North by Northeast (NXNE) drew 350,000 attendees last year and lists over 1,000 performers–mainly independent and local–but many Torontonians will tell you they’ve never even heard of it. Despite the encyclopedic list of musicians, comedians, and entertainers, the shows are hosted across over 30 separate venues dotting Toronto’s sprawling core, making it difficult for the festival to seem unified to passing observers. NXNE is a fantastic, underrated event, but it can be hard to hear the buzz when it’s so spread out.
On a warm Friday night in June, I played my part as a festival-goer, heading to Yonge-Dundas Square to see Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers perform a free show. I had discovered the band at another free show they played in Nathan Phillips Square back in 2007 in the dead of winter. I remember wondering how the hell lead singer A.C. Newman could pick his guitar – let alone feel his fingers in his fingerless gloves on that frigid January night. After coming to the conclusion that he was the ‘hardest’ indie pop frontman I had ever seen (at least as hard as you can get in the realm of indie pop), I fell in love with the band’s unique sound.
The New Pornographers have since released two albums (Together in 2010, Brill Bruisers in 2014), and their full discography now spans six albums and 11 singles created by nine on-and-off band members—Neko Case, A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar, John Collins, and Blaine Thurier have been the only mainstays since the band’s inception in 1999. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail Newman said that, “in a lot of ways, we’re not a full-time band.” So it’s no small wonder that they’ve managed stay relevant in the indie scene. Then again, that’s not so hard to do when half of their songs have titles like “Mutiny, I Promise You,” “The Bleeding Heart Show,” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” and are catchy. In a way, the New Pornographers are like the poppy cousins of Broken Social Scene; while both bands have had members branch off into successful solo careers, only the former have managed to stick together.
If you’ve ever been to Yonge-Dundas Square before, you’ll know it’s a bit of an odd venue to hold a concert. The large clearing is fenced in by LED billboards and glowing signage for the chain restaurants that occupy the Eaton Centre, but the sound coming from the stage speakers still manages to escape through the high-rises and diffuse into the surrounding traffic. As the show wore on and the crowd drew tighter towards the stage, I began to feel lyrics and melodies from old songs dislodge themselves from deep down and bubble up through my memory. During the whole concert, you could tell that Case and Newman were trying their hardest not to let the washed out sound quality ruin the performance, if only to avoid having “washed out” and “New Pornographers” mentioned in the same breath.
The main criticism of The New Pornographers’ sound has always been that their songs all blend together, and it’s a fair critique. The band is fully committed to writing infectious hooks and belting them out over prose-like lyrics. Their live performances force you to acknowledge the band’s stellar performance style, while they play without a shred of self-consciousness as they have for the past decade and a half. The brilliance of the NXNE free performance set-up is that it invites even casual listeners to delve deeper into The Pornographers’ trove of tunes, and enjoy classic ballads like “Adventures in Solitude” and “If You Can’t See My Mirrors.”
Even after 21 years, NXNE still feels like an event in limbo. Between the army of enthusiastic volunteers and the Red Bull sponsorship, the vibe is that of an open-air indie festival torn off of a grassy hillside and transplanted into a gridlocked city. There are a few well-known names, but the festival at-large is geared towards discovering new music, not re-listening to what you’re already familiar with. And even for the bands you know well, you never really hear them until you see them live on stage.