A few days ago, I made it down to the annual CBC Music Festival, an event featuring several big names in the Canadian indie rock scene: Whitehorse, Tokyo Police Club, The New Pornographers and Alvvays.
Held at Toronto’s Echo Beach, the 2016 CBC Music Festival was located right at the edge of the lake: immediate to stage right was a body of water (“a swamp,” joked AC Newman) and when looking right at the stage from the audience, the CN Tower poked up above the performers. It was a very Toronto scene, right down to all the families in attendance.
Thanks to Toronto’s annual tradition of gridlock and construction, I arrived late and missed several opening acts: Tanya Tagaq, Desiree Dawson, and Terra Lightfoot, among others. But getting there my only problem that afternoon: the event itself ran smoothly. Echo Beach has plenty of shade, food and bathrooms, and the sound was well mixed and without any technical problems. The free water station was a nice touch, especially on a humid May afternoon.
My day’s first act was the roots rock duo Whitehorse. A husband-and-wife duo of Melissa McCelland and Luke Doucet, Whitehorse has made a name for themselves in Canadian indie circles with their hybrid of folk and blues, mixed with an indie rock sensibility. Their set, which lasted about an hour, was mostly driving electric blues. Doucet played lead guitar, McCelland generally played bass and they both sang, giving their music a rich vocal harmony.
Although Echo Beach isn’t a huge venue, I felt a big outdoor stage at the CBC Music Festival was perhaps too large for Whitehorse: it seemed like they weren’t always connecting with the audience, which in my section, was occasionally reading, talking and hanging out. Not exactly anything that’s their fault – and when they did connect, like they did on a cover of a Chuck Berry tune, they sounded great – but I think a more intimate setting (Massey Hall comes to mind) is the best way to catch them live.
Next up was Tokyo Police Club. Since starting about a decade ago as a local Toronto-area band who rocked venues throughout the city, they’ve exploded onwards and upwards. Now in their 11th year, they’re touring an EP: Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness. While they played a few songs from that album, their CBC Music Festival set was a nice cross-section through their catalogue, with material going all the way back to their debut record Champ. I personally thought they came across nicely, particularly on their older material. Their set-closing version of “Your English Is Good” was a nice summation of their quirky indie rock.
A little time later was Alvvays, a Toronto-via-Cape Breton band who released their debut record at the tail end of 2014 and are currently working on a new record. On record, their fuzzy and twee indie pop is fun: hazy, yet compelling. Molly Rankin’s vocals come out the fuzz and haze and stick with you, even if you can’t catch their exact wording on the first few listens. Live, they’re another beast, and this Saturday afternoon, they made the most of their set, rocking the beach and playing hard and loud. The vocal harmonies of guitarist Rankin and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan and the loud, brash guitar work by Rankin and Alec O’Hanley blended on stage, giving them a powerful set, music that was brash, confident and hard not to focus on. I know I barely said a word during their set, and even then it was stuff like “wow, they’re great.”
Generally, Alvvays gets compared to twee English bands like Camera Obscura, a band Rankin has agreed they have some similarities with. But throughout Alvvays set, I kept thinking about Lush, who they resemble except they’re probably better to listen to in 2016. Rankin’s between-song banter was on point also: when a heckler shouted how hot she was, she replied “Yeah it’s hot on stage, but don’t say anything else gross or you’ll regret it,” before deftly going into a song. They closed with a killer performance of “Marry Me, Archie,” and offered up the day’s most exciting music.
Finally, my day at CBC closed with a set by legendary Canadian indie rock supergroup The New Pornographers. They’ve long been a staple of the Canadian indie scene and have a hell of a lineup on their records: solo stars Dan Bejar, Neko Case, and AC Newman all write and perform in the band. At the 2016 CBC Music Festival, only Newman was present, although most of the backing band – Blaine Thurier, John Collins, and Kathryn Calder – were there also. Occasional member Simi Sernaker was also there, adding violin and vocals.
Although it wasn’t exactly like hearing their records – without Bejar and Case, how could it be? – but their set was far from a disappointment. As a songwriter and performer, Newman can still be captivating and both Sernaker and Calder sang Case’s parts on the majority of the music . The thing is, Case has such a powerful, distinctive presence that songs like “My Slow Decent Into Alcoholism” or “The Laws Have Changed,” lose some of their power. It also meant the set was heavy on Newman’s songs, and when he sang Bejar’s songs (like “Testament to Youth in Verse,”) they had a different vibe live.
At the same time, The New Pornographers can still bring the energy and throughout their set they were fun and interesting to watch. Although they released Brill Busters back in 2014, their setlist seemed heavier on their earlier, more bombastic pop-rock oriented records and less focused on their more polished recent records. Newman’s voice is still in great shape – it’s not quite as sweet-sounding, but has more of an edge now – and Sarnaker’s violin is an interesting texture which blends well into their sound, particularly on older songs like “All the Old Showstoppers,” off 2007’s Challengers.
All in all, the 2016 CBC Music Festival went off pretty smoothly. Echo Beach is an interesting choice: it’s nice visually, there are good sightlines and there’s plenty of room. The lineup was a little heavy on indie bands, but that also played to CBC Radio 3’s core audience, so it’s not really a surprise. And the second-stage acts, which I only caught little bits of here and there, offered a nice contrast to the main event. All in all, a pleasant way to spend a late May afternoon in Toronto!
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.