Heading into Toronto’s North by Northeast ( NXNE ) festival this year, things seemed toned down when compared to years past. Whereas previous lineups featured over 100, maybe 200, different bands and artists around the city, this year’s programming only included a handful of so-called “Clubland” shows and a two-day festival that with only 16 performers. No wonder people seemed confused. Was this it?
But the big question was: is this enough to keep people confident for NXNE’s future? Admittedly, it’s hard to say, but considering that NXNE had a festival this year when other festivals like Riotfest decided to not do anything, even a stripped-down show is admirable. And while NXNE’s Port Lands events could’ve been better accommodated, the music across the city of Toronto remained on point.
After doing the standard “How’s everybody doing tonight?” greeting during his set on Saturday night, Father John Misty added “Good? You’re standing in a parking lot next to the freeway, but okay.” He wasn’t wrong, as the entirety of the Port Lands site was concrete. Aside from the cotton-candy coloured teepee structures the middle of the site, there wasn’t really any shade. Unless, of course, you had a VIP pass.
Despite that, NXNE maintained a tight focus on interesting music, all of which sounded great. Although they could’ve focused more on Toronto’s hip-hop scene – Tasha the Amazon and Drew Howard were the only locals on the bill for the first day – Friday provided a diverse group of artists. Hopefully, they made some new fans among the mass of people cooking on the concrete.
Throughout the day, musical acts simply alternated between the two stages, meaning showgoers weren’t left with any choice of what music to check out. It made for some interesting transitions. On Friday, for example, Mick Jenkins’ thoughtful hip-hop went into to Shamir’s bright dance pop, which made way for Tiken Jah Fakoly’s African reggae. This kind of mix isn’t uncommon for festivals, but it’s interesting and uncommon how little else one could do at NXNE other than listen to music.
Still, any worries disappeared by the time Ghostface Killah took the stage. Almost everyone in the Port Lands gathered to hear a beautiful medley of classic Wu-Tang madness and Killah didn’t disappoint. First, he brought an audience member up on stage to drop an ODB verse, then gathered a group of at least 50 young women on stage to dance with him and Sheek Louch. And Killah couldn’t help commenting about the growing group of seagulls congregating above the Port Lands.
It may not’ve been the prettiest site, but the performances were on point. Daniel Caesar took the small stage after Ghostface’s sonic assault and sufficiently mellowed the crowd with his passionate crooning. Caesar was quietly one of the best acts of the night, his set an interesting mix of original pieces including a collaboration with local R&B up and comer River Tiber. Then another odd-seeming placement, with Schoolboy Q taking the stage after him.
After learning some lessons from enduring Day 1, festival goers arrived on the second day to another bright and sunny day at the Port Lands. Unlike the first day’s somewhat hip-hop centric lineup, Saturday’s programming focused more on live band music. More local acts were also present on the second day: Devin Cuddy, Land of Talk, Highs, Dan Mangan, The Zolas, and Born Ruffians all representing Canada.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the significant mix of music between the two days, but it made me wonder: how many people were here to see both Schoolboy Q and Father John Misty? However, it’s one thing that NXNE has always been great for: exposing listeners to new music that they wouldn’t necessarily find on their own.
Though the crowd they played to was fairly small, Land of Talk were easily one of the best and most engaging sets of the day. Even Dan Mangan felt the need to comment during his set how he found them captivating. Mangan, meanwhile, kept spirits at the big stage high at the midpoint of the day. Later in the day, The Zolas had fun during their set on the small stage, dancing away as they blasted out some catchy and fun pop rock.
Some bands seem like they’re meant for playing festivals. The Vancouver-based band Mother Mother must be one: this is the third time I’ve seen them at a festival and, like always, the audience was bouncing along to their music the entire time. By the time Born Ruffians took the small stage, my legs were growing numb, but their indie rock helped me to forget the pain and simply enjoy their music.
For the day’s final, moon-lit set, Father John Misty took the stage and crooned to the largest parking lot audience of the weekend. As always, Misty was fantastic, funny and great with engaging his audience. By now, they must’ve been tired from standing on concrete in the sun.
Nobody outside their staff really knows what NXNE plans for the future, but if they go with another two-day festival like this, there’s some tweaks in order. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad festival. It was more that the location and amenities left more to be desired.
For one, the event lacked free water, a regular feature of events like CBC Music Festival or WayHome. Luckily, they allowed in-and-outs so people could buy a 2-litre bottle of water from the grocery store across the street instead of a smaller one for more. But still: in the summer, on a location of concrete and hot sun, water should be easily at hand.
Of course, there were other options: Budweiser was around and selling their standard $9 beers, promoting their brand with their 18-wheeler “lounge mobile.” Father John Misty weighed in on the truck, saying “that’s stupid as fuck.” And to be fair, both Exclaim! Magazine and Toronto radio station Indie88 had small tents set up near the entrance, plus there was a Recharge Lounge with couches to sit on. But more shade would’ve been ideal, too.
While there was a two-day festival, there were also “Clubland” shows scattered throughout Toronto. I only caught NAILS, but from what I heard they all seemed to go well. Playing throughout the city was great artists like Kamasi Washington, The So So Glo’s, The Joy Formidable, Kevin Morby, and more. Plus, there were even free shows featuring groups like Toronto-based rockers Zeus at the stage deep downtown at Yonge-Dundas Square, right in the CN Tower’s shadow.
So while NXNE’s transition year may not have had as much to see as years previous, but there was still plenty of great music and art to appreciate.
And ultimately, that’s my biggest takeaway from this year’s NXNE. Considering the fact that SXSW is one of the biggest and most influential festivals in the world, and that Toronto and Austin are now partnered, NXNE didn’t exactly have the option to cancel this year despite a slumping Canadian dollar.
Instead they pulled together what they could, and booked a lot of great artists and bands, an interesting cross-section appealing to all sorts of music fans: indie rockers, jazzheads and rap fanatics. It may not be near the scope of what we’re used to seeing, but there was a decent amount to check out.
So sure, there could’ve been some more shade and a little free water would’ve done a lot for the crowds on a hot June afternoon. But really, it was a weekend packed full of fantastic music and that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?