I spent last weekend at Fort York for the second annual Toronto Urban Roots Fest. With fourty-four bands on three outdoor stages over three days it's a pretty big extravaganza. While most of the bands fall aptly under the umbrella of folk-roots-americana-country, there is definitely something for everyone on the folk/rock spectrum.
It's a jam-packed weekend with artists playing all afternoon and right up until the 11pm noise curfew every day, so here's what stood out most:
Andrew Bird & The Hands Of Glory
Andrew Bird's music is where indie folk meets atmospheric-electric strings. Folksy harmonies and stellar whistling from Bird himself bring a just the right amount of unplugged country authenticity, reminding me of wooden porches and hot summer afternoons. The crowd ate up every song and clearly wanted an encore, but they'll have to wait until Andrew Bird's next Toronto gig to hear any more.
Gary Clark Jr.
If you like electric blues, Gary Clark Jr. is the guy for you. Long instrumental interludes and guitar solos reminded me of Eric Clapton, but after a few numbers, the songs started to sound quite the same. Gary Clark Jr. himself wasn't the most charismatic of performers, hiding behind not just sunglasses, but a hat and an oversized tunic. Most of the crowd didn't seem to mind, and danced the whole set away.
Drive-By Truckers fans know that the band has had a somewhat tumultuous history. Creative and personal difference have led to divorce and divergence among the band, leaving them now with only half their original members. I overheard more than one fan in the crowd say that the new lineup didn't live up to their expectations. Weaker vocal harmonies may be a sign that the new Drive-By Truckers lack their former symbiosis. During a somewhat long pause, mid-set, to tune his guitar, the lead singer tried to justify the break, saying "Sometimes not giving a shit's enough." Old fans and new listeners alike may be inclined to disagree.
When the Violent Femmes opened with their hit "Blister in the Sun" the crowd began running from one stage to the other to hear the band's best known track. It was a smash opening that the rest of the set couldn't quite live up to. One festival-goer was overheard saying that "every other song just sounds like the ghost of 'Blister in the Sun'", and I couldn't think of a better way to describe the set. The songs were catchy and fun, but none of them had quite enough power to match that old hit.
Full disclosure: I have been in love with Beirut (the band) for years, and have waited almost a decade to see them live. After all the anticipation, there was pretty much nothing they could do wrong in my eyes. But even when I look back objectively, their performance was nothing short of phenomenal. After opening with the favourite "Nantes", they had us hooked right through until the end of the encore. Inspired by Balkans, rich with brass horns and accordion, and fleshed out with Zach Condon's unique vocals, Beirut has a sound like no other band and it's almost impossible to describe. If you love their records, you'll love them live. To hear them in person is to hear the music with every dial turned up to the max. They're one of only a few bands that I would go see live again and again and again...
If you're not already a Beirut fan, here's the live video shot in the streets of Paris that made an innocent teenager fall in love with brass, accordions, and a scrawny songwriter from New Mexico:
All-in-all, the festival put together an incredible line-up representing a full array of varied roots music and I can't wait to see what they cook up for next year. If the line-up is anything like it was last weekend, you will not want to miss TURF 2015.
For more information visit: www.torontourbanrootsfest.com