[note: your correspondent missed his flight to Toronto Island Airport – a different island than the festival, and had to take a ferry from it to the mainland, then walk along the Toronto harbour front to another ferry terminal to go to yet another ferry to head to the festival – and so missed first opener, ‘Toronto Revue’, featuring The Beauties, Flash Lightnin’ and Zeus (QRO live review). But Porter Airlines bumped your correspondent to the next flight, only an hour later, with no additional charge – highly recommend Porter & Toronto Island Airport if you’re going to or from Toronto in the future]
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The setting was both right & wrong for Ontario’s own Timber Timbre. The bright light of the midday sun left Taylor Kirk’s ultra-downbeat alt-country seemingly out of place: how could you be sad in such a sunny situation? But that sunlight also lit up the greenery around everyone, and the low-key nature of the sound & the group (with half the band sitting down, including Kirk) made Timber very good for appreciating that greenery. After schlepping your way through downtown Toronto to the lake, waiting for & riding the ferry, then herded towards the festival grounds, it was nice to take a load off, sit in the grass and stare at Ontario Timber while listening to Ontario Timbre.
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Like Timber Timbre, Beach House dueled & dueted with the sun, but in a different way (save for Alex Scally also sitting as he played guitar – not helping your stage presence, guys…). While both were rooted in sadness, Beach House went for soft electronic beauty, exemplified in Victoria Legrand’s vocals & keys, as beautiful as the setting (Legrand even remarked that she’d be getting a sunburn…).
Beach House have been turning a lot of heads with their latest, Teen Dream (QRO review), including Broken Social Scene’s, who, after sharing a bill with them in 2008 at Coney Island’s Siren Music Festival (QRO recap), booked the band for last year’s aborted Toronto Island, but made it up to them & Toronto by getting them this year. Many in the crowd did rise for the (on stage, at least) trio, and some later said they were the best sound of the festival, yet Beach House could hardly invite anyone to ‘rock out’ – but it was still sunny enough that you’d be just as happy lying down.
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It Band of Horses was where the crowd began to party – though a few had been pre-partying. During the first few songs, a couple of shirtless fellas right up front kept shouting out to the band, not so much main man Benjamin Bridwell but guitarist (and solo artist in his own right – QRO album review) Tyler Ramsey – for some roadie backstage who they’d apparently met. Bridwell didn’t fight those fans but paused to hear them & relay what he could of their garbled messages – as photographers in the pit watched & shot those fans & the band for the first three songs.
And they were a strong first three songs, one each from the three Horses albums: "Islands On the Coast" from newest, Infinite Arms, single "Is There a Ghost?" from the prior Cease To Begin (QRO review), and "The Great Salt Lake" from breakthrough debut Everything All the Time. People have accused Infinite of being too polished, and they’re not wrong (QRO review), but outdoors at a festival is pretty much the perfect way to see the band, their alt-country getting a bit more fun (and ending with Everything breakthrough "The Funeral"). And while their Toronto Island gig was sandwiched between two in New York – AOL surprise free show at Grand Central the day before (QRO concert listing), and a ticketed Williamsburg Waterfront (QRO venue review) opener in Brooklyn the day after (QRO concert listing), the Band still had it in spades, especially bassist Bill Reynolds, who nicely filled the role of ‘person on stage most psyched to be playing to this many people’.
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Broken Social Scene ‘el jefe’ Kevin Drew opened their set by calling on the audience to scream as one, then telling them all that, "I road the ferry in, I paid for my meal, and I paid for my drinks, because I am one with you people – thank you, Toronto!" He & the band had long since already become local heroes, but it doesn’t hurt to get a little more cred with the crowd. And Drew kept up with the local references, such as asking the masses there whether they wanted the G20 – and the artificial pool made for the gathering at the Rogers Centre right over on the mainland – to come to town (no big surprise that the hefty majority didn’t; what was more surprising was that some brave souls were willing to cheer for the gathering of global movers-and-shakers). Drew suggested that the G20 ("I like to think of them as the GTO – that all of these people from around the world are coming here to shoot razor commercials…) should go to Huntsville, "I just want to see a photo of Obama at Weckers…"
Drew also referred to some technical problems, such as drummer Justin Peroff having to tie down his set, but you couldn’t tell it by the rapturous welcome the audience gave the band (and what’s an outdoor music festival without technical problems?…). Opening with "World Sick" from the new Forgiveness Rock Record (QRO review), Broken Social Scene kept up the pattern of recent shows (QRO photos in L.A. in May) of playing mostly from the new record, 2005’s self-titled album and 2005’s breakthrough, You Forgot It In People, and completely skipping anything from the two ‘Broken Social Scene Presents’ records before Forgiveness, Kevin Drew’s ‘Spirit If…’ (QRO review) and Brendan Canning’s ‘Something For All of Us…’ (QRO review). While neither ‘Presents’ record is as good as the ‘regular’ BSS records before & after, it was still a bit of a short shrift.
BSS were anything but short on guest stars, however. Another major advantage to playing in their hometown, the band were able to pepper their set with all sorts of guest musicians, starting with Sebastian Grainger (QRO album review) & someone else running on stage to sing back-up during the chorus parts of "World Sick". Who else joined the Scene? How about Pavement’s own Spiral Stairs, Scott Kannenberg, for third song "Texico Bitches" – followed by "7/4 (Shoreline)" with none other than mega-artist Feist (QRO live review)! The songstress owes her impressive success to two things: her "1, 2, 3, 4" being in an iPod commercial (she was the first artist to boom thanks to Mr. Jobs), and her role as guest female vocalist for Broken Social Scene, including single "Shoreline". Wearing a white dress, large hat & shades, it was like Leslie had never left the Scene.
But before Broken was You Forgot It In People, and its own leading lady, Emily Haines of Metric (QRO live review), who joined BSS on her own & with Feist. While not quite the surprise that Feist’s earlier appearance was (Metric guitarist Sebastian Shaw came on stage to play with the band during second song "Stars and Sons", and both of them appeared with the group when BSS played Brooklyn in May – QRO photos), Haines was as ultra-fetching as always, in a short, almost backless black dress. Current Broken lady, Lisa Lobsinger, came on much more quietly, taking up keys in the back – though was later joined there by Drew, who took a backseat during pieces like Forgiveness‘s "Water In Hell", sung by guitarist/bassist Brendan Canning.
Since Spirit If…, it seems as if Drew has been consciously trying not to be the Social center, or at least giving others in the band their chances to shine. That’s been especially true for Canning (QRO interview), the quiet, nice guy co-founder of Broken Social Scene, who’s always been overshadowed by Drew, but got to take center stage not only on Something For All of Us… but also in pieces like "Water". And when they played early piece "Fire-Eyed Boy", vocals were taken up by Andrew Whiteman (QRO interview), a.k.a. The Apostle of Hustle (QRO spotlight on), who had also previously taken the ‘Presents’ time to put out two Apostle records, The National Anthem of Nowhere (QRO review) and Eats Darkness (QRO review).
Not that Whiteman needed any help drawing attention live, as the guitarist not only was excellent on his instrument, but also in his moves, looking like young Tom Waits as a Spanish mime. Indeed, one of the early high points of the set was when Whiteman & multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin (QRO interview) came to the lip of the stage, back-to-back, pointing their instruments out at the crowd. Along with the soft-spoken, never-singing Spearin (whose done his own great work outside of BSS, both in post-rock outfit Do Make Say Think and in his fascinating own Happiness Project – QRO review), the two form sort of an ‘alt-core of Broken Social Scene’, like the would-have-been founders of some alternative version of the band that exists in the other world on FOX’s Fringe. Now how about giving new guitarist Sam Goldberg a moment in the sun?…
Lobsinger got her chance on lead vocals during "All to All", Drew introducing her by saying how she’d "gotten a lot of shit since she joined us" – you couldn’t be quite sure if that was a joking reference to the band hazing her in, or a more pointed one to fans not liking her as much as Feist or Haines (or other guest females, such as Amy Millan of Stars – QRO live review – or Elizabeth Powell – QRO interview – of Land of Talk – QRO spotlight on). The more mellow flavor to "All to All" was not maybe the best piece to spotlight Lobsinger, more akin to the work of Beach House earlier in the day (see above), but her voice can more than hold its own (and people bitched about Feist not being as good as Haines when she came in, pre-iPod). Oh, and just in case you were wondering (and probably half of you care), yes, she’s also quite pretty…
Also joining the Scene on stage nearer the end (though farther back, out of photo range) was Forgiveness producer John McEntire, who’s also in acclaimed post-rock outfit Tortoise (QRO live review) and the easiest of listening bands, The Sea & Cake (QRO live review). And there was the ‘big band’ of strings Broken Social Scene got to accompany them at times. Plus guest stars often stayed on stage – such as the multiple ladies on stage for the multiple lady vocals of "Sentimental X’s", or Shaw & someone else both playing guitar during "Stars and Sons". Yet despite all the guest stars, Broken Social Scene somehow ended early (or that’s what they said), and so played one more, after would-have-been closer "Meet Me In the Basement" (dedicated to, who else, Toronto), the apropos "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)".
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And the dream came true. Ever since The Pixies (QRO live review) reunited at Coachella in 2004, the indie world has been blessed with numerous reunions of iconic eighties & nineties alt-acts that had split up over clashing egos & never breaking into the big time – but the egos have been lessened (see: Dinosaur Jr. – QRO live review), and those kids in the eighties & nineties are adults now who’ll play $$ to see their favorites back after so long, plus all of today’s kids who never got a chance to see these bands in the first place have some show spending money, too.
In the roster of hoped-for reunions, maybe none loomed larger than Pavement. The California act was important & influential in the nineties, but split up in 1999 as lead singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus went his own way, with new backing band The Jicks (QRO live review). He seemed to have held out against reunion wishes for years, but last September the five-man outfit announced a reunion show – in September of this year, at New York’s Central Park SummerStage (QRO venue review). It sold out quickly, as did the three more shows there that were also announced right after (QRO concert listings), and soon Pavement was on the bill of every festival you could think of, from here to New Zealand (where their reunion tour started, earlier this year). And so Broken Social Scene snagged them for Toronto Island.
Yet the band didn’t quite start off as good as you’d hoped (which was, admittedly, a pretty high bar). After the amazingness of Broken Social Scene (see above), Pavement were a little too similar to their records, even when playing hits like opener "Cut Your Hair", "Trigger Cut" & "Rattled By the Rush" – especially as they’d just put out a greatest hits collection, Quarantine the Past (QRO review). But that is likewise a high bar, and "The Rush" still "Rattled".
Some of that had to do with stage presence. This might be reading too much into things, but it was hard to shake the feeling that Malkmus wasn’t totally thrilled to be playing his old stuff to bigger crowds than The Jicks ever got (or Pavement ever did in the nineties) – he’s got a very ironic slacker air to him naturally, so it might just be how he is naturally, but the way he half-turned away from the crowd during the entire set, to his constantly-slipping-off-him guitar, not to mention lines like, "It’s pretty amazing that they can have events like this, and be relatively successful" – again, could be joking about the sold-out festival, and another Pavementer called him on "nice use of the adverb ‘relatively’…", but Malkmus wasn’t the electric leading man that Drew was (see above).
Also a little odd, and even more noticeable: the only time guests came on stage, various Broken Scenesters plus, at one point, Benjamin Bridwell, was during the Spiral Stairs songs. Singer/guitarist Scott Kannenberg (QRO solo album review) only contributed one or two songs per record (shades of Lou Barlow – QRO solo album review – in Dinosaur Jr.) – indeed, Malkmus’ desire to keep a limit on Kannenberg’s input was reportedly a major factor behind the band’s break-up. So Drew & co. coming on stage for just about every Stairs song, starting with "Kennel District", but only Stairs songs, was quite noticeable.
But enough about singer/guitarists & their egos – the real heroes of the show were in the rhythm section. Bassist Mark Ibold was all smiles, right up at the front & middle (Malkmus & Kannenberg at clear opposite sides of the stage…). While bassists just being flat-out happy to be there is nothing new (see Band of Horses’ Reynolds above), Ibold is also now a member of the even more important, never broke-up Sonic Youth (QRO live review), moving up from touring bassist to full-fledged member on their latest, last year’s The Eternal (QRO review – the gossipy hater in one would think that Ibold’s recent success, even eclipsing Malkmus, was why the latter brought back his old band & bigger spotlight…). So seeing Ibold so happy up there with his first love was quite special.
However, there is no one, no one happier & more into the Pavement reunion than percussionist Bob Nastanovich. Originally included in the band because of worries over original drummer Gary Young’s sometimes unsteady beat, Nastanovich was the first to say there was no need for him when Young was replaced by the steadier hand of Steve West. But he was kept on, and thank god for it, as Pavement were at their best when Nastanovich, otherwise locked in the back row with Westie, would come forward to shout-sing chorus lines like "I’m trying!" on "Conduit For Sale!". Plus he joked with the crowd, at one point pulling out a sea-horn-like sounding instrument he bought in Vienna "That may sound even worse than the vuvuzela…" While Nastanovich looks older than maybe everyone else in the band (Ibold & Kannenberg have gained weight and the latter has lost hair, while West has gained a beard – Malkmus is still the best-looking member), he had more energy than anyone on stage or in the crowd throughout the show, especially when he was "trying!".
If Pavement’s set started off not quite amazing, it certainly built as it went on & the skies got darker. The sweetness & touch of slower, softer pieces such as "Spit on a Stranger" and "Starlings of the Slipstream" were emotional high points, everyone – Malkmus included – had fun on catchy tracks like "Shady Lane" & "Stereo" (Malkmus even jokingly singing "Ontario" instead of "Stereo", adding that he hoped he was in Ontario), "Gold Soundz" & "Date w/ Ikea" were just as perfect as you’d hoped, "Range Life" & "Summer Babe" were the perfect sing-a-longs (and the former still sticks it to "nature kids" who "don’t have no function" Smashing Pumpkins & "elegant bachelors" Stone Temple Pilots – QRO photos …), and Nastanovich brought his energy & himself to the fore on "Debris Slide" & "Conduit" (which Malkmus said he discovered isn’t a rip-off of his icons The Fall, but of a riff from Suicidal Tendencies’ "Institutionalized"…). And for Kannenberg’s "Two States", not only did Drew & more come on to back up Mr. Stairs, but Nastanovich joined them in the chorus of "Forty million daggers!" while Malkmus took up percussion – and even looked to be having fun doing it ("‘Forty million daggers’ – now that’s a tune…").
In short, there’s a good reason that Pavement’s reunion has been so welcomed, a good reason they’re playing so many festivals and selling out dates over a year in advance – a very good reason.
Unfortunately, one couldn’t talk about Toronto Island Music Festival without mentioning the lines. Lines are a problem at every music festival, at every event (just ask Erik Cartman…), but it seemed excessive at Toronto Island. If you were trying to make it to the festival a little later in the day, mid-afternoon, it could have taken an hour or two to make it from downtown Toronto to the lake & onto the island. The two beer areas lines started off as long, and only got longer, looping through & even out of their designated areas. The mobile ATM saw one of its two screens go down, and wouldn’t take anything American. By the time of Band of Horses, there were huge lines for everything, even lemonade – wiser heads kept their water bottle and filled it up at one of the tap-like wells in the park, not to mention used the washroom building near the shore (and taking a second to look out over the lake at the Toronto skyline & Sky Needle) over waiting for a port-a-potty. If you were on the island to eat & drink, you were out of luck.
The line issue also contributed to the oddity of Pavement having a smaller crowd than Broken Social Scene, as many people worried about the logjam in leaving after Pavement finished, and left before or during the headliner’s set. Plus, of course, Broken Social Scene being hometown heroes & drawing like one. But the biggest reason to leave early was likely that the festival was taking place during North-by-Northeast, Canada’s answer to Austin’s South-by-Southwest (QRO recap) – originally entirely separate, NXNE bought their way into Toronto Island & the first 250 NXNE wristband wearers got into this festival – as the four-day festival’s biggest event, Iggy & The Stooges (QRO photos), were playing a free show at Yonge-Dundas Square at the same time as Pavement. Leaving for Iggy might be excusable, but Mr. Pop has been playing for forty years & will play the town again, whereas who knows if Torontonians will ever get another chance to see Pavement? Oh, and the ferry ride back was anything but a hassle, actually easier than the ride to the island.
Randomest, funniest thing overheard in the crowd: people talking about 2012 & Mayan predictions of the end of the world then, adding, "Those Mayans were pretty spot on everything except the eradication of their entire culture…"
The Canadian music has come a long way since the ‘Canadian Invasion’ of bands like Broken Social Scene back in 2004/2005. And alternative music has come a long way since Pavement broke up in the last century/millennium. But Toronto Island Music Festival is still a great place to experience it all.
[writer’s note: your correspondent had a whole experience in Toronto after the festival ended, from searching for a place to charge his phone & get their oddly-colored money, to seeing Sebastien Grainger at Pizza Pizza – who looks nothing like he used to (QRO photos) – to avoiding security & police that were blocking off Rogers Centre & Sky Needle a full week before the G20 even came. But the big post-festival event was the Arts & Crafts after party, where your correspondent met Grainger again, BSS’ Goldberg, Peroff, Lobsinger & Drew (but of course none of the three BSSers who had previously been interviewed were there…), The Stills’ (QRO spotlight on) Dave Hamelin (QRO interview) & Liam O’Neill (who also joined BSS on stage at points, and related that, since guitarist Greg Paquet has rejoined The Stills, Hamelin is back to his original position on drums, leaving as sole singer again guitarist Tim Fletcher – QRO interview), Spiral Stairs (the only Pavementer at the party – but did appreciated being told they should play his "Painted Soldiers"), and Shaw & Haines of Metric. Okay, didn’t really ‘meet’ Haines as much as see her in that dress & figure she didn’t need another indie-dude trying to talk to her, but did finally get a chance to chat with Kevin Drew – who’s been nixing all interview requests]