What I Remember from North By Northeast 2011

Danny DeVito’s Four Night’s Out

Wednesday

My NXNE adventure starts in the early evening. The sun shining. The streets are still well behaved. I arrive at The Garrison with my NXNE accomplice, but we are early. We are meeting friends and decide to duck into the Beer Store across the street to buy some tallboys. A few minutes later we are all hanging out in an alley north of Dundas, working on an inexpensive buzz. In the back of my mind I already know this week is going to take its toll on my wallet and my liver… I ‘m looking forward to it.

Inside The Garrison, Pat Jordache is playing. My first band of the festival! Maybe I’m not in the spirit yet, or maybe they are uninspiring, but I can’t get into it at first. My accomplice assures me they are fantastic, but even he only came to that conclusion after force-feeding himself their CBC3 page several times before the show. I am less patient. First impressions lose out several songs in however, when a solid drum beat, funky bass, upbeat guitar and vocals take be back to my early childhood, my infancy in fact… is it the 80s? I start to enjoy myself. Maybe it’s the $6 pints.

Accomplice’s Note: I haggled for their album and it’s wonderful. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I had paid the extra $3 they were asking for. Think, experimental-indie meets Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Smiths.

Next up, Lower Dens. As much as I love the moustache on the lead singer, I ditch out during their first song to chain-smoke. I wonder in my head if they are any good. The next band on the bill is out front, partying in a van while listening to 60s pop music. In a way, it seems like more fun.

I walk back in to see the next band, The Postelles, and the place has suddenly become packed. Where did all these people come from? I was standing right outside of the front door and didn’t see anyone come in. I wonder if, in my increasingly inebriated state, I am simply imagining them, but end up dismissing the notion. If they were in fact figments of my imagination, they’d be better dressed and much better looking.

The band made my night. They rock out with a twangy, soulful, rhythmic perfection that makes your body sway involuntarily… again, that could be the Mill Street. The guitarist, who is outwardly nerdy, makes up for his social inadequacies by absolutely killing the leads. Not everyone agrees with me, my friends don’t like the ‘hillbilly’ music and bail for greener pastures. Their loss. They miss out on the Elvis covers, which I never would have expected to enjoy so much. I have no idea where they are from, but in my mind they hail from Tennessee, home of Jack Daniels, runaway girlfriends, and dead dogs lovingly chucked into the cabs of pickup tricks.

AN: I didn’t bail and they were indeed good. I likened them at the time to a cross between Arctic Monkeys and Sam Roberts. Although, I’m pretty sure that was the Mill Street talking.

I had decided early on that I would try and catch as many ‘Special Guests’ as I could, and tonight would be my first. SUUNS take the stage. Well, I guess I won’t be seeing any more ‘Special Guests’. While there are some pretty compelling beats and instrumentals at work, the vocals make me cringe. I can picture their only commercial success as being background music in the teenage sex party scene of an unintentionally bad pop movie. This band makes calling it an early night seem like a great idea, so I do. On my way out I make sure to get to know the girl guarding the door, as I will be back later this weekend to see Handsome Furs and I don’t want to wait in line. A little charm goes a long way, and she promises to get me in when I return.

Thursday

I rush home from work and change out of my suit, take a 30 minute power nap and I’m ready for another night of NXNE. The plan is to meet my friends at Yonge and Dundas, but instead they go to some rooftop party on College. I wish I could have joined them, but dammit I have a job. They decide to start the evening at Phoenix, so I jump on the subway to meet them. In my haste, I miss my stop on the Sherbourne bus and have to backtrack on foot through all kinds of sketchiness. I’m always glad in these instances that I have the good fortune to live on the right (read: West) side of Yonge St.

AN: We have jobs too. They just don’t require that we suit up… The rooftop party, Grilled Cheese Sunburn, was ‘gouda’ even though we missed the bands. There was grilled-cheese, drinks and ninety-five percent of the guests were smoking cigarettes. It was easy to feel comfortable.

I make it to Phoenix alive and with my wallet in tow; the first success of the evening. I enter to hear Gauntlet Hair. I really like them, or more specifically, the drummer. I stand right at the front of the stage and let the electric drum beat punch me in the chest with rhythmic resonance. The rest of the band may as well be background noise. I get overly distracted by the beach balls floating around the crowd, then annoyed when I realize they pose a serious risk to the plastic cup of beer in my hand. As the band finishes their set, the rest of my friends arrive and we seek the safety of the balcony upstairs. We are here for the next band.

The Dodos(The Dodos)

The Dodos take the stage and perform pretty much as expected. They play a lot of new songs, which is good, but I don’t get to hear a few that I have been really looking forward to. Altogether, while I enjoy the show, I don’t find much noteworthy. Honestly, I have more fun after their set on the patio smoking out back.

AN: The Dodos are awesome. The phenomenally-hot bartender upstairs agreed, which encouraged me to have two more drinks than I had planned.

If you’ve never been there, the smoking ‘prison’ at Phoenix is a pretty gross place. The ground is so covered in butts that it reminds me of walking through a forest in the fall. Enclosed by an un-scalable fence, it forces you to confront the pariah status of smokers in our society. Where is our Rosa Parks? That brave soul who will refuse to ‘take it out back’ and light up wherever he or she sees fit in defiance of the overreaching anti-smoking laws. I digress. Though the ‘prison’ does contain a varied-mix of characters, who are usually friendlier than they look. One of the great things about NXNE is the visitors; it’s always cool meeting people from far away places. We sit next to a couple of guys, one from Peru, the other from the Ukraine. I comment that it’s awesome that they came from abroad for Toronto’s music festival; they say something about living here, but who’s paying attention? My friend asks if they have any weed, then rolls a dube with their stash. Meanwhile, my accomplice has the group next to us pass me a pipe. Now I feel like I’m at a rock show!

We had planned to leave after The Dodos to see P.S. I Love You at the Horseshoe, but are talked into staying for Deerhoof. To the individual who made us stay, I say, “Thank You!” The band is great, and once again it is the drummer that really impresses me. He is phenomenal, so much so that I almost fail to notice how good the rest of the band is. One of the more memorable moments comes during an interlude, when the drummer speaks to the crowd, at..an..intol..erably..slow..pace. The whole thing probably eats up five or six minutes of their forty minute set, but in the end the crowd explodes with laughter and cheering. You don’t often see bands that not only rock, but take breaks for stand up. Bravo.

We quickly jump into a cab and head towards The Great Hall, anticipating a line; we are seeing Men Without Hats, after all. We probably didn’t need to rush, apparently Divo was the bigger draw, in no small part due to the Whalen Smithers inspired popularity of Whip It, “liquorice whip”

We are clearly here to hear The Safety Dance, and I am surprised to see that we are actually a minority. The crowd that has amassed, though hardly enormous, is composed largely of legitimate fans. Who knew these people existed? The scene is fascinating. It’s as if they all live in shame of their genuine love for the era that defined their youth, never to admit it publicly. Suddenly, they are able to acknowledge their true feelings and shed inhibition, since they are now among their own kind. The band itself is a pretty funny sight to see. Walking on stage in a big-ol’ cowboy hat, the lead singer’s face serves as proof of a multi-decadal career of new wave music, most likely complemented with the stereotypical vices. I am surprised to recognize as many songs as I do, but am none too impressed with the incredible simplicity of the music. I almost laugh out loud watching the keyboardist rocking out, while playing two notes in succession with one finger (I should have been a musician in the 80s). Finally, the moment of truth arrives. The energy in the air is tangible. The enthusiastic dancer next to me whips a traffic vest out of her purse and puts it on… Apparently it’s not just the name of the song, there is an actual safety dance! I didn’t try it as I was too busy making up my own, dripping with the fun kind of sweat that only the coked-out music of the 80s can provide.

(Men Without Hats … Wearing a hat)

At this point I decide to call it a night, though not before I indulge in the regrettable pulled-pork poutine, care of Poutini’s. My entourage decides to keep going strong, it must be nice to live without responsibility, or at least to shirk it at will. I can’t wait until Friday, when I can really give myself over to the whole experience.

Friday

We decide to start later in the evening, happy in the knowledge that this will go on all night. Even more exciting, my long-absent friend from Belgium decides to join us, so I know this is going to get out of control. To top it all off, we are starting at the Gladstone Ballroom to see Minotaurs. They are one of the bands I am most excited to see, and certainly my top pick of the night.

MINOTAURS, for those of you who haven’t heard them, is an eight piece jazz-rock band, and they are awesome! I saw them several months ago at The Great Hall, but the acoustics did not do them justice. It is not disappointing seeing them in a better venue. They absolutely knock my socks off! This is a band I almost hesitate to praise; in fear that next time they play in Toronto, I may not be able to get in to see them. A few beers, and several great tunes later, it is time to move on to the next stop.

(MINOTAURS)

AN: MINOTAURS’ new songs sound even better than the original eight.

We enter The Bovine Sex Club, one of my least favourite places in Toronto; but that’s my inner snob speaking. I’m sure to some people it is the definition of cool. To me the ‘junk art’ motif and cave-like feel make me yearn for almost anywhere else. Although, the band is worth the pain. The White Eyes is a girl fronted punk rock band from Taiwan (on their first trip to North America). While I’m not a big fan of punk rock in general, I do find plenty to like about this band. The non-mastery of the English language makes for some pretty interesting lyrics (“Party Party Party”), and the vocals help as well. How should I put this..? Well, if you are someone who enjoys hearing a young Asian girl scream and squeal, you will love this act.

I escape the hellish interior and breathe in the Queen Street air. Another friend joins us, turning my entourage into quite the mob. At this point we decide to take the night in a random direction. We spin the bottle and head to Cherry Cola’s Rock n’ Rolla Cabaret & Lounge. For the past year my accomplice has been pestering me to go in for a drink, though I have consistently refused. I should be more open-minded. From outside, the reddish glow looks dank, but once inside the wallpaper is rich, and the walls are peppered with assorted mirrors. My inner narcissist approves. The band, The Johnnys, plays on a stage next to the front door. Just to the left, in a cubbyhole in the wall, dances a scantily clad girl, I guess that is the ‘Cabaret’ part. The band doesn’t inspire me to listen too closely, so we head to the back of the bar where we can talk. We find a cool little corner of couches, but shortly after occupying them we are kicked out to make room for Al Pacino’s daughter. Throughout my extensive study of the Human Genome Project, I never came across the hereditary basis for celebrity… weird. But no matter. Time to go out for a smoke.

I am surprised to see some of my posse waiting at the front of the line. Apparently, after I had entered they refused to let anyone else in. Clearly I am a bad friend as I had not noticed and it has been about half an hour. The band finishes their set and some people head out to their next destinations, problem solved.

AN: Actually, I talked to one of the doormen, who realized that our friends were good people and two more inside wouldn’t hurt anyone… Just sayin’.

We all settle in for a drink to wait for the next act, a DJ called Your Pretend Boyfriend. My festival accomplice tells me it should be a good show. For some reason, I trust him. Having reclaimed our spot at the back of the bar we get lost in conversation until I take note of the music. I ask my friends when the DJ is coming on so they can turn off this terrible house music (house as in the bar’s music, not the style). As it turns out I am listening to the DJ, and upon that realization, I down my Jack and Coke and get the hell out of dodge.

AN: Sorry Danny. But The White Eyes were good, right? Remember The White Eyes???

We jump in a cab to College St. to see another show, but find ourselves in the middle of a street festival, perhaps Taste of Little Italy, though I’m not sure. We stroll down the street secretly snickering at the folks who think they’ve found a cool scene for the night, while the real fun in taking place right under their noses. We arrive at a hip hop event with a huge lineup. After several minutes of waiting, I decide to just walk in. It works. I motion to the others to follow my lead, but that doesn’t work. After a brief moment where I consider turning this into a solo adventure, I leave the venue in search of something else. No cabs in sight, thanks to the street festival. So, it has to be somewhere ‘walkable’. Dakota Tavern it is.

(The Mohawk Lodge)

We enter shortly after 2am, The Mohawk Lodge are on stage. I’ve never been there before, so I soak up the atmosphere. Typically, this isn’t the type of scene I would enjoy, but for some reason (perhaps the constant drinking), I really enjoy it. The band is good, from what I remember, but from this point on my recollection gets foggy. Some genius decides that shots are a good idea, and again, and again. There’s another band, Samantha Martin & The Haggard. I like them too. I lean against the wall at the back corner of the stage looking out at the crowd dancing in front of the band. For a fleeting instant I imagine that I’m hanging out backstage and am somehow ‘special’. Time flies, and we soon find ourselves out front, the 4am last call relegated to our recent past. Down the block is the Lakeview Lunch, we opt for poutine, watch the sun come up, and breathe in a satisfied breath knowing we had made the most of the night. My entourage isn’t finished yet, but I am, so I depart on my own for the soft comfort of my bed.

(Samantha Martin & The Haggard)

AN: The shots were my doing. The Mohawk Lodge was solid and enjoyable, despite the hype. Samantha Martin & The Haggard brought an unexpected energy for a 3am set. They rocked. While this was the drunkest of the sets we got to take in, I’m left with the impression that they’re kind of awesome and worth checking out next time they play.

Saturday

Tonight, the last night of my NXNE adventure, begins at M5V, a condo sales office on King Street West. When we first arrive, I think that we must have the wrong address. I can’t hear anything and the windows are blacked out. Low and behold, upon closer inspection the inside is in fact a bustling party. Not only that, but of all the shows I’d been to, this is the coolest scene by far. An unlisted, though official NXNE venue, the condo office was appropriated, emptied and retrofitted with a sound system to accommodate bands, who play sans-stage in the back corner of the room. Certainly not meant to host these kinds of events, the men’s washroom is a Port-o-Potty in the backyard. The backyard is a construction site with a temporary fence. Upstairs, there is another ‘room’; in it are a good number of attractive women. I pause in amazement wondering how this cohort of hotties came to congregate in this fashion. Then I realize that they were assigned the only real washroom in the place. For some reason everyone at this party is good looking; an anomalous situation from my NXNE experience. Welcome to M5V.

(Freedom or Death – Photo by Miriam England)

Freedom or Death is the first band to take, well, the corner. They were great. With a familiar face on guitar, indie veteran – Keith Hamilton, and enthusiastic band mates all around, they provide us our first dose of unexpected good music for the night. We stand right at the front of the crowd, in the rain section, where spittle from the vocalist splashes you during moments off heightened intensity. I can’t help but enjoy every bit of it.

AN: Freedom or Death mix rhythmical ambience with unexpected jam-outs. They take their time and it pays off. Also, it’s always nice going somewhere for one awesome act and discovering another.

(Bravestation – Photo by Miriam England)

Bravestation comes up next, and they are also great. It was them we came to see, having been invited to this secret, but clearly not that secret show (apparently put on by Much Music), by band member, Derrick. The event was clearly meant to be somewhat clandestine, as I am queried on more than one occasion as to how I came to know of it. It’s good to be on the inside. I must find myself in this situation more often. A glimpse at my Blackberry spoils the mood. Handsome Furs take the stage halfway across town in only 20 minutes!

We bolt out the door and into a cab, “Take us to The Garrison” we shout with the urgency of a soon-to-be father taking his water-broken girlfriend/wife/surrogate to the hospital. We arrive to see the worst sight of the festival, a huge line. Thus far we’ve not been denied access to anything we wanted to see, but I guess that is all part of the experience. Luckily for us, we had talked up the door guard a few nights before. This is going to be a piece of cake. Also, we’ll make everyone standing outside straining to hear through the double doors incredibly jealous. But she is nowhere to be seen. Damn.

We stumble away, defeated. A few doors down we meet some Vice Magazine writers out having a smoke, similarly disappointed. We join them. After enjoying a private rap concert (courtesy of the crazy homeless-ish, John B), we make our way down Ossington to Queen to check out The Drake. Another line! This time our wristbands do the trick and we skip in past the waiting onlookers. Downstairs DJ Nights spins old school hip hop tracks. I haven’t heard the Thong Song since grade school. The nostalgia is short lived however; we came for live music, not regurgitated and reconfigured radio. A block West and we are once again at the Gladstone Ballroom.

AN: Vice Magazine writers are mandated not to reveal who they write for. We just happened to figure it out based on the awkward silence following our first guess. DJ Nights managed to get me excited about club music, something that hasn’t happened since the euphoria of drinking underage at bars. If, as Danny says, we weren’t on a mission to see live music, I would have continued to get my Bump N’ Grind on with pleasure.

Inside the Ballroom, Die Mannequin is playing their set. I am impressed. I recognize a lot of the songs, presumably from my 6am radio wake-up calls, though I don’t know the band. We enjoy the show and step back out onto the street. There, we encounter another old friend. We join forces and head to the Dakota (again), the closest venue with music until 4am.

Entire Cities and Hot Wax Meltdown play while we make the most of this last precious 4am last call Saturday night in Toronto. We push it to the very end. Je suis fatigue. The four days of constant music and mayhem catches up to me. Everything blends together. The music, now undistinguishable, washes over me as I think back over my week. A twinge of sorrow nags at me deep down. It’s time to return to real life.

Sunday

I wake up Monday morning.


(The Mohawk Lodge)

About Danny DeVito

Danny DeVito is one of Canada's premier thinkers. He graces the pages of Provocative Penguin with his unique and rare form of genius. His keen eye for talented artists, insight into political affairs, and cunning linguistic skills pale only in comparison to his chiselled good looks. Some say he is a God. Here at Provocative Penguin, we just call him Danny. You can read Danny’s other posts on PP [here]