Live Review: A week of NXNE 2011

Picture of Handsome Furs Band playing NXNE 2011 Toronto By: Sheena Lyonnais & TJ Liebgott
June 21, 2011

NXNE is the greatest rock’n’roll challenge of the year.  Musicians and music-fans alike must navigate the city like pirates in the sea, succumbing to the temptations of libations in some of the finest and grittiest establishments in Toronto.  Everywhere you go there’s something to do and someone to see – films, bbq’s, workshops and, most importantly, music.  This was a good year…a really good year!  Highlights included Cults, Rusty, Crocodiles, Tiny Victories, Handsome Furs and Dum Dum Girls.  With such great talent, not to mention the Polaris long list being announced midway through, the biggest challenge was simply deciding who to see.  Here’s who caught our eye. 

The Dirty Water @ Cherry Cola’s
After watching the Bruins destroy the Canucks and take home the Stanley Cup (and then subsequently also watching Vancouver destroy, well, Vancouver), we found ourselves at a sweaty, packed Cherry Cola’s listening to some old style rock’n’roll fueled by testosterone and soul.  Dirty Water is a heart-filled, blues influenced group of guys who get straight to the core of their songs and invoke shadows of prolific influences like the Rolling Stones.  They’re a more mature bar band, one grounded in their style, and they posed as a nice, solid departure from all the groups still trying to figure things out. 

Dearly Beloved @ Cherry Cola’s
I avoided intentionally seeing Dearly Beloved out of fears they were a lame scene band, only to realize I had actually already seen them live several times before (oh rock’n’roll, why must you make my mind so fuzzy?).  Poor memory aside, as soon as they tore into tracks like “Acceptance Corporation” and “Candy Coated” their frantic energy, catchy hooks and driven guitars instantly reminded me of a presence made further evident by the few die-hards that were scattered about.  However I confess, Dearly Beloved isn’t a band that inspires me as a listener, and thus I found myself focusing on one of my other fave NXNE activities, catching up with friends over drinks while the band filters into the background. 

Die Mannequin @ Cherry Cola’s 
Lets be honest, this is the real reason we wanted to stuff our slightly-drunk bodies into an overheated tiny space full of very-drunk bodies that were super sticky. The grungy, heroin(e)-sleaze hook-laden tracks of Die Mannequin made them a force since day one.  I expected it to remain full, but the crowd had notably dispersed, perhaps because the band took the stage late at 1:30 a.m. on a Wednesday night when all the smart 9-5ers had already rolled out.  I can’t read my typo-ridden notes nor do I recall what they opened with, but I can attest that DM did the job I knew they would by delivering top-notch energy and ending the night off with some balls-out rock’n’roll via tracks such as the edgy, catchy “Locking Elizabeth” and their gritty 2006 classic “Autumn Cannabilist.” This is how DM is supposed to be seen live, in a small sweaty bar full of last call drunks.  A good end to the night and a great start to a week that always kicks summer off just right.

PS I Love You @ The Horseshoe Tavern
Technical difficulties kicked the performance off to an awkward set, but PS I Love You quickly made up for it with howling guitar solos deemed most impressive when taking their stance as a two-piece into consideration.  Combine this with their 2011 Polaris Music Prize long list spot for their debut album Meet Me at the Muster Station and it’s safe to say the Kingston, Ontario duo are really finding their place in the scene, a notion confirmed further by the jam packed Horseshoe Tavern. PS I Love You is a band that simultaneous makes me dance and internalize, as the ambient, fuzzy notions find harmony amongst driven beats riddled with stories so big their presence seems huge.  They are unlikely superheroes, but this adds to their allure and helps secure their place as likely Polaris short list finalists. Do yourself a favour and see them now.

The Hippy Mafia @ Velvet Underground
The last time TMS saw the Hippie Mafia was CMW 2010, and it was the first time the bi-continental band had played their songs in the same room together.  They stood out immediately, but the show was not without it’s fair share of technical meltdowns and the band wasn’t comfortable with each other on stage. Fast forward to this year’s NXNE and the Hippy Mafia have played countless shows and improved tenfold.  Co-singer Molasses opened the set chanting from the late, great Gil Scot Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” before busting into the infectiously catchy “Thousand Pound Man,”   For lack of a better term, the Hippy Mafia can be described as urban rock.  Not as aggressive as conventional rap-rock, the Hippy Mafia prefer a more laid back approach to combining rock with hip-hop, which lends itself well for their messages of love, understanding, revolution and awaking your social consciousness.  The Hippy Mafia is a great example of what happens when gifted musicians and performers band together regardless of their bias of musical taste and create something truly unique.

Crocodiles @ The Silver Dollar Room
Crocodiles have been spilling from the lips of music lovers across the city so much so that the San Diego dream rockers made their long overdue Canadian debut with not one, but THREE consecutive midnight performances at the Silver Dollar Room – all of which were packed.  This was THE band to see during NXNE, a band so instantly captivating, energetic and authentically great at what they do. They’ve already released two successful albums, toured overseas and collaborated with artists such as Cold Cave and the Dum Dum Girls (vocalist Brandon Welchez is married to DDG front woman Kristin Gundred and used to join her on stage).  Welchez alongside guitarist Charles Rowell play the part of rockstars well, wearing dark sunglasses throughout the entirety of the performance, never losing the energy and forever honing that hazy California I-don’t-give-a-fuck-let’s-party style.  Seriously the best band from San Diego and the highlight of the night, hands down!

Dirty Beaches @ The Silver Dollar Room
Alex Zhang Hungtai, the 2011 Polaris long list nominee who goes under the moniker Dirty Beaches, carries himself with the swagger, intensity and charisma of an entire band.  Playing lo-fi, post-rockabilly, Dirty Beaches sounds like the love child of Elvis, Iggy Pop and Morrissey formed in a cheap motel room after getting drunk off whiskey and firing everyone else in the band.  I know it’s a bit abstract, but most things at 1:30 a.m during NXNE usually are.  The performance was isolated, dark and desolate, which made it that much more powerful and captivating to the still full house.  While the haunting music is minimalist, there is nothing minimalist about Hungtai’s growling voice filled with grit, pain and many sleepless nights.  He is a true performer and a uniquely impossible presence to ignore. 

Dum Dum Girls @ Lee’s Palace
It was a packed house and a massive line to get into arguably NXNE’s most sought-after show, but Toronto Music Scene was lucky enough to squeeze in on time.  California’s Dum Dum Girls are ram-packed with intensity, dripping with swagger, sultry lyrics and Lita Ford attitude.  Last year’s debut LP I Will Be suggested a subtle sweetness that disappears onstage when the band explodes into a ferocious and rock-driven performance.  Vocalist Dee Dee is a force to be reckoned with, a modern star who embodies remnants of the Bangles’ Susana Hoffs with Courtney Love’s quirkiness.  But it’s bassist Bambi is the one who catches your eye.  The lone redhead, she is tall and gazelle-like projecting a radiant confidence and a pouty I-don’t-give-a-fuck look.  There was a lot of black lace on stage and a lot of real good girl-heavy Californian rock woven with a little touch of dreaminess.  A perfect performance!

Rusty @ El Macombo
Those who remembered alternative band Rusty and were looking for a little 90’s nostalgia made their way to the El Macombo to witness the band play their second and final reunion gig.  Before Rusty even hit the stage, they were greeted by chants of “Rusty” that continued throughout the night anytime there was a lull in the performance.  When Rusty finally took the stage, lead singer Ken MacNeil threatened to only play new material.  Luckily he was joking and they instantly broke into “Groovy Dead” off of 1995’s Juno nominated Fluke.  The crowd was pretty much the exact same people that would have seen Rusty back in the late nineties, except this time around they weren’t in high school.  This didn’t stop the 30-somethings from screaming along, crowd surfing and yes, even stage diving!  The show was a great way for Rusty to ride off into the sunset and judging by the way the crowd exploded when they finished their set with “Misogyny,” I wouldn’t be surprised if a tour was in the works for 2012.

Cults @ Lee’s Palace
Manhattan, New York’s Cults haven’t always had the best luck in Toronto.  Last time they were here their van got broken into, but the at-capacity crowd Friday night screamed and sang along, suggestively begging them to forgive us.  Calling Toronto an “awesome, thieving city,” Cults opened with “Abducted” off of this month’s landmark self-titled debut.  This is a band that is impeccably good and pleasantly moving.  Vocalist Madeline Follin is a sexy firecracker with a misty rock voice.  She’s a rare gem, combining an undeniable sensuality and sweetness with a radiant confidence and a quirky attitude.  Not to mention seductive pipes!  Cults second core member is guitarist Brian Oblivion, but the two were backed by a full band during NXNE that couldn’t have sounded better.  Cults is a unique lo-pop indie band whose performances leave lasting impressions.  The crowd was particularly into it by Toronto standards, amping the experience to a whole new level.  To get a great taste of them check out TMS fave track “Bad Things” and be sure to pick up their record.   

Pack A.D. @ Horseshoe
Vancouver’s Pack A.D. is the first band I’ve seen to offer hockey sticks to the first three people to buy their latest album We Kill Computers – Canadian Tire sticks to be exact!  Though after a riff-heavy performance interlaced with a mild comedy show, it’s clear the incentive was hardly needed.  Drummer Maya Miller and guitarist/vocalist Becky Black play full garage rock with a solid back beat and a nice groove.  Kinda like Tegan and Sara with balls! They play music to have a good time and to make you have a good time, and they succeed tremendously.  Crisp guitar riffs bleed into sound percussion with 70s influences and soul-drenched vocals.  They’re honestly a lot of fun and their banter was hilarious.  And for the record, I did see a guy leave with a hockey stick after the show!

Devo @ Yonge & Dundas Square
For those that went to last years Iggy Pop performance at Yonge and Dundas square and were aggravated by being unable to see the stage, NXNE listened and tried their best to fix it (well sort of).  Most of the sight lines were still blocked by corporate sponsored tents and booth’s, but this year they were nice enough to get a couple of large televisions to show the live feeds of the concert.  Sadly more people were forced to watch the giant TV’s instead of the legendary new wave band Devo.  Dawning the classic Devo neon yellow garbage men suits, Devo went through a few costume changes while playing from a varied catalog spanning from their almost 30-year career.  You didn’t have to be a die hard fan to enjoy their hour and a half set, as there was plenty of energy and songs that you would know without owning a single album.  Before you knew it the show was done, but not before Devo played a one song encore featuring “Freedom of Choice” before fans and curious onlookers made their way back into the night.

Tiny Victories @ Czehoski
Tiny Victories is a wonderfully dynamic and beat-filled duo from Brooklyn, NY.  Unfortunately they played a very unfitting venue, as Czehoski was full of people drinking wine and eating dinner.   The band was bouncy and bright despite this and made the most of the situation by making jokes like how they don’t normally play “to seedy people in a restaurant.”  All jokes aside, they’re actually incredibly talented and innovative.  They pull influences from New York greats like LCD Soundsystem, while bridging in gritty rock and simple brilliant lyrics like ‘everyday is getting worse and we are too.’  Almost half the room was comprised of one long birthday party table.  TV recorded everyone yelling ‘happy birthday Melissa’ then sampled it into a couple of their tracks throughout the night.  It was a testament to their character and a trait that will undoubtedly soon turn heads.  Brooklyn’s been busting out trippy dance beats like it’s their job, but Tiny Victories are doing it right!

Handsome Furs @ The Garrison
We’re really into two-pieces right now, but Handsome Furs is hands down our fave.  Skinny, sexy husband-wife duo Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade front man) and Alexei Perry tore into a plethora of new tracks off next week’s highly anticipated third release Sound Kapital – a record perfect for those times when all you wanna do is dance and get fucked up to a groovin beat that means something. Harnessing DJ influences with a backbone of garage and indie rock rhythms, Montreal’s Handsome Furs stole the night. The two live the part of rock’n’roll sweethearts – playing impeccably tight despite looking a little rough for wear, and they were impossible cute, stealing kisses on stage as all those sweet full sounds emanated from their comparatively small setup.  Handsome Furs are extremely fun to watch and their music seeps deep into your bones in the best ways, creeping in and wrapping itself around your head and your heart.  Dancing happens, love happens, getting lost happens.  It’s the NXNE performance I can’t stop talking about.

TMS saw more bands after Handsome Furs, but this seems like the appropriate spot to end our NXNE review.  They encompassed single-handedly what this festival is about.  Music that makes you feel good and excited in a room full of die-hards & lucky explorers who happened to stumble across the performance of the night.  We survived another NXNE and we can’t wait to do it again next year!  Summer is officially here!

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