point the lead awkwardly laid a guilt trip on the crowd for its lack of energy, rather than actually attempting to add energy to his lacklustre performance. Straight and simple, they sounded like a made-for-radio, high school alt-rock band — not what I would expect as a “surprise guest headliner” at the largest indie music festival in Canada. The only high point of the show: when Oliver Corbeil daringly lit a cigarette inside the Courthouse while shredding his guitar, proving even a meagre talented musician can still be badass.
Itinerary: Screening featuring Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison preceded by two short films: City Sonic and Furnace Room Lullaby
Szymanski: The Johnny Cash film sounded promising, but the feeble attempt at capturing the legendary concert at San Quentin prison probably had poor old Johnny rolling in his grave.
The documentary lacked focus, production values and most regrettably, stock footage. The film was without a semi-coherent story and skipped around offering up a variety of perspectives on everything from Cash's love life, to his soft spot for prisoners, to a friend of his named Glen Sherley and poor prison conditions in the 1960s. The story lines were presented through nostalgic interviews with inmates and relatives, but none of them ever added up and the film failed as a result.
The lack of footage from the actual concert referenced in the film's title was all the more frustrating. While songs from the concert played, poorly animated vignettes often served as substitutes for actual footage from the show.
The silver lining was a short film about the Cancer Bats directed by acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Bruce Macdonald. The short film chronicled the underground punk scene of the Adrift Clubhouse in Toronto, with commentary by the Cancer Bats. The band was even present at the theatre where they joked at being able to open for Johnny Cash. The brief appearance from the Canadian punks proved to be the highlight of the opening night film festival gala.
Bernstien: I awoke bright eyed and bushy tailed on Friday, excited for a full day of NXNE. The documentary on Johnny Cash’s performance at Folsom Prison had been heavily promoted and since Cash’s je ne sais quoi has always piqued my interest, I thought the film would be a must see. After a few false starts and technical issues, the opening shorts began. City Sonic, while by no means life-altering, presented an interesting story about the historical music venues in Toronto in a nice tidy package. On the other hand, Furnace Room Lullaby was lost on the audience. To make a long story short, the concept went way over my head — something about a woman killing her boyfriend-turned-mannequin who still bleeds despite his plastic body. Perhaps they used the quirky intro film hoping anything that followed would look good in comparison, but, if so, their scheme was unsuccessful. The Johnny Cash documentary, while interesting, was better suited for the A&E channel than NXNE. Over an hour long, it could have been easily edited to 45 minutes. An overall good film, but simply not suitable for the venue.
Itinerary: Broolyn-inspired set list at Wrongbar.
Szymanski: After emerging from the theatre a little sour it was time for some New York post-punk. We headed to Wrongbar on Queen St. West for a lineup of danceable punk bands based out of New York City’s indie scene.
We made it just on time to catch Totally Michael. His DIY sound seemed heavily inspired by fellow electro mash-up act, Girl Talk. The set consisted of him singing and impressively rapping over a drum kit and tunes from his iPod. While the crowd was into Totally Michael — who hopped off stage to perform and dance — things got ugly when the iPod abruptly switched off. Totally Michael was left on stage trying to stall by pulling off a stand-up comedy routine, which failed miserably. The music was great but the dead air and jokes were plain awful and botched the whole set. Regardless, Totally Michael was a nice discovery and his tunes were catchy and provocatively cheeky.
The pop sensibility of Totally Michael was completely done away with when hyph-punk band Team Robespierre took the stage. The quintet embraced the spirit of the golden age of punk with their short song lengths and nihilist nonchalance. With lyrics like, “I'm not looking for a job, I just want to be a heart throb,” Team Robespierre managed to tap into modern grudges such as the financial crisis. Their set was seamless and got the crowd pumped for the good things to come.
I was apprehensive of Japanther’s live show given the inaccessibility of much of their recorded music, but their live set was stellar and made me regret the NXNE format only allowed 45 minute sets. Bandmates Ian and Matt put on an unmistakable show complete with a cassette player and yellow, telephone-shaped mics. Japanther channeled the energy of their more accessible songs to a moshing crowd. Ian — the drummer — even ripped off his shirt, exposing his profusely sweating flub. Matt and Kim could not have asked for a better opener.
By the time keyboard and drums duo Matt and Kim hit the stage, the venue was packed and a long lineup had formed outside — and for good reason. Despite their penchant for familiar keyboard loops and happy-go-lucky male vocals they proved they could throw down with the punks. The only hitch in an otherwise excellent, up-tempo set, was the same technical glitch that plagued Totally Michael earlier in the night. For a good minute the sound cut out and the dance floor went quiet, but before you knew it, things were back in (dis)order, and Kim was sporting her trademark grin as she went to work on the drums.
Despite the Johnny Cash debacle and a couple technical glitches along the way, it was an unforgettable Friday night of great performances.
Bernstien: At Wrongbar the set was a high-energy line-up of punk-electro bands that literally made the ceilings drip with sweat. While I appreciated the talent and contagious enthusiasm of the first groups — Totally Michael and Team Robespierre — they simply weren’t my style. Expecting to retire early, I swiftly changed my mind when Japanther hit the stage.
Best described as 10 year olds on ecstasy, the twosome threw the crowd into a frenzy with their inspirational lyrics and an energy level comparable to Richard Simmons on speed. That said, I was still totally unprepared for the mind-blowing combination known as Matt and Kim.
After the first couple songs, I shrugged my duty as photographer and threw myself towards the centre of the dance floor. Kim, a tiny punked-out chick with massive tattooed pipes and an insane smile, held the stage with her enormous presence despite her size. And Matt, while unable to sing a single note on tune, belted out vocals with the confidence of a virtuoso and somehow managed to pull it off. Between awesome stage presence and energy that can only be described as Red Bull meets espresso shots, Matt and Kim had me, a folk-loving, peaceful hippie moshing to electro beats among sweaty, half naked audience members.
Itinerary: Szymanski headed to the celebrity interview with GZA and met up later with Bernstien for the CBC Radio 3 all-Canadian line-up at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.
Szymanski: Hip-hop moguls GZA and Fab 5 Freddy combined forces to address the current state of the rap game during a press conference on Saturday.
GZA — a member of pioneering hip-collective Wu-Tang Clan — started off by discussing the strong influence of movies on his childhood and his music. Growing up, GZA was a regular frequenter of Kung Fu films at the local Brooklyn movie theatres. Later, Kung fu themes, sounds and Eastern philosophies emerged as an organizing principle for the Wu-Tang Clan and distinguished the hip-hop crew from other acts. One of the ways the Clan would censor out curse words for radio was through kung fu sound effects — such as swords clashing — that GZA describes as simply “another instrument.”
The unique collection of influences found in the work of the Wu-Tang Clan is exactly what GZA finds missing from the current hip-hop scene. “[Hip-hop today] is like going to a party and 200 people have the same outfit on. There is no originality,” he said.
He contrasted the motivations of current rap artists with the nobler ambitions of hip-hop's pioneers. “It was never about making money, we just happened to make a living,” he said, adding he finds today's club songs both “degrading and redundant.”
For GZA and Freddy, the difference between hip-hop and rap is also the distinction between music as art and music as entertainment. Autotune, or synthesized vocals, is one point of distinction. “Singing chorus hooks through autotune is rapping,” GZA said. “Hip-hop goes deeper. Hip-hop is a movement.”
GZA maintained that the foundation of hip-hop is great writing. And how do you become a great writer? According the GZA, the secret lies in plenty of reading.
So by the end of the conference, the hip-hop icon came off sounding a bit like a teacher encouraging kids to read. Not surprising considering GZA's passion for chess and Eastern philosophy.
If the medium is the message, GZA proved a pretty hip medium for some old school messages.
Szymanski: We headed over to The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern which filled up with a big crowd awaiting the biggest name on the bill, Jason Collett.
First up was Woodpigeon, a gentle group featuring classical instruments and soft vocals. The eclectic collective of both male and female members was acoustically strong, but hardly fit in with the rest of the bands, especially DD/MM/YYYY, who hit the stage directly afterwards.
DD/MM/YYYY were the hardest of the bunch — these guys showed what it means to play an abstract set. Within each song, DD/MM/YYYY shifted time signatures and rotated instruments, with band members even trading roles on stage. The result was a precisely chaotic sound, which drew on math rock and the post-hardcore scene.
Ruby Coast followed up with a totally different sound, look and style, by offering more conventional pop-rock tunes. Ruby Coast was enjoyable but failed to capture the audience, which seemed divided between a hardcore crowd still coming down off DD/MM/YYYY and the more country/folk half seemed keener on the impending Jason Collett performance.
Collett, a member of BSS, eventually hit the stage for a set of mainly new material that absolutely flew by. Regardless of musical preference it would have been impossible not to enjoy Collett. He commanded the stage and brought a taste of bread and butter indie rock to the evening of more niche acts. Collett's gritty folk-inspired sound was impressively complete, and all he needed was his guitar and pair of skinny Levi's — which he wore oh-so-effortlessly. Collett brought the swagger, style and skills of a bona fide indie-star the all-Canadian lineup needed.
Bernstien: With the previous night being such a success and exhaustion setting in, I was expecting a disappointment. In the end, I came out of the night with mixed reviews. While the artists themselves were talented, CBC’s decision to have a Canadiana-themed night meant bringing together an unlikely group of bands that mixed poorly. Woodpigeon’s folksy tunes were soothing and capturing, but their dynamic set was spoiled when they were followed by DD/MM/YYYY — a headbanging rock group with harsh vocals — who themselves were awkwardly sandwiched between Woodpigeon’s smooth harmonies and the indie-pop sounds of Ruby Coast and Jason Collett’s soothing tunes. In the end, it meant a talented, but poorly combined line-up playing for a mixed audience of happy-go-lucky hippies too mellow to actually confront the unperturbed moshers sprinkled throughout the audience.
Itinerary: While Bernstien jumped on a bus back to London, Szymanski maintained The Gazette’s presence at NXNE at film screenings and the free hip-hop showcase at Yonge and Dundas Square.
Szymanski: Sunday is a great day to rest up, and I couldn't think of a better way than to hang out in the comfortable seats of the air conditioned National Film Board theatre. I figured I'd give the film festival one more chance following the Johnny Cash letdown. Since the NFB — which produces perennial Oscar favourites — was hosting Sunday's films, I had fairly high expectations, but once again I was let down. NXNE should stick to music.
The 1 p.m. headliner was The Eternity Man, an operatic film about an elder religious fundamentalist who writes the word “eternity” on everything he can find. His impulse for apocalyptic graffiti is never explained, and even worse, he sings opera in foreign languages throughout the film, supposedly expressing his disdain for the world around him. The film essentially makes no statement about anything and wallows in the same self-pity as the lead character.
A Canadian animated short about acupuncture preceded the feature presentation. While mildly entertaining and set to music, the short seemed out of place with the musical focus of the rest of the festival's films and came across more as a feeble attempt to get more Canadian content into the festival.
Frautschi, the 3 p.m. feature, focuses on a supposed Russian guitar virtuoso Kamill Arturovich Frautschi, and his teaching methods, which emphasized personal enjoyment and comfort. His approach was distinct and un-Soviet for the time, considering he lived in Stalinist Russia. The film consists mainly of Russian musicians recounting stories passed down from his original pupils. While Frautschi may have been a revolutionary guitar teacher, the film is slow, boring and comes across as simply fifty minutes of praise for a man who never appears on screen.
The one bright spot of the 3 p.m. lineup was Dylusions of Grandeur, a film about a top-25 Australian Idol contestant who let his newfound “fame” go to his head. The film looks amateur, but that was a part of its charm and comedic effect, which stems mainly from the protagonist, Dylan Yeandle's, goofy delusions of stardom. It's tough to tell if the film was actually intended to be funny, but it had the theatre laughing regardless, so at least there was some form of enjoyment.
The real excitement on Sunday was the free public concert by GZA in Yonge and Dundas Square. People crammed into the square and marijuana smoke clouded the air for the festival's concluding show. The Candy Coated Killahz and Ninjasonik got things warmed up with some hipster-flavoured rap, which set up The Cool Kids nicely.
But it was GZA who got the arms waving and the joints blazing with classic material from the Wu-Tang Clan. His flow was tight and his mic skills backed up his earlier claims about the state of hip hop.
With a full weekend of solid dance-punk, hip hop, Canadiana, and bad films behind me, it was time to catch a red-eye Greyhound back to London.