Friday, June 24, 2011

Bands I Saw At NXNE 2011: Art Brut, Braids, Nightbox & More

This year, I didn’t get to go to as nearly as many NXNE shows as I would have liked to have gone to. That was partly because last weekend was just packed with other plans and partly because I didn’t have a pass buddy to go around to shows with (there’s no point in going from venue-to-venue without a pass/badge). Hopefully next year I’ll get to see a few more shows.

And maybe by next year my ability to write about music will have improved. As you’ll read below, I’m far from a great music writer but I do have an excellent ear when it comes to identifying talent so if I say that something’s good, it’s good.

Friday, June 14 – The Mod Club

The Most Serene Republic
If I had to sum up this local band in one phrase it would be: Solid but not sparkling. There’s no question that TMSR is a better-than-average indie-rock band that delivers an engaging, professional show. There are catchy melodies, sing-a-long moments and a brass section that gives a nice polish to some of the songs. But none of those songs were really grabbing me, or sparkling, for lack of better wording.

However, every now and then I did see a glimmer coming from the band’s frontman, Adrian Jewett. This guy is loaded with stage presence and it was because of him that this went from a solid concert to something that was actually quite fun.

While I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this band again, I would happily come to a show early if they were the opening act.

Art Brut
I only had one problem with this show, it was way, way too short. I think it came in at something like 35 minutes, which is short even for a NXNE set.

But other than that this was an extremely fun show that was absolutely packed with energy. Lead singer Eddie Argos should teach a class on how to engage an audience because he had every set of eyes on him, even the bartending staff’s. There were trips into the audience, including one that resulted in everyone basically crouching on the floor, lots on stage jumps and just the right amount of talking.

While the short set meant that a limited number of songs were played, most of the essentials were performed including “Formed a Band”, “Emily Kane” and “Good Weekend”.

Art Brut is definitely one of those bands that not everyone’s going to love (they’re very clearly British and very clearly fond of drinking) but if you do like their sound, their live show is definitely worth checking out.

Friday, June 14 – The Garrison

Elephant Stone 
Art Brut’s short set meant that I ended up at The Garrison early and ended up seeing Montreal’s Elephant Stone, a band I would never seek out to hear and likely won`t seek again.

That`s not to say they`re a bad band, they just aren`t a band for me. Elephant Stone is basically a polished, indie-rock band that incorporates a sitar and other traditional Indian music influences.  If you like how that sounds, you`ll probably like this band. But if you`re like me and really hate sitars, you might find yourself fighting with the NXNE website, trying to see who`s performing over at The Dakota. (No? I`m the only person who dislikes sitars? OK then).

To be fair, some songs are definitely more `”Western” than others and other people in the room seemed to be quite like Elephant Stone. They just weren`t my thing.

Braids were the real reason why at was at the Garrison that night. This is the type of band that real music critics describe as ``experimental,”  “ethereal” and `”sweeping”. Songs aren`t songs, they`re soundscapes, long and flowing, with almost a jam-band quality to them, but with an emphasis on synths and vocals instead of guitars (though the band does use guitars).

Lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s vocals are absolutely stunning. While the music that surrounds them at times may be messy (but in a good way), her voice was always focused and remarkably controlled and cleared. It also harmonised perfectly with the other band members` vocals, particularly Katie Lee, who, in addition to playing keyboard, also sang quite a bit.

Like Elephant Stone, Braids won’t be on a radio near you soon (unless it the Sirius XMU channel) but that’s not the point with these acts. While their different and distinctive sounds do lead to smaller audiences, they also lead to more creativity and boundary pushing.

Saturday, June 15 – Wrongbar

So I was hoping to be at Wrongbar in time to see Vancouver duo Humans but I didn’t make it.  Thankfully, I was able to get there by 11 and was able to Toronto’s Nightbox, who are now one of my favourite local bands (and before that night I didn’t know who they were).

This energetic group is modern take on such beloved (by me anyway) ‘80 bands as New and Pet Shop Boys. The emphasis is definitely on getting the audience to dance via plenty of synths, loops and bass but there’s also a good dose of guitar and melody mixed in. Yeah, this is a dance band but it’s the type of dance band that I think most people could get into.

Nightbox could though do with a bit more professionalism. Their requests to the sound guy between almost every track were a bit annoying and perhaps counter-productive. I actually found that they sounded better earlier in their set than at the end.

Diamond Rings
This was my second time seeing Diamond Rings, John O’Regan’s solo act and he continues to impress with his catchy, danceable songs and endearing stage presence.

Diamond Rings recently opened for Robyn at that new Echo Beach venue and I read a review of that performance that commented on how it wasn’t his best. It went on to add that perhaps he should get some backing musicians to help out. Currently, it’s just him and as a result he’s racing around the stage between songs, fussing with his keyboard things, grabbing his guitar and asking the audience for a pick. On Wrongbar’s small stage, this set-up totally works and if anything, makes you like him more. But I can see how it might not translate as well on a bigger stage.

And I do think bigger stages are in Diamond Rings’ future. This is one extremely talented guy, especially when it comes to song writing. I have no doubt that with the right placement (movie, TV ad, that type of thing) of the right song, Diamond Rings will become another truly successful Toronto act.

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