NXNE 2010
Toronto, ON

Toronto is a changed city, shaken to its core. In late June, the spirit of the city was destroyed by overzealous police, agent provocateurs, illegal detentions, rubber bullets, beatings, suppression of civil liberties, and fake laws. The G20 was in town. They left the city in tatters; citizens are turning on one another and against the police. There is no trust, no respect, nor any authority left in Hog Town.

But just one week earlier, a creative political space was created. A space that was curated by corporate interests, but co-opted by the spirit of liberation that adventurous, fun, challenging music can bring. NXNE was an act of community solidarity and, at the risk of sounding corny, was a friendly, welcoming, and joyous event. Compared to previous years, the in-your-face commercialism and industry-dominance was down, free daytime house shows in backyards and rooftops were up. There was free food, cheap drinks, and great music for all.

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Thursday

Taking a long lunch break from my day-job, I headed to Toronto’s Chinatown for a show at the Nacho House. I climbed a narrow staircase, though a cramped apartment located on top of, and next to, cheap Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, to stand on a hot, black-tar roof to catch Kingston, Ontario, duo P.S. I Love You. For a two-piece the band had a surprisingly thick sound. With the drummer playing quick, Joy Division-esque beats and a nearly 300-pound Paul Saulnier taking the lead, they played killer pop songs constructed on bursting, vibrant guitar melodies. While sloppily shredding though the songs, Saulnier played bass organ pedals with his feat in a daring display of stamina not expected from a man of his stature. The guitar leads and solos were flush and crunchy and expressed true gifts for timing and construction. If there was one critique it would be the vocals, which relied too heavily on the standard Isaac Brock tropes. They were lazy, that is if you can call a giant man playing two instruments simultaneously while doing vocals lazy in any way. They ended with “Starfield” and “Facelove,” two songs worthy of being the official summer jams of 2010.

After having forced myself back to work to finish my day, I headed to Great Hall to continue my 2010 NXNE experience. The recently rejuvenated vaudeville theatre was the perfect spot to catch Los Angeles’ Best Coast (pictured). The spacious opulence of the Hall allowed for the band’s surf-pop to flow like a swirling breeze within the high ceiling art deco location. With a deeper and darker sound than on their records, Best Coast played an otherworldly set of minimalist pop gems. In the absence of any bass, Bobb Bruno’s down-tuned guitar added a layer of grime over the dreamy pop vocals of Bethany Cosentino. The band played tunes primarily from their most recent Mexican Summer release, Crazy for you, in one of the most standout sets of the week. The infectious “When I’m With You” closed the night in a swirl of distorted admiration for those we all love.

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Friday

To kick off Day 2, I headed to The Silver Dollar room to see Montreal female solo artist Grimes. The set would turn out to be one of the biggest disasters I would experience during the fest. Sitting behind an electric keyboard, a woman with a blonde bike courier coif played pre-recorded melodies over pre-recorded dubset beats. The lack of technical skill would have been disappointing on its own; however, that was only the beginning. She came in off-time as she attempted to sing soaring melodies over her pre constructed songs, creating shrill and unintended feedback. Continuous mistakes plagued the performance. Even more upsetting than the outright mistakes were the winces and huffs of frustration that Grimes visually expressed with each fuck-up. She was nervous and flustered, and made no attempts to hide it. After yet another of her songs came to a crashing halt, I fled the train wreck and headed to The Horseshoe Tavern for a unicorn chaser.

Things at the Horseshoe didn’t start off any better. As Chicago three-piece The Poison Arrows were about to take the stage, the power went out and the block surrounding the venue went dark. With cash registers down and no drinks being poured, the crowd headed into the street. One block away, floodlights filled the air surrounding Canada’s corporate music mecca, Much Music, as it set up for its annual video music awards. All those standing outside the ‘Shoe knew who was to blame for the power-shortage. But like every attempt by commercial interests to overshadow inventive pop music, MTV-north was slain when, 30 minutes later, the power returned and the band hit the stage.

Comprised of former Don Caballero bassist Patrick Morris, ex-Atombombpocketknife guitarist Justin Sinkovich, and drummer Adam Reach, The Poison Arrows produced a sound that could only have come from Chicago. The intricate, math-y songs built upon the post-rock sound the city is known for, while adding elements of synthesizer and analogue noise. Clean guitar lines popped and harmonic bass scrapes worked in tight symbiosis with restrained but precise drumming. Scales were torn apart and reformed with blistering precision and fluttering triplets and contrasting time signatures created the beat. The forward-moving sound didn’t seem tacked on to an older form. Rather, it created a new aesthetic that combined the musicianship of the Chicago style with a youthful disregard for tradition. Having their set cut short due to the power outage, the band poured though five songs that showed the young crowd age is relative. Experience and technique were on display like no other band would showcase during the festival. Sometimes “progressive” isn’t a dirty word.

Where The Poison Arrows couldn’t have come from anywhere but Chicago, the next band I saw hit the stage at the Horseshoe on Friday night could only have formed in outer space. Man or Astroman? put on a show. A real fucking show. A show of musicianship, vibrant performance, and theatrics. What could have been described by the crowd as a mostly instrumental set was, in reality, littered with vocal frequencies inaudible to the human ear. They wear their debt to The Ventures and Devo on their sleeves, but were at no time reduced to derivation. Playing chaotic surf jams in front of projections of sci-fi b-movies on a giant satellite dish, they created a spectacle reminiscent of Annette Funicello fucking Bela Lugosi. In tribute to their ’90s surf brethren, they covered “Aunts Invasion,” from seminal Toronto surf band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, to thunderous applause. The set came to a climax at with the closing track, when bassist Star Crunch left to stage, only to return in a cosmonaut suit to light his theremin on fire and pull a home-made Tesla Coil to the front of the stage. Purple lightning bolts shot across the venue as the sound devolved into whirling chaos.

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Saturday

Abandoning house shows and bars for the free public stage at Yonge Dundas Square, I spent all day Saturday in a beacon of ripe commercialism and gaudy adverting. But with a line-up like this, who wants to be inside?

The day began early, with a stellar set from San Diego’s The Soft Pack (pictured). The clean-cut gentlemen formerly known as The Muslims played a set of UK ’50s revivalist gems, filtered through contrasting gleam and crunch born of post-punk convention. The riffs were simple, the drumming rhythmic, and song construction conventional. However, the band’s attitude, vocal styling, and condescending lyrics added the right amount snotty rebellion and public distain to harden up the songs. Neglecting to dip into their previous moniker’s catalogue, they played an all-The Soft Pack set. Highlights included “C’mon,” “Parasites,” and “Pull Out.”

Surfer Blood were next on the stage and played a set doused in technical difficulties. Despite the continuous feedback squalls and breaking instruments, the band showcased their post-colonial (or post-Vampire Weekend), riffy rock to moderate reception. Unable to replicate the reverb drowning and echos of their recorded material in the vast spaces of the outdoor square, they were pure shine and smiles. Yet for all the accessibility of their performance, they were unable to draw the attention of the casual observers who dominated the space. Perhaps it was then continuous technical disruptions or the immense heat that led to the apathetic reaction of the crowd. Or maybe it was that Surfer Blood’s hook-laden tracks aren’t all that hook-y after all. Either way the Surfer Blood set, not without its merits, saw itself positioned as one of the weaker acts of Saturday’s outdoor series. They sounded less washed and more washed up.

What to say about Iggy and the Stooges? This was the biggest free outdoor show in the history of Toronto, which meant only a select handful of people even got to “see” the band play. I thought I had staked myself out a spot that included at least somewhat of a sightline; I was wrong. From what I heard in the aftermath it was a visually impressive performance of old-man stamina. I can only comment on what I heard. The Stooges – which included Mike Watt on bass – came out roaring. The sound was crisp and more forceful than any album I’ve heard. Iggy’s vocals were working in full capacity, with songs like “Raw Power” and “No Fun” sounding rougher and more aggressive than their recorded counterparts due to years of abuse of Iggy’s vocal chords. This version of The Stooges sounded clean yet raucous. In a direct contrast to how repressed and confined the city would become in a mere six days, the entire crowd of upwards of 20,000 people joined the band in singing “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” It was a cathartic experience and one that, in retrospect, showed the spirit of a city about to be crushed. A sea of bodies heaved in a squall throughout the duration of the one-and-a-half hour show as the band blasted though “Search and Destroy,” “Gimmie Danger,” “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell,” and “Shake Appeal.” With Broken Social Scene and Pavement playing a simultaneous show on Toronto Island, no one who saw the remains of The Stooges on Saturday night at Yonge Dundas Square could possibly regret the decision they made in being there.

For a brief weekend in June Toronto was allowed to be free. Music filled the streets and, with Iggy at the helm, there was a feeling of rebellious joy and aggressive love. That feeling no longer exists on these streets.

[Photos: PJ Mixer (top picture), Jackman Chiu]