In episode 11 of the Polaris Podcast we focused on two albums that recently received Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize hall of fame designation — The Band’s The Band and Gordon Lightfoot’s Lightfoot!.
This episode featured expert analysis of these albums from music historian Rob Bowman and author Nick Jennings as well as some bonus insights from Travis Good of The Sadies.
Say you’re the kind of person who can remember a time when there were eight major record labels operating in Canada. Back then, there was no YouTube, or Soundcloud, or Bandcamp. There was no Napster, no streaming, and there was certainly no Twitter or Facebook.
When you wanted to learn about new music you had three choices: listen to the radio (but that was always a Pyrrhic victory because you had to listen to the radio), you could find out about new bands by reading what your favourite music writers in daily, weekly or monthly publications were recommending, or, you could chase down these new sounds the truest way — by trudging in and out of the clubs to check things out.
By doing this you’ve seen soooo many great bands. Some that never broke (Flashing Lights, Copyright, Deadly Snakes, Tangiers, Royal City) and some that, relatively at least, did (Broken Social Scene, The Dears, Constantines, Joel Plaskett).
You’ve been doing this sort of thing for 19 straight years now. And you’re tired. The thought of jostling with college kids with unearned beards in over-capacity clubs to see the “next big thing” doesn’t sound pleasant in any way.
And yet, the spirit remains willing.
So you brace yourself. It is, once again, Canadian Music Week. And once again all of the Canadian music industry will descend upon Toronto to polish up and show off their latest pet projects while a whole separate underclass of patronless dreamers will also arrive in the hopes of “networking” and “making some valuable connections”… but mostly by trying to push unwanted flyers and stickers on you.
It can seem all too much. But you know there are still great bands and great songs out there, so you mutter, “I’m getting too old for this shit” and once again step into the breach…
This time it’s different, though.
Because you are getting too old for this, you know that many of these “new projects we’re working on” are bullshit false flags. You know that party with seafood will smell like seafood and that’s enough for you to skip it. And you also know that navigating the website will, as always, be a Sisyphussian lesson on why organizations should never let musicians and their representatives self-curate their profiles on your web real estate.
Your plan is to simply say “fuck it,” to not be moved by the hype, to not have to cool hunt. You’re going to see what you know, what you like, and what’s not going to irritate the shit out of you.
I’ve identified seven ways in which you can fulfill this quest. Read them below:
54-40 Wednesday, April 19 @ Phoenix Concert Theatre as part of the INDIE Awards
54-40 have always been a bit taken for granted all these years because they’ve always been good and they’ve always been with us. But the CanRock we’ve all known and loved for so many years is dying. Rush have retired, it’s been made clear it’s impolite to speculate on The Hip’s future, but y’know, the ’70s and ’80s acts like April Wine, David Wilcox and Loverboy are lumbering into their twilight years, and all those ’90s acts who went gold on every record have officially exhausted all their reunions. Against this, we still have 54-40. They’re getting some sort of lifetime achievement award and they deserve it.
Charlotte Day Wilson Wednesday, April 19 @ Mod Club Thursday, April 20 @ Mod Club
There’s a whole generation of young adults who’ve never heard Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and who wouldn’t know a Massive Attack record if Banksy spray-painted one in their ears. To these people, Charlotte Day Wilson is their fast-emerging new queen. That’s not meant to be dismissive. Wilson’s voice is chillingly good and if there is a legit “next big thing” performing at CMW this year, she is it. Seeing Wilson is your best bet to score easy cred points this week.
The Silver Dollar
If you haven’t heard, the Silver Dollar is basically dead. But on the way out, mercurial concert promoter Dan Burke has booked a number of righteous RIP shows up until the end of the month to honour the place. You owe it to yourself to make a stop by this week and pay your respects. And when Dan tries to pretend you’re not on the guest list, or that there’s no more room for wristband holders and badges and it’s paying customers only, just pay your $10 and enjoy the experience. You’ll be happy you did when the new Silver Dollar ground floor retail space/resto-lounge mood-boarded by some Charles Khabouth design protege opens in 2021 and ruins everything.
Danko Jones Wednesday, April 19 @ Velvet Underground
I’ve got a strong suspicion that large pockets of the “the industry” in Canada hate Danko Jones. And I’ve got an equally strong suspicion Danko feels the same way about them. But the band are still here, playing a showcase-style gig anyway. Officially endorsed by Lemmy from Motorhead and Duff McKagan from Guns n’ Roses, they’re big enough in Europe that they get to negotiate the font size of their name on festival posters. This may very well be an act of defiance-as-rock concert for all those haters, which makes it kinda exciting.
She-Devils Thursday, April 20 @ Costume House (165 Geary Avenue) Saturday, April 22 @ A Common Sort (free Record Store Day show)
Gal singer + “soundscape” producer duos are second only to “sounds like Drake” for things the music world doesn’t need any more of in 2017. Except for She-Devils, that is. This Montreal pair are mighty compelling in a they-could-have-been-on-4AD-back-in-the-day way. Instead, their first album is going to be on Secretly Canadian, which in its way is almost the same thing, and they’ll be among peers like SUUNS, Anohni, Jens Lekman and Yoko Ono. With their ’60s pop grooves and Velvet Underground world weariness, this may be the actualization of what Andy Warhol wanted in Nico. If your old bones are going to take a chance on something, this is it.
Worst Place To Score Seats
I’ve ranked a number of the key participating CMW venues on how unlikely it is you’ll be able to score a seat if you show up during non-peak, non-at capacity times. The lower the ranking, the lower your chances of avoiding crippling back spasms throughout the week:
15) Horseshoe Tavern
14) Lee’s Palace
13) Silver Dollar
12) Monarch Tavern
11) Cameron House
10) The Paddock
9) The Rivoli
8) Bovine Sex Club
7) Dakota Tavern
6) Mod Club
5) The Garrison
4) Adelaide Hall
3) Drake Underground
2) Velvet Underground
1) Great Hall
The Dandy Warhols and The Sadies Friday, April 21 @ Lee’s Palace as part of the Dine Alone showcase
Finally, a bill you understand. A label you’ve heard of is putting on a stacked bill with bands you’ve actually heard of and it’s got a headliner whose one album you really liked and they were funny in that documentary and it’s a bit of an underplay for them. You just gotta figure out who you still know who can get you on the guest list…
The Sadies at the Horseshoe Tavern during NXNE 2015
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:
Giant Hand Cameron House 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.
Comet Control Silver Dollar 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?
View of George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic set at Nathan Phillips Square
The Auras with Tess Parks Smiling Buddha 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.
The Sadies Horseshoe Tavern 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.
Planet Creature at Smiling Buddha as part of Optical Sounds’ NXNE showcase