Photographs by Neil Van.
As far as fan experiences go, TURF easily tops them all. From manageable crowd sizes, to enough beer stands to ensure there isn’t giant lines to get a drink to the courtesy and helpful volunteers, everything just worked. This was my first time going to TURF, but I am going to go next year for sure and recommend it to everyone that is looking for a great festival.
The festival was packed with American and international acts, but having each stage’s opening slot being reserved for a Toronto area band made sure we were exposed to the talent in our own back yards. Friends of the site Birds of Bellwoods (look for their music on the next Contra Zoom podcast!) got to open the final day on the South Stage. The four-piece was lined up in a row at the front of the stage as they usually do, but this time tucked in behind them was a drummer and fiddle player adding a new and interesting layer to their sound. Lead singer Stevie Joffe let the crowd know that he was having so much fun he was losing his suspenders, as a strap bounced around on his mandolin as he played. In previous shows banjo player Chris Blades used to have a little tambourine strapped to his foot to mimic a drum sound as he stomped his boot on the stage, having a drummer got a fuller sound for their songs. Hearing this new version of Grey Ghosts made the song sound extra haunting and beautiful. During Sky a father and young daughter waltzed along to the song creating one of the most adorable moments I have ever seen at a concert. Speaking with Joffe afterwards I learned that this new six-piece ensemble will be a mainstay for big shows at festivals and the like, while regular club shows will maintain the bands solid four man set up.
Ron Sexsmith is a performer that has been around for so long, that everyone knows his name but so few people would be able to name a song of his, as radio hits have eluded the master songwriter. He joked about how he wrote a song for Bing Crosby, but Bing was already dead so he just sung it. 2011’s Get In Line was described by being the closest thing to a hit song for him and it had the crowd swaying along. His soothing melodies are irresistible, and they make you wonder how he isn’t more famous, a fact I don’t think is lost on him. If Sexsmith were around during Paul Anka’s heyday, I imagine he would have given the crooner a run for his money.
Moving back over to the South Stage, it was weird to see the Punch Brothers being relegated this way. They are fairly big in the folk, bluegrass, Americana world in the States, something that isn’t usually very present on the radar most big Canadian publications and festivals. They had to have had one of the largest crowds outside of St. Paul and the Broken Bones on the side stage all weekend. Their brand of bluegrass with a classical twist is fun to listen to and fascinating to watch the group perform the intricate tunes. By the time they got to the fan favourite Rye Whisky, the crowd was clapping along and joining in on the chorus. Afterwards front man Chris Thile joked about rye whisky really does make everything a little rosier as he sipped from his glass and complimented Canada on having some of the best in the world. The band took us to the “mountains of France and play the great bluegrass composer Claude Debussy” as they covered his composition Passepied.
The crowd was treated to the last show of the tour for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club as the garage rockers plan on taking an extended break to head back into the studio. The leather clad group had to be in the running for loudest show of the weekend although Desaparecidos probably came pretty close to matching them on Day 1.
Walking over to the West Stage for Neko Case, I had to stop at the crowd gathered around the mini Kid’s Stage where Day 1 performer Steve Poltz was holding court with families and drunken attendees alike. Poltz created a dance circle getting people to come in and show off their best moves, before his three-piece band brought their gear onto the grass and asked everyone to join in. Before long a chant along of the chorus to his last song started and the crowd grew quite large. Festival founder Jeff Cohen stood off to the side recording the impromptu moment of greatness, the kind that makes festivals worth going to.
Arcade Fire’s Will Butler has a solo career that isn’t getting as much attention as his brother’s side project DJ Windows 98 (quite possibly the best stage name ever), but that doesn’t mean his isn’t worth paying attention to. I got to his show expecting there to be large crowd, but that just wasn’t the case. Maybe most people were still at Neko Case, or were getting prime spots for the Pixies, or maybe my personal observation that Day 3 just seemed less crowed was factual. It didn’t matter because those that went, and got up close to the stage were treated to a fantastic headlining performance. His Talking Heads meets doo-wop style music is perfect to dance to as he played Anna, Something’s Coming and Son of God among plenty of other song’s that aren’t found on his debut EP Policy. The Eurhythmics sounding Sun Comes Up was a highlight that I hope gets an official release in the future. Even on slower songs drummer Miles Arntzen played with reckless abandon at a furious pace, making you wonder just how crazy he is, as his wooden heart shaped pendant necklace bounced around almost hitting him in his face while he played. Butler who is probably one of the most famous I-can’t-believe-he’s-not-actually-Canadians reminded us he knows his geography as he taunted the crowd by thanking about half a dozen cities for hosting him that night, including London, Guelph, Hamilton and others, none of which were Toronto. The set finished with the furious Take My Side, with plenty of dancing by all four members on stage and those that stuck around in the crowd.
As I made my way from the end of Will Butler’s set over to the East Stage for the culmination of the third annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival, I wondered if I made a mistake not catching all of the Pixies set. The rumble grew louder and louder as I walked from the South Stage. The band is famous for inspiring basically every alternative rock band from the 90’s, but also is equally famous for its band members feuding. The first song I recognized was Silver Snail, as lead singer Black Francis’ sing-songy vocals punctuated over the distorted fuzzy wall of sound. There seemed to almost no banter between songs, with the odd thanks was all that was said. It doesn’t matter when the performance was as strong as it was. It seemed like the Pixies had the smallest headlining crowd of all the days, so even though the production screamed stadium level headlining gig, the intimacy was something that you would not likely ever see again with this band (unless you happened to catch their surprise gig at the Horseshoe earlier this year). The band recently put out a new record entitled Indie Cindy, which they played the title track from showcasing the contrasting nature of their beauty meets ugliness style of playing. Francis played an acoustic guitar for most of the set and it is shocking to see the amount of distortion that can come out of such a simple instrument. Guitarist Joey Santiago brought the intensity to the show in thunderous amounts making his instrument sound like everything but a six stringed piece of wood. As the set was ending, I did something I never do; I moved right next to the sound stage (that is where the best sound in a venue always will be) and took out my earplugs. I wear earplugs at all shows, for two reasons; I go to a lot of shows and don’t like to leave with my head ringing for the next day and once your hearing goes, it’s gone, so don’t mess around with it. With bright white lights washing over the crowd the opening hiss of Where Is My Mind? wound up as the crowd cheered. I let the sound of one of the best rock songs from the 80’s take over, creating a perfect musical moment. I may not have been the biggest music fan of the Pixies before, but there are some songs everyone should see live in their lives and Where Is My Mind? is one of them.
This festival was one of the best I had ever attended. This summer I had attended seven different festivals and it was one of the best organized and hit all the high notes. Here are some stray observations:
Best Performances: Shakey Graves (Day 1), St. Paul and the Broken Bones (Day 2), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Day 2), Will Butler (Day 3) and Pixies (Day 3)
Pros: The sound mixing of the stages was all fantastic. While Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Desaparecidos were extraordinarily loud, bands like Edward Sharpe and Of Monsters and Men sounded crisp and clear with all the instruments coming through evenly.
The volunteer army was always helpful, even when there would small masses of them enjoying shows during their breaks.
The VIP section at the two main stages were just the right size and with enough private bathrooms and bars to keep the patrons happy.
The South Stage setup was a way to relax on a large hill while still being able to catch some great acts.
The fact that there were so many families with young children gave the festival a friendly vibe. Also how cool would your parents be if your first show was Wilco while you danced in the mud?
Cons: The weather on Day 2 was pretty bad, not that the festival could control that.
Most festivals are extremely strict about start and end times for sets. It seemed like a handful of acts each day would be 10-20 minutes late starting, although still finishing on time. Late starts suck when you leave another set you are enjoying early to catch one that should be starting right away.