NXNE Thursday

You gotta love North by Northeast, the annual four-day music festival that hits Toronto in June. The weather was mostly good on Thursday, so venues were packed with lots of people having fun, and the streets outside were vibrant and alive.

Tonight, I saw:

My 2008 NXNE began with an early show for Your Favorite Enemies. The band had me a bit confused. They had just come off a Japan and Indonesia tour, where they seem to have been quite popular. Their MySpace page was adorned with snazzily produced music videos and video blogs, oozing the sort of publicity that only big-name (and big-money) bands can afford. So, why on earth were they playing at Neutral (a dark, dank, pit) at 8 PM?

When I arrived at a very empty Neutral and first saw a rather long-haired and shaggy Sef (lead guitar), I thought that surely I’d made a mistake and found the rare occurrence of two bands with the exact same name. I had pretty much accepted that I was about to listen to some random music from some other band… but that’s when the Your Favorite Enemies entourage came in.

The entourage was led by Alex Foster and Miss Isabel, the trendy vocal focus of the band, followed by two videographers, multiple photographers, managers, grips, and stage-hands. When the six-piece band was assembled on the tiny Neutral “stage”, flanked by photographers and videographers just inches away from them, there was barely enough room for them to move. The only thing that was missing was … an audience. In the audience tonight were about eleven, including one young Japanese male who had just came off the plane from Tokyo. It was surely an odd sight.

Thankfully, their sound was better than random. Your Favorite Enemies would probably classify halfway between alternative rock and alternative metal. On some songs, including my favorite from their set, Open Your Eyes, they remind me a lot of Evanescence — with Amy Lee’s ethereal singing replaced with some more grounded lyrics from the co-lead singers. Foster’s voice and contributions are the more interesting of the two and adds a deep dimension to the music; Miss Isabel’s I found a bit lackluster in comparison. Personally, I felt that the star was lead guitarist Sef, energetically rocking with power riffs and lick-filled catchy hooks. It’s a shame they were consigned to such a small stage — on it, Foster’s movements and motions seem a bit restricted and contrived.

A brief walk away was the Savannah Room where Adrienne Pierce, a singer-songwriter from Vancouver, BC, was performing. Accompanying her on stage tonight was Ari Shine, also a singer-songwriter in his own right. You may not have heard of her, but you may have heard her music: her recent songs Fool’s Gold and Lost and Found have been featured on the TV shows Grey’s Anatomy and Veronica Mars, respectively. More impressively, all of the songs on her first, independently produced, album, Small Fires, were licensed to TV shows one way or another.

Her recordings fit well into the ‘pop’ label. But when performed live with just guitar and voice, without all the bits of fancy dressing, we see a different side to her music, emphasizing witty and crafty lyrics and a soothing voice. She opened her show with beautiful Arizona, played solo, emotionally charged vocals set above quiet, simple quiet strumming, which I thought had a mystical effect. Ari Shine provided much of the fancier guitar backing for her later songs, and also some of her lyrics when she forgot them — oops!

While looking around for NXNE bands, I stumbled upon Cancel Winter‘s track, The Silence, and was quite impressed: an Indie band with a smooth blend of rock and electronica/synths. After listening to the rest of their tracks, I was hooked, so I, with many others, headed down to the packed Supermarket for their 10 PM show.

Their show was good — but not great. The Supermarket was full, but didn’t feature the vibrant, riled up crowd that could-have-been. They’ve got a nice sound, but with the strength of their material I felt they could have done a little better. Is this the norm, or perhaps I just caught them on a bad night? Well, the easiest way to find out is go to their next show… They definitely have potential, and are worth a second try.

Tattoo Rock Parlour normally has an area in front of the stage cleared of tables and chairs, for patrons to groove and dance. However, tonight, the venue floor was fully covered with tables, as dancing was probably not expected: but Dr. Draw surely was unexpected.

Most bands playing NXNE are fronted by singing. Dr. Draw is uniquely fronted by Eugene Draw, a violinist, originally of Montreal. On his electric violin, Draw can produce soaring, singing melodies jast as well (or better) than any singing front-man. The violin is backed with standard rock-band fare: guitar, bass guitar, drums, synths, … oh, and electric harp, producing a full, rock sound with lots of electronica influence. Their song Rain is hauntingly beautiful, and you can’t deny the classical influence in songs such as Adagio. A solid beat and great bass lines makes you want to dance, as can be expected with Draw’s previous experience in house music. Patrons were standing up and dancing in the corners, grooving to the beat.

What I enjoyed the most is watching Draw at work on stage. He’s a true showman — dancing, jumping, bristling with energy as he builds each song to an exciting climax; more than once during the frantic violining moments, I was afraid the violin would slip out of his hand, fly across the room, and smash some poor unsuspecting soul in the head. Their recordings just don’t do him justice — the band has recently moved to Toronto, so I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to check him out live yourself.

On a disturbing note, at exactly midnight, as I was entering The Reverb, not more than 400m from me two 25 year-old men were shot to death as they sat in their SUV. The reason is still unknown, but the police suspect an attempted carjacking. What’s going on with Toronto?

Those safely in The Reverb were packed in tightly for People in Planes. (So packed, that I couldn’t get anywhere near the front to take photographs.) People in Planes are a five-piece Indie rock band from Cardiff, Wales. I’m not familiar with their older material, but their newer stuff exhibits a really good balance: soaring vocals, layered instrumentation, solid rock riffs, and the occasional guitar solo. Their newest single, Pretty Buildings, has all the right pieces in the right places, and was easily one of my favorite songs in their set. I wouldn’t be surprised if they take off soon (no pun intended) — their music certainly has that mainstream, mass-market appeal.

The band was reasonably animated on stage, but the audience was less so, quite in contrast to reviews of previous shows — but still an enjoyable show!

I only caught the tail end of Alex Cuba‘s set at the Tattoo Rock Parlour, but I liked what I heard. This Cuban-Canadian singer songwriter, a two-time Juno award winner, played a mix of cuban-pop-rock with soulful singing and his vintage Gibson. Bonus points for singing the entire set in Spanish, and for the stylin’ afro.

I caught the first few songs of Flash Lightnin, a Toronto regular 3-piece band, before catching the last subway home. They’ve got an “old school” rock sound which reminds me a lot of AC/DC.

12 June 2008 | grc | Music | Comments

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