You don’t have to be an American to know about South By Southwest. But if you’re familiar with North By Northeast, a similarly patterned five-day music and film festival and conference that’s taken place annually in Toronto since 1994, you’re probably a Canadian. At least I had never heard of NXNE before I was invited to attend this past weekend. While SXSW has an international reach, hosting thousands of bands from around the world and premièring major Hollywood films, NXNE is more of a regional event, featuring mostly Canadian acts in around 50 clubs throughout town. This year at SXSW, Kanye West and Conan O’Brien canoodled with the hip tastemakers who helped make the festival the most media-saturated week on the pop-music calendar. At NXNE, one of the week’s biggest shows co-starred Men Without Hats, the Montreal group best known in the States for the wedding-reception standard “The Safety Dance.” If I wanted to find out from Men Without Hats singer Ivan Doroschuk why he does wear hats onstage these days—is this a visual gag or a sign of baldness?—I sensed I wasn’t going to have much competition from other writers.
Looking over the lineup of more than 600 bands, I couldn’t say I was familiar with many of the names. It was a sensation not unlike driving through Canada, which superficially seems like home, but hides its differences in details like kilometer markings and Molson beer signs. Admittedly, the chance to visit Toronto for the first time was the main part of NXNE’s draw for me. My hotel was the hub of NXNE’s panel discussions, where Canadian media, marketers, and musicians were gathered to discuss topics like “Brand Loyalty 3.0: Alternative Channels Of Digital Content Distribution” and “Managing Intellectual Property Rights In A Transmedia World: Follow The Yellow Brick Chain Of Title!” But I was more interested in exploring the city than making the transmedia world work for me, so I set off in search of food and record stores on Queen Street, one of the main thoroughfares for NXNE and home to clubs like the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Wrongbar, as well as a litany of tattoo parlors, cafes, and boutiques selling Rebecca Black T-shirts that will be even more hilarious six months from now.
If you’re the type of individual who determines whether to sleep with someone based on that person’s opinion of ’70s cinema or Touch & Go bands, you’ll be glad to know that Toronto comes off very well when you judge the city solely by its record stores. As I mulled over the merits of purchasing a cherry copy of Sir Douglas Quintet’s Mendocino vs. the pain of transporting precious vinyl on an airplane, I was impressed not only by the sheer number of quality record shops on Queen Street, but also by the fact that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of buxom brunettes in fishnets—with foxy British accents, no less—milling about the usual motley crew of bearded dorks like me.
Toronto is indeed a thrillingly modern city, by which I mean “prohibitively expensive.” I was looking for a cheap bite, but also determined to get a taste of real Canadian flavor. I was not going to eat at the Quiznos conveniently located just three blocks from my hotel; no, I was going to find the discount Canadian equivalent of Quiznos. I ended up settling on a discount Canadian equivalent of Little Caesar’s called Pizza Pizza, which, according to its website, is “Ontario’s largest chain of pizzerias.” Now that I have dined at Pizza Pizza, I fully support the American government building a 10-foot wall in order to keep it on Canada’s side of the border.
Not that I was looking to fill up on sauce-covered cardboard that I had to pay for with my own money. As any music journalist will tell you, one of the best parts of SXSW and SXSW knock-offs is the free stuff—drinks, food, compliments of questionable sincerity, all of it. I walked for 45 minutes through increasingly punishing humidity because of the promise of free stuff at a club situated at the opposite end of Queen Street. The party was co-sponsored by Jägermeister, which I learned from reading the asses of two blondes wearing pumpkin-colored halter tops and black hot-pants.
As a couple hundred of us gathered on the bar’s back patio, lapping up pint-sized pulled-pork sandwiches and corpse-cold potatoes, I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy. To be fair, this might’ve had something to do with “Don’t Worry Baby” by the Beach Boys playing on repeat over the P.A. But this party seemed like a metaphor for festivals like this, where incessant hype tends to obscure certain realities. After all the pre-festival build-up and gushing online reports from bloggers blown away by how Odd Future told an audience to go fuck itself after performing three songs—and implicitly chiding anybody without the money or press credentials to see it themselves—you get stuck with the reality of an underwhelming soiree serving up lukewarm sustenance in a sea of dudes who look like Kings Of Leon during their Aha Shake Heartbreak period.
Unlike SXSW, which has live music going on somewhere during every waking moment, most NXNE shows take place at night. This compounds another reality of the festival experience, which is the nagging anxiety that whatever you’re seeing, no matter how good, isn’t as good as what you could be seeing. This was doubly worse for me, since I didn’t show up to NXNE until Friday, the day after one of my favorite bands right now, Toronto’s own Fucked Up, performed two shows. Because of scheduling and location, I grudgingly decided to miss out on Art Brut, Dum Dum Girls, and Dirty Beaches on Friday night, and instead headed to a screening of Gorman Bechard’s Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements, a documentary I’d been looking forward to seeing for months.
Color Me Obsessed did not disappoint: Bechard’s decision not to include any Replacements music or archival footage, focusing instead on the remembrances of the band’s legion of friends and followers, is both novel and ingenious, making the film an effective act of evangelism and a moving depiction of heartfelt, mushy-ass fandom. While Bechard does a good job of telling the band’s story—revealing Bob Stinson’s oddly appropriate appreciation for Yes guitarist Steve Howe, introducing the actual Tim from Tim, presenting the female inspiration for “Answering Machine” talking on an answering machine—he’s more interested in the myths and memories that remain in the wake of a band disappearing into the past. The Replacements are long gone, and this is what’s left.
Color Me Obsessed sent me off into the night starving for some wild, heart-on-the-sleeve rock ’n’ roll. What I found instead was Brooklyn’s Julianna Barwick, an ethereal songstress who crafts glacial soundscapes out of her heavily treated, looped vocals. While Color Me Obsessed suggested that The Replacements’ impact far outreached their meager record sales, Barwick seemed to be making a case for the staying power of Enya, the New Age diva who chilled out stressed moms and soundtracked “classy” massage parlors in the late ’80s and early ’90s. While I’m sure Barwick’s music has its charms, this did not seem like an ideal environment to receive it. This was music best suited for a hyperbaric chamber, not a rock club. Fortunately, a couple of blocks down the street, Montreal’s USA Out Of Vietnam satisfied my need for wanton volume as it prepped the audience gathered for the reunited Swervedriver. I loved Swervedriver in college, getting into the shoegaze band right as it was releasing 1998’s 99th Dream and subsequently falling apart. While the group is essentially a nostalgia outfit these days, playing songs from early-’90s records like Raise and Mezcal Head for fans like me who missed the band the first time around, at least Swervedriver can still pull off its aggressive psych-grunge assault with panache.
There was little panache to Ty Segall’s late-night set, which buzzed with basement-banging energy for an obviously adoring crowd into the wee hours of Saturday morning. The garage-rocker loves Toronto (he says it’s his favorite place to play), and he returned the audience’s hopped-up energy by bopping furiously through a set that drew mainly from 2010’s great Melted and his mellower new record, Goodbye Bread. As kids excitedly stage-dived and crowd-surfed, Segall stood triumphantly before them like the Lord Of The Flies, proclaiming with wide grin, “I’m now missing half my tooth!” Convinced I wasn’t going to top that, I decided to head in for the night.
I was supposed to meet up with Segall for an interview in my hotel lobby Saturday morning, but considering his dental issues, I didn’t take it personally when he didn’t return my text. I decided instead to head back to Queen Street, where a crowd was gathering in front of a large, opulent stage that was being constructed for Sunday’s MuchMusic Video Awards. As I feasted on some yummy, heart-destroying poutine, fans clogged the street and strained their necks for a peek at Lady Gaga, who was rehearsing for her performance the following night. At least the people around me claimed it was Lady Gaga—from where I was standing, it could’ve very well been a very skinny homeless woman in a green wig. Nevertheless, I added this to my celebrity sightings list, right next to the time I spotted Paul Simon in a Native American craft store in Duluth, Minnesota. (This one was definitely the more glamorous encounter.)
I headed up Yonge Street to check out the only NXNE concert happening in the afternoon, a free gig located right in the middle of downtown that was culminating with the aforementioned Men Without Hats and Devo, the new-wave institution with a long, proud tradition of wearing hats. An okay-ish Canadian classicist rock outfit named Gentlemen Husbands was onstage, but I was looking to get out of the sun, so I headed to the beer area and ordered up a pinot grigio, because, like the band, I’m a gentleman. Next up was the zippy post-punk band dd/mm/yyyy (pronounced “Date/Month/Year”), a Toronto band that didn’t command the audience’s attention nearly as well as the vendor stations giving away free T-shirts and 1-cent cans of Monster Energy Drink. I enjoyed the free-swinging drumming of Moshe Rozenberg, but I’ve been to too many festivals where bands playing danceable “experimental” rock tend to choke up the middle part of bills, and this particular band wasn’t moving me.
Frankly, I had better luck with movies than music at NXNE, and what I saw next was the highlight of the weekend. Originally a short film called “Waiting For Something,” Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz’s feature-length Better Than Something: Jay Reatard is centered on a long, winding interview shot in April 2009 with the late, great punk-rocker as he tours his former homes and current haunts in his Memphis hometown. A famously difficult (and secretly sensitive and thoughtful) guy who clawed his way out of poverty, Reatard has a backstory that would be compelling even if he hadn’t died young—it’s filled with tales of crackheads living next door and lonely adolescent days spent banging out fire-spitting songs on the bottoms of pickle jars. After Reatard’s death in early 2010, Hammond and Markiewicz talked with his friends and family, and the portrait they paint is of a complicated man who tried onstage to exorcise all the horrible things lurking in his guts, only to lose his life as he approached something resembling comfort. (The archival footage, particularly from his pre-Blood Visions period, is positively demonic.) Riveting, sad, and inspiring, Better Than Something is the best rock documentary I’ve seen since Dig!
I rushed from the screening to catch the end of a set by the much-slobbered-over indie buzz-band Cults. I’m indifferent to Cults’ self-titled debut, which to my ears is yet another juiced-up redux of ’60s girl-group pop that’s all whipped cream and no sundae. Still, I felt like it was my responsibility to determine whether Cults has any more substance live. (It doesn’t.)
Finally, the main attraction: Men Without Hats walked out as the rapidly growing crowd spilled out into the street. To my surprise, the band’s 40-minute performance did not consist of “The Safety Dance” and a mega remix of “The Safety Dance.” (The group had six Top 40 singles in Canada.) In fact, I think I have a new favorite Men Without Hats song, and it’s called “Antarctica.” (Sample lyric: “Antarctica! / Antarctica! / Antarctica! / Antarctica!”)
This batshit song inspired nods of recognition around me, which made me feel alone in my American ethno-centrism, yet also intrigued. As with much of my NXNE experience, I felt like the only guy who didn’t belong, but I wanted to. O Canada, you’re not my home and native land. But my glowing heart has seen thee rise.