It’s dark when I wake up. I don’t know where I am. Outside the bus window the sign says “Cobourg.” That doesn’t help. It’s 7:43 p.m. I need to be in Toronto by 8:30 to get my press pass. We’re running late.
I arrived in Toronto at 9:30 and headed down to The Royal York Fairmont Hotel, an enormous hulking building where Canada Music Week (CMW) headquarters.
The lobby shines with polish and wealth, I feel totally out of place. Media accreditation is closed so I head to the hostel – a very different sort of place. The festival doesn’t really start until tomorrow, but there’s still a show to check out.
I’m still on Montreal time, where 11:30 is a reasonable time to arrive at a show. Apparently it doesn’t work that way in Toronto. When I get to the venue the last band is just going on.
The Speaking Tongues play fast and loud, dirty blues crossed with garage rock and roll. They’re derivative as hell, but they do it well, and after a day on the bus a little rock and roll is just what I need. A Detroit influence runs through their songs, inviting the obvious comparison to the standard bearers of the sound, the White Stripes. It’s not something they deny. I do a bit of an interview with them then head back.
Toronto’s streets are empty. There might be a small crowd outside some bar or another, but the distance between is barren. I walk through Kensington market. Everything is closed, gated. It smells of weed and rotting fish.
Cindy, the photographer, and I start the night at the Horseshoe. It’s dark. Dim lights, black walls – rock and roll. I think the radio is playing when we walk in, but turns out it’s the Immaculate Machines. Kind of like the Smiths if they were cute instead of depressing.
Next up is Dog Day. They’ve got that late ’90s Canadian pre-indie sound. Sort of like that whole east coast thing, or maybe the first Treble Charger album.
We decide to go find out what time Sloan is playing. There’s a thin sheet of ice on the sidewalk as we walk through the deserted Kensington market, this time it smells like weed (the next time it will smell like rotting fish). They’re not playing until 12:20, so we head back to the Horseshoe to see Plants and Animals.
“Hey CN tower, up yours!” Cindy announces on the way back. We talk about how much we hate Toronto.
We arrive just as Katie Stelmanis is finishing her set with a dark, dissonant cover of Aretha Franklin’s, “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman).” It’s noisy and the drummer mostly just pounds the toms, it’s good.
Plants and Animals come next. I want to say, “they defy easy characterization,” but that’s a cop-out. There are hints of the ’60s and some ’70s prog influences. They’re very “indie,” very “Montreal.” There’s a tongue in cheek hugeness to their sound and stage presence. They’ve got some intense rock-outs, but everything is always very melodic. The crowd cheers pretty nicely between songs. I want to interview them, but I don’t get a chance to talk to them. I want to go to the back alley and ask if we can interview them. Cindy thinks it’s a bad idea and that we should go through the proper channels. I figure we’ll just go ask them and do the interview right now. They seem a little sketched out when we approach them (in the alleyway), but they’re nice and tell me to send them an e-mail.
We head back down to the Supermarket in Kensington market, this time it smells like rotting fish (I wish it still smelled like weed). The venue is small, maybe 300 people packed in. We can hardly move the crowd is so thick.
Next up was Sloan. Though half of the band has gone grey, they still play pretty well. But, especially on the newest songs, the band has lost much of the east-coast innocent charm that made them so enjoyable.
The crowd knows it. While they cheer nicely for the new song, it’s nothing compared to the wild reaction to songs like “Everything You’ve Done Wrong.” Three quarters of the way through the set Murphy puts down his bass and drummer Andrew Scott picks up a guitar and takes over on vocals. The results are mixed. Sloan doesn’t get much more than the standard 40 minutes, but they do get to play an encore – a rarity at CMW.
I’m going to try and give Toronto a fair chance today. I don’t like Toronto and I don’t want to like Toronto, but today I’m going to try and be unbiased about the city. I discover two things. Streetcars are great, and Toronto beer is shit. The streetcars are slow, but they come every couple minutes, so they almost redeem the city. Then I started drinking Toronto beer. “What’s good?” I ask the bartender. “Steam whistle.” It isn’t. It tastes like someone spit in a glass of water.
For some reason the name Hot Panda really resonates with me. They’re playing Sneaky Dees at nine so we go down to check them out. Halfway through the first song I realize why the name stood out. I saw them at Pop Montreal. That I have seen them, but forgotten is pretty telling. They play catchy, trying-too-hard indie rock. The sort of thing that was original five years ago. They look even more stereotypical than they sound.
We leave during Hot Panda’s last song. We head down the street and stop in at Rancho Relaxo. Yellowwood, from Windsor Ontario, is playing. They’re the sort of rocking indie emo that you might hear on the O.C. or a breakup soundtrack for (slightly) mature teenagers.
No one seems to notice that there’s a band playing. “It’s like they’re playing at a picnic,” says Cindy.
We head down to the Bovine Sex Club to see the Sainte Catherines. The bar is long and low, a chain-link fence, decorated with trees and Christmas lights, hangs from the ceiling. The walls are covered, in a manner reminiscent of American family restaurant chains, but instead of movie and sports memorabilia the Sex Club is wallpapered with used speaker parts, dirty hubcaps and circuit boards.
We catch about five minutes of Punish Yourself, decked out in glow in the dark body paint. I think I would normally find them tacky, but after an evening of bland indie rock the change is refreshing. They’re well suited to the venue as they tear through thrashy-speed-metal-punk. Their songs are short and to the point. They’re over the top, but enjoyable.
The Sainte Catherines are next. Delivering a pounding three-guitar assault and snotty harmonies. Hardcore skate, dished out fast, loud and heavy. Perfect for a cycle pit. There’s not many bands that can handle three guitars, but they do it well, like turning the amps up to 11 for the entire show.
We head back to the Silver Dollar to see the United Steelworkers of Montreal.
While the Steelworkers play a good set the sound is all wrong. The acoustic guitars are too quiet, the electric too loud. The Steelworkers mix old-school bluegrass and country without sounding dated. Gern f.’s vocals sound like a depression era Tom Waits, while Felicity Hammer’s can be harsh one moment and beautiful the next. Gus Beauchamp, on the other hand sings clean and country. Despite the bad sound they get some of the loudest applause of any band I’d seen so far and receive a spontaneous cheer of, “encore,” but this being CMW they can’t comply.
Up next is Proof of Ghosts. They want to be Neil Young, but they’re not. During the last song, the singer/guitar player goes down into the audience and falls down. His guitar gets unplugged in the fall and he keeps playing for a while before he realizes. He climbs back on stage, gives the devil horns and announces, “I’m drunk.” Yeah, we noticed.
I’m excited for the next band, with a name like Tokyo Sex Destruction, how can you go wrong? As with Hot Panda, I learned that you shouldn’t judge a band by their name. They sound something like the Hives, but with more wah pedal, and cliched backup vocals. They could be good if they spent more time working on the music and less on the stage moves.
KRS-One delivers the conference’s keynote address at the Royal York. He talks about the new hip-hop business paradigm, how because “reality” is in, advertisers want to work with artists that seem “real.” He makes some interesting points and gets a standing ovation from the crowd.
I walk back through the blizzard and get ready for the last round. We head back to the Silver Dollar, just in time to see the Superstitions; they play fuzzed out early 60’s garage rock and soul. They’ve got a female singer who has a ’60s soul voice and a punk rock growl. The song writing is tight and the lyrics are sexy, there isn’t much originality here, but they’re really good.
Next are The Unionist Ministers. They’ve got seven members on stage, two electric guitars, bass, drums, accordion, acoustic guitar, steel mandolin, and lots of harmonica. They play country fried folk punk. Kinda like if the Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly were into cowboys instead of the Irish. Roots rock for the warped tour crowd. The songs are energetic and catchy. They’ve got a lot of potential.
We leave the Dollar to go see KRS-One at the Opera House. The snow is still coming down. Streetcar drivers have to get out and shovel the tracks. We catch one; it crosses the street and stops. A car is parked on the tracks.
We finally arrive at the Opera House; the smell of weed hits me in the face, like walking into a hotbox. KRS appears right away, and delivers “Criminal Minded,” the title track off his first album (from 1987) within five minutes. About 10 minutes later he announces that the warm-up is now over and the show is going to begin, and bringing on a crew of b-boys, he continues to deliver a mix of old and new songs. Spotting the Wu-Tang Clans’ RZA in the crowd, he gets the DJ to put on some Wu and with the beat from C.R.E.A.M. in the background he brings the RZA onstage. RZA does some of C.R.E.A.M. before the two freestyle for a bit.
KRS leaves the stage shortly after and performs the rest of the set from the soundboard in the back of the room. It’s the best show I’ve seen all weekend.
I forget about daylight savings and think I have an hour to get ready when I have 10 minutes.
We rush to the bus and make it just in time for the nine-hour trip back to Montreal.
My ears are still ringing.