Photographs by Neil Van.
After such a great first day, with a stacked lineup I wondered how Day Two would fare since the weather didn’t look as promising and I wasn’t as familiar with as many acts on the schedule.
Getting there a bit later I went straight to West Stage, the far end main stage, just in time to see The Strumbellas. Even though the band mostly is from Lindsay, Ontario, festival creator Jeff Cohen said they are basically a Toronto area band and so they qualify for the local act aspect opening each stage. In fact in the three years of this fledgling festival The Strumbellas became the first band to play in back to back years (although Neko Case and Skydiggers both played in the first year). The band came out to play Sheriff and lead singer Simon Ward had his face painted like a Dio dos la Muertos skeleton. When singing lyrics like how his mind is infected by the devil, Ward held his arms up and danced like a rag doll adding to the creepiness. Unfortunately while the weather held off on day one, it started to rain very hard during the band’s set. I managed to take shelter under a canopy tent packed with people. Those braver (and better prepared than me) stayed up front as a sea of umbrellas went up. Keyboardist David Ritter helped make us feel better by saying “we are going to have a great time tonight, and screw the rain!” By the time Ride On was played it was a big dance party with its foot stomping beat. There were plenty of festivalgoers who took the screw the rain mantra to heart and danced around in the mud, clearly enjoying themselves.
The East Stage wasn’t able to start right away due to the rain, as technicians hurriedly covered up as much as they could causing Lucinda Williams to be about ten minutes late. The loudest cheer for her set came early on as the sun finally peaked out of the clouds and the rain stopped coming down. Ironically enough just as she was starting her song Are You Down the weather cleared up, with the opening lyrics “Can’t put the rain back in the sky/Once it falls down, please don’t cry/Rain turns the dirt into mud/Warm and messy, like your love”, making the song almost prophetic. She performed her trademark boozy country and Americana music to the delight of the mostly older crowd who weren’t beneath trees or other areas of hiding. The great thing about the festival is that there are plenty of families with young children at the event. It is most likely a lot of these young kids first concert, a safe pick since the music alternates between being easy to dance to and easy to listen to, not to mention the crowds aren’t overly large. The easy highlight of the show was Williams’ backing band, with bassist David Sutton leading the charge. His dub-meets-country was unique and absolutely captivating to listen to as he straddled the thin line of being a backing musician and full on center stage with his performance.
A nearly empty stage, save for a single microphone stand was all Mike Rosenberg needed. Performing under the name Passenger, Rosenberg told the crowd he is going to make the crowd feel as miserable as possible for the next hour with a wry laugh. Rosenberg is more a storyteller than musician, which is what a great folk artist should be anyways. His minimalist sound made his bittersweet lyrics stand out even more. What I learned makes a Passenger show so great is he tells the crowd the origins of his songs and what they mean to him and his fans, usually with self deprecating jokes thrown in, including how tight his jeans were and how an old man was a prick for listing to him busk in his early days for an hour without buying a CD. The crowd was already very much into his set by the time he sang the hallowed Simon and Garfunkel song Sound of Silence, a holy grail in the folk community. For his song I Hate, Rosenberg instructed the crowd to sing the simple chorus of La La La’s, only if they agreed with the things he was singing about. With such choice lyrics like “I hate ignorant folks, who pay money to see gigs/And talk through every fucking song”, “And I hate queuing up for festival toilets/Especially when you need to shit” and the line “And I hate the X-Factor for murdering music/You bunch of money grabbing pricks” got the biggest cheers. He even made a crack about covering Snoop Dogg, which the crowd thought was a fantastic idea, so Rosenberg did an impromptu cover of Gin and Juice. If that song isn’t on his next album I will be very disappointed. All the young girls in the crowd made sure to take their cell phones out during Rosenberg’s self proclaimed “only hit” Let Her Go.
For my first act on the South Stage on Day Two I wandered over to see Royal Canoe, the funky pop-rock band from The Peg. At one point they had two drummers and two bassists going at the same time for an extra thick low note beat. They played several new songs from their upcoming album that sounded like a mix from ATLiens and Black Messiah with its weird space funk and RnB. There was plenty of warped synths and vocoder singing to get the show as freaky as possible. I missed the first bit of the Wilco show for them, and I feel like I made the right choice.
The reason why I choose Royal Canoe over Wilco, is I never really got into the alternative rock band from Chicago. It is sometimes quite difficult to get into a band that has a large catalogue so late into their career. I listened to their landmark album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a few times and I quite enjoyed it, but I couldn’t name you a song on it as it lacked a real radio hit that is instantly recognizable. I still managed to watch them for an hour and marveled at how dedicated their fan base is, knowing the words to almost all the songs and cheering along to the first notes recognizing what they were about to play. The band did dedicate Box Full of Letters to the Horseshoe Tavern, a song they believed was played there on their first trip to Canada. Guitarist Nels Cline was the stand out for me, at one point even playing a double necked guitar, the kind that Cheap Trick plays with, for some great slide guitar and high noted soloing. The band played Red-Eyed and Blue as part of their encore to the audience’s delight of course.
One of my favourite new bands has to be St. Paul and the Broken Bones, having now seen them three times, each time they get better and bigger as people can’t help but fall in love with their retro soul sound. The large backing band played an extended intro sans singer, like the old school soul revues that could be heard in Harlem clubs. When lead singer Paul Janeway came out the band busted out Don’t Mean a Thing and did an onslaught of material that was incredibly infectious. Janeway declared that “Toronto it is time for you shake your ass”. The South Stage sits at the bottom of a large hill and the whole space was absolutely packed, shocking since Cake was playing at the same time. The show was slowed down to a sensual pace for I’m Torn Up, but it didn’t stop the dancing in the slightest. To celebrate the anniversary of Otis Redding’ Otis Blue album, the group performed Shake, a staple of their act. Janeway was never been seen in the same room as Redding and James Brown, so you have to question if he in fact is the re-incarnation of the soul legends, combining the two to create a super power of unstoppable force.
The night was winding down as the insanely cult popular band Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros took the stage. The very large ten-piece band spread itself out with plenty of room in the middle for front man Alex Ebert to dance around onstage between his bohemian counter parts. Surprisingly the band doesn’t even create set lists for there shows, meaning they must know all three albums worth of material at all times. Jumping between popular songs like 40 Day Dream that they were probably going to play anyways and letting the crowd pick tunes like Janglin’, the show was as free flowing as the free love hippie movement they are emulating. A staple of the show is when Ebert goes into the crowd to sing. Standing on the back of the photo pit barricade he used audience members to hold himself up high and to have interactions with those around him. The loose atmosphere means that every show is a unique event that can’t be duplicated. I’m sure that have had shows where everything wasn’t clicking, but this wasn’t one of them. Ebert would sit at the edge of the stage and hold hands with people as he sang, creating moments that won’t be forgotten any time soon by those lucky people.
Ebert also had a habit of bringing people on stage to join him, a girl who must not have been older than 4 came up and he got her dancing with him, flaying their limbs about in a bout of ecstasy that only a child with no inhibitions can display. Ebert spotted a sign held up by a young boy saying how TURF was his first concert and it was also his birthday. The crowd then collectively sung Happy Birthday to the nine year old while Ebert had his arm around the kid. Band members took turns taking the spotlight as at least three members sang lead on a song while Ebert stood in the back to allow the crowd to shift their attention to the new momentary bandleaders. For Dear Believer the band tried to play an odd disco version they had done once before, Ebert didn’t think it was working so he stopped it mid-song and moved on laughing at their feeble attempt to mix it up. At the end of the show, the crowd was asked if they were willing to sing along as the bands biggest hit Home was starting up. Ebert only said the first word of each line and let the crowd sing the rest, creating a beautiful a cappella moment by several thousand fans. Instead of the usual breakdown part where Ebert used to tell a story with former band member Jade Castrinos, he instead passed the microphone into the crowd to let a girl tell a story about her love for the band. The amount of love that flows between artist and audience is incredible and it makes sense why they have such a passionate and loyal fan base.
Two days down, with one more to go. It will be hard for the last day to top the first two but Jeff Cohen has created something very special for the fans and bands that come out. Every set is a special moment, one that is to be cherished and savoured.