NXNE Day 1: Beliefs, Eternal Summers, Mac Demarco Wows at Drake, Union Duke Ends With Exclamation
After a solid burger/fries combo from Stampede in Parkdale (what’s with me and burgers before shows?) I was ready to take on the music marathon that is NXNE. My first stop was a short walk to The Drake Hotel and more specifically the Underground. It felt a bit strange walking down the street on a beautiful evening seeing everybody enjoying cocktails on patios, and then going into a dark basement. This counter-intuitive move was rationalized by the fact that there was great music to be enjoyed, and I would go to far more hostile environments than a basement to do that.
The line-up at the Drake Underground was being presented by Canada’s eminent monthly new-music magazine, exclaim! First on the bill were Toronto’s own Beliefs, a five-piece band that are creating some buzz in the Big Smoke. Fuzzed-out guitars, reverbed vocals, and a male/female duo leading the charge made me think of a mash-up of Beach House and The XX.
Next up was the appropriately named Eternal Summers who made the trek to the great white north all the way from Virginia. Right after this three-piece, guitar/bass/drum, set up they got straight to pumping out tunes. Angular guitar melodies, double-time beats, and soaring vocals from Nicole Yun filled the room making everyone take notice. Efficiency was the name of the game as they fit as many melodic 3-minute-or-less pop-gems in their 45-minute set. Their music harkens back to 1980’s and 90’s lo-fi rock/pop. Perfect music to dance to alone in your bedroom, in your underwear like Tom Cruise… Hypothetically of course, I don’t actually do that sort of thing…on weeknights.
The lights dimmed and some club-beats came on as the change over occurred on stage. I shared a beer with a friend and reminisced about my previous experiences with the next act; Mac Demarco. During the two years I lived in Vancouver I had the pleasure of catching Demarco in his former project Makeout Videotape several times. Demarco has since moved to Montreal and struck-out on his own, releasing music under his own name.
Mac Demarco began the set with a guitar-driven pop tune that affirmed his masculinity entitled “I’m a Man”. Immediately I noticed that Demarco and his band sounded much more straight-ahead than previously; tight guitar rifts that always work within the structure of the song and reverb-less vocals. Demarco warned the crowd early on that he and the band had not slept since noon the previous day; “Things might sound a little funkery in the bunkery”. The line between rock-show and comedy show is always blurred with Demarco’s performances. I find myself laughing my ass off as much as I find myself basking in musical bliss. The best example from the show was his dedication to his hometown (Edmonton) friends; “This song is dedicated to all the sketchy people I went to high school with, who have become things like cops and moms.”
Demarco performs with an air of “I don’t give a shit about this, but I’m still going to knock your god-damned socks off” which makes him appear very comfortable on stage. This also gives his shows a sense of spontaneity, making his music all that more exciting. Even when he is messing around, as he was during a guitar solo battle with his very talented guitar player, he is way better than most band’s best attempts. Demarco’s stellar guitar chops are shadowed by his vocal abilities, I can’t think of another singer with such a wide range; from the deep growl in “Rock And Roll Nightclub” to the high pitched howl in “Together”, he’s got it all. Ending his set by crowd surfing, crucifix-style face down, Demarco and his band definitely set the tone for the rest of his “ten” shows at NXNE. I would expect a long line at the rest of his Toronto shows for a long time to come.
After the revelry of the Mac Demarco show the room got packed up with people there to see Porcelain Raft; a good indication that the Drake Underground will have solid programming throughout NXNE. As it looked like this show would be sufficiently covered by bigger fish than me, I decided to take my attention elsewhere. I took a short walk down Queen Street to the Cadillac Lounge where I would end my night with an exclamation mark; Union Duke.
This five-piece bluegrass/country band brings everything to the front. Literally their five members lined the front of the stage, they do not use a traditional drum-kit; instead using a combination of kick-drum, high-hat and cymbal spread across the stage. It did not take long for the small crowd at the stage to grow and being jumping up and down doing their best version of a two-step. Union Duke approaches every song full-tilt, for lack of a better word they play the SHIT out of their songs. By the end of their set I was swinging arm-in-arm with strangers, and testing the Cadillac’s foundation with my foot stomping. Sweaty and out of breath we all cheered Union Duke’s efforts and asked eagerly where we could see them next.
With Toronto so alive with music because of NXNE (and Luminato) it’s tempting to stay out to bask in it until you meet the sunrise. But this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and the best is yet to come. So I retired to my home and laid my head on my pillow. With my ears still ringing from the night’s music, I dreamt of the shows to come.