May 15, 2015
Not unlike most music festivals, Canadian Music Week (CMW) makes an effort at fostering a sense of community and discovery. The weeklong festival, which ran from May 1–10 this year in Toronto, takes place across the city and offers up a plethora of local and imported bands. Concertgoers, industry people, and musicians alike, flock to venues of all sizes—from Lee’s Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern to the Drake Underground and Rancho Relaxo.
While it might be true that CMW fosters a sense of community, I’ve found the festival unintentionally compromises on the discovery front. Over the course of the week, I noticed attendees would show up for one set from a more popular band before disappearing into the night. My hope was that they were jumping to a different venue to see another band—but even then, it was more likely they were heading to see an artist that they already knew. It wasn’t often that you’d see a venue packed from the beginning of a showcase until the end, which is a shame.
It’s clear from attending the festival that CMW puts some serious thought into booking the lineup. They allow similar artists to share a bill, which not only makes sense from a business standpoint, but creates a positive experience for any music fan who’s looking to be blown away by an artist that they’ve never heard of.
Still, the feverish attention paid to the well-known bands was infectious. Big names like Jully Black and Noel Gallagher drew a lot of people to their sets. The former basically starting a dance party with her R&B jams, while the latter offered up a more combative set (unsurprising for anyone who’s familiar with the Gallagher brothers).
Elsewhere, Daniel Lanois kicked off the festival with a set of melodic electro grooves. His interaction with the audience by taking requests really set a precedent for the rest of the festival—a wonderful connection between the artist and fans.
There was certainly fanfare surrounding some of the festival’s biggest names, including the CHUM FM Fanfest featuring Magic! and Lights, and the Sirius XM Indie Award Show, featuring Alvvays and Billy Talent. Some of the most dedicated and outgoing fans came out to the Horseshoe Tavern on a Wednesday evening to see English alt-rock band Swervedriver. It was one of the most diverse crowds of the festival, with twentysomethings bobbing their heads alongside middle-aged couples, everyone getting lost in psych-leaning jams like “Rave Down.”
“Rave Down” by Swervedriver.
Festival shows can sometimes be stuffy affairs—the crowd often dominated by concertgoers with little to no interest in the band playing. Swervedriver’s set at the Horseshoe, and the preceding set from Hamilton’s SIANspheric, boasted no such stuffiness, no such lack of engagement. The crowd was raucous and attentive all night.
Raucous doesn’t even begin to describe what went down at Lee’s Palace on a Saturday night when Cloud Nothings showed up. From the moment the band stepped on stage and started shredding through songs largely pulled from last year’s Here and Nowhere Else, the crowd was whipping themselves into a frenzy. Dylan Baldi’s voice was dynamic all night, moving from impassioned croons to hefty screaming with reckless abandon. Moshing was the theme of so many of the shows that I saw at CMW.
At the exceptionally hot and sweaty Hard Luck Bar, psychedelic post-rockers Bo Ningen blew everyone away. While the songs tended to be a little monotonous, bassist and lead singer Taigen Kawabe showed enough charisma to stand out from the pack and make one forget about monotony. She slinked around the stage in a seductive, creepy way, screaming into her microphone from atop a speaker, before leaning into the crowd and hammering on a bass line—all the while her hair hung down obscuring her face.
Bo Ningen’s placement on the night’s card was perfect. Their frenzied, drawn-out post-rock made King Tuff’s set of two- or three-minute jams feel downright speedy and efficient. That doesn’t mean that King Tuff didn’t have the crowd pogoing and flashing the devil horns at every opportunity. The sunny but frantic “Eyes of the Muse” was a crowd favourite—that is, until the band busted out their most earworm-y hit, “Bad Thing” which set the bar even higher.
After the King Tuff show, it was clear that “fostering a sense of community” might not be the right phrase to describe CMW. Rather, CMW seems to promote intimacy.
Most of the venues populated during CMW are relatively small. They create not only a sense of intimacy between fellow concertgoers, but between the band and the audience. Intimacy defined some of the festival’s best sets—from Verite’s slinky, pop-fueled R&B set at the Drake Underground, to the aforementioned King Tuff show.
Everyone was at these shows to revel in personal moments that couldn’t be replicated, and to experience something emotional and connective. How else to explain the companionship between middle-aged strangers at the Swervedriver show, or the camaraderie on display in the mosh pits?
CMW fosters intimacy by allowing the audience and the artists to share a connection. There’s no separation of space. At most venues, the band is right there in front of you and there’s no assigned seating, meaning that everyone can engage with the set on a meaningful level.
This was especially true during one of the festival’s best showcases at the Garrison—an event titled Toronto Women in Music. The night featured some of the city’s best and most unique artists, including a beautiful set of ’70s-inspired R&B jams from The WAYO, and a blistering hard rock set from the Dirty Frigs, which saw lead singer Bri Salmena weave her way through the audience as she screamed the band’s final song—a staggering exorcism of emotion.
There’s a sense that CMW is the less flashy, more grounded version of NXNE—the one where smaller bands can shine and where all ages and levels of fandom are welcomed into the mix. It’s an audience-driven festival—one that caters to fans of different stripes, and what might lack in discovery, it makes up for in intimacy.
After all, Toronto is nothing if not eclectic, and seeing that represented across a 10-day festival—both on stage and in the crowd—suggests that Toronto’s music scene is not-so-quietly thriving. You just need to take the time to find those intimate moments.