Megan Bonnell, Gauntlet Hair, The Dodos, Royal Bangs, PS I Love You, Suuns
June 15 and 16, 2011
Review by: Chad Hutchings
Photos by: Julie Lavelle
Hoping to squeeze out every ounce of goodness from NXNE 2011, Sticky Magazine sent three teams of writers and photographers around the city for five straight days to take in every sight and sound that the event had to offer.
Knowing that the festival was going to be a fiery lover, this duo decided to treat her like a lady and get to know her gingerly, opting to ease into the chaos with a single set on Wednesday, the first official night of the festival. Of course, despite the early slot on the bill (and the relatively early hour), the house was buzzing and the crowd was thick when we arrived at The Rivoli to see Megan Bonnell take the stage at the Nevado Showcase.
Whenever I hear Megan Bonnell's name mentioned, it usually comes along with easy comparisons to names like Regina Spektor and Kate Nash, both by her proponents and her detractors. But, however familiar her sound might be, hearing songs like "South Korea" performed live was a reminder that she's an undeniable talent that completely justifies the pain I'm caused when busting out that kind of cliche. Bonnell's work is passionate and well-written from all angles, and she's an absolute spitfire when she performs behind the keyboard — an attitude in sharp contrast with the spare moments between songs, when she engaged the audience with a demure and delicate grace.
While this single Wednesday show pushed us off on a gentle start, Thursday came at us with a baseball bat, and I'd be inclined to call it karmic retribution, if we hadn't absolutely loved the bludgeoning.
Our schedule had us hauling tail as far east as we'd end up reaching all weekend, stepping inside the Phoenix just in time to catch Gauntlet Hair mid-set. With their work most easily dubbed avant-rock, it has an airy, almost dreamy way about it that dulls the quick beats and heavy bass, pulling one of those "We're tapping into your pulse" moves, where you don't realize you're moving with the music until you try to take a sip of your drink and you stick the straw up your nose as you bob your head. This may or may not have happened while we relished the group's short set that we never even expected to catch.
Up next was The Dodos. With their latest album No Color arguably being one of the better releases so far this year, we were excited to see if their live work could live up to their efforts in the studio, especially since word on the street was that the majority of the set would be featuring that very same release. Even though I'd seen them a few years back on the same stage opening for Beirut, I was once again floored by just how young these artists are, what with how mature the sound is that they've created. While the vocals were slightly low and the levels were hazier than we would've hoped for, the group offered up a great performance, awing the audience at their greatest when "Good" and "When Will You Go" showed themselves strongly on the set-list.
By some miracle, our next move had us surviving a series of near-deaths in Toronto bicycle lanes, and we made it to The Horseshoe Tavern, finding ourselves a nice spot at the stage just in time to see Royal Bangs step forward as the second act in the Windish Agency Showcase. The group is known to be adventurous and experimental, working outside the formulas of indie pop rock, but their live act just didn't hold up during the set. Without the reigns of studio production, the live renditions of their work were sloppy, and lead Ryan Schaefer's vocals were much farther out of key than the group could possibly intend in their efforts to avoid conforming to conventions. They did, however, put on a high-energy show, and brought their set to a close at a towering height with some anthemic tune that I'm sad to say I just couldn't place. But, despite the soaring sound of the piece and its fantastic, redemptive performance, Royal Bangs caught the audience's attention just a little too late.
PS I Love You
Kingston's PS I Love You was slotted next, but after a harrowing set-up, they were only able to burn through a single song before realizing one of their amps was practically in pieces. Ages later (think half a dozen back-to-back commercial breaks), under threat of their set being cut, the two-piece found a way to jump back in with high spirits, unleashing a pressure that had welled up like a heated helium tank, exploding with the group's unclassifiable punk/rock/experimental hybrid sound. In turn, the packed audience played their part and made it very clear that they were there in support of the group. While the crowd was roaring with hoots and cheers, though, the cries were no match for a set that redefined "powerhouse", stress-testing the earplugs of anyone with the foresight to bring them along.
After PS I Love You's set came to a close, the floor of their fans quickly emptied, only to be repopulated just as quickly by a group eager to see Suuns step into the spotlight. With a clear shift from the previous two acts, the group brought a sticky, sexy set to the stage. Heavy beats and wild guitar work was woven together by dark, slow synth work and vocals with the same description. Songs like "Pie IX" and "Organ Blues" highlighted a set that was raw and thick, setting a vibe that can only be described as carnal — a vibe felt by everyone anywhere near the stage, where the audience moved in direct reflection of the sultry sound that Suuns brought to their live show.
Although this wrapped up first couple of days, it was just the start of what festival had in store. Check back to see where this pair found ourselves during the final few evenings, and keep your eyes open for what other Sticky teams had to say about NXNE 2011.