Thursday, June 16th
OFF! at Yonge-Dundas Square, 9 PM
Let me preface this with a statement of the obvious: Keith Morris is a legend. His work with Black Flag and Circle Jerks will always rank him among the all-time best hardcore punk vocalists. However, the outside square did not do his new band OFF! any justice. The energy that permeates punk shows just was not there in the public square environment and the whole act suffered. The die-hard punk fans appreciated the show, but most of the people there were counting to seconds until Descendents took the stage. The music was great and Keith Morris still can put on a solid performance, but Yonge-Dundas Square was not the right venue to showcase the classic hardcore sound of OFF!
Friday, June 17th
Junior Battles at Phoenix Concert Theatre, 7 PM
Toronto pop-punks Junior Battles opened up the Phoenix Concert Theatre’s punk rock extravaganza featuring Anti-Flag and Bouncing Souls. The band tore through a set of tracks showing an emo influence of early Thursday or Hawthorne Heights mixed with the pop-punk sound of Sum 41. The band played with great energy and served as an excellent opening act. The band manages to breathe some life into the tired pop-punk genre with better lyrical senses than most and a willingness to get away from the same old three-chord rock.
Art Brut at The Mod Club, 9 PM
It’s always hard to determine what exactly will happen when Art Brut takes the stage. In fact, Friday’s performance at The Mod Club was exactly the odd type of performance that followers of the eccentric English rockers have come to expect.
Art Brut started the set at the two-thirds full Mod Club off with “Formed a Band” and “My Little Brother” from their debut album, Bang Bang Rock N’ Roll. The band came out with seemingly-forced energy early, but turned it up when charismatic lead singer Eddie Argos began telling stories about his family. The personal interludes broke up the music, but created a connection between the performers and the crowd that is rarely experienced outside an unplugged session.
In addition to the older material, Art Brut played a pair of new tracks off their 2011 album Brilliant! Tragic! as well as the non-album track “Unprofessional Wrestling.” The new material was well-received by the crowd, who, by this point was completely engrossed by Argos’s stage persona.
Although it would appear that Art Brut has peaked in popularity (and is perhaps waning), the band still put on an impressive, commanding performance, even if it had to rely on Argos’s charisma. It was a chaotic, anarchic, and completely unpredictable set. But anything less from the most eccentric of British bands would have been a tremendous shock. With Art Brut, oddity is to be expected.
Elephant Stone at The Garrison, 10 PM
Montreal based indie-pop act Elephant Stone brought their psychedelic pop to The Garrison. The group featured a sitar-heavy sound that would make Ravi Shankar proud, and put on a solid set of lush pop music. The whole vibe was mellow and hypnotic, with the heavy sitar driving the entire show. It was an overall pleasant performance, but not one that was particularly riveting, as the set included a wealth of monochromatic tracks. Give them another year of polish and Elephant Stone could become a huge band.
Braids at The Garrison, 11 PM
Canadian experimental noise-pop band Braids played a tremendously crowd-pleasing set to a packed house at The Garrison. The Polaris Prize-nominated Braids feature a psychedelic sound that comes across with complete harmonic perfection. Brilliant female vocals transcend into the realm of being an additional instrument rather than a simple lyrical delivery device. The songs of Braids are marvelously well-constructed, and the band performed a stunning set.
Crocodiles at Silver Dollar Room, 12 AM
With its ’60s psychedelic blues rock-meets-post-punk sound, California noise-pop band Crocodiles took the stage of the small and sweltering Silver Dollar Room to a packed house. While Crocodiles’ recorded material is lo-fi and spacy, the live set presents a completely different sound, as the lo-fi elements are thrown out the window. Instead, Crocodiles put the vocals of lead singer Brandon Welchez squarely into the forefront with higher tempo tracks feeding the energy in the room.
Every song was a perfect showcase of the band’s immense talent in a room too small to be anything but acoustically perfect. The highlight of the show came during the exquisitely performed “Neon Jesus” when the Dum Dum Girls joined the band onstage. Another high point of frenetic energy during the eight-song set was a roaring cover of the Ramones classic “Beat on the Brat.”
One of the beautiful things about a festival like NXNE is that a concertgoer can stick with big-name acts, or get adventurous and go find the lesser-known artists. Crocodiles may not be as big of a name as Stars or Devo, but the set at the Silver Dollar Room showed that this is a band with serious potential to become a huge name in the indie rock world. This was one of the best shows of NXNE.
The Pack A.D. at Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, 1 AM
Vancouver-based duo The Pack A.D. brought one of the more unique sounds to the stage Friday night. The Pack A.D. takes the same garage rock aesthetic as Band of Skulls but adds a blues spin — along the lines of The Black Keys — and a punk vibe à la The Runaways or even Bikini Kill. The whole set was a superb high-energy blast, punctuated when the band crammed three full songs into the last five minutes of their set by doubling the tempo of each track.
Deerhoof (Special Guest Slot) at Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, 2 AM
NXNE brought out an incredible array of special guests this year. Neon Windbreaker, Dum Dum Girls, No Joy, and the Polaris Prize-longlist nominee The Luyas all stepped up to the stage as special guests Friday night. But the highlight was Deerhoof onstage at the Legendary Horseshoe. Deerhoof played an intense set filled with their signature heavy guitars and delicate vocals that make a soundman’s job an absolute nightmare. The band performed a stunning set, masterfully crafting their stage show with veteran precision, with the highlight being the performance of the fun “Dummy Discards a Heart.”
Saturday, June 18th
Stars/Chad VanGaalen (Secret Show) at Edward Day Gallery, 1 PM
Not all of the fun at NXNE happened as part of the official schedule. Canadian music television station Aux sponsored a secret show featuring Stars as the headlining act with Calgary, Alberta based singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen as the opening act. Information about the show (including entrance codes) was disseminated through QR Codes readable by smartphones, with more information being given during Stars’ Friday night show at Yonge-Dundas Square before an estimated 10,000 people.
Saturday’s show at the Edward Day Gallery was significantly smaller. Only around 200 people were allowed into the gallery for the performance, which started with Chad VanGaalen playing an eight-song set filled with songs off his new album Diaper Island. This included the brilliantly cutting “Shave My Pussy,” which tossed out the poetic lyrical sense that VanGaalen normally exudes in his lyrics replaced by direct sarcasm. Halfway through his set, VanGaalen switched from electric guitar to an electric ukulele for the remainder of his set, adding a summery vibe to the gallery.
Stars took the stage shortly after VanGaalen finished and opened their set with an oddity of a statement: “We’re going to play a bunch of shit we don’t know.” The set, which opened with “Bitches in Tokyo,” took a darker turn through the Stars catalog, showcasing Amy Millan’s incredible vocal talents, as well as the brilliantly written lyrics. The intimate show induced tremendous energy in the room — the whole set was sublime in every detail, from the setting, to the acoustics, to the perfect performance on stage.
Dirty Beaches at Yonge-Dundas Square, 5 PM
Dirty Beaches is the stage name of Taiwan-born, Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Alex Zhang Hungtai. Dirty Beaches brought layers upon layers of distortion with aheavy dark-wave sound. Hungtai’s voice sounds similar to Nick Cave in terms of baritone, though he is completely capable of hitting perfect falsettos. Every note was distorted and warped, but still sounded excellent in the outdoor setting. The highlight of the set was a cover of Mattress’s “El Dorado,” which was the most spectacularly emotive song of the performance.
Cults at Yonge-Dundas Square, 7 PM
New York City’s Cults took the stage at Yonge-Dundas Square Saturday evening to a large crowd. Lead singer Madeline Follin is rapidly developing into one of the best female lead singers in indie music. Cults’ signature track “Go Outside” was the perfect song for the steamy Toronto summer evening, and brought a distinctly youthful, playful energy to the festival.
Men Without Hats at Yonge-Dundas Square, 8 PM
Eighties New Wave rockers Men Without Hats brought their signature synth-heavy sound to Yonge-Dundas Square. The set opened with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” before the group (with lead singer Ivan Doroschuk being the sole original member remaining) played a number of their classics, including “Pop Goes the World,” “Living in China,” and, of course, “Safety Dance,” which provided a nice close to the set. During their set, the band announced that they are working on a new album, and the new incarnation of Men Without Hats proved that they are far more than just “Safety Dancers,” while still paying homage to its past.