One day, you’ll look back at 2016 as the year when NXNE, a long-running Toronto music industry institution, got a makeover. Moving from a SXSW-inspired “roam the streets and club hop” festival to a 2-day “festival within a festival”, interactive/tech conference, and a select few Club Land shows. Moving away from its roots, this year’s NXNE was anchored, by all accounts, the Port Lands experience, to be held in an industrial area in the southeast corner of downtown Toronto.
Entering a Toronto festival market that gets more crowded by the minute, the NXNE Port Lands line-up was billed as a festival divided into two musically-themed days: the best of the hip-hop scene on Friday (co-curated with Manifesto), couple with a significantly more indie-rock focused Saturday lineup.
Day One – Friday, June 17, 2016
Unfortunately, I couldn’t hop over to Port Lands in the daylight hours (and thus missed the wonderful Tasha The Amazon), so I walked into Ghostface Killah‘s set. I was immediately told to “get my W’s up”, so obviously, the evening started off an a high note. Ghostface Killah‘s set was fast-paced, energetic, featured crowd-favourites like “Criminology” and he brought up some surprises – including literally all the girls in the front area of the stage (ok, mayyyybe not all of them), samples from Queen, and a special guest appearance from Sheik Louche. There’s a lot of good and new stuff going on in rap these days, but there shouldn’t be any doubt that Ghostface Killah is still a force.
Next up was my must-see artist from Friday night: Toronto’s very own Daniel Caesar. He’s super young (21), super talented, and very much an artist on the rise. His sound is a mixture of soul, gospel and r&b, and he has an absolutely incredible voice (think Jeff Buckley-incredible). His set had the crowd swaying and singing along, and seemed almost shy about the number of people watching his set. Pick up his EP Pilgrim’s Paradise on iTunes.
Night one of NXNE Port Lands closed out with a bang with Los Angeles’ Schoolboy Q. Part of the same LA scene that birthed Kendrick Lamar (who got a shoutout, and a couple of his songs played), Schoolboy Q playing a fierce set that got the crowd absolutely pumped. In particular, the crowd went absolutely crazy when he played “Studio”, one of the hits off of his 2014 album, Oxymoron. He seemed to be taking requests from the fans at the front of the stage, was game in tossing inflatable beach balls back at the crowd, and (hilariously) teased some of the crowd. It was a great set from Schoolboy Q – whose setlist really demonstrated how good his material is, across his entire career – and I’m really looking forward to picking up the Blank Face LP when it hits shelves on July 8.
Day Two – Saturday, June 18, 2016
On Saturday, under an absolutely scorching sun, NXNE had a pretty solid indie rock-focused lineup on tap. The headliner was critical darling Father John Misty, and the supporting cast was pretty strong with the likes of Land of Talk, Born Ruffians, HIGHS and Dan Mangan, to name a few.
The day started off with the aforementioned Land of Talk, an indie rock band out of Montreal that I hadn’t actually heard before. Fresh off a lengthy hiatus, the band – led by primary songwriter/lead vocalist/guitarist Elizabeth Powell, offered strong guitar playing and memorable melodies, reminding me a little bit of Broken Social Scene at some points. They were followed up by one of CONFRONT’s favourite Toronto bands – HIGHS – who played an energetic set showcasing their most recent release (and full-length debut), Dazzle Camouflage. Set highlights including “Acting Strange”, where keyboardist Karrie Douglas takes on lead vocals, and a particularly passionate rendition of “Easy”.
A set from Dan Mangan never fails to engage the crowd, and starting off with a fan favorite in “Road Regrets” was a solid choice on his part. If you’ve never seen Dan Mangan live, you should definitely do that as soon as humanly possible- he’s an incredible talented singer/songwriter, very charming and his band features probably the most badass guitarist in Canadian indie rock right now – Gordon Grdina.
The only misstep of the day, in my opinion, was Mother Mother‘s set. It may be an acquired taste thing (I’m admittedly not a fan of the band in general), but the set didn’t connect with me whatsoever. I’m not sure if it was the extended drum solo or the very brief Nirvana cover or the stage banter that felt incredibly forced, but I wasn’t a fan of the faux-angst vibe of the set. The band did mention that it was their first show in ten months or so, so perhaps it was just a matter of finding their footing.
At this point, after an entire day in the sun, Born Ruffians was exactly what the doctor prescribed. At this point, they’re Toronto indie rock royalty, and deservingly so. Their poppy, bouncy brand of indie rock got the crowd into it again, with most people around me dancing with wild abandon.
Finally, Father John Misty took the stage to close out the first edition of NXNE Port Lands – and that was a good call. His stage presence is second to none, buoyed by the quality of his songs. He slithers around onstage, jumps into the crowd, flails on the ground, and still finds time to make sassy comments about the festival location (“a parking lot next to a freeway”). His theatrical, confessional songs, like “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” or “Bored in the USA” were a perfect way to close out the weekend. There was some criticism of his seemingly testy mood, but I think it’s a part of this character he’s created, and I enjoyed his set. It was a good closer to a NXNE Port Lands experience that had its share of growing pains.