For years, I have been saying that my favourite 3 days in Toronto are the weekend on which NxNE falls. There really is something amazing about strapping on that wristband and going from gig to gig all over the city, riding the streetcar with all of the music scenesters, staying out all night and drinking in massive excess, all of which constitue the ritual involved in seeing some of the finest bands on the planet gathered in our fair city. I love going out for breakfast in Kennsington Market on Saturday and seeing a group of 4 or 5 dudes and dudettes wearing the same wristband as I am, looking every bit as hungover as me, and then exchanging knowing nods with these total strangers because we know and understand that there's a kind of fraternity amongst all of us who put in the time and gruelling, liver-destroying, Herculean effort it takes to truly experience the festival (450 bands at 40 bars over 3 nights). It really is one of the coolest things about the weekend, that quasi-kinship that hip young music lovers feel for one another.
In talking to my buddy Browner (the only person who made it out for all 3 nights with me), he pointed out that the Canadian Music scene is the only place where you can bump into these amazing artists and musicians and have actual conversations with them. There's no pretension. There's no attitude. And everybody's out to have the same kind of rockin' good time. I think he put it best when he said: "I was just upstairs taking a piss and Ron Sexsmith stepped up to the urinal beside me... and this isn't even the first time that's happened." This only happens in Toronto at North by North East. You just bump into these people in the most random places; in the crowd waiting to see other bands, in front of the bar having a cigarette, sitting in the car next to them in traffic; and it always feels like you're bumping into an old friend.
And then there's the ridiculously great music...
Best Pat Boone Reference in a Hip Hop Performance: Shad K (Kathedral, Friday, 11pm)
Any hip hop artist who strums an acoustic guitar and has the sack to list Pat Boone as an influence gets the nod from me. Shad K is from London, ON, and was just recently signed to Black Box Records, and he absolutely rocked the joint on Friday night. Spitting beautifully articulated and at time hilarious lyrics ("I’m always jamming like Peter Tosh’s rastas / Getting the thoughtless tossed quicker / Than The Moffats in a mosh pit"), this guy, along with his ridiculously talented DJ on the wheels of steel, absolutely blew me away. Like a young Maestro Fresh Wes (chalked full of Canadian references), I absolutely loved the fact that he wasn't afraid to get a positive message across, particularly in the track "Out of Love" where he explains how, unlike most other hip hop artists, he isn't looking for any kind of a ho, but instead wants to get himself a "Clare Huxtable". Some of his self-deprecating lines are amongst the funniest I've ever heard. A totally refreshing spin on hip hop, and a guy you should definitely be on the look out for.
Best Performance by a Band I'd Never Heard of Prior to This Weekend (aka: The Krister Axel Award): $outhpaw (The Dakota Tavern, Saturday, 10pm)
We met Gav and Lou from $outhpaw on Thursday night at Lee's Palace for the Bob Harris showcase (that night is ineligible for these awards because they would have swept almost every category... and because I've already written about it here), and after many, many beverages, they informed us that they were playing on Saturday night at the Dakota Tavern (which Gav insisted on calling the Dakota "Lounge"). They were such great people that we had to hit up their gig. And you know what? They were absolutely fantastic. They played that brand of Alt-Country that I find myself falling more and more in love with with every show I see, and their songs had every damn person in the bar stomping their feet and whooping it up. On a night in which we saw both Soundtrack of Our Lives and Urge Overkill, I can say with all honesty that I had the most fun and most enjoyed the music at the Southpaw show.
Gav, the lead singer, undoubtedly provided the best between-song-banter, keeping the crowd in stiches as he went on at length in his Glaswegian accent about how the Dakota (Lounge) was the perfect place for their band to play because it was the exact kind of place they liked to get drunk in on a Saturday night. He also dedicated a song to the Scottish minister who outlawed smoking in bars (Gav smokes about a pack a day, and said that this particular 45-minute set was way too long for him to go without a cigarette, so if anyone stepped outside for a smoke, he asked that they please kindly come up to the stage afterwards so he could smell them...), and another one, a Graham Parsons tune, to his lovely lady Lou. But I think my favourite part of the set was when he said that the next song they were playing was usually reserved for hecklers (the song is called "Shut Your Mouth"), so if anyone felt the urge to heckle, now was the time... And then some dude at the back of the crowd yells "YOU GUYS SUCK!" That shit kills me.
If $outhpaw is ever back in town, or if you're ever over in Scotland, do yourself a favour and check out their show. I almost wish they were the house band at the Dakota, because I'd make it my Saturday night watering hole if they were.
Best Disembowelment of a Midway Plush Toy Prize: White Cowbell Oklahoma (The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, Friday, 1am)
There really are no words to describe this show. I think Gav from $outhpaw put it best when he said: "I was talking to the lead singer about his band and asked them what their lineup was. They guy told me, 'we have four lead guitars, a chainsaw, and a stripper'. I said I'd only stay for a song, but then I couldn't leave." There was a ridiculous lineup outside of the 'shoe when we got there just before 1am, so we knew there must be something to these guys. We managed to pull a Wayne and Garth with our wristbands and snuck into the front of the line just as it began moving, and before we knew what was happening, we were in a crowd of about a thousand people chanting a chorus that went: "PUT THE SOUTH IN YOUR MOUTH, PRETTY BABY!!!" Up on stage, it looked like a white-trash intrepretation of a Jay-Z concert, because there were about 20 band members standing around doing various things, some of which even included playing their instruments.
But really, the show didn't swing into full gear until they brought out the chainsaw. I'm pretty sure this broke just about every safety regulation in the book. The guy fired this thing up, and the place went absolutely nuts. As the lead singer announced, "Behold the Spinning Wheel of Death", the guy with the murder weapon went at about a dozen rolls of toilet paper, sending it flying in every direction like a high school kegger gone terribly wrong. But it wasn't until they took out the gigantic stuffed animal; you know, the kind you might win after knocking down all of the bowling pins with a baseball at the carnival; that things got out completely out of control. They absolutetly butchered this thing on stage, sending its styrofoam innards all over the first four rows. I'm telling you, I saw these people come walking out of the crowd later on in the show, and they looked like the images of the people who had been near the world trade centers when they came down. They were absolutely covered in dust and foam, and they had a stunned and confused look in their eyes, like they couldn't believe what they'd seen. Really, if you're ever at a show, standing in the first few rows, and you hear the lead singer begin to chant: "CH-CH-CH-CHAINSAW!!! CH-CH-CH-CHAINSAW!!!", you might want to think about taking a few steps back. After they'd finished gutting the plush toy, they threw the lifeless shell into the crowd, and it somehow ended up on the wing of the ceiling fan, spinning around and around all night long like a reminder of what might happen to you if you fuck with the WCO, the same way they used to put the bodies of traitors on display in medeival empires. I honestly couldn't stop laughing. Even days later, I would think about that thing spinning around above the crowd and have a good chuckle about it. And then they brought the stripper out on stage.
After the set finished, we stood around for awhile with our ears still violently ringing, completely stunned, looking for the appropriate words to describe it. Browner put it best when he said: "That show had everything except good music." I never thought the term "Gong Show" would be a fitting description of a band's set, but in this instance, it really is the only thing that works. I don't even know what else to say. White Cowbell Oklahoma. You have to see it for yourself to believe it.
Just as a side note, the entire band showed up at the Dakota Tavern halfway through the $outhpaw set, and you'll be happy to hear that they were dressed exactly the same way they were the night before up on stage. These guys walk the fuckin walk. They had all of their wives/girlfriends in tow, and the vast majority of them were with child. They also had the stripper with them. I'm telling you, if I had the choice to go on the road with any band in the world, I think I'd choose White Cowbell Oklahoma. They're like Tom Kenny and his friends except times a thousand. They are the real deal.
And the big guy who plays the double neck guitar? He doesn't make a sound. He shows his appreciation for a band by simply raising his glass of beer after every song. It's totally creepy, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he ends up going on a killing spree one day. He's kind of like WWE superstar Kane that way.
Performer You're Least Likely to See in a Club the Size of The Reverb Ever Again: Jesse Malin (The Reverb, Friday, 12am)
I'm telling you, this guy is on the verge of blowing up. This was one of the slickest shows I've seen in a long time, and they absolutely rocked the Reverb room in a way that it hasn't been rocked since Los Locos was in its prime. And just let me say that if both George Strombolopoulis and Sammy from the Cadillac Lounge are in attendance, its a pretty good indication that you're on your way to bigger and better things. It's funny because most of the stuff I've heard from Jesse Malin has been of the slower, acoustic variety, so when Foley asked me what this guy was like just before the show, I told him that he was a kind of troubador, singer-songwriter guy... and then they come out and almost blow the amps out. Shows you what I know.
"Don't Let Them Take You Down" is a great track that they played note-perfect, and you know the guy has some serious stuff when he has a single out that features Bruce Springsteen on vocals ("Broken Radio"), and he doesn't even bust it out at NxNE. But hands down, my favourite part of the show was near the end of the set. They played "Modern World", and towards the end they got into this totally thrashing finale, and I swear to God, Malin was about half a Dexedrine away from going Kurt Cobain a la SNL circa 1992 on the stage, and just when we thought he was about to club his bassist with the micorphone stand, he walks over to his roaddie and grabs an acoustic guitar, the band stops playing and gets the fuck off the stage, Malin brings his heart-rate down from 749bpm to something approaching normalcy, and then serenades the crowd with a beautiful, acoustic version of "Aftermath". It was one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen. Browner and I both saw the roaddie holding the acoustic, and I honestly thought it was going to be a prop for Malin to smash into the speakers...and then he's strumming it and singing a sweet melody. It was absolutely amazing. We were laughing about it all night.
This was easily one of the best sets of the weekend, but my one complaint with Jesse Malin is that he didn't introduce his band. And really, that's what NxNE is all about. You have an emerging band, they're making practically no money as they're making you look good: you have to introduce them. Even if you're a solo artist and they're just your backing guys, you have to make a point of saying their names. Get them laid for Christ's sake. Not doing so goes against the spirit of the festival. The only other guy who didn't introduce his band was Ebbot Lundberg from "The Soundtrack of Our Lives", whom most people believe is suffering from a minor God complex anyway. But you know what? No matter how big you get, you have to give the guys in the band their due. The Boss does it. Tom Waits does it. If it's not below them, it's certainly not below you.
The Versace Award for Best Dressed Band: Urge Overkill (Lee's Palace, Saturday, 1am) and Fuck'em Bucky (Silver Dollar, Saturday, 3am)
The guys in Urge Overkill were wearing matching purple velour tuxedos with green shirts underneath. The guys in Fuck'em Bucky were wearing softball shirts with their team name (Fuck'em Bucky) across the front, and the bass player had no shirt on but had written "Fuck'em Bucky" across his chest in black marker. High comedy on both fronts.
Worst Emerging Fashion Trend: The Scarf
Both Ebbot Lundberg from T.S.O.O.L. and the guitar player in Jesse Malin's band were wearing scarfs. I get the scarf thing. It's very sophisticated. I even have a scarf of my own that my girlfriend knit for me. It's quite lovely. It keeps me warm in the winter. But when it's June and you're up on stage in a ram-packed, hot and stuffy club, under the heat of the bright lights, it just looks ridiculous. And it makes you sweat more than necessary. A toque is one thing. A toque is cool. But a scarf? Only if you're hiding a hickey courtesy of an underaged groupie from the night before.
Best Random Encounter: Melissa McClelland (The Drake Hotel, Friday)
I was walking down to Queen Street to grab the street car to head over to Kathedral for the Shad K show, and when the damn thing took so long to show up, I decided to pop into the Drake for a quick Amsterdam Blonde. And wouldn't you know it, as I sidled up to the bar, standing right there was Melissa McClelland, the girl with the red dress who was part of the Bob Harris Showcase at Lee's Palace the night before. Great girl, indulged me for a few minutes despite the fact that I felt like Jerry after moving into Kramer's apartment (NO sleep). After talking to her about the Nelson/White Oaks dichotomy (ie, she went to one, I went to the other... and that's the extent of the dichotomy), I asked her what she was doing at The Drake. She gave me a strange look and then said: "Um... I'm playing here in an hour?" Riiiiiiiight. Guess I should have checked that schedule on my way in. I am an idiot.
Band I Wish I'd Seen Based On Their Name Alone: Lesbians on Ecstacy (The Drake Hotel, Saturday, 1am)
Number of Shots of Jagermeister Consumed over the Course of the NxNE Weekend: 73 (approximately)