This past week the Tribune visited North by Northeast (NXNE) in Toronto, the Canadian equivalent to Austin, Texas’ famed South by Southwest (SxSW) Festival, which showcases promising up-and-coming music in locations throughout the city. After taking in five days of indie promos and roof-shaking concerts, we’ve narrowed our experience down to six memorable and meaningful performances that defined the festival.
This outstanding Brooklyn-based indie pop band didn’t disappoint. In recordings, lead singers Jess Wolfe’s and Holly Laessig’s voices weave together through slow ballads and pitch-perfect harmonies, but on stage they took their sound to a new level and never came down from that high. Even during renditions of quieter songs like “Tempest” and “Go Home,” every member in the five-piece band was banging some surface in full force with a drumstick or two. The show ended with Wolfe and Laessig bringing a double microphone into a small clearing in the middle of the crowd and crooning a few slower songs for an intimate ending to a memorable set.
Mixing a lot of individual aspects together is a challenge that can often come off as incoherent; in the case of San Fermin, however, unique and grandiose sound is created that’s somewhere between indie and rock opera. The eight-piece band is fronted by willowy diva Charlene Kaye and sultry bass vocalist Allen Tate. The duo is backed by a baritone sax, violin, and trumpets that erupt into delirious jazzy interludes a few times each song. Catch them at Osheaga so you can say you saw them before they were a big-font name on a festival poster.
Cathedrals was one of a long list of openers in a long showcase at Adelaide Hall on the festival’s second day, but they still managed to steal the show. The Bay Area band has a synth-heavy, dreamy sound, looping and distorting around lead singer Brodie Jenkins’ voice. Jenkins has been singing since she was 14, and moves around the stage with a rare sense of comfort and grace. The band’s debut EP Cathedrals is out now on Neon Gold, and there is a wonderful remix version of the EP, titled “Blush.”
While Canadian-raised hip-hop artist Shad is relatively unknown outside of the great white north, his music has garnered a sizeable following within it. His verses provide an uplifting message that encourage an optimistic attitude for his listeners, but also successfully navigates that message away from preachiness—a problem commonly attributed to ‘positive’ rappers. Recently, Shad was anointed as the new host of the popular radio program q, illustrating his capability as a multi-faceted and competent entertainer. His standing-room only set at NXNE, at the heart of downtown Toronto in Dundas and Yonge Square, vociferously reminds us that he is as talented and as hard-working as they come.
To the section of hip-hop fans that claim “hip-hop is dead” or “it’s gotten worse since the 90s,” Vince Staples proves the doubters wrong. In 2014, Staples released his critically acclaimed EP Hell Can’t Wait—an album that powerfully addressed issues such as police brutality, drugs, gang violence, and lost love through a barrage of clever lyricism and sharp production. Staples exudes a level of poise in his live performances that is surprising for someone so young (he’s only 21). His performances inspire a kind of sweaty frenzy among his fans, and his set at Berkeley Church was no different.
While the quartet that forms Hundred Waters does many things well, its main strength seems to be their authenticity. Classically-trained pianist and lead singer Nicole Miglis led the indie-electro band from California through a solemn and graceful performance at the Phoenix Concert Center. It’s worth noting that out of all the people in the venue, no one seemed to be enjoying the set more than the band members themselves (a difficult task indeed considering the adoration showed by their fans). Overall, Hundred Waters’ performance was both refreshing and cohesive, something truly to be remembered.