NXNE @ Lee’s Palace

. : : June 17th, 2010 : : .

Some people say it’s good luck to be pooped on by a bird.

Kind of a ridiculous statement, isn’t it? And easily said by the person who wasn’t pooped on. I think of all the real estate in the neighborhood, standing in the exact location that bird decided to relieve itself is a massive stroke of bad luck.

But maybe the idiom comes from some sort of karmic equation? Such bad luck must be balanced out by the universe with a similar chance stroke of enormous good luck, no?

As I stood in line at Lee’s Palace, the back of my favourite shirt spotted with what remains of a pigeon’s lunch, I gritted my teeth and had a hard time believing any truth to the statement. Any other night, I may have been right in my pessimism. But on this night, I was in line for a special North By North-East (NXNE) showcase. Featuring a handful of acts I discovered three years ago at my last NXNE experience, I was looking forward to seeing them perform again in a venue as lovely as Lee’s Palace. I was a bit anxious, because this year’s bill was rounded out by more than a handful of acts that I was completely unfamiliar with.

As luck would have it, it didn’t matter. Andy Kim, who as it turns out is a legendary songwriter and performer recently out of retirement, opened the floodgates with all cylinders firing and threatened to steal the entire show in the opening slot. Flanked by two female backup singers on either side and a brilliant all-female rhythm section (featuring one of the most intensely focus-faced drummers I’ve ever seen perform) behind him, Andy Kim and his outnumbered male rhythm and lead guitarists performed a breath-taking mix of old and new songs that felt simultaneously retro and fresh. It was an especially interesting dichotomy because chunks of the setlist were over 35-years old, while others were released less than three months ago! Perhaps if I was familiar with Andy Kim before this performance, I wouldn’t have expected any less from Kim, who performed with a tremendous display of charismatic confidence but displayed humble graciousness for the love, rapt attention and second chances afforded him by the uncharacteristically energetic and enthusiastic Toronto crowd. In fact, people were *actually dancing* to the hit he penned and performed as The ArchiesSugar, Sugar.

[Author’s note: For those unfamiliar with Toronto-audiences, it should be said that toe-tapping and the occasional shifting of weight from one foot to the other is usually the epitome of showcasing the enjoyment of music in public. Brazen displays of fun, such as dancing, are culturally frowned upon and as such, are in the top 10 of Canada’s Endangered Species list.]

The unbridled reactions were far from reserved for the classic hits only; songs from Kim’s recent album, Happen Again, also incited riotous cheers and applause. The remainder of the night’s performers must have been daunted by the pressure of following such a class act. Luckily, for the most part, they were up to the task.


01. [introduction]
02. Love Is
03. I Forgot To Mention
04. Baby I Love You
05. Rainbow Ride
06. [banter]
07. Happen Again
08. How’d We Ever Get This Way?
09. It’s Your Life
10. Be My Baby
11. Sugar, Sugar [The Archies]
12. Rock Me Gently
13. Rock Me Gently [reprise]

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Love Is (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

The next three sets were trios: each of the three musicians per set would perform one of their songs in turn with the other two as accompaniment. Each musician performed three songs. Some ten minutes ahead of schedule, Justin Rutledge took the stage with Danny Michel and Oh Susanna. Justin Rutledge has a strong following in the Canadian Roots music scene, and although he may not have the “big name” caliber of other roots acts such as HaterHigh favourites Blue Rodeo and Kathleen Edwards, you couldn’t tell from the rapid audience packed into Lee’s Palace. Before even a single note was played, hoots and hollering could be heard from across the room, which multiplied twenty-fold when Justin stepped up to the mic, greeted the crowd, and introduced the title of the first song the trio would perform, Mrs. Mongomery. The crowd rambunctiously sang, danced and hollered throughout the set, with Justin sharing the microphone with several ladies at the front for the coda of The Heart of the River.

Danny Michel was one of the pleasant surprises of the evening. Although he wasn’t on the original bill (according to Lee’s Palace’s website, Michel substituted for Simone Felice), his upbeat tunes were unquestionably as catchy as they were fun. His final contribution of the night, Who’s Going To Miss You?, didn’t even falter in spite of bassist Bazil Donovan‘s clumsy, unrehearsed attempt at an improvisational bass line. His guitar work was extraordinary and full of personality, which carried over into his contributions to the other artists songs, allowing them to benefit from his flair as well.

Oh Susanna, who I saw at the NXNE showcase in 2007, had a good set enhanced by the addition of violin accompaniment of Toronto-native fiddler extraordinaire, Anne Lindsay. The second song in the set, Little Sister, was perhaps her best choice of the night, as it is quite a bit edgier and up-tempo in comparison to her other selections, and better suited Justin and Danny’s styles. That being said, her set-closer, See What Promises Can Bring, allowed her to really push her voice to soaring heights, and hinted at the strength and beauty of her songs that are perhaps best suited with a regular, well-rehearsed band where she can confidently take the role of front-woman. The song was a fantastic closer to a great set of talented musicians, and a wonderful way to remember Oh Susanna by.

Justin Rutledge, Danny Michel, and Oh Susanna

01. [introduction]
02. Mrs. Mongomery *
03. Wish Willy +
04. Millions of Rivers ^
05. Be A Man *
06. Maybe You Can Find It In Your Heart +
07. Little Sister ^
08. The Heart Of A River *
09. Who’s Gonna Miss You? +
10. See What Promises Can Bring ^

* Justin Rutledge
+ Danny Michel
^ Oh Susanna

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Little Sister (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

The next trio faced the greatest obstacle: I had never heard of any of them, even though Amelia Curran is a Juno award winning singer/songwriter (proving, perhaps, that even Canadians don’t care about the Junos) and Andy Maize achieved some success in the 90s as a part of the group Skydiggers and helped launched what is in my opinion the most important Canadian record label still in existence, MapleMusic.

Amelia Curran took the stage and charmed the audience with Bye Bye Montreal, but, admittedly intimidated by the inadequate rehearsal time and fluidity of musicians who had performed before her, the nerves seemed to reflect a bit in the performance, which came off as a bit too quiet and shy-sounding. This was especially emphasized by the juxtaposition of the rollicking, in-your-face rock and piano pop of the two musicians she shared a stage with. Her voice was consistently warm and wonderful, but it had trouble carrying over the now capacity crowd that had filed into Lee’s Palace. The other musicians seemed sadly restrained to compensate. Regardless of the “awkward” set (her words, not mine!), her song writing was strong, and I’d love to see her perform in a smaller venue with her regular band. I think that if she was further in her comfort zone, Amelia could have easily been a highlight of the festival. I will try and get out to see her on her next stop in Toronto in July and see if she lives up to her potential.

Andy Maize’s performance didn’t capture my attention at the concert — I think the mix of the sound in the venue was the worst for his songs, which tended to be louder and more aggressive than any of the others performed all night — but upon listening back to the tape, I’m really enjoying his songs. His voice has that warm, raspiness that never seems to quite go out of style, and his songs benefited from situating themselves on that perfect line between rock and pop where radio hits are born.

But it was Royal Wood who, by my estimation, stole the set right out from under his stage-mates. Royal’s songs were the most infectious of the night, and when he wasn’t belting out piano pop anthems that would be at home on any The OC soundtrack (and I mean that in the best way possible, I swear!), his contributions fleshed out Curran and Maize’s sets marvelously. The sheer intensity and concentration adorning his face was mesmerizing, and although his face was all business from the get-go, his songs were all fun and energetic. Do You Recall? and On Top Of Your Love are two of the top highlights of the entire night, and were worth the price of admission alone.

Amelia Curran, Andy Maize, and Royal Wood

01. [introduction]
02. Bye Bye Montreal *
03. Where’s My Baby Tonight? +
04. Do You Recall? ^
05. Hands on a Grain of Sand *
06. [unknown] +
07. Juliet ^
08. Julia *
09. A Penny More +
10. On Top Of Your Love ^

* Amelia Curran
+ Andy Maize
^ Royal Wood

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Do You Recall? (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

Last, yet far from least, was Colleen Brown, Hawksley Workman and Jim Cuddy. As a big fan, it was actually Jim Cuddy’s presence that encouraged me to make the trip to Lee’s for another NXNE outing and I’d been hearing about Hawksley Workman for years, but somehow have managed to live in Toronto without ever (knowingly) hearing a Hawksley Workman song! And what a night to pop my cherry!

I wasn’t at all familiar with Colleen Brown going into the set, but WOW! Her first song, Love You Baby, actually blew me away. It is a picture-perfect pop melody with a crazy-contagious chorus hook that will have you shamelessly singing it to yourself for days afterward (how was that for an alliterative description?). Gasoline allowed her to showcase not only her metaphor mastery, but also a full range of her powerful voice. Right before her final song of the evening, she bantered playfully with the capacity crowd (I mean that quite literally. There was a line-up outside of a few dozen people waiting for people to leave so they might be admitted!), all but certainly winning over the hearts of everyone yet to succumb to her obvious musical talent.

This mini-set was a great introduction to Hawksley Workman. As the scant three song sets were taken in turn, ignorance of any artists’ oeuvre never had a chance to figure negatively into the experience. Autumn’s Here was a beautiful, sprawling epic — the longest song of the night at just shy of seven minutes — and Warhol’s Portrait Of Gretzky allowed Workman to show a significantly less serious side in a more pop-friendly four-minute package.

Which brings me to Jim Cuddy’s set. Those expecting popular Jim Cuddy-fronted Blue Rodeo songs certainly left with a bad taste in their mouth. Jim opened his set with the politically charged One Fine Day — perhaps an intentional jab at the much hyped G20 summit occurring in Toronto this month, which has been almost uniformly the focus of all news for weeks — from his last solo album, The Light That Guides You Home. He closed his set with And When You Wake Up, a non-radio single track from Blue Rodeo’s recent double album. Most curiously of all was his second selection: an Aretha Franklin cover that came across well but rather unspectacular. My real gripe with the performance, and the biggest let down of the night, was not the odd and unexpected song choice, but the fact that Jim frequently seemed lost on stage when not performing his own material. He could be seen strumming the occasional chord, or picking out a few bars of music here and there, but seemingly just as often he would stand back and watch the front man (or woman) and smile his recognizable oh-so-charming smile while his hands remained tacit. His presence never really detracted from the wonderful music, and ultimately his real contributions to these songs were not the guitar but his always on-spot harmony vocals.

Colleen Brown, Hawksley Workman, and Jim Cuddy

01. [introduction]
02. Love You Baby *
03. Autumn’s Here +
04. One Fine Day ^
05. Gasoline *
06. Warhol’s Portrait of Gretzky +
07. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man [Aretha Franklin] ^
08. [banter]
09. [unknown] *
10. [banter]
11. Don’t Be Crushed +
12. And When You Wake Up [Blue Rodeo] ^

* Colleen Brown
+ Hawksley Workman
^ Jim Cuddy

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Love You Baby (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

At this point, I took my leave a bit early. Having no knowledge of the final two acts of the night and with no carrot to dangle in front of my face to encourage a bit more patience, my body’s unrelenting reminder that sleep was needed before a working man’s early morning won out, and I headed home. In spite of a couple of unusually (and perhaps overly) critical points in the above reviews, Six Shooter Records and Starfish Entertainment put on a fantastic night of great Canadian musicians from across Canada. As any NXNE event worth it’s time slot should, I got a chance to revisit familiar acts and an opportunity to experience new musicians I may not have otherwise. It was a great evening that is sure to reshape my musical enjoyment for some time to come.

Thanks to Andy Kim, Justin Rutledge, Danny Michel, Oh Susanna, Amelia Curran, Andy Maize, Royal Wood, Colleen Brown, Hawksley Workman, Jim Cuddy, all the special guest musicians and uncredited backing band members, Lee’s Palace, Six Shooter Records, Starfish Entertainment and North By North-East for an exceptional night.

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