When you cram a few hundred Canadians into a room with live music and alcohol, you know it’s going to be a good time. That’s the beauty of Canadian Music Fest, which is a six-day jampacked musical showcase that spans 60 venues in Toronto and almost as many genres. From free poutine to standing in line in -20 weather, the week is also uniquely Canadian.
This was my first time at Canadian Music Fest and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Armed with a festival wristband and a pocket full of TTC tokens, I figured I was prepared. I decided early on that I didn’t want to plan out an entire schedule. Instead, I picked a show or two every night that I wanted to see and did my best to avoid lines and cabfare. For the most part, it worked. Sure, there were a few bands that sounded like they met on Craigslist the day before their show… and yes, there were a few shows where the only people in the crowd were family members of the performers (and me). Overall, though, the quality of music was excellent, I met a bunch of cool people, and I even discovered a few bands that I have since come to love.
Here are some of the highlights:
The Damn Truth
Coming from Montreal, The Damn Truth brought their heavy blues sound to Supermarket. The band boasts one of the most powerful and charismatic female singers in Canadian music, an enigma named Leela. Matching solid riffs with pounding drums, The Damn Truth brought the place down with an exciting and energetic show. Highlight of the set was their newest single “Too Late” from album Dear in the Headlights. It truly showcases their sound, one that I’d strongly recommend to any fan of hard rock:
Rivoli is one of the better sounding venues in Toronto and lived up to its reputation during Ben Caplan’s show. One of the single coolest voices I’ve ever heard, his bluesy folk-rock sound from Halifax held the audience captive with just an acoustic guitar. Entertaining with his stage banter, Caplan often would often mention that “Montreal did better” to get the crowd to sing louder. And it worked, with the crowd shouting out the lyrics to “Conduit” and singing back-up on “I’ve Got Me a Woman”. Caplan’s charismatic attitude and musical charm, combined with the great energy from the crowd, made this one of the most fun shows of the week. If you ever get a chance to see Caplan at a small venue, I highly recommend it. Here’s a live video of “Conduit”, which gives you a little taste of Caplan’s charisma with the crowd and that powerful voice:
Unwed Mothers is an up-and-coming blues-rock band from Edmonton. Rocking the Cadillac Lounge, lead singer Julie Adams’ powerful yet soulful voice is refreshing in an indie scene that can become somewhat repetitive. The highlight of their set was undoubtedly their first single “Skeletons,” which features some great work from guitarist Michael James. Its groove and pace had the entire crowd moving. Their self-titled debut album will be released April 11th:
Calgary natives Double Fuzz kept the crowd at the Cadillac Lounge rocking. As a two-piece band, Double Fuzz is often compared to The White Stripes and The Black Keys. With their explosive sound, I feel they deserve such bold comparisons. Jonny Whitehead’s heavy guitar riffs and powerful voice give Double Fuzz the raw emotion of early grunge, forcing their sound on everyone within two blocks of the venue. They hooked the crowd right away with “Mountain,” which showcased drummer Roland Lowson doing Christopher Walken and the SNL cast proud with his energetic use of the cowbell. The entire crowd was moving for Double Fuzz’s hit “Big City Lights,” which tore the place apart with intense distortion and Whitehead’s wailing voice. For only two guys, Double Fuzz has a bigger sound than most of the bands that played CMF:
Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker
One of the most unique bands in the concert scene right now, Toronto natives USS brought that sound to Rivoli for CMF. Combining the simplicity of traditional guitar and raspy vocals with the modern touch of electronic mixing and scratching, the band creates a futuristic sound that explodes with energy. Over the last two years, I’ve had tickets to no less than three USS shows, but a series of tragic (yet avoidable) occurrences has made me miss out on every single one of them, and I will never forgive myself for missing out on such live brilliance.
When it was announced that USS would be the special guest on Friday night at the Rivoli, I promised myself I would be there. The 200 person capacity was full long before the show began, with people lined up before doors opened. This brings up another great thing about CMF: one of the best places to meet people is in line for your favourite band. Everyone is there for the same reason, and most are ready to have a good time.
By the time the band came on, the crowd was electric. A series of excellent opening bands (including Ben Caplan) had built the crowd up to a level of intensity that was one of the highlights of the entire week. The few people lucky enough to get in to the venue witnessed one hell of a show. USS played all of their hits, with the entire crowd singing along to “Hollowpoint Sniper Hyperbole,” “Damini,” and “N/A OK.” The highlight of the show came when Ash broke out into “Hakuna Matata,” sparking one of the most magical crowd sing-a-longs I’ve ever witnessed. USS capped the night by bringing the front row up on stage before playing an intense cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” once again thrusting the crowd into an uproar. It’s always a privilege to see an established band at a small venue such as the Rivoli, and this was no exception. I won’t be missing another USS show anytime soon.
This was a perfect example of how awesome the last show of the night can be, especially with one of the best party bands in the city. Backing the release of their newest EP Great Energy, Toronto natives Brews Willis played the late show at Sneaky Dee’s. The band went on at 2 AM, so the remaining drunken crowd was ready to keep the party going, and Brews did not disappoint. Playing the punk-surf style music that makes them so unique, the crowd jived along with the band, who always appear to be having as much fun as anyone else in the building. The highlight of the set was the band’s first single “Ride the Island Baby” from their debut album Nerped By a Zircon. Check out the video here:
Overall, CMF was a great experience. The dates have already been announced for 2014 and the week has been moved from March to May. Besides removing the Canadian experience of freezing our asses off while waiting in line between shows, this seems like an improvement for any diehard festival fan. Wristbands for unlimited access to all six days of Music Fest were only $60 this year, and just $25 during the early bird sale. No plane tickets. No hotel rooms. No excuse to miss out on this incredible week of uniquely Canadian music and culture.