Another NXNE has come and gone, and with maintaining a perpetual buzz fueled by sunshine, good friends and lots of alcohol comes a great amount of musical discovery, both bad and good. Here are some of the gems and duds I uncovered this very special, 20th anniversary North by North East.
Whitehorse with Jim Cuddy
While definitely not a new discovery, I had yet to have the pleasure of experiencing husband and wife duo Whitehorse’s live show. So when I saw that the pair would be gracing the Budweiser-sponsored Horseshoe stage, I knew I had to be in attendance. The cherry on top was learning that Canadian music icon Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo) would be joining them on stage. Melissa McClelland was radiant, in part due to her current pregnancy, but mostly due to the fact that she was born to perform, and does so with the love of her life (Luke Doucet) by her side. While McClelland’s voice sings a siren song that beckons all to her with love and adoration, Doucet’s mastery of all things guitar amaze and inspire. I’ve always wondered how two people so clearly happy and in love can manage to create such soulful music, but Whitehorse do, and do it very, very well, and even better live. Hearing the pair perform not only their signature cover “I’m on Fire” (Bruce Springsteen), but accompanying Cuddy on some classic Blue Rodeo felt like a surreal privilege that only comes with being a Canadian music fan. It was the stuff that NXNE experiences are made of.
This discovery makes the list not for its musical quality (NOT IN THE LEAST) but for its pure entertainment and WTF value. I, like much of the crowd I’m sure, spent the duration of the celebrity-fronted band’s first song wondering if we were all the victims of a terrible practical joke. A ponytailed Macauley Caulkin spent a nervous few moments before their opening number trying to banter with his band and the crowd as stagehands dealt with technical difficulties. Once said difficulties were resolved, Pizza Underground launched into an incredibly monotone song about…ordering a pizza. It’s not surprising that at most of the year’s festivals this band was slated under the comedy sections. Why that didn’t happen at NXNE this year I do not know, but aside from a hint of humour there was really nothing to like about Pizza Underground, except for the free pizza they handed out before the show, and Culkin’s manbun, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Everyone knows I loves me some female-fronted rock, and female-fronted punk is just as good. Barefoot and beautiful, with hair shorn classic Mia Farrow chic, singer Meredith Graves transformed from sweet to psycho in 10 seconds flat once her bandmates drums, guitar and bass swelled around her. However, despite the intense energy and fervour flowing from the stage, the sound issues that plagued the band’s previous performance appeared to have followed them at this one. Graves’ vocals were indistinguishable over the din of guitarist Ray McAndrew, drummer Garrett Koloski, bass guitarist Greg Ambler and keyboardist Shaun Sutkus’ backing, the sounds of their instruments simply blobbing together in a mess of noise that was less punk and more “what?” Having truly enjoyed the band’s album Say Yes to Love, I had very much looked forward to seeing it performed live, only to leave disappointed, confused and embarrassed for a band that clearly wanted to give it their all, but had technological forces working against them.
These ladies were probably my absolute favourite discovery this NXNE. The Winnipeg group was absolutely mesmerizing, incredibly talented and, most of all, contagiously fun. Chic Gamine played bluesy, jazzy pop that gave me goosebumps and made me dance my heart out, and if a quick glance around the very full Rivoli back room was any indication, I wasn’t alone in that feeling. The band’s three frontwomen had pipes to spare, each belting out song after song, harmonizing perfectly and also letting each of the others showcase their own incredible voices. Not only did all these gals sing, but played several instruments each to wonderfully accompany their incredible voices. With multiple Juno wins and nominations under their belts, and a new album on the way, these gals and guys are clearly a band to watch, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again when they next grace a stage near me.
I’ve been watching this sister-led band for the past couple of years, and every time I see them play they’re just as energetic, just as passionate and just as fun to watch. Sisters Merv and Vern Maillet rock some serious victory roll ‘dos that must be frozen in place by their sheer will and 13 cans of hairspray each. No matter how hard these babes rock, their hair stays in place, and trust me, they rock HARD! Head banging, stage jumping, powerful vocals and rockin’ riffs can’t move a hair on their talented heads out of place. But these gals and their band do more than just awesome hair. Between Merv’s powerful, Gwen Stefani inspired vocals and Vern’s rockstar level guitar riffmastery, these gals and their backing boys are another great reminder that strong women are making great music that is just ripe for discovery. Next time they’re in your city, make sure you get your fix of Silvergun & Spleen; they’ll hit you like a semi-truck and leave you wondering if you were on crack, or just at NXNE in Toronto.
Check out photos below (all by Nadia Elkharadly)