*all photos by Justin Roth (www.dailycitytrain.com, @dailycitytrain)
And so it arrived. TURF, the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, opened on Friday Sept 16th to its glorious fourth year, and expectations were high. The lineup was what the kids these days call “stacked”: headlines from James Bay and Ween to Death Cab for Cutie, not to mention all the fantastic talent that permeated the four stages throughout the three days. For the sake of keeping this review under 3000 words, I’ve chosen my top 3 acts from each day, and trust me, making the selection was NOT easy. Honourable mentions to go the new Aussie gem Julia Jacklin who brought her Angel Olsen-reminiscent tones to the Rebellion stage Sunday afternoon, Britpop staple Lush who graced the West stage with their assured presence on Saturday and Ryan Dahle-helmed Limblifter, celebrating their 20th year Friday night.
Friday began with a bang as The Hives took the East stage at 4:00. Having never heard their music before, I didn’t know what to expect, and even if I had I doubt I would have been prepared for what was to follow. The ninjas who emerged on stage, thought to be The Hives in costume, were only their to hold their instruments as the band tore onto stage and unleashed what many consider the performance of the weekend. Opening strong with “Come On!”, there was no need for a slow build of energy: the crowd was ready to go. The sheer exertion of lead singer Pelle Almqvist, jumping into the pit, running around, sweat dripping from his face as the crowd fully gave into the sound, only becoming more wild as the songs flew by, from the garage rock sound of “Die, All Right!” to the moment everyone lost whatever dignity remained, the inevitable, the encore… “Tick Tick Boom”. By the time the classic single came on, it seemed as though all of TURF was there, ready to explode as Almqvist screamed out, “BOOM!”
Next, it was a quick sprint over to Dwayne Gretzky covering The Tragically Hip. I didn’t know much of the cover band before this performance, but man did they do justice to Gord. The atmosphere was amazing, everyone singing along to their favourite Hip tunes, waiting to see when the single they hold most dear would be played. Made up of rotating members from bands like the Arkells and July Talk, it’s an example of artists doing what they love and paying tribute to their idols. I felt honoured to be there, experiencing a crowd full of love for true Canadian icons.
The headliner for the day was James Bay, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much he moved around the stage. Expecting him to stay stationed with his microphone and guitar, he showcased his talent as not only a vocal talent but a live presence, bringing extra energy to songs like “When We Were On Fire”, standing on the edge of the stage while belting out the words to his hit single “Let It Go” and bringing the audience down with his cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. He had an easy command of the audience, and while you could attribute this to his fame (I estimate about 75% of attendees Friday were there primarily for Blake), it takes talent to not only bring an audience, but keep them there in the palm of your hand.
Saturday brought the unfortunate addition of rain, but it did little to dampen the spirits of attendees. Lake Street Dive came on at 3:30 and the crowd was unwilling to be deterred by a little storm. Lead Rachael Price is an up-and-down, born-with-it talent and an absolute joy to see live. That joy is returned tenfold as the band is clearly happy to be there, and even happier that the audience is willing to stick it out through sub-par weather for the pleasure of their company. Their cover of The Kink’s “Lola” is a highlight for me, and it seems as though the song was crafted for Price’s soulful voice, asking “why she walks like a woman and talks like a man.” Throughout the set and at the end the band continuously thanks their fans for sticking it out, but the audience are the ones who are truly thankful.
My favorite surprise of the weekend was Julien Baker, a petite Southern folk singer with a light as air voice. She draws comparisons to Daughter but has a unique ability to balance sad lyrics with an air of calm, lulling the audience into a happy trance instead of bringing them down. She sings of faith and injury and asks questions about it all in the most relatable way while showcasing her uniquely lovely vocal skills. Though she remains stationary, looking across the audience with her guitar in hand, she’s wonderful to watch, and from the patches on her jacket to the smile on her face, you can’t help but want to be her friend.
Now, the headliner of the day may have been Ween, but my headliner was the Barenaked Ladies. The first concert I ever saw, round two did not disappoint, even with the absence of former lead Steven Page. They gave the audience what we wanted to hear, classics like “Brian Wilson” and “If I Had $1,000,000”, which had the entire audience singing along in harmony. They balanced other fan favourites like Easy and Narrow Streets (not to mention the ever lovely Bruce Cockburn cover, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”), with levity and humour that show experienced artists at their best. They sang the alternate to their Big Bang Theory theme song, which has only three lyrics: “God Did It.” They also exploded into a mash up including “Work”, “Let’s Dance”, “Hotline Bling” and “You Are So Beautiful”, featuring an appearance from Darth Vader himself on stage. For everyone who grew up with this band, it was everything they could’ve asked for and more.
All good things must come to an end, even TURF, and with the rain no where in sight Sunday was shaping up to be the perfect finish. The Hold Steady was on hand midday at 4:30 playing through their album Boys and Girls In America. Beginning with their single hit “Stuck Between Stations”, the band glided easily through the album, and no one there seemed disappointed that they weren’t playing “just the hits”. Lead Craig Finn is still a firecracker at 45, with enviable arm movements that give the appearance of a talented blur, pointing at the audience, extending his arms out to the universe, moving to the music. They are rock at its finest, and all the better live.
Now, when it came time for Jimmy Eat World, the audience was packed. Not necessarily, however, for the new music the band insisted on playing. At one point a friend turned to me and said their new music would be better appreciated if listened on an album, not forced onto a crowd while refusing to play the classics everyone was waiting for. I have to agree. However, the angsty “Bleed American”, the sing along ready “Whoa oh oh oh oh oh”s of “Sweetness” and, of course, the karaoke-like capacity of “The Middle” seemed to wipe the memories of the audience as they got the experience they were waiting for. Fifteen or so years later, the songs hold up, filling a crowd with massive smiles even if only for the heavy nostalgia they carry.
Closing out the show and their tour was Death Cab for Cutie. This is a band who knows what the audience wants and gives it to them. Nothing was left out, from the heartbreaking “Cath…” to the equally heartbreaking but lovely “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” and more danceable favourites like “Soul Meets Body” and opener “I Will Possess Your Heart”. The lighting and stage design were right out of a Death Cab-only concert and the sound, as always with this band, was amazing. Ben Gibbard shows no signs of slowing down, nor does the rest of the band, showcasing the same talent of Transatlanticism these many albums later. TURF could not have chosen a better closer, and I could not have chosen a better Toronto festival.
If you like local talent (there was a stage devoted to only Canadian artists) as well as international imports from the south, the UK and beyond, not to mention seeing the memory-ridden favorites of your past, I guarantee you, TURF is where you need to be. 2017, we’re coming for you.