The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from 17 years of covering Canadian Music Week is this: If you don’t like the band you’re watching… leave.
Jet. Scoot. Ghost. Just get out of there.
When the back pain sets in, your feet hurt, you’re a little bit hung over and your ears are ringing of eight days worth of questionable viewing choices, the last thing you need to do is subject yourself to more punishment.
So I don’t.
This means I get to see more bands, get irritated by less of them, and get a certain amount of exercise along the way bouncing from club to club. For the 2015 edition of CMW I ended up seeing parts or all of 26 sets over six days (including Gateway Drugs four separate times, which we’ll deal with separately). I’ve broken the most notable adventures down into one handy chronological recap for easy reading.
Here’s what I saw:
Jesus And Mary Chain @ Phoenix Concert Theatre
The Chain were celebrating the 30th anniversary of their Psychocandy album by playing the whole thing in order. It was a both illuminating and enjoyable slice of noise rock nostalgia. I wrote a fuller review here.
The Wayo @ The Garrison
A saxophone-playing frontperson flashes all sorts of warning signs, but it works rather well with Charlotte Day Wilson’s just-a-bit-icy croon. Imagine them as a sort of R&B flipside to Etiquette.
Programm @ The Garrison
Part of the pleasure of hearing a band for the first time is when you know they like all the right records just from listening to one song. The Horrors, Neu!, Joy Division, Velvet Underground… Programm are people you actually wouldn’t mind being trapped talking to at a house party.
There was, however, something naggingly incongruous about Programm’s set. The band’s performance was part of a themed showcase night dubbed “Toronto Women In Music.” Which is fine. They have a woman in the band — bassist/vocalist Jackie Game — who sings a couple songs and therefore technically fulfills the requirements of a showcase featuring women, from Toronto, in music. However, guitarist Jacob Soma sings more and everyone else in the band were dudes. Basically, there was a lot more Thurston Moore than Kim Gordon in their set, which felt a bit like a broken promise for a female-centric theme night.
The Cocksure Lads @ The Rivoli
The Cocksure Lads are a real band based on a fake band from a real movie attempting Gerry And The Pacemakers-style British invasion rock as performed by ex-Moxy Früvous members Murray Foster and Mike Ford. Or something like that. Being the veterans they are, the Lads displayed a level of technical competence that was sometimes missing from the greener bands at the festival, and they’ve got the music form locked down as well. Unfortunately, there’s an undercurrent of charmless smirk working against them. It’s like they weren’t willing to fully commit to their gimmick. This is a problem because100 per cent commitment, even in satire (think Steel Panther), is what you need for something like this to work.
SIANspheric @ Horseshoe Tavern
If you wanted to assassinate everyone who had a campus radio show in 1997, the ‘Shoe was ground zero for the who-knows-when-they’ll-ever-play-again resurfacing of Hamilton shoegaze rockers SIANspheric. Years later SIAN still sound exactly like SIAN, complete with requisite skronk, whirl and whoosh punctuated by the occasional tear-y buzzsaw sound.
Swervedriver @ Horseshoe Tavern
Swervedriver’s new comeback album I Wasn’t Born To Lose You is not the best. So I went into this set expecting to wade through a lot of muck in order to hear those songs from Raise and Mezcal Head. It was a bit of a surprise then, that I knew and liked so much of their set. I actually road-tripped across Ontario to watch multiple Swervedriver shows when I was younger, and hearing “Never Lose That Feeling,” “Rave Down,” “Son Of Mustang Ford” and “For Seeking Heat” again opened some sort of musical portal to the past. The homestretch featuring “Duel” and the brilliant narrative tale “Last Train To Satansville” were, as expected, worth waiting for, but finding small pleasures in the catalogue songs was a bonus treat.
Solids @ Horseshoe Tavern
Solids’ Blame Confusion album served wonderfully to fill that vacuum created last year in the aftermath of Japandroids’ ascension. Unfortunately, unless something dramatically changes — particularly with their unchanging stage show, Solids’ ceiling is going to top out around “the favourite band of a couple campus DJs in town.”
D-Sisive @ Hard Luck
It was fitting that hard-luck rapper D-sisive’s showcase would take place in the dingy confines of the punk-centric Hard Luck. After all, he did pull off the most punk move of the entire festival. In the days leading up to his set D-sisive aggressively promoted a new album he was dropping specifically for the event called Loathsome Lullabies 4 Loverz. It was, in his own words, “A hit-filled masterpiece that will land me a recording deal with a major label.”
Thing is, the eight-song record was really just him singing Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen,” Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” over top of karaoke instrumental versions of those hits. And when it came time to perform his set, with the exception of a short three-song actual rap set, THESE were the songs he performed for an alternatingly amused, offended and stupefied crowd. It was unquestionably the most ridiculous thing I saw at CMW and the world was better for it (maybe).
Twin Guns @ Bovine Sex Club
Sometimes when you get deep into a music festival and you’re starting to get fed up with people and taxis and bands who list their influences as “Kings Of Leon and Foo Fighters,” finding out some dude who played drums or The Cramps on a European tour or something sounds like the best way to spend an hour. And so to the Bovine we went to see New York City’s Twin Guns and their Lux-associate ‘Jungle’ Jim Chandler. While there was certainly less “billy” to Twin Guns’ rock than The Cramps, their buzzy set still fit comfortably in a world where everyone with a leather jacket carries a switchblade.
Red Mass @ Velvet Underground
Y’know those times when your set starts five minutes late because your fucking bassist is at the bar waiting for his drinks. And you can see him. Just standing there. While everyone else is ready to go. And then you pick a fight with the soundman because he’s a fuckup who’s clearly going to fuck everything up. And THEN, because you’re still waiting for your bass player you decide to count the bodies in the room. Seventeen. At least eight of whom are in the other bands playing that night. You can’t fucking believe you drove all the way from Montreal for this horseshit.
You know what you do when this happens? You don’t scowl and pout for five minutes straight on stage. You don’t make “Aw, fuck it” glib remarks to the soundman. You put your head down and rock the fuck out. Because that’ll be your best revenge. And because if that’s not the way you decide to respond there’ll be 16 people in the room by the end of the third song.
Dead Tired @ Lee’s Palace
When Canadian post-hardcore band Alexisonfire mostly-dissolved, the band’s co-lead singer Dallas Green used that time to fully realize his City And Colour project as a world-beating, lighters-in-the-air showcase for lonely heart ballads. In an almost perfect shift in the opposite direction, Alexis screamer George Pettit has retreated back to the clubs with Dead Tired, a bristling, relentless, purposefully uncompromised hardcore assault. The packed sweatbox (apparently an air conditioning unit had blown up earlier in the evening) at Lee’s was the perfect place, then, for Pettit to re-emerge like a spitting, screaming, t-shirt-tearing Lazarus. The noise Dead Tired made represented a strident rejection of Pettit’s arena-filling past with its violent rejection of melody and multi-guitar grind. If this is going to be Pettit’s second act, it’s not going to play out overground. It will, however, ensure that he’ll be able to sleep at night.
Single Mothers @ Lee’s Palace
To the best I can figure Single Mothers lead singer Andrew Thomson’s wild gesticulations, urgent screaming and stabbing truthbomb lyrical insights represent the platonic ideal for a specific sort of doesn’t-have-a-name-for-it-yet combination of Gen Y rage and soul searching. Maybe it’s because they suspect retweeting someone else’s good deeds doesn’t actually count as activism, or maybe because they realize Tinder swiping is pretty much the shallowest way you can conduct your romantic adventures, but when Thomson was rolling around on the Lee’s stage howling away an entire room full of sleeve tattoos and asymmetrical facial piercings were right there with him and totally understood.
APigeon @ The Drake Underground
There’s a certain dance to festivals like CMW which focus on emerging talent. And that dance is usually “we want to be exactly like X act who are already famous.” Often these acts fail to realize that if they aspire to be like the Foo Fighters or Kings Of Leon (which was a disturbingly frequent namedrop this year), well, they can’t. These bands already exist. They’re already famous. And the bands that are trying to imitate them already exist and already got signed five years ago expressly to fulfill the role of plugging content into the music industry machinery while the bigger acts are out of their touring/album/cycle.
For the female acts of CMW, this year’s copycat shorthand citations were Grimes, Charli XCX, Zola Jesus and Portishead. All wonderful acts who travel a path that’s just a bit darker, just a bit more dangerous than the average pop musician. But, again, all acts that already exist and therefore render anyone who tries to sound like them, or who’re even just tangentally “inspired” by them, redundant.
It was with much caution, then, that I wandered down to the Drake Underground to see APigeon, a Montreal electro singer who’d earned “comparisons to the likes of Björk, Feist and Lykke Li,” according to her website. These names could’ve been cautionary for APigeon, signs of an art-school striver who’d overreached. Thing is, APigeon wasn’t like Björk or Feist or Lykke Li. Not exactly anyway, or at least not exactly in any way that was tiring.
There was a certain magnetism to APigeon. Certainly she trades in the same dark electronica pop as many of her colleagues, but her strong, dynamic voice puts her a skillset above the Grimesalikes in a way that’s less off-putting than Björk can occasionally be. And while her songcraft doesn’t yet match Lykke Li’s perfect melancholy slogans, there’s something there worth investigating as well. Of all the acts I saw at CMW over the week APigeon is the one I suspect may create something magical in the future.
The Soul Motivators @ Supermarket
Despite one of the most infuriatingly long soundchecks I’ve ever seen in a festival setting (they hit the stage some 30 minutes after their advertised set time), nine-piece soul-funksters The Soul Motivators were a refreshing dose of actual musicianship. Anchored by the smooth vocals of lead singer Lydia Persaud, the Motivators’ polished sound hovers between a less world weary Sharon Jones and a Budos Band without the Dungeons & Dragons influence. It’s a slick, pro affair closer to hire-outs for grand ballrooms than Amy Winehouse tribute nights, but sometimes craftsmanship is important.
Caféïne @ Sneaky Dee’s
I’m not sure there’s anything particularly good to say about Xavier Caféïne beyond the fact that if he keeps performing and doggedly appearing at these things for another 10 years he’ll have earned enough stripes to pull off the Franco-Canadian glam rock equivalent of Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. As long as he can find a camera crew to follow him around, that is. For all of Caféïne’s punk posturing, the best bits of his performance were a few isolated snips, yelps and turns where he approached the sort of melodramatic pop Suede were so successful with 15 years ago. It’s not too late to make that switch.