By: Hilary Johnston July 9th, 2013
TURF (Toronto Urban Roots Fest) kicked off on Thursday, July 4th to a relaxed crowd of after-work music lovers who were eased into a weekend of live perfromances, big and small. The location of Fort York / Garrison Common proved to be the ideal setting, as the sunset served as a backdrop from the west stage while the cityscape sat behind the east. Save for the unsavoury view of the Gardiner Expressway, it was nice to see Toronto’s green spaces be put to good use, good vibes and good music.
The Barr Brothers
The Barr Brothers walked on amidst the sticky day, humbly thanking the crowd for welcoming them as the first band to ever grace the Toronto Urban Roots Festival. Met with only a handful of enthusiastic early-gawkers, the four-piece started confidently, slowly attracting late-arrivers to the flock.
Their set-up was visually appealing; Sarah Page’s harp served as an anchor for the mixed percussion and guitars. Even with the soft and controlled rhythm (covered by both Andrew Barr and Andres Vial), the harp was only clearly audible during intros and outros of the set-list, leaving me wishing for more. As the show progressed, things got interesting as Brad Barr swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric, finding harmony amongst the eclectic mix of percussive instruments and harmonica. The audience seemed pleased, with most of their favourites making the cut including “Beggar in the Morning”, which I unabashedly hummed to myself until the next act went on. The Barr Brothers were soft and sweet, like a delicious indie popcicle on a hot Thursday afternoon.
All the way from Glasgow, Scotland, Camera Obscura came on as the sun was still shining. The crowd had filled out by that time and, at first, I thought it was merely in anticipation of the headliner, She & Him. As the set continued, the number of people dancing and singing proved me wrong. It seems that the indie pop septet had collected some die-hard Toronto fans since their formation in 1996.
The music of the sunglasses-clad, pop-smiths was as personable as their stage persona. Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals were crisp, complimenting the harmonies offered by her bandmates beautifully. Campbell is a refreshingly unusual frontwoman, performing with modesty and poise while still effectively fastening the rest of the band. That said, my eyes and ears were drawn to Tim Cronin, who rocked a tambourine, woodblock and then, satisfyingly, a trumpet. Every fill was executed sweetly and precisely. The sound was well balanced, each layer clean and carried by the breeze. Silences were as musical as sounds, a feat not achieved by many bands I have seen of late. Camera Obscura delivered, leaving me relatively surprised, yet strangely content.
Joel Plaskett Emergency
Introduced as “the best time you can have in Canadian music,” Joel Plaskett Emergency were instantly greeted like an old friend upon arrival. Who could blame them? They are classic and wholly reliable.
The band played an assortment of favourites including “Truthfully, Truthfully” and “Extraordinaire”, the refrains of which were so familiar that they felt anthemic. Between songs, Joel imparted stories of the Cabot Trail and the challenges of songwriting on a deadline. He even acknowledged the irony of playing “Natural Disaster” after sharing kind words of support for Calgary’s flood victims. He played a few solo acoustic numbers before inviting the rest of the Emergency back to rock out to “Work Out Fine”, “Nowhere With You” and the closer, “Lightning Bolt”. The set lasted longer than expected (not a complaint), which in turn proved to be a fitting encapsulation to a contagiously good time.
Is it too soon to compare Joel Plaskett as this generation’s Stompin’ Tom? I don’t think so!
She & Him
With a name like “She & Him” I was anticipating a duet. Not so. In fact, it was one of several unfulfilled expectations I had to deal with during their performance. While the songs were pleasent and well composed, they resulted in the only two factors that carried the set along. There was great potential for a 1960s girl group aesthetic to be brought to life, but the insouciant manner of the performers felt flat. Comprised of tunes from their albums Volume One, Volume Two and Volume Three, there was an alloted slot given to M. Ward, allowing his coolness to take the spotlight from Zooey Deschanel, if only momentarily.
Identifying the source of the deficiency took me a few minutes. At first, I thought Zooey’s voice was simply too loud. Then it hit me. Each time she visited the upper register of her vocal range, it became more and more apparent that volume was not the problem. Her voice is shrill, comparable to the sound of vocals resonating in a giant tin room. It was piercing, starkly contrasting an otherwise cute and occasionally acceptable performance.
Next time, I’d like a little bit more of “him” and way less of “she”.
Photos courtesy of Front of House Photography @FOHPhoto