Day Two: Violent Femmes, Drive-By Truckers, Shovels & Rope, New Country Rehab Fort York, Toronto ON, July 5

Day Two: Violent Femmes, Drive-By Truckers, Shovels & Rope, New Country Rehab Fort York, Toronto ON, July 5
Photo: Shane Parent
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We arrived a bit late to catch Caitlin Rose, despite heavy rushing and some light tugging on my five-year-old's arm. But we got there in time for the last couple of numbers. Good news, since she is easily among the top two or three best up-and-coming alt-country musicians on the scene. If you've been sleeping on her, I cannot emphasise enough the degree to which: WAKE UP. But more about her later.

The whole family in tow, we moved around a lot on this second, blistering day at TURF. Toronto's New Country Rehab played one of the two main stages to an early bird crowd, their brand of newfangled old time music sending a warm wave through the afternoon. Their new material sounds great, by the way, and both their intense bluegrass cover of "Fire On The Mountain" (now sounding nothing at all like the Grateful Dead's reggae-spiked original) and dark-night-of-the-soul take on Springsteen's "State Trooper" were late set highlights. Having brought my kids up on a steady diet of '70s-era Dead bootlegs, "FOTM" was a big hit. ("Does he know Jerry, dad?") This was a strong set from a band about to hit its stride.

We moved over to the other main stage to catch Shovels & Rope, one of the bands I was most primed to see. A duo out of South Carolina, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst make clamouring country music of the stomp and cheer variety. Hearst's enormous, twangy voice booms with energy while the two of them switch back and forth between percussion, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars. The equipment was giving them the pains on this day — an out-of-tune guitar was a real drag for a couple of songs — but it did lead us to my favourite bit of onstage chatter of the day: "It's a little early in the afternoon for cussing," drawled Hearst, "but when you mean it, you mean it." Despite all the issues ("We've been betrayed by our own equipment!" she laughed), this was still a hell of a show. New record in August, folks. Look out.

Refuelled on ice cream and space pops for the kids, we headed over to see the Drive-By Truckers, easily my favourite band at the festival, perhaps my favourite band. There was excitement. Both of our kids know Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley by name, and both were visibly excited to see them walk out onstage in front of them. The set, however, was a hit-and-miss affair. The first half suffered from muddy, inconsistent sound. (Cooley's laconic, shrugged response to Hood's fiddling attempts to clean it up: "Sometimes not giving a shit's enough.") The set list was filled with good, surprising numbers from the band's catalogue, however, and the closer one got to the stage the better the sound. Still, it wasn't until the set's final third that the band really caught fire, hammering out a memorable "18 Wheels of Love" and a pretty glorious take on "Women Without Whiskey." The set was defined by a raging cover of Warren Zevon's "Play It All Night Long" with that irresistible chant of a chorus: "Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band's song/ Turn them speakers up full blast, play it all night long." Yeah. Yes.

My wife took the kids home and left me to contemplate the Violent Femmes. Recently reformed following some litigious disputes (although without their original drummer), the Femmes came out to a huge ovation and dazzled the crowd by playing their entire self-titled debut front-to-back. A hell of an album, chock-a-block with hits and pop gems, this made for a real give-the-people-what-they-want front half of a set in the blistering afternoon sun. The back half was pretty touch and go by contrast, featuring much spottier material, and a general dampening of the jubilation gathered in the early going. Still, much as I don't care for the band's Television meets Michael Nesmith sound, I do admire their goofy onstage presentation. A crowd pleaser, if not a "me" pleaser.

Next up was the Gaslight Anthem, a band that fits only rather uneasily into the whole "urban roots" conceit of the Festival, but which aroused some of the strongest crowd response of the fest so far. A huge-sounding rock band boasting a gravel-voiced frontman with electric eyes, the Gaslight Anthem sounded sinewy and fierce as they tore through "The '59 Sound," "Handwritten," and "Old White Lincoln." The crowd all around me were chanting along to Brian Fallon's muscular, nostalgic lyrics like we were at a Hold Steady show, tattooed arms raised to the sky, fists pumping. The songs may sound pretty similar to one another, and the set list could be better organized to avoid the sameness, but this was yet another highlight on a pretty high afternoon.

We wound up the day with a club set from Caitlin Rose over at Lee's Palace. (For TURF, you can catch many festival artists at local bars after the outdoor venue shuts down for the day.) A terrific performer, Rose has found a new gear now, a full 18 months after releasing one of the best (if sorely under-heard) records of 2013. Backed by a tight young band in Los Colognes (featuring a smart, arpeggio-happy guitarist in Jay Rutherford), Rose has settled into a comfortable groove. Her endlessly catchy country-rock songs spiced up with some inventive covers (including Karen Dalton's "Something On Your Mind"), Rose's 45 minutes breezed by. A wonderful way to end another long and rewarding day of music.

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