Photographs by Neil Van.
I arrive at the Velvet Underground at 8, the set ‘doors open’ time for Festival Music House, an annual TIFF-adjacent invite-only concert series celebrating its 7th year of showing off Canadian musical talent to industry bigwigs. For a while I mill around the dark space full of FMH logos and staff taking care of final touches while myself and the few other early comers wait for something to start. This sense of limbo (ha) is quickly removed following one critical realization: the event is open bar. Suddenly, the attendees are chattier, the music cues up and as the venue fills, it is clear that this will be a night to remember… or try to remember, at least.
First up is Modern Space, a Toronto band relatively new to the scene but quickly gaining momentum. Singer Sean Graham is a ball of energy, and there’s something refreshing about the way he moves from stage to audience, standing on tiptoes to lying on the stage with a reckless abandon you hope he never loses. Their music is fun, memories of friends woven into memorable lyrics and a catchy tune, and Graham tells stories of long trips without a hotel and typewriter sessions, citing each inspiration before launching into the next burst of sound. A surprising highlight is their cover of Lana Del Rey’s “High By The Beach” which respects the original while adding something truly unique. When I arrived home, one of the first things I did was scour Youtube for the track, which, upon further listening, I realized I prefer to the original. They’re a leather and plaid, graphic tee throwback to a garage band memory, but with a whole new set of skills. To bring up the energy of the crowd, the festival couldn’t have chosen a better opener.
Next is Charlotte Day Wilson. While waiting for the first act, I struck up a couple conversations (hoping, in truth, to meet the director that would catapult me to the stardom I so clearly deserve). Both of these resulted in me listening to how excited they were to hear Wilson. I’d never heard her before, live or otherwise, so by the time she walked on stage with her hair back and runners on I was sufficiently intrigued. Based solely on these two exchanges my expectations were high, but man, not high enough. Wilson is a revelation. Soulful is the best word to describe her. There are no vocals being lost in the music: the music is the vocals. Yes, the keyboard beat is flawless, a seamlessly woven wall of sound, but it all surrounds her voice and I find myself waiting with baited breath for its return in the interludes. It’s music that makes you want to dance, and hold someone, and be alone, and be running, anything really, just to have her voice enhance the experience. Her presence is stationary, but not stiff: she knows why she’s there. There is no need for theatrics, just her presence, a swaying vessel for the sound. When she’s through the crowd moves from the stage towards the back of the venue (word has spread that free Parts & Labour burgers and poutine have arrived) but I stand there for a moment, squeezing every drop I can from the moment that just passed me by.
Holding a whiskey sour in one hand and a peameal bacon burger in the other, I realize Polaris-nominated Jessy Lanza is about to begin. Lanza and her DJ project an unbearably glittery, Rookie-esque girl power presence and the music is a communication between them, beats and voice and the kind of pink happiness your 12-year-old self always hoped to grow into. Jessy Lanza gives dance music without sexist lyrics or grimey undertone. It’s a kind of clean fun for adults, not immature, just pure, unpretentious and pastel. At this point in the night, with most of the audience a few drinks in, dance music to make you smile is just what the doctor ordered.
Nearing the end of the night is the supremely watchable, somehow unaltered voice of Dragonette. Truly, the voice of lead Martina Sorbara seems to have a strange soprano levity that most can only achieve with editing, save perhaps for Tegan and Sara who share a similar sound. If Sean Graham travelled in all directions, Sorbara travels in one: up. The athleticism and frequency of her jumps, by the laws of physics and science and all that is holy, would leave her out of breath and compromise her vocal performance, but they do no such thing. Maintaining energy throughout, the band plays hits such as the Juno winning and internationally known “Hello”, the upbeat ode to leaving stress behind “Let it Go” and the Kaskade tune on which Sorbara featured, “Fire In Your New Shoes” while throwing in some newbies. It’s the most engaged the audience has been all night, and the move from tentative distance from the front to eager crowding of the stage is complete. Dragonette looks to be doing what all the performers of the night have done: enjoy themselves. If this is a showcase of Canadian talent, it’s nice to see that the portrayal is so unrelentingly positive on both giving and receiving ends.
The event is closed down by Kardinal Offishall, taking a turn as a DJ and refusing to let the night end on such a clean, peppy note. The vibe changes from upbeat concert to well-curated club, while Offishall keeps it Canadian by highlighting that most automatic of Toronto associations, Drake. He’s obviously comfortable and for good reason, his experience and talent for putting together a good set showcased to the fullest with hip-hop classics, “One Dance” and everything in between. Dancing my way out the door, the Parts & Labour caterer gives me two burgers to go and I leave satisfied, smiling, and ready for next year.