Standing in the Budweiser VIP area, a stone’s throw away from a Red Bull drinking lounge and opposite of an assortment of MIO water bars, I begin my first NXNE on a Thursday night pondering all of the chatter that had been building since well before the festival’s kick-off a week ago. Yonge & Dundas Square, the center of Toronto as well as NXNE, is no stranger to in-your-face advertising; Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have the best seats in the house, permanently stone-faced with gold guns in tow, looming over the festivalgoers and city dwellers on the streets below. Their billboard (promoting a movie that had just came out a week prior) is one of the more permanent mainstays in the city square and it shares the skyline with an assortment of ever changing television screens. Later in the week, a gentleman holding a free beer provided by that same VIP lounge remarks to me that St. Vincent is something of a hypocrite, as she headlines the stage with her signature “weird” theatrics and encourages the audience to embrace the same independent spirit, all while her performance is encased in a camera advertisement on the screens above her. NXNE is very evidently in a state of flux, much earlier in an evolutionary process than its seemingly more cynical cousin SXSW (which has long grown past these over-branding baby steps). You can still see the proudly weird personality this festival strives to bring out of Toronto shine through the increasing corporate glut, however – it all just depends on where you look.
Thursday, when I’m not glancing at the selfies sponsored by Mio towering above the VIP area where I’m being offered free (i.e. ugly) t-shirts, my eyes are trained on the man at center stage, who is very literally standing in a town square giving a passionate sermon about the virtues of oral sex to an excited audience of thousands. This is something I would never see in my hometown of Detroit, where the rapper who is currently holding court (Danny Brown) is also from. Back home, Brown plays festivals too, but they’re behind metal barriers that often have something like a doubly exclusive and foreign “Mad Decent Block Party” banner hanging over them. At Yonge & Dundas Square, however, where absolutely anyone can suddenly find themselves walking into the middle of Brown’s high energy X-rated party set, I’m greeted by the sight of a truly open experience that only NXNE can offer. The giant billboards melt away and the more uniquely human occurrences appear more sharply – the sight of three, four, five, and then six skateboards being waved in the air at once throughout Brown’s show is both perfectly appropriate and acutely odd when coming from a city where people wouldn’t even be able to ride a skateboard to a set like this, much less take them into the crowd.
Also unusual for a first timer is how tightly knit the festival’s circuit of showplaces are. Once Brown ceded the YDS stage, it was only a few block walk before I arrived at the revered Massey Hall. It’s Massey’s first time participating in NXNE and it certainly stood apart from the city’s other heavily branded settings. With much of the cloying advertisements and overpriced beer gardens relegated to the basement, the 120-year-old Hall held a dignity that went largely untarnished throughout the fest. If any issues arose at all, they stemmed from attendees who were far too excited to be there. My time there began with a ripping set by tUnE-yArDs Thursday night that caused the audience to get up from their comfortably reclined seats, and concluded the following Saturday with a sensual and surprisingly raucous Rhye show that featured an extra player in the audience with far too little reverence in Massey’s presence and one too many hands built for awkwardly clapping along. Otherwise, NXNE audiences kept themselves in check, especially during an intimate and fun Kelela show Saturday where even she felt compelled to note that the (mostly) Canadian crowd “knew when to keep quiet at all the right times”.
On Friday night, I’m hoping the right time was approximately 11 PM, around when Speedy Ortiz took the stage at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern. Drinking in an artificial pine forest built in a parking lot just west of the city’s center earlier in the day can have that effect, but the packed house wasn’t about to let me nod off quietly during the Boston crew’s energizing set. The last time I had seen Speedy Ortiz, they were playing for free in the restaurant below a White Lung show in downtown Detroit early last year, and of the young bands that played on Friday night, they had showed the most promising growth in the time since. Swearin’, a comparable group that followed Speedy Ortiz, performed material that seemed to lean heavier on their assured debut than their more rushed follow-up album and the show benefitted from it.
Then came the headliner (non-Secret Guest category), Perfect Pussy. If you weren’t overhearing people worry about the increased branding of NXNE this week, you were overhearing an (often dismissive) opinion on Perfect Pussy. The hardcore band’s fast and furious debut album still confounds outsiders of the hardcore scene months after release and Perfect Pussy’s sets don’t provide the answers jaded people are looking for either. Much like the hype that preceded them, their show was overwhelming without ever coming down on an easy perspective for everyone to take – their Silver Dollar Room set months earlier was hobbled by a poor sound system, and this show ended in the bass player shattering his instrument in a frustration that didn’t quite register amid the torrent of noise raining down moments prior. The crowd at the front ate the spectacle up, hoisting the broken equipment while the last two members of Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves and Shaun Sutkus, played out the remainder of the set to decelerating ambient noise and buried screams. The crowd in the back however, remained distant and unaffected by the theatrics. Perfect Pussy played a number of shows throughout NXNE that ended on much better terms sonically, but at this point in their career it would take a lot more than overcoming broken instruments or poor sound systems for people to find a true north in terms of crowd reaction to their sets.
If the opinion on Perfect Pussy played like a reaction to tuning to a much hyped pilot episode of a TV show that is decidedly “not for everyone” out of the gate, then the reaction to Future Islands (Saturday, at the Red Bull soaked Tattoo Bar) played like folks turning into the assured third season premiere of that same show, hopelessly lost. In the wake of their Letterman performance, Future Islands was able to pack Tattoo twice over, literally winding a line to get in up the block that could have just as easily filled the club on their own. Future Islands jumpstarted the crowd early by playing the song everyone came for (“Seasons (Waiting on You)”) second in their set, subverting expectations while setting the mood for a run of heavy numbers that followed. Their show was as high energy as promised, but a large gulf separated the bodies shuffling off key to Future Islands oldies and the headlining set (Surprise Guest edition) Spoon played at the Shoe the night prior. Tired and cranky as some in the crowd were, once Spoon hit the stage at 2 AM they may as well have been playing to a room of sugar high teenagers. Even when everyone knew the notes to a decade old song, the band took it in a thrilling new direction and the folks who stayed out late were more than game to play along. Future Islands presented thrillingly genuine Drama Club showmanship that could pack any house that weekend, but Spoon truly had the hits that afforded them an attentive audience among the best of the whole festival.
In between these two packed houses was a much more turned down affair – Hollywood (Florida)’s Beach Day played St. James Park on Saturday afternoon, a short walk from the Anthony Bourdain-famous St. Lawrence Market. It was the ideal setting for any band, but their easy going tunes shined brightest from the modest church gazebo under the afternoon sun. Barren of any advertising glop or hyped overcrowding, Beach Day played a no-pressure set that most musicians would kill to have even once in a blue moon. Their show certainly relaxed anyone who happened upon it, even if the music itself never reached the ambitious heights of the headliners playing closer to the downtown core.
That easy-going vibe could be felt in many of the side shows across the city too. I closed out my NXNE similar to how I began, amid merchandise for sale and beer for free. There were smaller, casual differences to note however, least of which being that the beer was French this time. The walls of Sonic Boom Sunday afternoon were far less coated with obnoxious advertising than the stages at Yonge & Dundas Square, and while this small show (put on by music news site Chart Attack) wasn’t nearly as packed with patrons, it certainly deserved to be. The sets by the nervy Weaves, electrifying Courtney Barnett and astute Army Girls were worthy of anyone’s attention, each act brandishing an instantly identifiable personality that ought to be packing houses, clubs, and halls much higher up on the bill in no time. It’s here that any first timer can feel the spirit of NXNE shine – the bigger acts and even bigger corporations may swallow this festival whole one day in the future, but as long as modest morsels like these don’t get brushed off the table, NXNE will remain a true treat for any newcomer and a real source of pride for every Torontonian.