NXNE 2004 Toronto ON - June 10 to 12, 2004

NXNE 2004 Toronto ON - June 10 to 12, 2004
By Andrew Steenberg, Joshua Ostroff, Neil Haverty, Noel Dix, Susana Ferreira and Stuart Green

4th Pyramid
There were maddening problems with the sound equipment during 4th Pyramid's set, at one point making everything but his mic utterly useless, and no kidding he was frustrated. Still, like any veteran performer, he pulled the show together and carried himself with class and grace. He dropped some dope a cappellas, playing like he was ushering them back into main stage popularity, and got some nice support from Theo3. But man, when the sound finally did kick in again, 4th Pyramid was on fire. This is one smooth, smooth cat. SF

Ambulance LTD.
Among other things, Ambulance LTD. have two key properties going for them: they show an unwavering allegiance to variety, taking cues from the most diverse sources in rock's coffers; and they're adepts in the seemingly illusive art of writing actual songs. Whether it's a move to radio-friendliness or just plain sapience, all of their tunes keep it brief and palatable. In fact, their "Heavy Lifting" was the highlight of my weekend; it's an inexorable two-minute bonfire that's still on mental repeat. AS

There's one thing I can't stand about NXNE and that's the industry crowd. The CBC3 Brassmunk showcase, unfortunately, was packed with stiff-bodied music biz folk and it made it difficult for actual fans to, in typical hip-hop fashion, throw their hands up and wiggle around. Brass knew what they were working with, so they had a little fun with the crowd, joking about how, "We just got back from a tour with Pat Benatar in Korea," and laughing along as the joke slipped by unnoticed. Sense of humour aside, Brassmunk showed off their well-oiled performance, and by the end of their set they had won over most of the indie kids and even got the suits to dance. Beautiful. SF

The Burdocks
The Burdocks are a fabulous band that gets nowhere near the amount of attention they're entitled to. Still, the band treated the handful of attendees to a powerful performance of material from their newest release, Airplane Tracks, as well as a few favourites from their catalogue. Sugary prog-pop anthems played by a foursome of endearing 20-somethings from Halifax, the Burdocks are instantly loveable, taking pop hooks and twisting them into awe-inspiring time shift workouts. Though the club's sound left much to be desired, the perfect harmonies and call-and-response style melodies rang through enough to show that the Burdocks are one talented bunch. What's not to love about a band that can play their instruments well and still manage to look like they're having a good time? NH

Classified / J-Bru / Spesh-K
Like fine liquor, Halifax's Classified seems to be maturing well. Accompanied by two of the CTG crew, Spesh-K and the surprisingly solid J-Bru, Class delivered a polished, hype performance. The crowd was even treated to a live re-enactment of his high-rotation music video hit, thanks to support from DL Incognito and home-slice Eternia. The row of over-enthusiastic Maritime girls at the front didn't even seem to mind when Class made a broad, demeaning generalisation about the virtue (or lack thereof) of Nova Scotian girls. Now there's some rap star charm. SF

The Desert Fathers
You really have to feel sorry for a band that travels all the way from New York for a 30-minute set that was plagued by equipment and sound problems. It's unclear though, given their mediocre brand of urban white funk, whether the best P.A. in the world would have made them sound better. The grinning bassist, apparently oblivious to lacklustre audience response, deserves points for keeping things amusing with his funky chicken strut. SG

Regina, SK's undisputed rock champions were so hot they managed to blow the house P.A. within ten seconds of hitting the stage for what was one of the most buzzed about sets of the festival. And they didn't disappoint. After house technicians got things back up and running, they blew through material from their debut EP and then some. Reminiscent of early ...Trail of Dead shows with less instrument trashing. SG

Elliott Brood
Banjo-led Elliott Brood proved so popular - or rather, the club proved so small - that they couldn't even squeeze all their friends in. Marred by technical difficulties and repeated tunings, the self-described "death country" trio delivered an otherwise appealingly upbeat but still dark set of bluegrass'n'roll. Ottawa may still have a lock on roots acts, but the Brood are coming on strong. Note that if leaving the club towards the end of a set to catch the last song of a nearby band and you are forced to make eye contact with the drummer. I suggest a sheepish thumbs-up and a quick scurry away. JO

Eternia is one of the most versatile, talented emcees in Canadian hip-hop. Never mind calling her a "female" emcee; it would be a crime to water down her prowess with a gender tag. She's a powerhouse and a very smooth professional at what she does. She gripped the mic with emotion, anger, and playful boasting, inviting Classified and DL Incognito onstage for a "Just The Way It Is" sing-in. The venue was packed, and the Flow crowd was responsive, but did they have to put her on so early in the night? She's not an opening act, Eternia's main stage. SF

Andre Ethier
Deadly Snakes' front-man Andre Ethier strapped on an acoustic guitar and plied his fuddled ululations to a slow-burning brand of barroom folk (on his birthday, no less). Oozing liquor-tinged sweat and bluesy piano, Ethier's old-time stories of lost paramours and hard times went over well with the suitably perspiring throng. An admirable shift from the Snakes' spastic R&B. AS

During her first performance of the fest, expat Leslie Feist announced the "real gig" was Saturday night, prompting some to confuse arrogance for forthrightness. Following Friday's too-brief and un-soundchecked slot, Feist and her Frenchmen band moved to a much-bigger club and made out with the soundsystem. The France-inspired cabaret pop of Let It Die held the throng in sway as she let her almost too intimate songs fly about the room. The "wow this is wonderful" factor was amplified by Shary Boyle, an overhead projector artist (yeah, you heard me) who painted portraits, animated lovers and plastered starry skies across the back wall. It was a full-on love-in, sure, but Feist's smoky-voice made the rest of the fest pale. JO

From Fiction
Quirky, jerky art-pop from this Toronto band recalls Fugazi and Sonic Youth with spastic early Devo-isms thrown in. They turned the stage into such a whirling dervish of activity that it was a small miracle there weren't more collisions between band members. As an aside, somebody get that drummer some Ritalin. He was barely able to stay put long enough to complete a song without wandering around bashing almost anything in sight. Highly entertaining. SG

The Front
The "rap meets live jazz funk fusion band" formula is nothing new, and certainly not in the context of their hometown Vancouver, but the Front throw in a fistful of twists. A tight five-piece consisting of a bass player, drummer, gospel-soaked keys and two emcees just as comfortable crooning as they are spitting, the Front are capable of making even the stiffest of Toronto screw-faces get up on their feet. They're musical giants, by turns soulful and silly, and well worth keeping an eye on. SF

Get Schooled: Uncut / Controller.Controller / Death From Above / Tangiers
Though the hilariously wasted promoter did accept a few hundred festival badges, this late-night rock extravaganza wasn't technically part of NxNE - you could tell because it boasted a better line-up and, oh yeah, the bands got paid. Setting up shop in the always-sketchy Comfort Zone, a popular Sunday morning stop for the crystal kid crowd, the concert positively oozed sleazy rock'n'roll from the low-slung ceilings. Uncut set the stage with their dance floor-ready post-punk, while Controller.Controller dealt out female-fronted death disco with a ferocity that bounced off the black walls. Then the rising Vice Mag approved duo Death From Above elicited an incomprehensible amount of noise out of a drum kit and a bass, bringing a boogie-fied rhythm to their hardcore blasts, shouted vocals and ironic facial hair. DFA make loud music for people who don't like loud music, it's just that undeniable. Sloppily up for it headliners Tangiers had already played a NXNE slot earlier in the night, but it's unlikely that it in any way approached the sweaty three a.m. abandon with which they attacked the songs from their new, and misleadingly-titled, disc Never Bring You Pleasure. Tonight they totally did, though 12 hours of beer consumption no doubt helped. JO

Girl Nobody
Flying in from Van City, the heavily buzzed about electro-pop darlings struggled with sound issues. Or maybe their songs all sort of sound alike. It's hard to say. Marta Jaciubek is indeed a charming front-woman -sporting a pretty dress and a tropical flower in her hair that I can only assume was a Jasmine Trias shout out - and her voice is quite blissful. In fact, the new wave-y feel of their keyboard-fuelled guitar splendour is right up my musical alley and yet it never quite connected, despite the best efforts of Marta and her boys. Girl Nobody's got all the ingredients down. They just need a recipe. JO

The Goods
Halifax comes out in full effect as Gordski mans the decks for Taichichi and Kunga 219 in this east coast super-group, as two of Canada's greatest and hardest working MCs gripped their mics with undeniable intensity. Fresh beats and finely-crafted rhymes were enough to place the crowd in the palm of their collective hand, but the accompanying dance routines? Like the cherry on top of a hip-hop sundae. ND

Shawn Hewitt
Shawn Hewitt is a superstar in waiting. And we're not talking about minor indie celebrity either; this guy deserves a shot at mainstream supremacy. He's charismatic, his songs are smart and his voice is leagues above anything the mainstream world has been feeding us lately. Sure, there's a lot of Stevie Wonder in there but Hewitt injects some grit into his soulful croon, flawlessly matching it with Rhodes-driven, prog savvy epics. Though his songwriting may be a little out there for the average mega-label, the presence of Sony head honcho Denise Donlan at his NXNE show could be an indication that Hewitt's talent could overshadow the need for standard pop songs. If a major label can throw money at a hack like Remy Shand, hopefully a real soul man like Hewitt will get the attention he deserves very soon. NH

Holy Fuck
Holy Fuck are a three-piece improv band built on strange electronics, pulsing bass and full-steam drumming. Comprised of past and present members of By Divine Right and King Cobb Steelie, Holy Fuck made good on their name and pedigree with a danceable, alcohol-fuelled blow-out. Driving like Trans Am and littered with chipmunk vocal manipulations and analog tape trickery, Holy Fuck were the perfect soundtrack for the pickled people that cluttered the tiny bar. Improv? Could have fooled me. NH

Many bands would be bummed at being shunted into an eight p.m. slot, but not the almighty Illuminati. Instead, the boogie-rock band brought indie icon Ian Blurton to run the soundboard, creating what was most likely the loudest NXNE showcase of all time. Gruff-voiced bassist Nick Sewell, ear-damaging drummer Jim Gering and shirtless (and heavily tattooed) guitarist Les Godfrey tossed their long hair about while riffing through a set of surprisingly melodic (and, not surprisingly, heavy) songs from their not-yet-released album On Borrowed Time. If all metal was this good, well, we wouldn't have to make fun of it so much. JO

This Montreal ensemble managed to create all sorts of different musical moods during their fantastic set, but they reached their highest moments when the lone female vocalist took centre stage, showcasing her powerful vocal intensity. There might still be some fine-tuning left in this operation, which brings hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz to the table, but it shouldn't be long before Kobayashi rocks larger stages with more epic results. ND

Greg MacPherson
With guitar in hand, singer/songwriter Greg MacPherson departed the 'Peg to bring us his "populist" (read: leftist) folk-punk strumming. Pulling Springsteen-ish tunes off his latest acoustic EP, Maintenance (think the Constantines with the sound down low), MacPherson played with stripped-down passion and poetic vigour. He was all alone up there, but had no trouble filling the stage with his sung stories of the up-in-arms and the down on their luck. Lennon was right. A working-class hero is something to be. JO

Magneta Lane
Being awfully small, I'm not one to get into fights but I nearly glassed a white dreadlocked fratboy who kept yelling "Do it to me hard, baby!" at the adorable 19-year-olds of Magneta Lane while macho-moshing into people. Thankfully, the dude couldn't throw the girls off their game ('cause he would've totally smoked me). The newfound Paper Bag Records band ran through their short but catchy collection of Strokes-via-Blondie garage riff-filled songs with fierce control, youthful exuberance and "too cool for you" good looks, not to mention just the right mix of on-stage surliness and shy smiles. Soon to be huge. JO

The Marble Index
Sometimes at a festival you just follow the flow of friends and wind up seeing a great band you previously knew nothing about. This was not one of those times. Playing to a sparsely-filled room of bored-looking industry types, this newly Universal-signed band from Hamilton offered an inoffensive set of run of the mill rock'n'roll that evoked none of the signifiers in their bio (MC5, Big Star, the Who). Maybe it was an off-night, as Marble Index seems to have their champions, but, like, whatever. JO

Masia One
It's a no-brainer that Masia One is one of Canada's most-gifted female MCs, but after a performance like tonight's it won't be long until her gender altogether takes a backseat to her vicious abilities on the microphone. With a full band to back her up, including a small horn section, Masia One flowed like silk as she dropped politically-charged numbers on the unsuspecting crowd, who just continually craved more. It goes without saying that Masia One is a very important figure in our country's hip-hop scene. ND

No Luck Club
Vancouver's the Chan Brothers could do no wrong when it came time to mash together funk, hip-hop and electronic beats, sending them towards the dance floor and moving the entire crowd's feet. Watching the brothers communicate with each other shows their ability to work as a single musical mind, with Trevor repeatedly dropping fantastic beats via laptop for Matt to display his sharp cutting and beat-juggling skills on the decks over. It's a shame they didn't drop their own material or any classic hip-hop joints during their performance, but it's only a matter of time before these two reach the next level in their evolution. ND

Oliver Black
Although anchored by the magnificent pipes of vocalist Serena Pruyn (who simultaneously channels Bon Scott, Gwen Stefani and Hillary Duff), this Welland, ON quartet can't rise above the banalities of rote AC/DC-inspired riff rock. Pruyn has a presence and a voice that hint at a greatness that will remain unrealised unless her band can write some better songs. Although I'm sure the sold-out audience of die-hard Wellanders who bus'd in for the gig would disagree. SG

Pangea Project
Mystery emcee Natural was not in effect but the remaining trio of Kamau, Equinox 199 and Change carried off a smooth, air-tight performance, treating a slow to stir Toronto crowd to songs from their brand new self-titled compilation release as well as some sweet solo treats. Each of the emcees brought a distinct vibe to the stage and the intermingling of Kamau's low-key poetics, Equinox's contagious bounce and wordplay, and Change's vivid imagery and punch complement and contrast one another beautifully. Genuine artistry and heartfelt politics make for a refreshing combination, and the Pangea emcees are as refreshing as they come. SF

The Remains Of Brian Borcherdt
In 2002, Brian Borcherdt touched Canadian audiences with his Moth EP, a heartfelt and sombre eulogy disguised as a raspy, chilling rock record. This year's NXNE performance marked the release of his follow-up, The Remains of Brian Borcherdt (which could be considered self-titled as he has recently adopted the title as his moniker). Though the material remains dark and mysterious, Borcherdt was all smiles tonight, as he and his all-star band (including members of King Cobb Steelie, By Divine Right and the Swallows) breezed through a set mostly comprised of songs from the new full-length. With the sensibilities of Hayden sprinkled over solid, straight-ahead rock numbers, his performance proved that Borcherdt could be a household name by the time the year is out. NH

The SS Cardiacs
It's mighty hard to believe that this is just the one-year anniversary of the SS Cardiacs. Though it was billed as a solo show, last year's festival was the first time that drummer Dana Snell and bassist Andy Lloyd helped Montreal native Jessie Stein take her brainy compositions and turn them into full-blown rock songs. The SS Cardiacs play like they've been together for years, effortlessly running through a set of catchy, clever pop songs hearkening back to the golden age of indie rock. The crowd couldn't help but get caught up in Stein's super-optimistic stage presence, especially when she brought out the band's anniversary gifts: handmade T-shirts adorned with bright pink hearts. NH

Kinnie Starr
Kinnie followed the Brassmunk showcase, making for not only a smooth transition but actually complementing their hip-hop set. She's the epitome of versatile, switching off between lazy croons and cute raps like she was born doing both simultaneously. Her stories about BC bud adventures and her sly, seductive delivery probably made half the crowd want to move back to Vancouver with her. Her set was one of the brightest gems of the whole festival. SF

The Tangiers
It may have been the swelter or the non-existent stage but it seems that the heartily revamped Tangiers have finally jettisoned the bobble-head theatrics and let their songs exert the brio. Switching easily between rapier-like post-punk stabs and doo-wop harmonies, the band hinted that they've been listening to the Ronettes as much as previous exemplars the Vibrators, which puts them in possession of an enviable commodity: a sound all their own and a great one at that. AS

Wheels On The Bus
Part of the burgeoning Brampton screamo scene, WOTB lit up the stage in a blaze of metallic prog-punk fury that recalled Grade, Coheed and Cambria, and Iron Maiden. Showering an appreciative gaggle of pals who made the trek downtown from the suburbs with a selection of material from their two EPs, they proved why they are a band to watch. SG