TURF Day 1: Toronto’s “Music City” Label Realized
Rob Ford. Crack-cocaine. Gawker. Drug dealers. Police raids. No matter where in the world you lay your head or where you punch your clock, chances are you have heard about the alleged and actual antics of Toronto’s glorious Mayor. The words/phrases first read have likely occupied your phone, computer, TV, newspaper, or water-cooler chat over the past few months… Wait, don’t hit [ESC], this IS an article on a music blog about the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, bear with me because I’ll get to it… To an outside observer Toronto looks like an episode of The Wire playing out in real-life. This is a tragedy, because there is WAY more to this big complicated and beautiful city than the buffoonery that splashes the headlines and the evening news. Great things are constantly happening in Toronto. It is time that we change the channel, tune out the bullshit and focus on the “Toronto the Good”, “Toronto the Hip”, “Toronto – Music City”.
The most recent and apparent example of a great thing happening in this city is the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF). Taking place on the historic Garrison Common at Fort York over 4 days this weekend. The flyer for this outdoor music festival is repping some of the biggest names in music today. Many are saying that TURF is a sign Toronto is coming around to embracing the fact that we are rich in musical capital. There has also been an official campaign called 4479 Toronto (T.O.’s longitude & latitude) put forward by progressive City Councillors & music industry leaders, led by Josh Colle, which seeks to cut red tape and offer incentives for revenue generating events like TURF to take place – much like the film industry has successfully done in the city.
Taking all of this into account I walked on down Bathurst Street towards the lake with the clouds parting after a rainy morning. At least the sun-gods were looking down kindly on TURF for it’s inaugural day. As I entered the gates and took in my surroundings on the Garrison Common – food trucks, beer tents, kids playground, two elaborate stages – I thought about how 200 years ago this was the centre of a foreign invasion and now people are drinking beers, smoking joints and blowing bubbles in peace; how far we’ve come. Northrop Frye was known to cite the “Garrison Mentality” when explaining Canadian identity through our cultural works, and then fittingly at the end of his life/career he predicted our evolution into a “condominium mentality” (Kyly Carsten Wyatt explained this all nicely in an article for The Walrus). Looking at the ever-growing glass giants encroaching on Fort York, there is no better place to personify this idea.
The sweet sounds of Montreal’s Barr Brothers knocked all of this philosophic waxing out of my head and drew me close to the Western stage where they were tasked to open the festival. With the sun gradually receding behind them, the brothers Barr were in no rush to get the crowd all riled up – this is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s not to say that people were not enjoying themselves. People lazed about under the shade of a generous Maple tree as The Barr Brothers flowed through their set – a beautiful orchestrated eclectic blend of folk, blues, and pop. Like most band that hail from Montreal, our seemingly hipper and hotter french cousins, there is an element of avant-garde exoticism in the Barr Brother’s music that I can’t quite articulate – mostly because I’m not very articulate. You don’t often see a full-sized harp on stage in a traditional band set-up, nor do you see a drum-kit equipped with a bicycle wheel.
As The Barr Brother’s closed their set and thanked the audience wishing them a happy festival, blankets and bags were quickly packed up as people briskly walked over to the Eastern stage for Camera Obscura. It seemed this would be the drill for the rest of the weekend. It will keep everyone moving at least, and allow for people to secure good spots for favourite bands. Also, there won’t be long waits for set-ups and sound checks.
Passing the row of food trucks I resisted the urge to indulge in an early evening poutine. I also managed to avoid the ever-so appropriate fresh lemonade booth that got me every year growing up at the annual County Fair. This area will likely prove to be a temptation too great for my weak will before the weekend is out.
Camera Obscura is a band that is admittedly not familiar to me besides seeing their name on concert announcements time to time throughout my conscious music fan life. It’s evident that they have a devoted audience as everyone was standing at attention as they took the stage. A fairly full band including, keys, trumpet and auxiliary percussion proved for a fittingly full and lush sound. The ease with which they slipped from one song to the next and confidently bantered with the crowd makes for no surprise to see that these Scots have been at it since the mid-90′s and have been putting out records for over 10 years. Their sound is like a final scene from an indie movie where a couple are having a barefoot waltz on a beach with their pant-legs rolled up, laughing and smiling as the sun sets and the credits roll. Catchy flowing melodies that never get too far outside of the structure of the song, complimented by jaunty trumpet parts or textured with tambourines and shakers. All in all, highly enjoyable – so much so that the air filled with the scent of jazz cigarettes. They recently released their critically acclaimed latest Desire Lines and have been touring in support of She & Him this summer.
Joel Plaskett is a man who follows the Springsteen ethic when it comes to performance – give the crowd everything you got. The buzz in the air before he took the stage indicated that the crowd knew what they were in for. Festival organizer Jeff Cohen took this opportunity to introduce himself and talk about what made him want to bring a multi-day outdoor festival to Fort York. After airing his views on beer politics and taking some time to announce the Bonus Club Shows (a promoter through and through), Cohen brought out a friend of his to introduce the Joel Plaskett Emergency – sports broadcaster Dave Hodge. Hodge, clearly an avid fan of Plaskett’s, remarked that he was the cream of the crop in Canadian music today and that this was a concert that he had intended to introduce at the Sled Island Music Festival before the tragic floods hit Calgary. With great gusto, Hodge threw it Joel and his two compatriots on bass and drums – a stripped down outfit but no less powerful.
Plaskett opened the set with a 10 minute jam to get the crowd moving. A quick survey of the crowed showed young and old alike clapping along. Joel’s music is evidently big tent – but in the best sense possible. Plaskett addressed the crowd, out of breath and visibly giddy; “It’s so good to be back in Toronto, we always have such a great time here. I’m actually kind of nervous, and that’s a good thing.” He then dedicated the next tune, “Through & Through & Through”, to everyone in Calgary and Alberta who are in the process of rebuilding. The set continued at a fevered pace until Plastkett slowed it down by playing some songs solo on his acoustic guitar – including a CBC commission about Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail. The process of writing that song provided the inspiration for him to make his latest Scrappy Happiness - one song a week and debuted on CBC Radio 2′s Drive.
Plaskett certainly has had no problem with being prolific throughout his career, his ability to turn a catchy phrase alongside a catchy melody is probably second to none in this country. But most impressive is the pan-Canadian appeal he has been able to carve out for himself – a feat only possible through an irrepressible stubbornness to make a living travelling across this geographically impossible country over and over and over again. It’s a feat that few have had the will and talent to achieve. With the passing of the great Stompin’ Tom Connors this past year, it’s easy to look and see that the torch he carried is being picked up by the likes of Joel Plaskett. A musician who unabashedly writes about the people and places of this country without cliche, nor camp. This was perfectly demonstrated during the set when Plaskett took time to note the fact that it was the 4th of July, wishing the American’s in the audience a happy Independence Day and the Canadians a belated Canada Day before breaking into “True Patriot Love” – a song about our fascination with the sparkly appeal of success south of the border.
Plaskett finished the set off backed by his Emergency with a sweaty combination of crowd favourites including “I Love This Town” and “Nowhere With You“. The crowd stuck around all the way to the end, despite headliners She & Him’s imminent start across the field. As the crowd sang back “Lightning Bolt” to Plaskett as he ended the show, there is no doubt that his success is NOT as the song’s title suggests but rather the long and enduring burning of a bright flame. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving fella.
All the commotion caused need for sustenance, satisfied by a delicious pork sandwich from one of the many food trucks on site which I consumed as I strolled over to where She & Him had begun their bubblegum pop revival set. Zooey Deschanel is obviously a talented person, a triple threat that harkens back to the likes of Judy Garland – except in a more quirky, cute and self-aware fashion. Success in television and film topped by the mass appeal of her musical collaborations with M Ward - who himself has a successful solo career (he reminds me of an American Bahamas). This appeal was evident in the size of their backing band, numbering around 8 including a set of back-up singers. To be honest, I appreciate the music that She & Him play but I’m not convinced that they quite have the chops to be drawing the numbers they do to their shows. Deschanel’s vocals seemed to be misaligned with her band at points. I think they should just stick to a stripped down vocal/guitar combo, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
I decided to make an early exit to beat the crowd to the streetcar in the hopes of making it to the Horseshoe for the club show portion of TURF. I was glad I did when the Dynamites and Charles Walker took the stage. A very tight blues, soul, New Orleans-type jazz band full of seasoned players based in Nashville who had joined forces with a veteran soul singer – this is a combination that guarantees a great show. A small but very devoted crowd huddled at the front of the stage, yelping in delight as Walker and the Dynamites laid down some bone shaking soul tunes. Despite it being the end of a long night, I found the energy to dance and clap along with the sweaty mass. At one point an out of breath Walker made a plea to the crowd to support them with their wallets; “Over there you can get our latest recording, on… what is it? CD? cassette? 8-track? 45? 33? 78? Shit, I seen them all. Buy it and help us pay for the gas back home.” I must say that I was moved to pick up a record, which I will certainly listen to whenever I need a pick-up.
Day 1 was in the can as I strolled home buzzing, looking forward to a weekend full of great music in this great town of Toronto – Music City.