The 18th edition of North By Northeast (NXNE) Music, Film and Interactive Festival touched down in Toronto from June 11-17 with a whirlwind week of live music featuring over 800 bands, 40 independent films and interactive seminars. And that wasn't all, as it also featured a Record Show, a boat cruise, and for the first time - a comedy showcase. Free concerts in the Square featured music by such eclectic acts as The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal, Bad Religion, and Raekwon & Ghostface Killah. There was definitely a band for everyone's tastes!
As attendees since the second year, we've watched NXNE continue to grow into one of the best music festivals ever. This year was so full of stuff to do it was impossible to catch every show or activity one wanted to, so this report is only a taste of what went on.
We arrived on Thursday night and kicked off the weekend's showcases at the legendary El Mocambo (ElMo) nightclub, which features two floors of music from 8pm until 4am! The bands that stood out for us included Toronto's Fast Romantics, who sounded like a cross between Elvis Costello and The Style Council, with a little ELO thrown in for good measure. Listed in the guide as similar to The Arcade Fire, we're glad that didn't stop us because the music was far better than TAF's, probably because they spend less time coordinating their outfits.
A Place to Bury Strangers - New York's self-proclaimed "Loudest Band in New York" - packed the downstairs room with their dark, noisy, atmospheric sound and projected various images behind the musicians. It was so dark and packed, it was impossible to take pictures, but Red Lorry Yellow Lorry fans may want to check them out.
We headed down the street to the Silver Dollar Room for Bleached, a NXNE buzz band that held court three consecutive nights. This predominately female foursome from California played bubblegum punk to the mostly male crowd (some who took drunked, borderline violent offense at our taking pictures in front of them) and threw in a Misfits cover as their encore.
We ended the night back at The ElMo for the PitchBlak Brass Band who entertained the late night crowd with funky, two-tone rap and '70s horns, though their instrumental cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" bordered on cruise ship territory.
Friday night started out at the Bovine Sex Club for a set by FU, a space-rock prog trio from Tokyo, Japan. While the band was clearly getting into their music, we were not, so headed up the street to Velvet Underground and saw another hometown band, The Two Koreas, finishing their set. (The camera nearly died of boredom shooting them. Stage presence isn't selling out, guys.)
We were eager to check out the evening's next band, Dearly Beloved, also from Toronto. Their description called them snappy modern rockers influenced by '70s UK punk, early '80s pop and Detroit rock. The description was spot-on! They put on a powerful, high-energy show with dual male-female vocal harmonies and edgy guitars that made them one of the festival's highlights. We would've bought their CD right then and there, but didn't see a merch table. That turned out to be fortunate because when we finally listened to it on Spotify, we were disappointed because their recorded product seriously lacked their live sound energy. They really need to come to Detroit and have Jim Diamond produce them.
Moving on to The Garrison, another NXNE buzz band was Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, two Asian girls from Montreal who brought their "Noh-Wave" style mix of Noh, Japanese musical drama with atonal no-wave beats. It relied too heavily on Kabuki theatrics and not enough on their music for these listeners, who grew bored and were ready to seek out more musical fare.
Gus + Scout, a country-folk-blues duo was the next selection at the subterranean Dakota Tavern, their tales of heartache and woe brought a mellow finish to this evening's entertainment. While it's not a big secret, the program didn't mention that the duo was Scout Willis (daughter of Demi and Bruce) and Gus Wenner, son of Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner. Scout has solid blues-shouter pipes that daddy Bruno wishes he had and Gus pealed off angsty guitar licks. Whether their famous parents will be a help or hindrance remains to be seen.
Saturday night we caught the return of '70s punk stalwarts Teenage Head on the stage of The Great Hall. The band has kept it together with new singer and longtime fan Pete MacAulay after the demise of original singer/founding member Frankie Venom in 2008. Like a Canadian Ramones meets The New York Dolls, the band has stayed together in one form or another since 1975. Teenage Head still looked like they were having fun playing for their new and old fans in attendance.
They were followed by another old Canadian power pop-punk favorite The Nils, from Montreal, whose songs still sound fresh today.
Next up back at Garrison was Country, a badly-named electro duo from Montreal. Their retro-mix sounded like a cross between The Cure and Joy Division, which had us dub them The Cure Division. Their highly danceable neo-goth groove had the crowd dancing up a storm while the two musicians were silhouetted in smoke onstage, lit by a single bulb in a photographer's nightmare.
I felt bad for the next band to have to follow them, but C T Z N S H P (really, spaces? MGMT doesn't need spaces) did their best to entertain the restless 3 am crowd with their Corey Hart meets Depeche Mode music.
The showcases continued on Sunday but it was time for us to return to Detroit with another great NXNE festival behind us to catch up on some much-needed sleep!
Detroit was represented at the festival by the new jazzy-rap band Clear Soul Forces, who we unfortunately didn't get a chance to check out due to conflicting showcases. Also the interactive conference included a panel called "Living In The Map: Adventures In Making Detroit A More User-Friendly City" with local Detroit advocate Jerry Paffendorf from Loveland Technologies.
For more information on NXNE, check out www.nxne.com for band and film submissions for 2013.