Photographs by Neil Van.
Summer is finally at an end. How do I know that? Well music festivals are now a summer staple and this weekend in early September marks the end of festival season. Neil Van and myself are attending the Toronto Urban Roots Festival at Fort York and my co-team arch nemeses’ Sarah and Andreas providing coverage at Riot Fest at Downsview Park. Normally TURF is held in July, but this year due to the PanAm games, it got pushed back to the fall. Even though it is almost fall it was still quite warm, so us patrons didn’t have to worry about being cold throughout the day. One of the more unique aspects of the festival was that it was water bottle free. Lining up to get my bag searched at the entrance I felt like security was more interested in finding contraband bottles over other usual illegal things. Founder Jeff Cohen, who was stationed at the entrance welcoming people in, apologized that security took away my empty water bottle I had with me from my lunch. Luckily I read the festival’s do’s and don’ts so I made sure to bring my own refillable bottle.
Another unique aspect of the festival was that on all three days the opening act on each stage would be a local GTA band, to ensure that the festival remembers its own roots. With two main stages that alternate sets and a third South Stage featuring great up and coming and underground favourites, there was plenty to choose from. I headed over to the South Stage first to see my favourite local band CATL. play. A band I must have seen at least five times now. Normally the band consisting of Jamie Fleming and Sarah Kirkpatrick just perform as a duo, but today Pete Ross joined them on harmonica for the whole set adding an extra bluesy layer to their sound. The sun was shining as Kirkpatrick joked about how she was sweating so much she was losing grip on her drum sticks as she danced around. They ended their set with the great Workin’ Man’s Soul that featured lots of yelping and yelling that gave there set a much needed energy boost. There set was great as always, but it seemed like it was missing the drunken debauchery normally found in their late night sweaty Horseshoe shows.
I had first learned of Cold Specks this summer as her newest album Neuroplasticity was long listed for the Polaris Prize (an award I’m sort of obsessed with) and I was absolutely intrigued by Ladan Hussein’s moody jazz soul combo. Right from the get-go I was entranced by Hussein’s powerful voice. Dressed in all black with matching black shades she was mysterious and convincing of her place on the stage. In between songs she gave some interesting banter, talking about how her songs were about cutting off her lover’s head while he sleeps, an imaginary friend named Hector and another song about decapitation. With her poetic and dark lyrics mixed with a rocking band that sounds like Lauryn Hill meets Timber Timbre I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear from them a lot more in the future.
Shakey Graves is an artist I always seem to skip past when choosing what music to listen to and I can never figure out why, because as soon as I put him on I fall in love with his music all over again. Alejandro Rose-Garcia has managed to put out some really interesting albums that reinvent the Americana genre drawing inspiration from his Texan and Mexican roots. After a long instrumental intro he laughed and leaned in the mic shouting thank you and good night. His sense of humour and playfulness was all over his set. Draped over his keyboard stand was the lone star flag, a mainstay at his shows so everyone knows he is from Austin, Texas. Most of his set was drawn on from his most recent album And the War Came. Midway through his set Boo aka Chris Boosahda came out to join him on drums for a few songs, constantly playing at a breakneck pace. Rose-Garcia shredded his way though songs like Dearly Departed and Big Time Nashville Star. His mix of early blues Black Keys sounds and southern country and rock made it easy to dance along to. He joked about how he wrote the song Tomorrow, an unreleased song, when he was 16 thinking how he knew all about the world and women but he was in fact a self proclaimed “shithead”. He ended his set with possible one of the best songs written in recent years Family and Genus, which made me very happy and makes his set an early contender for best of the fest.
Only five minutes before the start of the Desaparecidos set did I realize that it was a band fronted by the boy wonder Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame when I was chatting with Sarah Rix and Music Canada’s Bram Gonshor. How stupid was I to not do research on this band? I didn’t really know what to expect but the five-piece from Nebraska pummeled out a set of power punk and emo songs at a furious pace. Oberst and Landon Hedges dueled back and forth by seeing who can shred harder. They also had interludes between their songs that sounded like they came from 1950’s educational videos talking about the fears of communism and what cigarettes doctors recommend best. The band even had a song about notorious asshole Sherriff Joe Arpaio who is trying to make being of Mexican decent illegal as his police record very clearly shows his racist history. The band did finish on a somewhat happy note as Oberst said it is their only uplifting song, as long as we all work together to better the world, otherwise it is doomed of course.
Throughout the day each act would be announced by either the festival creator Jeff Cohen, or by legendary TSN reporter Dave Hodge. Hodge came out and told us matter of factly to thank him for the booking of The Avett Brothers, as he had advocated for them to play at both the first two years of the festival, but due to extenuating circumstances they could not play until this year. Also I learned that Dave Hodge not only had great taste in music but that he is involved in TURF somehow (Google isn’t revealing any more than I already knew). One by one the back band members came out on stage starting with drummer Mike Marsh creating a beat and each subsequent member adding another layer to the music. They band played fan favourite Live and Die early on, which made the crowd even more excited as they sung along to the beautiful love song. The band’s whole image and sound rests on the fact that they have combined almost every genre of roots music to create a unique sound, buoyed by their constant happiness and lovelorn lyrics. Watching brothers Seth and Scott transition between instruments as the backing band filled in any gaps was impressive. Scott moved over to the piano for Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise for a more tender moment. At one point everyone left the stage for Seth to perform a solo acoustic song for a quiet beautiful few minutes of solitude. Their night was ending with their ode to love in Brooklyn I and Love and You.
As the sun was setting I managed to catch parts of reggae/ska originators UB40, who usually have their biggest hit Red Red Wine mistakenly attributed to Bob Marley. Jeff Cohen mentioned how part of his goal was to bring in bands who haven’t played in Toronto in a long time, last year having Violent Femmes, this time with the British dancehall legends. The mostly older crowd jammed along and waved their hands in the air as the tight sounding group ran through their very large catalogue.
I also caught The Sadies, for shockingly my first time ever. I never was big into them, but seeing them live truly changes my opinion on the country rockers as they have some serious guitar power. They don’t play traditional Willie Nelson, style country as they have more in common with jam bands like The Greatful Dead or Phish. I will have to make it out to one of their shows sometime in the near future, as they were fun to see.
The festivals first closing act Of Monsters and Men had a droning wave like sounds playing over the PA system for at least fifteen minutes before their set started, which may have confused some patrons, but it was perfectly in line for the ocean of sound that was to come. As the group came out dressed in all black white strobe lights to play their usual set opener Thousand Eyes of their new intense album Beneath the Skin that finishes in an eruption on banging of all the notes by all nine band members. When they lead into the familiar King and Lionheart the crowd cheering along to the opening notes and the usually dour group got the audience to dance for a bit. A cool part of TURF is that after the photographers leave the photo pit following the three songs they are allotted to shot, the pits get opened up for VIP patrons to get up close to their favourite acts. Lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, exclaimed how the crowd just appeared out of nowhere, clearly enjoying the extra audience interaction given to the group. The horn section on the single Crystals were damn near perfect, mind you I feel that every band should have a horn section as it makes everything sound better. The crowd who was quite varied in age probably was most excited for the band’s most popular single Little Talks, which is a delight to hear live.
While it was mostly warm for the day, the rain did come out for very brief intervals thankfully not ruining any shows or causing mud pits to erupt. The rest of the weekend’s forecast doesn’t seem as lucky so hopefully we are able to still enjoy ourselves, even if our shoes get a little dirty.