Sensible Reason’s NXNE 2013 Review
In early June I went on a road trip that lasted a couple of weeks and included stops in Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, New York City, and Toronto. Now normally if you were just driving aimlessly and hoping to see the sights, this would be a really fun trip. But for me and my friends Jon and Ryan, it was going to be even better, because we set out with a purpose—we were going to North by Northeast! After about a month, I’ve finally recovered from the exhausting, exhilarating experience, and I’m bringing you my review of the festival. Let’s get started.
As I mentioned a number of times before it started, North by Northeast (NXNE) is a weeklong arts festival that takes place all across downtown Toronto. It lasted from the 10th until the 16th, but I didn’t get there until the night of the 11th. We used that evening to get situated and familiar with the neighborhood our hostel was in (which was just a few blocks from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city—it was awesome just walking around and admiring the gigantic old houses).
This first evening introduced me to two things I should have expected but didn’t quite appreciate enough going into the trip: 1) Toronto is expensive and 2) Toronto is big. All big cities are expensive, of course, but you always hope you can find cheap bars and restaurants to ease the pain. We did manage to find some cheap and delicious food, but we only found one really cheap bar. The bartender and another local explained to us that alcohol in Canada is regulated by the provincial governments, so prices can be quite high relative to the United States. Even buying a twelve pack in a liquor store will put a strain on your wallet. Be warned.
As to the city’s size: I’m not dumb, I know Toronto is enormous, it’s just that everything is very spread out. Because my friends and I were trying to be stingy, we wanted to avoid paying for public transportation whenever possible, which meant a lot of walking. A lot of walking meant some sore feet and tired legs, which in turn meant some of our days didn’t start as early as we’d hoped they would. Oh well, we still saw a bunch and it was an incredibly fun time, and if you are willing to pay a few extra bucks the public transit (bus, streetcar, and subway) can get you anywhere you need to get pretty quickly, so it’s not that bad. Plus the wristband that got you access to ALL of the musical performances, art exhibits, comedy shows, and film screenings that week was only $60, so that’s a huge bargain right there.
Anyways, after a lazy evening that featured a nice meal at a pub and a long night’s sleep, we were ready to start our first day of NXNE. That meant it was time to register. We made our way to the heart of downtown Toronto and went to the incredibly nice Hyatt Regency Hotel, which served as NXNE’s home base for the entire week. I quickly moved through the media line and got my very official press pass, which would grant me priority access to any show I wanted to go to. I also grabbed an NXNE booklet, which was gigantic (understandable considering there were 1,000+ bands, 30 movies, 150 comedians, 65 NXNEi sessions, and 60 artists)! Inside was a schedule of all the week’s performances, a list of performers, and a super handy map that showed the venue locations all across the city, which made planning our next few days much easier. We also picked up some other handouts and got some free Monster Energy Drinks—not a bad haul!
As we were walking out of the registration area, a few performers started a little impromptu jam session in the hallway, with one guy banging on a drum case. This was a great way to set the tone for the rest of the week, and it really illustrated that music would be EVERYWHERE we went.
After that, we continued our exploration of downtown Toronto. We walked past Rogers Centre, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, and got a great view of the CN Tower (though, to be fair, you can see it from pretty much everywhere in the city—it’s huge). It was a really nice day so we made our way down to the water and walked along the shoreline. After that we headed back towards the center of the city, and made a stop into Gretzky’s to admire the Great One. From here we decided to head up to Little Italy for dinner, because Italian food is delicious, and because the show we wanted to go see was up there.
After some pizza we headed to the Mod Club Theatre, where we would see Depedro and Calexico perform. Depedro was on first, and put on a great show. Fronted by Spaniard Jairo Zavala, Depedro had a very unique sound that revolved heavily around his great acoustic guitar work. Following Depedro came Calexico, a rock group from Arizona whose principal members are Joey Burns and John Convertino. Zavala actually played guitar with the group, so it was a nice two for one deal!
Going into the show, I’d only heard a handful of Calexico songs, so we were taking a chance hoping it would turn out to be good (but really, isn’t that what festivals are all about?). Lucky for us, it did, and they were incredible! I have to say, this was my favorite performance of the whole festival. The group’s sound is strong with Americana influence, using trumpets and accordions to really capture the feel of the South. The guys played an awesome set, and then added a nice long encore, and the crowd was absolutely eating it up. There wasn’t much room since the place was just about packed, but people were dancing and it was a great time. Definitely a great way to start our festival experience, and we were excited about what the next few days would bring.
We’d barely left the previous show before we stumbled across another NXNE venue (all of them had big banners draped across their fronts so it was easy to find what you were looking for). We decided to check it out, not knowing what would be inside. On the top floor of the small club we entered was a DJ, and in the basement was a reggae group. It was a very intimate setting, and very fun. We stayed for a little while before deciding to head back to the hostel and call it a night. Day one was a great success, but we had to prepare for day two.
To start our Thursday, we decided to go on a brewery tour. Steam Whistle Brewing, a local brewery that produces a very tasty pilsner, is in downtown Toronto right near the CN Tower, and is located in an old train station, which is very cool. We went there, got a chance to see how their beer is made, and had a very nice early afternoon. Before we left, we started chatting with one very friendly bartender there, and she noticed our NXNE gear. She gave us a suggestion on a show to see and drew us a map, so it was clear the locals take pride in the awesome festival of theirs, and I certainly can’t blame them. It also helped show that the old stereotype is true—Canadians are super friendly.
As soon as we left the brewery a heavy rain moved in, so decided to take cover until that evening, when Social Distortion played. The rain subsided a little bit after a few hours, coming only in waves of drizzle, so we decided to head down to Yonge Dundas Square, the venue that was essentially the center of the festival. The gigantic stage was right in what seemed to be Toronto’s equivalent of Times Square, and this show was open to the general public, not just festivalgoers with wristbands or passes. The rain actually helped us here, as it seemed to scare a lot of people away, so we were able to get pretty close even though we got there a little on the late side.
We showed up at Yonge Dundas Square when Old Man Markley, a group from Los Angeles that played a sort of bluegrass-punk rock combination, was performing. They had a really interesting sound, and made the trip through the rain well worth it. After they finished up their upbeat set, Social Distortion hit the stage. These guys were the night’s headliners, and you could tell, because as soon as they started playing most of the audience began singing along. The group was founded in 1978, so they’ve certainly played their fair share of festivals, and it showed—they knew exactly how to get the crowd into it, even in the rain.
Though the guys in Social Distortion aren’t spring chickens anymore (the lead singer, Mike Ness, is 51, and you can tell his voice isn’t what it once was), they still rocked the stage and you had no choice but be mesmerized by their enormous stage presence. One of my buddies was really excited to see them, and even though we were soaked and it was kind of chilly, we were not disappointed—they put on a show that their fans couldn’t help but love.
After Social Distortion finished up, the wet crowd dispersed and scattered in all directions, venturing out for new and interesting acts to see. Though we were pretty soaked, we had to continue our journey, as there was another show we wanted to go to a few blocks away. We headed to the Black Box to see a band I hardly knew but was super excited for: Tonstartssbandht.
We arrived at the Black Box a little before Tonstartssbandht’s 1:00 a.m. stage time, but lucky for us we discovered that there were actually two venues in this building. On the main floor, known as The Great Hall, we caught Olenka and the Autumn Lovers. Being greeted by this band was a very pleasant surprise, because they turned out to be very good. The indie folk band came from London, Ontario, and is headed by Polish-born Olenka Krakus, and boy could she sing! The Great Hall was a really cool space, and the whole vibe of this show was very relaxed—much different than the next act we’d see. Olenka and the Autumn Lovers were great, but as we finished it was time for us to descend into the basement for a show that was sure to blow our minds.
We got down into the basement venue, known as the Black Box, and it was hot, crowded, and dimly lit—perfect for an experimental/psychedelic/rock show. Now, if you know me, you know I’m a sucker for guitar rock. Any song that has cool licks is sure to please me, and that’s exactly how Tonstartssbandht (pronounced TAHN-starts-bandit) got me hooked. I’d only heard two songs of theirs before coming to this show, but the duo, comprised of brothers Andy and Edwin White, knows how to shred, so I knew we’d be in for some fun. These guys come from Florida, but for the past few years they’ve been living in separate countries, with one brother stationed in Montreal and the other in New York City. How they make music I have no idea, but I’m glad they do it! The guys came out and hit the crowd with awesome drums and wild squealing guitars—it was great. Though the venue was too dark and dreary for my phone to capture good video, here’s the first video I saw of theirs, the one that got me hooked:
After Tonstartssbandht finished rocking it was early in the morning, so we decided to call it quits for the day. We needed our rest for day three.
The next day, Friday, we decided to go wander around Old Town. We’d yet to explore this part of the city, and it turned out to be a great decision, because there was music everywhere (a common theme at NXNE)! While walking around we stumbled across a band playing in a small park. They’re called Paper Thick Walls, they’re from Chicago, and they were really fun. Their Facebook page describes them as “orchestral indie rockers,” and this certainly feels fair. The electric guitar and drums were balanced out by an upright bass and a keyboard. Sitting on the edge of a fountain and watching these guys play (and listening to them sing—their harmonies were great!) on a nice day was a great way to spend the early afternoon.
After they finished, we continued our journey, and, surprise, we came to another park with yet another band playing. This was the St. James Gazebo, and Northcote was playing. These burly guys came from Saskatchewan, and they’d drawn quite a crowd. We again stopped to enjoy the music and the weather, which was, once again, very nice. The band finished up, and we went to find some grub before our next show.
After dinner we stopped into a bar after for a quick drink or two, and, of course, there were musicians getting ready to play there as well. They were everywhere! But we couldn’t stick around, we were already later than we wanted to be for our next show, The National at Yonge Dundas Square. The National was the night’s headliner, and upon arriving at the square we quickly learned that dillydallying had been a mistake—the square was absolutely packed. While the night before everyone was able to get inside the fences and comfortably watch Social Distortion, this was a whole ‘nother monster. People were pouring out into the streets, so much so that the police had to close the roads to accommodate everyone (which was awesome of them, by the way).
We were fooled by the rain and the fact that the night before hadn’t been the weekend, so we thought we could prance in and get a great spot. Not true. Above is a video I took (sorry I filmed it vertically, that was foolish of me) in hopes of illustrating just how many people were at this show, but I don’t think it does it justice. Luckily you could still hear the group perfectly, and with giant video screens strategically placed around the premises you could see what was happening on stage, even if the actual performers were tiny. It was still a great time listening to awesome music with a bunch of cool people, and the nice weather certainly helped, and before the guys came out for their encore we were able to move up quite a ways, which was fun.
After The National finished up, there was once again a flood of people moving in all directions, and this time my friends and I decided to go to a comedy show. We made our way down the street to Creatures Creating, a comedy show featuring some up-and-coming acts. The venue itself was about as intimate as you can get—it was just a house, with a bar in one room and a bunch of chairs facing a stage in the next. It was definitely an interesting place for a comedy show, but it worked out well. (Quick note: at the start of this comedy show there was a really loud rock band playing downstairs, and when they finished a stream of audience members came out through the room that the bar was in and took off. It was so fun just walking around and coming across all these extremely diverse shows.)
We didn’t stick around for the entire show, but we watched Chris Robinson, Jordan Sowunmi, and Keith Pedro perform, and it was real fun. The jokes were hit or miss, but all three of these guys had their moments, and I’d definitely recommend checking all of them out if you want some laughs. We left the show feeling good and headed back to our hostel. Our final day was coming up, so we wanted to be ready.
To celebrate our last day in Toronto, we spent the afternoon at the one place you’ve got to visit when you go to Toronto—the Hockey Hall of Fame. One of the friends I was with was a big hockey player and aficionado, and coming from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I feel it’s my duty to celebrate the sport’s roots, so that’s exactly what we did. The Hockey Hall of Fame is really great, whether you’re a hockey fan or not. The walls are covered with old jerseys and images of the greatest players of all time, there’s a really cool interactive area, and they have all the trophies you could want! Heck, here’s the Stanley Cup even:
The Hall of Fame was awesome, but after we finished our trip and got lunch in the St. Lawrence Market, it was time to get back to some music. We decided to walk to the area that the bartender at Steam Whistle Brewery had told us about, because there was a huge cluster of venues right around there. On our way, we actually passed a huge stage that seemed to be part of another festival, or maybe a prop for a music video since they had professional cameras all around.
I don’t know who the lady playing the guitar is, but the stage was really cool looking, and it was fun to watch for a while. There was so much music going on in this city not even one festival could contain it all! That’s the sign of an exciting week.
We continued walking, and made it to a nice little outdoor performance in a street that was blocked off (this is what the bartender girl had told us about). Sadly my inexperience as a journalist is going to show here, because I’m not sure the name of this group. I’m pretty sure it’s Jane’s Party, but I’m not certain. Whoever they are, I remember liking their music, so keep at it, guys!
What happened next was the biggest tragedy of our NXNE experience.
Because we were taking our time to enjoy these other groups, we arrived a bit too late to the venue that Fucked Up would be playing, and couldn’t get in. I love Fucked Up, but apparently the rest of Toronto loves them just as much because the line went from the door to the end of the street—long enough that priority access no longer applied, and fans with media and artist passes were waiting with everyone else. I guess I should have figured it would be a packed house, as Fucked Up are awesome and they’re from Toronto so they probably have an enormous local following as well, but it was still sad. I’ll just have to catch them next time they roll through my town.
While we were disappointed, we were also exhausted, so the prospect of getting some shuteye after the long few days we’d had was appealing. Before we left, however, there was an awesome street musician singing and playing blues guitar. I didn’t catch his name, but we stood there for a while admiring his great music and the massive line next to him before finally accepting reality and walking away.
Though we thought we were done for the night, as we walked to the nearest street car stop we found another NXNE venue, Rivoli, and figured we’d check it out. Inside we found a huge room filled to the brim with hipsters, so we stuck around to see who was going to play. Onto the stage came an older guy with an acoustic guitar. We found out afterwards that this was Evan Dando, a musician from California who was a founding member of the alternative rock band the Lemonheads. The crowd loved his mellow performance, and many were singing along with every song, but after a while we decided to take off and officially call it quits for NXNE 2013. (We actually came across another street band at a streetcar stop, so that was a nice nightcap.)
Sadly the real world came calling for us, so we had to leave Toronto early the next morning. This meant we had to miss performances by Ludacris and personal favorite the Underachievers, but we still saw a bunch during our four day NXNE excursion, and it was a blast. I would strongly recommend trying to make your way to North by Northeast in the future, and I will definitely try to make it back sooner rather than later, because it’s a great time! Toronto is a really fun city, and even when you’re not watching a show it’s fun to just walking around. I regrettably didn’t make it to any of the art, interactive, or film events—there just wasn’t enough time with everything else there is to do there! If (when!) I go back to North by Northeast, I’ll have already done a lot of the touristy stuff, so I’ll be able to dedicate more time to the various daytime events offered by the festival. All in all though, it was an incredible trip, and I wouldn’t change anything.
NXNE 2013 was a huge success and an awesome experience. I can’t wait to see how it grows in future years.