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NXNE 2011: Night One

Gauntlet Hair at NXNE

All images by Don Kreger

(Note: This is the first in a series of reports from the midst of Toronto’s North by North East music, film, and interactive conference filed by associate editor Ron Ehmke and photographer Don Kreger. The festival started Wednesday, June 13 and runs through this Sunday. Tickets for most events and day passes are still available.)

“Why are you going to Toronto?” the border guy asks. When our original answer—“We’re heading to North by Northeast”—draws a blank stare, I start to explain “It’s sort of like a smaller version of South by Southwest,” assuming that everyone in the universe has heard by now of Austin’s celeb-studded annual mega-event, but that doesn’t get us too far, either. I’m tempted to resort to NXNE’s grocery-list-style tagline—“650 bands, 5 days, 50 venues, 40 films”—but the officer has already moved on: “Have you already got a hotel reservation?”

He’s just the latest in a long line of folks from WNY and Southern Ontario who seem totally unaware of the ginormous gift that awaits international music lovers every June, a mere two hours from home. It’s hardly new, either: 2011 marks Year 17 for NXNE, and I recall hearing about its early days on CFNY back when Kurt Cobain was still alive and that station was still listenable. Even so, this is the first time I’ve managed to make it to the party myself.

6:15 p.m. Brian Wilson (in the country for a Massey Hall concert Saturday night on what he claims is both his first Canadian tour and possibly the end of his touring career) is scheduled to receive NOW magazine’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement award in the ballroom of the conference’s host hotel, the utterly unrockandrollish Hyatt Regency. After a warning that Mr. Wilson won’t be able to sign any autographs because he’s flying to Montreal, an address from the publisher of NOW and founder of NXNE (i.e., the Jamie Moses of Toronto), a 10-minute video retrospective, and a moving intro by Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, Wilson pokes his head through a curtain, receives a standing ovation, waves to the crowd, says, “Hi, my name is Brian Wilson. It is a privilege to be here at the North by Northeast [sic],” and then he’s gone. Two sentences! It’s surely a testament to the well-documented eccentricity and charm of the pop genius, and/or to the good humor of Canadians, that this surreally brief (and free) appearance is greeted with dazed looks and long-lingering chuckles rather than, say, a mini-riot.

The Dodos

9 p.m. : The Dodos play to a packed house at the Phoenix. I should note that of NXNE’s fabled 650 bands, I’ve heard of at most 10 percent, so I’ve relied on fellow Spree blogger and pop culture omnivore Jared Mobarak to recommend more. He says he recognizes maybe 20 percent, including this California trio. On album (at least 2011’s No Color, an instant new favorite for me) they’re often gentle, jangly, and melodic; onstage that’s all present, but it’s encased in an enormous wall of murk it’s hard to believe is the work of only three people. There’s zero theatricality but an expert sense of how to build a set to a breathtaking crescendo. In retrospect, the best show of the night for both of us.


10 p.m.: Deerhoof, headliners of the same Phoenix bill, take the stage with glitter makeup, hippie hair, jumping jacks, a drummer whose stage patter evokes Crispin Glover, and an impish lead singer (Satomi Matsuzaki) who’s surely spent her life being compared to Yoko Ono. The sound, full of weird, ever-changing time signatures, reminds me a little of Stereolab and even more of Primus—two bands I’ve never particularly appreciated. While they’re clearly crowd-pleasers, a little of their contrived eccentricity goes a long way; then again, Frank Zappa, the patron saint of this kind of shenanigans, has never done much for me, either.

11:30 p.m.: Danish neo-acid rockers Black Light White Light are wrapping up their endearingly scrappy set at the Boat, an exquisite dive bar in Kensington Market that resembles the inside of a decrepit cruise ship. (Aficionados of the joints covered in Spree’s “Pubcrawl” column are encouraged to arrange a field trip.) I’ve never heard of the band till now, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that all Scandinavian musicians are worth checking out, at least for a song or two.

12 a.m.: Still aboard the Boat, we catch the first half-dozen numbers by Montreal’s Danielle Duval, billed in the festival’s publicity as “country-tinged rock with all the artsy panache of Patti Smith and style of Chrissie Hynde.” No part of that description does justice to Duval or her group; she’s a big-voiced belter (who reminds me a bit of Buffalo’s own Alison Pipitone) fronting a fun bar band that plays vintage (if somewhat generic) power pop with a very slight twang, a dab of tongue-in-cheek disco, and what I could swear is the first Farfisa organ I’ve heard in thirty years. She’d be perfect for the Sportsmens or Thursday at the Square.

1 a.m.: Upstairs at the El Mocambo, Vancouver’s Josh Martinez does a quick soundcheck by singing/screaming along to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” accompanied by his live band playing at top volume. It turns out to be the template for his entire act: smartass rap over snippets of sampled crap-rock. Insane Clown Posse lives!

1:20 a.m.: Did I just say Martinez was loud? He’s a pipsqueak compared to the roar downstairs at the El Mo. Gauntlet Hair (winner of Pitchfork’s “Worst Band Name of the Week” and pictured above) lays on the reverb and distortion so heavily that I keep thinking someone is tugging on my shirt, only to realize it’s PURE SONIC VIBRATION. At one point—a first in nearly four decades of concertgoing—I begin to fear a spontaneous nosebleed, caused solely by SHEER VOLUME. Also off-putting is the brief illusion that the maniacal drummer, who is front and center onstage, is completely naked but for his wool cap and 70s-porn-star stache. (In reality, he is also wearing nearly invisible skinny jeans.) This Denver act is my second fave of the evening, though I can’t help noticing that their entire sound is based on the sonic sorcery Animal Collective has been honing for the last ten years, minus every shred of nuance and subtlety that AC brings to the formula, and presented in a far more straightforward manner. Is that a complaint? I’m not sure, but by Friday afternoon—as I catch my breath and try to contemplate our options for Night Two—I find myself wanting to spend more time with their deafening din.

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