On the Road: NXNE 2015

June 29, 2015

One of Canada’s top music festivals, North by Northeast (NXNE), wrapped up its 21st year from June 17–21 in Toronto.

Since the festival’s debut year in 1994, NXNE has grown to become a major destination on the North American festival circuit, showcasing everything from domestic talent, such as Shad and The New Pornographers, to international superstars, like Iggy and The Stooges, The National, St. Vincent, The Flaming Lips, DEVO, and so many others.

The festival attracts over 350,000 people, who flock from all over, to take in the orchestration of sights and sounds, bouncing between comedy acts, art shows, film screenings, and hundreds of live music performances in over 50 venues.

The fact that the festival can draw such large crowds to hundreds of sold-out shows is a testament to Toronto’s reputation of being a premiere music city. When you consider the fact that NXNE wasn’t the only big event going on in the city—Luminato Festival, TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Pride Week, and the Much Music Video Awards were also happening simultaneously—the argument only solidifies.

Toronto, you love your music.

Here are a few of my favourite moments from this year’s festival:

HEALTH at the Horseshoe Tavern

My initial reaction was that these guys could pull off an amazing soundtrack for some kind of sci-fi movie or video game. Turns out they did just that back in 2012 for Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 3 full soundtrack.

Where most experimental noise-rock can come across as a bit too improvised in a live setting, I can’t stress enough how tight HEALTH sounded. It wasn’t just a few guys on stage, messing around in their own world with their heads down, hoping to riff off each other’s strange sounds—it was a full-on, closely calculated rock show that didn’t skip a beat. And those drums! This was easily the best complete set I witnessed over the course of the festival.

I can’t go on without mentioning how important the setting was in relation to this show. If you’ve been lucky enough to witness the magic of a live at the Horseshoe Tavern, you get it. There is something about the history of the Horseshoe that you can feel. It doesn’t feel haunted, or possessed by the supernatural. Rather, it’s like you’re being consumed by something greater than yourself. When your eyes adjust to the darkness and you’re finally able to look around, that’s when you realize you’ve just entered the belly of the beast.

The Last Pogo Jumps Again Trailer.

DJ set by Damian Abraham (from Fucked Up) at Exclaim! Magazine’s annual Venice Beach BBQ

On Friday things started off a bit weird. I was invited by a friend—one of only three people I know in Toronto—to meet “in the parking lot behind Honest Ed’s for a crazy beach-themed party.”

Honest Ed’s is kind of like the Hotel California carnival ride of discount stores—it looks super fun and exciting from the outside, but once you enter you should immediately call your family and tell them you love them, because you can never leave. A lady actually approached me on the third floor, terrified, and asked if I knew where the exits were. “Oh you don’t know either!” she muttered. I didn’t and it was scary.

I finally found an open window and crawled out to find my friend waiting for me in the line.

The next two hours were a bit of a blur. But here’s what I remember: It was really hot, and there was a fake beach made of real sand that was trucked in and dumped haphazardly around the parking lot. There were palm trees, police officers, thousands of people, a basketball court, an outdoor gym with real and fake weights, people dressed in workout gear with real and fake muscles, and a makeshift stage decorated with red life-preservers. It was all very strange.

Check out these photos from their Facebook event page here if you’d like to get a better sense of the weirdness.

Plus, Fucked Up’s Father Damian/Pink Eyes spun some great punk tunes that made for a lively audience.

Hollerado at Yonge and Dundas Square

I’ve seen Hollerado play a handful of times in the past, and they always put on a great show. Seeing them play a free outdoor concert to a massive audience in the middle of downtown Toronto was by far the best atmosphere for a Hollerado concert that I’ve witnessed. This was exactly what this band was made to do.

Complete with their signature confetti cannons and the addition of light-up LED beach balls, the Ottawa indie-rockers proved once again why performing live is where they shine.

It’s worth while to mention that Hollerado recently released an album containing 111 songs, aptly named 111 Songs. Read more about this incredible accomplishment on the band’s website.

Ben Caplan & the Casual Smokers at the NXNE Hub

I’m still kicking myself that I almost missed the entire set by Halifax’s Ben Caplan, whose badass beard and blues-y bravado was by far the highlight of my NXNE experience.

I only caught the last two songs of his set, but for his closing song “40 days and 40 nights” he brought a brass band on stage to accompany him—a group that he had only met earlier that day when he saw them busking downtown and offered them $20 to join him for a song during his show that evening.

They totally killed it! If they had gone straight to playing the song without mentioning the rest, I would have made the assumption that they’ve played together for years.

The combination of strings from the Casual Smokers, the smooth horns from the new guys, along with Caplan’s raspy, roaring voice, shook the dust from every crack and crevasse in the room.

Mexican Slang at the Silver Dollar Room

Toronto noise-pop act Mexican Slang sound like a crashing symbol when it’s missing a giant chunk out of it (I wonder if drummer Denholm Whale broke a piece off his cymbal on purpose?).

They have a grungy-sounding attack that lingers briefly with a unique, lo-fi sounding-quality—almost like throwing a beer bottle at a road sign from the window of a moving vehicle. It sounds so satisfying.

It was no wonder both Complex Magazine and Indie Underground listed them as one of the top bands to see at NXNE.

 

More photos of NXNE 2015

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    NXNE Hub powered by Samsung. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    New Pornographers at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    New Pornographers at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    New Pornographers at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    New Pornographers at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Devin Cuddy Band at the Horseshoe Tavern. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Devin Cuddy Band at the Horseshoe Tavern. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    NXNE 2015

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    Devin Cuddy Band at the Horseshoe Tavern. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Devin Cuddy Band at the Horseshoe Tavern. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Born Ruffians at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Born Ruffians at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Born Ruffians at Yonge and Dundas Square. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Bad Girls at Sneaky Dee's. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Bad Girls at Sneaky Dee's. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Bad Girls at Sneaky Dee's. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Bad Girls at Sneaky Dee's. Credit: Brandon Wallis

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    Bad Girls at Sneaky Dee's. Credit: Brandon Wallis

 

Once you cross NXNE off your bucket list of must-see music festivals, you’ll add it right back to the top of the list.

 

–Brandon Wallis

About the Author

Brandon Wallis

Brandon is the Manager of Content and Production and for the National Music Centre and Managing Editor for Amplify.

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