NXNE: Day 4 + 5 (Review, Photos)

by Steven Spoerl

Courtney Barnett XIV

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Once again, apologies are necessary for the long drought of material. I have been organizing, writing, shooting, editing, and attending more events than usual. This has taken up a considerable amount of time but Heartbreaking Bravery hasn’t been forgotten. In fact, most of it has been for the site and will be posted about shortly. Full attention will return shortly and regular posting will resume along with it.]

NXNE is now more than a month in the past but it’s difficult not to keep returning to those shows. The last two days of that Toronto trip were made up of some of the most explosively visceral and gratifying shows anyone could possibly ask for. Two of those shows won’t be accounted for in this review as they weren’t official parts of the festival. Both shows will be given their own full reviews following everything here. Now that all of that’s out of the way, onto the shows themselves.

Day 4 of NXNE kicked off at Sonic Boom where noise/hardcore duo Creep Highway immediately set about providing as much sonic destruction as they possibly could. The duo, led by guitarist/vocalist Michael DeForge, played a fierce, ragged set that saw inflections of powerviolence weaving in and out of their songs. It was an arresting start and both DeForge and drummer Patrick Kyle looked exhausted, but happy, when the last bits of feedback were finally cut off. After happily enduring their onslaught, it was a mad dash over to The Great Hall for Perfect Pussy, looking to avoid another unfortunate situation.

Not two steps were taken into a crowded Great Hall before hearing Graves’ earnest “Hi, we’re Perfect Pussy” led the band straight into their usual chaos. Only this time, unlike the (admittedly mesmerizing) performance not even twelve hours prior, everything went off without a hitch. Their levels were mixed well, Graves’ confrontational pleading was audible, Greg Ambler’s bass- and bass amp- were both in tact, and the audience fed into the band’s energy with a strong display of their own. All of the usual highlights remained extraordinarily strong moments (“Interference Fits”, in particular- still as much of a contender for “song of the decade” as it’s ever been) and by the time Shaun Sutkus’ loops were turning into decays in the epilogue section of “Advance Upon the Real”, Graves was sitting onstage with her backpack, entranced by her bandmate, and looking deservedly pleased. All in all, it was over in about twenty minutes and wound up as another strong example of their live prowess.

After sticking around to hear a few enchanting songs from ANAIKA and leaving with Graves for a very revealing conversation about the previous nights events, it was off to the Ryerson University outdoor stage for an enchanting set from Frankie Cosmos. Graced with good weather and good sound, the young (and very prolific) singer-songwriter delivered each of her songs in high spirits to a small but appreciative crowd. Fan favorite “On the Lips” proved to be an easy high point; it’s as sweet and startling as it’s ever been. All of Cosmos’ bands played off her to near-perfection, each seeming like a natural extension of her songs themselves. By the end of the set, they were all miming their respective parts before falling down in a memorable bit of unassuming humor that wound up being the perfect capper to what was one of the festival’s most endearing performances.

When Frankie Cosmos’ set had come to a close, it was difficult to keep up (any serious festival attendee or reporter will attest to how exhausting the most extensive can be) so there was a dead-zone until Swearin’ took things over at Smiling Buddha. After dealing with some unfortunate mixing situations the previous night, it was a thrill that bordered on catharsis to enter a venue and hear the band in fine form, mixed to perfection. Once again, they offered up an incredibly balanced set that had clear highlights in particularly fiery renditions of “What A Dump”, “Dust in the Gold Sack”, and “Movie Star”. By the time their set had drawn to a close, they’d thrown down the perfect reminder of why they’ve earned so much critical adoration and fan loyalty. Swearin’ are one of the best bands out there- not an easy claim to make, but an impossible one to ignore after seeing a set like that one. A perfect way to end the official festival portion of Day 4.

Day 5 would be split between two venues and only one of them was an official NXNE showcase, which is why this is being included here instead of given separate billing. That showcase took place, once more, at Sonic Boom (and was graciously hosted by the inimitable Chart Attack– who had hosted the previous day as well). It began with a rousing set from one of Australia’s finest exports, Courtney Barnett. An early crowd had formed for the on-the-rise artist and Barnett delivered the way she always does; with warmth, grace, and an endless supply of smiles. No one in the band seemed able to contain their happiness or gratitude and were even smiling through their technical difficulties (which were expertly maneuvered into noise sections that fit the songs so perfectly that it almost felt like they should be integral parts of the band’s sound/records). It was a surprisingly ragged set (made even more ragged by Barnett’s virtue of refusing to use a pick) that sounded as blissed-out as the band looked, even in some fairly startling heaviness the band’s adopted into their palette. Everything about Barnett’s set pointed to one thing: her name isn’t one that will be disappearing anytime soon.

Local band Army Girls‘ bluesy post-punk leanings were next to be featured and the duo lived up to the promise of their recordings. It was one of their first appearances in a while and if there was any rust, it didn’t show. Between seriously impressive displays of fretwork and control from guitarist/vocalist Carmen Elle and drummer Andy Smith, Elle would offer up some biting banter before launching into the next song. Nearly everyone in Sonic Boom couldn’t seem to take their eyes off of them; even Courtney Barnett was dancing in between the aisles and shouting between-song encouragement. She wasn’t alone. Army Girls’ set had an even, practiced feel to it that warranted both attention and investment. If this band ever decides to make a serious run, it’ll be one to keep both eyes on. That their set was the last official NXNE showcase to be taken in felt appropriate; it was another perfect example of the independent spirit that the festival built itself on- and of the city that hosted it. Here’s to NXNE XX- and here’s to looking forward to the 21st installment.

The photo galleries of both days can be accessed below.

NXNE: Day 4 (Photo Gallery)
NXNE: Day 5 (Photo Gallery)