North By Northeast : Toronto

Stereo MC's, Ron Sexsmith and John Wesley Harding are among those playing...

Every June for the past number of years, Toronto has been host to the North By Northeast (NXNE) Festival. The brethren of Texas-based South By Southwest, the weekend extravaganza is a chance for the industry and media to see the future, the moderately successful and some which are truly bizarre. Also added this year was the Sound and Vision conference, featuring a variety of rockumentaries and in production affairs. Hell, even Alf Clausen (the man behind the Simpsons theme song) was supposed to be here! But with 400 bands in nearly 30 different pubs and watering holes, each scheduled for a 40-minute set, finding the creme de la creme can be a bit tricky.

After the White Ribbon concert on Tuesday, a show benefiting violence against women and featuring a Canadian all-star lineup (Blue Rodeo, Big Sugar, Moist and Tea Party), NXNE’s first night is devoted early on to mostly singer-songwriters, including John Wesley Harding. Harding’s performance at the Horseshoe Tavern (home to recent Rolling Stones tour rehearsal tuneups) is a mixed bag of comedy, folk and y’alternative. Although name-dropping Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen into his set, the Brit and his backup band The Radical Gentlemen can’t seem to reign the crowd with tunes from ‘Here Comes The Groom’ and the recent ‘The Confessions of St. Ace’.

Boston-based Josh Joplin has a bit more success during his performance. Alone on stage and wearing his finest Inspector Clouseau chapeau, Joplin tears through ‘Gravity’ and the radio-friendly ‘Camera One’ to some hearty applause.

Friday evening seems to be the big rock and energy night, with Stereo MC’s holding court. In town behind the long-awaited ‘Deep Down And Dirty’ and the decade old ‘Connected’, with Rob Birch appearing pleased with himself and the receptive crowd. The funk continues with Manchester’s Roller, providing a much-needed kick in the arse, despite the connection with Mel C.

But the absolute mind-blower appears to evolve from a happy accident. With a free night away from his opening slot on Eric Clapton’s tour, Texan guitarist Doyle Bramhall II defies critics and organizers with a good ol’ 80-minute murky blues/rock fest resembling Stevie Ray Vaughn more than flash-in-the-pan Arc Angels. The lengthy ego-enhancing solos combined with backing band Smokestack put the packed, sweaty horde into a groove early and often. Other highlights include the double shot at the El Mocambo (where the Stones recorded portions of ‘Love You Live’), Pornstar’s breathtaking set containing ‘A12’ and ‘Comedown’ preceding the heavy thunder from Sweden’s Hardcore Superstar.

Perhaps the only disappointment is Matthew Jay’s less-than-satisfying set. As much as the Welsh wizard tries to get his point across, the lack of a complete supporting cast leaves each song hanging in sonic suspension – not quite horrid but not the anticipated gems many expected. Another act who seems to have his energy sapped is Shawn “Lullaby” Mullins. Despite the best of intentions, Mullins’ vocals and overall performance seem at times to be mailed in from stateside.

Saturday night mostly centres on Toronto-based bands and other up-and-coming Canadian rock. But the highlights seem to bookend the day, with it all starting in the early evening with Ron Sexsmith performing an eclectic yet fresh and fun set. Opening with ‘This Song’ from his newly released ‘Blue Boy’, the Toronto singer feels rightly at home here. The quavering hometown boy wins and woos the crowd early with a uppity pop, less folk-oriented gig. Although favorites such as ‘There’s A Rhythm’ and ‘Idiot Boy’ prove pleasing, the adventuresome tracks shine through. Whether it’s the country-tinged ‘Thirsty Love’, the jazz of ‘Foolproof’ or the Beach Boys stylings on the closing ‘Keep It In Mind’, the shy moptop seems to have broken new ground.

The finale proves once again how glam rock should never die as Temptress took the stage at the Bovine Sex Club. Led by singer/husband/crossdresser and Howard Stern fave Temptress, the Boston band blow through a mostly Stooges/New York Dolls-inspired hour. Whether whipping willing women, cursing like a drunken sailor or trading insults with the crowd, the high energy and schtick seems like a perfect end to the inspiring weekend.

Jason McNeil