Allow me to provide some context. It’s been five years since I’ve done NXNE. I mean REALLY done it – the kind where you’re OD-ing on Red Bull and candy, limping from feet blisters and your ears are constantly ringing when you decide to go to bed at 5 am in the morning. The kind where your brain is trying to keep up with the mixture of sounds, as you hop from spacey electro rock to Icelandic chamber pop to psycho-aggressive rap… all in a span of a few hours. The kind where you continue to find bits of confetti in your bra even days after an epic set. Like that kind of “done it.” Having lived in London, Ontario for years and then travelling around the world for a couple more, this year’s NXNE festival reminded me why I came back – Toronto is one of the best music cities in the world.
My adventures began on Thursday – already I could feel the city abuzz with energy. On our way back after a brief stop at Toronto Island for the JanSport Bonfire Sessions with Smith Westerns, my sister (a.k.a. Music Partner in Crime) and I encountered a lovely band serenading us with their harmonic melodies and East Coast vibe on the ferry. “State yourselves!” we declared. They were none other than Paper Lions – a band we would soon encounter frequently throughout the week. “Nice to meet you,” the band tweeted back at me after I posted a pic of them on the Interwebs.
Fuelled up with Sneaky Dee’s nachos and ready to go, we caught PS I Love You, the Polaris Prize long-listers who proved they belong on that list with their very loud, very fuzzy power-pop rock jams. Replacing the Violens’ cancelled performance, no one was complaining about the last minute “replacements.” Up next was new-ish Portland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Quiet-spoken boys, zero typical band banter, but their quirky indie rock beats with hints of psychedelic glam said it all for us. Listen to “FFunny FFrends” and it’ll be love at first listen.
I sprinted west of Queen Street and Spadina only to sweat more in the Wrongbar sauna created by the massive crowd for Montreal’s electronic buzz band Purity Ring. With fans in every crevice of the bar, standing on couches and squished up against the side walls, it was the second duo of the night that surprised me with their thunderous sound. Colourful, tree-shaped lanterns illuminated with every beat of the drum machine creating a spectacle from the unassuming pair.
Friday arrived soon enough as I mapped out the game plan for the day. NXNE Interactive presented a slew of seminars and workshops for industry professionals, up-and-coming artists and media wanting to gain insight about the ever-changing industry. I managed to squeeze in a session, Social Music Marketing: Bands, Brands and Fans, in which panelists from Embrace Presents, Rdio, Blackberry and PlayNetwork offered their knowledge about fan engagement and developing partnerships that matter to your brand. My smart fix for the day.
After a brief stop at the Exclaim! and Jagermeister annual BBQ bash held at a backyard parking lot (Free beer! A silver Elvis impersonator! Roller derby girls! Fifties music! Free barber cuts?!), I hit up The Garrison for the aluminum-clad electronic dance crew Art vs. Science and then toned it down (kind of) with the Icelandic ten-piece chamber pop band Utidur at The Drake Hotel. A more cheery version of Beirut with bits of a less punky Gogol Bordello, Utidur charmed the crowd with their Toronto enthusiasm: “We’re selling CDs and our van over there.” Brasstronaut was up next – though more “-tronaut” and less “brass” than I would’ve liked (if you can picture that). I was still glad I caught a glimpse of the Vancouver jazzy-pop sextet. Minutes later, I found myself in Wrongbar once again for my anticipated band of the night – The Death Set. Hailing from Brooklyn, the experimental punk duo generated an immediate cyclone of a mosh pit amidst happy campers. I took a breath and dove right in, as if I was 15 again in a basement of an all-ages local punk show. Their set was a whirlwind of spazz, sweat and instrument destruction – exactly how I wanted to finish off my night.
Saturday, Day 4, my bod was starting to feel it. Cracking open my eyelids in the morning was rough, but I made it to Poretta Lane for a Vintage Pop-Up sale hosted by OTM Zine and the adorable boys of Songs and Cigarettes, with stores like Pretty Freedom and White Tiger Vintage Boutique showing off their sweet summer collection. Onto Trinity Bellwoods for the Live in Bellwoods: Great Heart Festival hosted by Humble Empire. Who do we spy but our new friends and new favourite band Paper Lions performing on the grassy field to the biggest Live in Bellwoods crowd yet. Harmonies and folksy joy à la Local Natives, the sing-alongs set us up for their fellow East Coaster Ben Caplan’s powerful acoustic set afterwards.
And then the night Toronto was waiting for. It was surprisingly not as packed as we thought at Yonge and Dundas Square – we easily (and kindly) inched our way to the front section of the crowd just in time for of Montreal’s expectedly warped out, Bowie-esque performance, equipped with masked pig sacrifices, checkered beings with wing-shaped hands, prancing pixie kings and giant boobed creatures. The crowd sprung to life when of Montreal oldies but goodies like “She’s a Rejector,” “Suffer for Fashion” and “Wraith Pinned to the Mist” were performed. The happy, face-painted weirdos still got it.
We inched even further, almost close to the front row now, for Portugal. The Man. The Alaskan all-American rockers attempted to bring down the skyscrapers around us, kicking off the set with my fave jam “Got It All.” No face paint for these guys, but their vocals and guitboxing riffs were uber tight – even the punk kids around me got into them hard.
Portugal. The Man left me, my sister and close to 25,000 people in Yonge and Dundas Square in anticipation for The Flaming Lips. 9 o’clock came around – by this time we were squeezed up on the front row fence, teased with brief signs of the moppy-haired lead singer Wayne Coyne, in all his fur-scarf wearing, confetti trigger happy glory. Half an hour later, the madness began. Powerful explosions from confetti blasters harmonized with the massive crowd’s squeals. Giant balloons bounced like a scene from children’s dream. Wayne Coyne’s infamous hamster ball crowd surf was an epic sight along Y&D Square, as he rolled on top of our faces with a confident grace, as if he’s lived in that inflatable bubble all his life. The set was one of emotional highs and lows, as prolonged masturbatory instrumental breaks and Coyne’s acknowledgement of the Downsview stage disaster caused the crowd to reflect on the events while enjoying the music. The Flaming Lips ended their hour-and-a-half long set with “Do You Realize?” leaving the teary-eyed front row overwhelmed with extreme happiness. The crowd dissolved and the scene looked like a confetti apocalypse hit our city.
It was too good to be true – a free show from one of the biggest and most energizing bands in the world. If I ended NXNE there, I would’ve been happy. In fact, I could hear my pillow calling my name. But, no, instead I ended up at my new home away from home (Wrongbar), got pulled onstage by Killer Mike for a booty-popping rap sesh, stopped by a random outdoor artsy noise rock thing, took pictures with (loyal) passed out patrons on the curb and bypassed The Drake lineup to celebrate a friend’s birthday dancing to Treasure Fingers’ disco tunes ‘til the wee hours.
The little ounce of energy was saved last but not least for Sunday’s final Y&D Square set by none other than Wu-Tang Clan alumni Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. Nostalgia (and W’s) in the air.
My muscles are still throbbing and my ears still ringing, but I continue to glow from the past four days of awesomeness. NXNE officially screwed themselves with the burden of having to top this year’s fest for 2013. And I’ll be there, stretching it out for next year’s music marathon.
~ Desiree Gamotin