NXNE 2015: Taking the “generic” out of genre music
All photos by Don Kreger
For half a decade I have contended that musically adventurous Western New Yorkers owe it to themselves to make a mid-June pilgrimage to Toronto for the annual convergence of North by Northeast and the Luminato Festival. The latter continues through June 28, so you still have time to catch several more days of free concerts by well-known performers from around the world. NXNE, which ran from June 17 through 21, is almost as international in scope, but the emphasis is less on marquee names than on the thrill of discovery. By this point I can’t count the number of spine-tingling performances I’ve attended by acts I’d never heard of in relatively small venues; some go on to indie stardom (or at least packed gigs in Buffalo clubs like the Tralf, Town, Mohawk, and both levels of Babeville), while others disappear back into the ether, leaving only happy memories behind.
This year’s festival was smaller than previous ones in some ways—the comedy, film, and interactive fare has largely been phased out—but there were still thrills aplenty. Here’s a list of high points from the eighteen acts we caught in 2015.
Nick Waterhouse @ the Horseshoe Tavern
This young LA-based powerhouse offers up classic R&B complete with squawking tenor sax, propulsive drumming, and vintage keyboards that evoke a plinking Farfisa one minute and a plump B3 the next. “R&B” barely begins to convey Waterhouse’s range as a songwriter and performer; I also heard elements of Carolina beach music, rockabilly, twist, Leiber & Stoller’s hits for the Coasters and other late 50s acts, some Jerry Lee Lewis, and a little Professor Longhair. (If those references are too far before your time, think of Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse, Chris Isaak, the Stray Cats, and maybe even early Elvis Costello.) Lots of revivalists have revisited one or two of those genres at a time to create pastiches of bygone eras, but the miracle of Waterhouse’s original tunes is that they throw multiple influences in a blender and end up sounding absolutely fresh and of-the-moment.
How Sad @ Handlebar
Eighties synth-pop throwbacks are a dime a dozen these days (and at NXNE every year), but this hook-happy Montreal trio (the band’s size varies from time to time) would surely be producing gorgeous music even if New Order had never existed. Singer Harris Gilbertshper’s voice swoops from bass to falsetto with ease, while his bandmates create an appropriately swirling soundscape behind him. (Bonus tip: Handlebar, in the heart of Kensington Market, is a homey newish lounge with a nice selection of Canadian microbrews and excellent light fare.)
Here’s a sample of How Sad’s wares, this one a nod to Avalon-era Roxy Music:
Summer Heart @ the Gap
A clothing chain in broad daylight may not be the likeliest venue for the Canadian debut of a Swedish dream-pop act, but David Alexander rose to the occasion with charm and good humor. (If the only thing you think of when you hear the words “Swedish pop” is ABBA, you’re in for a wonderful surprise.) He and an outstanding guest guitarist whose name I didn’t catch (Alexander employs several on the road) layered reverb-drenched vocals over effervescent synths and some surprisingly warm-sounding drum machines, pulling off at least two feats of magic: composing perfect summer music in an extremely cold climate, and using otherwise sterile technology to create a thoroughly human vibe in concert. Alas, neither of the two CDs I snatched up on the spot quite captures what’s so special about Summer Heart’s live show (step away from the AutoTune, friend!), although this recording of “Sleep” comes close.
Girl Band @ the Drake (Hotel) Underground
I could ramble on all day and night about this quartet of twentysomething Irish guys (singer Dara Kiely, drummer Adam Faulkner, guitarist Alan Duggan, and bassist Daniel Fox), because they put on what was clearly one of the finest shows I’ve ever seen at NXNE. Granted, unlike the other acts I’ve just raved about, they’re not exactly aiming at the Spree demographic—but if you have a taste for the prepared guitars of Sonic Youth, the low-end rumble of Public Image Ltd., the stream-of-consciousness rants of Mark E. Smith, and the noisier side of krautrock (to name just their most obvious precursors), have I got a band for you. Having heard at least a hundred half-assed acts over the years attempting to mine that territory and failing miserably, I have developed limited patience for noise as a genre, but these guys are one tight unit, with an expert sense of pacing and dynamics. This may not sound like a compliment, but after a weekend of smiling popsters, I was delighted to see that three quarters of Girl Band never lifted their heads from the floor once (talk about shoegazing!). Bonus points for a merch table that featured only cassette and vinyl editions of their brilliant debut album, and for a closing number that was over in twenty seconds, just as a mosh pit was beginning to form.
Here’s Girl Band at their finest:
And that’s not all, folks!
We only caught the final two and a half songs of Angel Olsen’s solo set at the stylish Mod Club on College Street (one of which was a loving cover of Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest”), but as we entered the venue the full house of a thousand or more was dead quiet, savoring a long, delicate guitar solo; she ended the concert with the most rapturous response of the weekend (pictured above). The Gories are a 60s trash/garage-rock trio from Detroit who have their own adorable theme song and are more than willing to crank out good old-fashioned primitive sweaty fun in the tradition of contemporaries the Cramps and the Fleshtones, all night long. They packed the Horseshoe (probably the best place to take a chance on an unknown band, by the way), as did Long Beach, CA’s Tijuana Panthers, whom I’ll describe as a weird mashup of Gang of 4, the Ventures, Joy Division, Link Wray, and the B-52s, only because those things don’t sound like they’d work together and yet they totally do here. Vancouver’s Wild Romantics are, on record, a haunting acoustic duo worthy of close attention; onstage at the tiny Cameron House they were a rather loud five-piece electric outfit that sacrificed subtlety for sultry swamp boogie that would probably go over great at the far larger outdoor venues Grace Potter plays these days.
NXNE offers up a little something for everyone; not reflected in the items above are the festival’s ample doses of underground hiphop, hair metal, and—yes—relentless electronic industrial noise. See you next year in Toronto, music lovers!
Ron Ehmke writes the “Sounds of the City” music column for the print edition of Buffalo Spree. For more information on these and other NXNE 2015 bands, visit him on Facebook in the days ahead.