North by North East, Toronto’s answer to South by South West (SXSW) was held in various parts of the city from June 13-19, 2016. The week-long celebration featured live music from local and international artists, interactive panels and a spotlight on video-gaming. For the first time in its 21 year run, NXNE 2016 featured a two day dedicated music festival in Toronto’s Port Lands, at 51 Commissioners St. Impressively enough, the two day festival featured some really big local and international artists: School boy Q, Father John Misty, Ghostface Killah, Mother Mother and Born Ruffians made for a very impressive bill. The second day of the festival included bands like HIGHS, The Zolas, Dan Mangan, Mother Mother, Born Ruffians and Father John Misty.
The Port Lands isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a summer festival out in the sun. I tend to think of places like Woodbine Park (where this year’s Bestival was held) with open fields and lots of grass. However, hosting the festival fairly close to the downtown core has its advantages. You don’t have to fork over hundreds of dollars and endure back pain on the bus to Montreal for Osheaga or sustain even more damage to your spine by sleeping in tents on the uneven campsite at Wayhome. The fairly small and intimate setting of the Port Lands festival also meant that you got a good view of your favourite artists performing. Which is a huge advantage over bigger and more established festivals like Osheaga, where you’re lucky if you can catch your favourite band’s set on the screens, let alone up close and personal.
However, there is a lesson to be learned from the more established festivals for the organizers of NXNE . First, they need more signs pointing to the festival grounds. For most people taking the TTC, the entrance to the festival off commissioner’s street was confusing and hard to find. The last thing you want on a scorching hot Saturday is to wander around the Port Lands, slightly inebriated, looking for the way in. Another improvement the organizers should work on is providing more shade inside the festival grounds. The festival took place in a very large parking lot; with lots of open space and concrete. Most people were finding shade wherever they could; behind the porta-potties, along the fence of the parking lot or underneath their own umbrellas. More shade and cooling areas is a must in a summer festival.
Despite the scorching heat and the 15 minutes I wondered around the Port Lands in search of the entrance, I finally made it inside as HIGHS, Toronto’s own indie rockers started their set with material from their new album “Dazzle Camouflage” . No strangers to festivals, having performed at Wayhome last year, HIGHS put on a high energy performance backed by the stellar vocals of their lead singer Doug Haynes. After the HIGHS’ high-energy set, I was off to enjoy Dan Mangan’s mellow sounds. By the time The Zolas started their set at 5:30 on the Canal stage, you could see that the heat was starting to have an effect on festival goers. Most people were walking around in search of some shade or a cold beer while others were lining up at the various food trucks to recharge on fish tacos. However, a decent number of people powered the Vancouver natives’ indie pop performance.
By 6:40 however, people had rallied to show love to another band based in Vancouver: Mother Mother. Lead singer Ryan Guldemond’s high-energy performance was exactly what the crowd needed to be roused from its late afternoon lethargy. After the next band, Born Ruffians finished their set at 9, people began flooding to the Commish stage for the headline show. There was a palpable sense of excitement as droves of people flooded to the large stage to see the man of the hour: Father John Misty (A.K.A. Josh Tillman).
And boy did he deliver!
I will preface this by saying that I was not that familiar with Josh Tillman’s work before seeing him live. But after watching his set, I was only left with one feeling: AWE. If you take nothing else away from this review, just heed this: If you have a chance to see Father John Misty live, TAKE IT. Do whatever you have to do; borrow that extra 40 dollars, take that extra shift at work, hell, did you know that human beings can survive on one kidney alone? (Disclaimer: please don’t sell your organs on the black market for festival tickets).
If you are familiar with his discography, and especially his latest album “I love you, honeybear”, you wouldn’t think that this is material that would do well on a live stage. But FJM brought something out of the material that is almost impossible to describe. It has been years since I’ve seen a live performance that has stuck with me so much. With the stage presence of Freddie Mercury and the dance moves of a young Jagger, the folk-indie God dominated the second day of the Port Lands festival. His charisma and stage presence put him right up there with the best performers of our time.
Interspersed with sarcastic and self-deprecating jokes, his stellar set featured his incredible vocals, amazing guitar solos and Jagger-esq dance moves. But far more than that, he has a way of performing that makes you believe every single word he is singing. Even when the lyrics are as sarcastic as (She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes, and the malapropos make me want to fucking scream), he still sings it like it’s his strongest held belief and conviction. The hour and a half set showcased his incredible talent and far, farrrrrrrr exceeded any expectations I had.
He was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best live performers I have ever seen, an artist in every sense of the word who pours his heart out on the stage. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?