words & pics by Matt Williams
The buzz. Oh god, the buzz. It might never go away. The idea of seeing more than seven shows a night sounds amazing until you realize, “Wait. I didn’t bring ear plugs. How could I not bring ear plugs?” I’ve never really worn ear plugs, being a stubborn idiot and all. So, no matter where I ended up, I was caught with the buzz. The same buzz that has followed me since I was a youngster in a loud band. The familiar buzz that comes along with, you know – seeing great live music. Like when you walk out of a venue wonky with sea legs it was so good. And you just had to stand right beside the speakers.
So, Wednesday. Amos The Transparent blew the roof off the Rivoli. I remember being confused that this band has been around so long and isn’t gigantic. They are real blue collar badass foot-stomping music. You should listen to them, but even more so, you should see them live. If you like live music and you never see this band, you might’ve made a mistake somewhere along the way. I also saw Low, but they are slow and I was impatient about wanting to sleep. So, Low sounds great, but maybe not when you’re pretty far from home and it’s already very late.
I feel it’s appropriate to say Jim Cuddy is the George Clooney of Canadian music. I caught him with Whitehorse on Thursday and he is one of those performers who just never gets old. The whole band railed through a version of “5 Days In May” that will forever be the best version of that song I’ve ever heard. Luke Doucet is a monster of a guitar player. He is really so good that it’s unfair for other guitar players. I skipped out of that halfway through, though, to catch the Wet Secrets from Edmonton at the Rivoli. This band – and I don’t say this lightly – should be the next big Canadian band. If Arcade Fire is our generation’s Wayne Gretzky, the Wet Secrets is Sidney Crosby. And they have the greatest band name ever. This band should be talked about. Loud. They were easily a highlight of this festival. It’s a shame they only had one show.
On Friday I made a couple mistakes and a few big wins. I visited the incomparable Manitoba Music BBQ – seriously, no other province does something this great at NXNE every year – and drank moderately. Then I went home. And I made it to my photo pit stuff at Yonge-Dundas and saw Swans and St. Vincent from a vantage where I could pretty much high-five them. But, you know what? YDS is a bust. There’s really nothing that compares to the little bar shows. Of course, you can’t see an artist – artist in the truest sense of the word – like St. Vincent in a tiny bar. For a second, you might think that would be cool, but it wouldn’t be. She should exist among the biggest lights and weirdest props imaginable.
So, back to the Horseshoe. Speedy Ortiz and Swearin’ were fantastic, the welcome pop brutality that I had been waiting for all weekend. The mistake after this, though, was that my friend Alex invited me to his hotel room for a drink. Those drinks became, well, many drinks. He’s a hard person to say no to, and I didn’t fight that hard. Of course, that made it tough to really appreciate Spoon at the Horseshoe later, but they sounded good.
Saturday was special. Instead of wandering around with a beer, I camped out at the front of the stage for Bidiniband and Joel Plaskett. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made, as both bands threw out sets that every other Canadian musician would be jealous of. Bidini is already a great writer and speaker. Pushed through the vessel of the Bidiniband it becomes that much more powerful. It doesn’t hurt that he was flanked by some of Canada’s best musicians. Also, they played “Horses.” Holy Mackinaw Joe.
And then Joel Plaskett. Plaskett is a special type of musician. He has the ability to make all your worries fade away. I’ve seen him probably five times or more (if you count Thrush Hermit), and every show I come away excited that music is capable of creating this feeling – a feeling so good that you’re not sure how a guitar player and singer could make it happen to you. There are few groups that can do this, but Winnipeg has at least one – The Lytics.
Speaking of The Lytics, they delivered their incomparable brand of all-in-the-family hip-hop to a decent crowd at Ryerson’s Red Bull stage. They have the gift to take a show from nothing (really, there was no one who was there to see the show) to something (drawing a real, foot-tapping crowd). They are a group who has maybe grown too big for their goldfish bowl. Catch them while you can, Winnipeg, because eventually that fish bowl will explode.
For the final abuse of my press pass, I saw Courtney Barnett at the Silver Dollar Room. She shreds hard. It was the last night of her three nights in a row at the venue, and that might make some lesser players lazy or tired, but she was in top form. She is much louder than her records let on.
Now I’m going to crawl into a hole and sleep for the next few weeks. Goodnight.
Matt Williams is a longtime Stylus contributor who now lives in Toronto. Follow his adventures in the Big Smoke on Twitter – @MattGeeWilliams