Splashed across Yonge-Dundas Square was the expected collection of fashion, art and food vendors, as well as graffiti artists and dancers, but it was the emphasis added to that last group that really helped invigorate this year's newly anointed "Live at the Square" festivities. Also, the combination of the event's street-side location, a lengthy time slot carrying it well into the evening and one hell of a sound system all acted in Manifesto's favour.
Just as in the past, the primetime lineup showed respectful touches of both old and new, while bouncing across the hip-hop spectrum and beyond. Energetic electro hip-hop outfit the Airplane Boys fought against the chilled early evening temperatures to help pump a little heat into the growing crowd, while Scratch (from the Roots) matched his long-running human beatbox routine to a slew of dancers for a brief set that survived on the strength of sonic gems he managed to expertly recreate.
Canadian hip-hop legend Maestro Fresh Wes — one of the few remaining untapped Canuck old-schoolers — represented for the old guard with a set that served as much to remember the hits as to show off some admittedly unexpected new material. Joined on stage by breaking Mounties, the nation's rap godfather earned predictable cheers for classic cuts "Drop the Needle," "Stick to Your Vision" and even his "Still Too Much" verse. However, the title track from his new Black Tuxedo EP took more than a few moments for listeners to warm up to.
Fellow rap OG Michie Mee opted for a more novel approach, fiercely holding her own in front of the entirely necessary Ladies First Cypher, a biting display that also featured Andreena Mill, Ayo Leilani, Lola Bunz, PG and DJ Nora Tones. The well-executed showcase blazed ferociously with an exacting mix of biting dancehall, sultry soul and stabbing lyrical wordplay, garnering cheers from across the square while making a strong statement for the night's female quotient.
That statement would be driven home by the incredible vocal prowess of deftl talented local songtress Shi Wisdom. Building on the self-announcing stomp of her rock-fuelled opener, the attention-snatching powerhouse ran through a soaring string of heady, soul-drenched scorchers, each one tougher than the last, on her way to a dirty closer in "Take the L," which sent the awaiting dance crews at back of the stage into rhythmic convulsions.
After a few poignant words about the tragedy of poverty, unemployment and violence in the city from Danzig Street area resident P. Reign, and an ultra-short (and seemingly unplanned) tandem display by the Beatnuts and Alkoholics, the stage was finally set for the night's main event.
The idea of matching Toronto's own incredibly talented hip-hop re-envisioners BadBadNotGood with headliner Pharoahe Monch was already a solid on paper, but proved even more exceptional on stage. The three mesmerizing Toronto musicians, joined by an equally remarkable guitarist, turned in a praise-worthy performance that, understandably, was upstaged only by the top-billing rapper's own commanding personality.
The seasoned lyricist matched natural, light-hearted charisma with the seriousness made necessary by the complexity of both his verbal acrobatics and message, toying with Manifesto's long-standing no cussing policy (with "F's" becoming "B's"), and taking the packed square to church for cuts like "My Life" and "Push." An apparent theme of perseverance continued through "Still Standing," with BBNG's guitar and drums cutting through at every turn before the Monch wound things back with classics "Oh No" and a brief drop of Dilla's "Fuck the Police."
Closing things out with show stopper "Simon Says" (for which he let the audience handle the track's integral cursing), Pharoahe Monch not only wrapped up a set some likely would have put down coin to see, but marked the first time a headlining artist has ever managed a respectable show length without running head on into the 11 p.m. curfew, a definite improvement over years past. Hats should definitely go off to the Manifesto crew who, in the face of financial adversity, still managed to move elements of this long-running event forward, no doubt further solidifying the festival as a can't-miss event on Toronto's yearly calendar.