Photos by Katrina Lat
Another summer of concerts and festivals around Toronto has come and gone once again, but before we packed up the shorts and tie-dye for the year the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (more commonly referred to as TURF) sucked us right back in as the thick of festival season was drifting away. This was TURF’s second year in mid-September (a move originally made to accommodate for 2015’s PanAm Games) and the festival seems to have found a new home. It’s the perfect time to say goodbye to festival season. The sun is setting earlier, the evenings are cool and pumpkin spice everything is showing up everywhere. Just as you started to accept that summer was over, you are able to go grab one last fleeting moment of it.
I started out Friday afternoon by checking out Sweden’s garage-rock act The Hives, a set that took me right back to the early 2000’s. The Hives have been around a long time (formed in 1989) but found mainstream success across the pond during the garage rock revival of the early 2000s, amongst bands such as The Strokes, The White Stripes and The Vines. The Hives have been touted as one of the best live acts around and their set certainly proved that. They appeared on stage in the familiar dress-code of full matching black and white suits, which didn’t last too long in the afternoon sun. They played their breakthrough hit Hate To Say I Told You So only a couple songs into the set to fire up the lively yet small crowd. Lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist joked that “Toronto’s finest self-employed and unemployed” were the only folks in attendance for the late afternoon set. Despite playing to a smaller crowd the band was full of energy and kept the pace up through the whole set. Pelle constantly interacted with the audience, demanding that there never be silence during their set, either they are making noise or the crowd is, and he held the crowd to it throughout. At one point he had an audience member at the front of the stage tie his shoe lace for him as it was coming undone. The band played through many of their hits through the set including hits Walk Idiot Walk, and a rare mid-day encore, which was the song Tick Tick Boom. A great choice for a mid-day set, The Hives certainly brought the energy and rock ‘n’ roll attitude to TURF on Friday.
Next up on the day was young English indie folk-rocker Jake Bugg, a man that’s been writing music well beyond his years since his debut album in 2012. Still just twenty-two years old, he already has three albums under his belt. He opened his set with a huge song from his debut album Jake Bugg, Two Fingers, and followed up with a tune from his 2016 album On My One titled Put Out The Fire. After three albums Jake’s catalogue has become quite diverse, featuring songs that toe the line between rockabilly and country, to indie rock, to folk, to pop-rock. Some of his finest work has come on his latest album, featuring songs that stray far from anything heard in his two previous efforts. The song-writing and composition of the music has improved, adding elements not generally attributed to his “style” and in turn creating a few more full bodied and accessible songs that could easily make their way to mainstream radio, whilst still littering the album with the sound his fans have fallen in love with. Jake’s stage presence was nothing to revel over, he didn’t stray too far from his post and generally never got too chatty with the audience beyond some “thank-you”s to applause and cheers. That being said he was spot-on musically. He recreated the recordings of his music to near perfection, and delivered his lyrics and riffs on cue. Jake was definitely one of the tightest performers of the weekend. He played some of his best material during his set including; Messed Up Kids, Love, Hope and Misery Trouble Town, Seen It All and rounded out his set with Gimme The Love followed by Lightning Bolt. Jake seemed like one of the most fitting choices on the bill from the moment the lineup was released, a blend of folk, country and indie all on one stage and he lived up to expectations.
Next up on the day was Explosions In The Sky a four piece band from Texas, to play us through dusk and into the evening with their atmospheric, psychedelic and (at times) full blown epic instrumental rock. It was the type of set where you found yourself completely encapsulated by the music for a dozen minutes at a time before realizing that you are still standing in the same place around the same people. There was hardly a break in the music at any given time for the audience to applaud the band, they just kept playing. I’m not entirely sure they ever said a single word to the crowd either, it was certainly an experience most festival goers don’t have. No lyrics, no talking, just powerful and atmospheric music that captivated anyone within earshot. Being relatively unfamiliar with them, there was never a time in my life where I thought “I need to see this band”. It was more like an added bonus of something different as the lineup was released for TURF, an initial feeling of “that would be a cool set” has now transformed into a feeling of “where are all the pieces of my mind”. They were a phenomenal evening set, and it felt more like an hour and fifteen minute journey than it did a rock concert in the core of Toronto. I highly recommend seeing these guys live if you ever have the chance, they would be an incredible act to have at any festival, especially as a late-night or evening act. In fact it would almost be criminal to not book them in that time slot if it was possible. Half of their set was dedicated to their 2016 album The Wilderness, which they played five tracks from, and another five from previous albums in their catalogue.
Deep into the darkness (at only 8:10PM) after a journey to another world with Explosions In The Sky came Matt Mays on the Battle of York Stage a smaller stage adjacent to the East (or main) stage, which was only used while acts were performing out of earshot on the West stage. Matt was born in Hamilton, ON but grew up in Nova Scotia. For well over a decade now Matt Mays has been releasing quality material as a solo act and with his band El Torpedo but have struggled to find mainstream success outside of a couple songs. But as most music fans know mainstream success doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making quality music, and quality music doesn’t always equate to mainstream success. Matt has become somewhat of a hidden gem in the music scene, similar to Joel Plaskett. Both fantastic live performers but never really drawing a large crowd and earning household name status. But to fans of these artists, they are easily some of the best songwriters currently making music in Canada. Matt dedicated the song Drunken Angels to former band member Jay Smith who tragically passed away on tour in 2013. Throughout the set Matt played songs from his solo career and his ventures with El Torpedo including the tunes Indio, Tall Trees, and Take It On Faith and was joined for his final song of the evening by Sam Roberts for Cocaine Cowgirl, who was in town as part of the World Cup of Hockey kick-off concerts.
By the final set of the evening for Friday headliner James Bay the crowd had started to thicken and the number of people crowding the main stage was enormous in comparison to the sparsely attended The Hives set at 4pm that afternoon. The English folk-rocker brought his blues-infused style to music fans in Toronto. He opened the set with upbeat song Collide followed by the opening song of his 2015 album Chaos And The Calm, Craving. It was clear even after two songs that there was one thing that James Bay is not short of; talent. His raspy crooning can complement an up-tempo rock song just as easily as his silky smooth singing can complement a down-tempo acoustic song. The potential the young artist has at this point of his career is huge, he could foray into any genre with this talent level and have success. James only having one album didn’t stop him from landing a headlining spot on the bill. He followed up the first two tracks with We Were On Fire, If You Ever Want To Be In Love, Need The Sun To Break and Let It Go. He then started a cover of Can’t Help Falling In Love, which the crowd instantly started singing without direction. James didn’t sing a single lyric of it before moving on to his song Scars. It was a beautiful moment during a set of emotionally charged music. The remainder of his main set featured the songs Best Fake Smile and Get Out While You Can. He then returned to the stage for his encore an opened with a cover of Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary before finishing the evening off with his own song about a river Hold Back The River. James is sure to be a large scale headliner in the next three to five years if he continues to release material of this caliber. He already has a massive fan base that seem to know almost every word to his songs, and a talent pool the size of Lake Ontario to dip into. He shouldn’t have any issues dominating the music world for the next decade.