The ringing in my ears has stopped, my feet no longer hurt and my two-a-day restorative naps seem to have made my left eyeball stop twitching. This must mean I’ve survived yet another NXNE.
Here’s a notable performance I saw on each day of the festival:
Wednesday, June 17
Giant Hand’s Kirk Ramsay says “I sing about death mostly” in his Twitter bio and that statement is a very literal and sometimes uncomfortable truth. A slight, singular presence on stage with his guitar, Ramsay’s songs are diary-like confessionals, filled with references to family, friends and a need to be part of a simpler, more natural world. That, and death. Always death. The Grim Reaper is never far away in the music of Giant Hand and when Ramsay is singing about how he doesn’t want to die you can actually sense those dark forces circling around and that his songs are keeping them at bay.
Thursday, June 18
The lineal descendant of psych act Quest For Fire and, before that, garage rockers The Deadly Snakes, Comet Control are readymade to dominate a world where events like Austin Psych Fest and Vancouver’s Levitation festival are quickly becoming a thing. Led by Chad Ross (vox/guitar) and Andrew Moszynski (guitar), Comet Control aim for something a little more focused, a little darker and less technicolor than The Desert Sessions. The biggest revelation from watching Comet Control live was the situationally perfect keys from Christopher Sandes. Something of an afterthought for Comet Control on their self-titled album, on stage his explorations help take the band to a place where Deep Purple decide to set controls for the heart of the sun.
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic
Nathan Phillips Square
Friday, June 19
Not actually a part of NXNE, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic’s free show at Nathan Phillips Square was actually a kickoff event for the Toronto Jazz Festival which was taking place at the same time. My expectations were modest from Clinton. The man, after all, has lived a life that could make Keith Richards blush. But as friend David Dacks’ radio documentary from a couple years ago revealed, Parliament Funkadelic have some deep connections to Toronto and the opportunity to see them play at city hall felt like there might be something special to it. Unfortunately, special might have been an overstatement. The band, buried deep in a marquee VIP tent with its flaps up so the common folk could see the stage, felt sequestered from the audience. Clinton, meanwhile, made only token contributions to the set, frequently ceding the stage to his younger, healthier, more able colleagues. Most concerning though was the not-so-funky-levels of funk on display. I get that Clinton’s only one part of a big machine, and I get that Parliament Funkadelic are a dynamic act that can swerve from rock to blues to soul to rap to jazz effortlessly, but their raison d’etre is the funk. And beyond the anthemic “One Nation Under A Groove,” for much of the set I was left asking mommy, where’s the funkadelic?
The Auras with Tess Parks
Saturday, June 20
Whether it was discovering dad’s Nuggets box sets, a heretofore previously unknown millennial appreciation for 13th Floor Elevators, or seeing Brian Jonestown Massacre documentary Dig! as teens and deciding for some peculiar reason it was aspirational, The Auras and their associated label Optical Sounds have carved out an entirely quality niche by mining 1960s psych, 1990s Creation-gaze and early-’00s garage rock. A late start due to some technical problems was certainly a hitch to The Auras’ showcase set, but starting 10 minutes late probably made them play 10 per cent faster, which was entirely fine for their tripped out boogie. Calling on Tess Parks (who they collaborate with on a split single) for the last couple songs was a solid change of pace as well and helped push the band to be more.
Sunday, June 21
It’s easy to take The Sadies for granted. They play Toronto multiple times a year and their albums are always reliably good in a sorta comforting way. But to pass The Sadies off with a simple “Oh yeah, I dig those guys” is a disservice. The band — Dallas and Travis Good, Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky are very good. And it’s not until you see them play live — in this case for a free hangover cure Sunday afternoon matinee at the Horseshoe — that you remember, “Oh yeah, these guys are spectacular.” The proof was in the effortless set that cherry-picked from their Internal Sounds and Darker Circles albums as well as deeper catalog songs. The Sadies masterfully guided us through a wild west of psych rock, bluegrass, spaghetti westerns and country reels, reminding everyone why they’re masters of their craft.