Toronto Urban Roots Festival - Festival Review - OurVinyl
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Toronto Urban Roots Festival 2014 – Festival Review

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JulyTalkFor a city as musically diverse as Toronto, it suffers a shocking lack of three-day music festivals. Canada’s only real player in that category, in fact, is Montreal’s Osheaga; Toronto’s own North by Northeast and Canadian Music Week are huge in their own respect, but they’re sprawled-out, week-long events that lack the gravitas that comes with invading a historic park like Toronto’s downtown Fort York for three days straight.

Which is, of course, what the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (affectionately abbreviated as TURF) is all about.

Sure, others fests have tried to claim the three-day title: ALL CAPS! came and went; Virgin Fest died out; Rogers Picnic lasted two years; Edgefest faded into obscurity. TURF is just two-years-old, and it shows in a few ways.

The Good: With a strong emphasis on locality, TURF’s food vendors were exclusively locally-owned shops like Caplansky’s Deli and Portobello Burger, with loads of veggie and gluten-free options abound. This kind of youthful idealism could propel TURF’s staying power among the city’s hip young crowds, and the fact that tickets hovered around the $150 mark meant affordability and accessibility were major boons.

The Bad: The crowds seemed slight, likely due to its infancy. Headlining Canadian rock icon Sam Roberts excluded, the crowds were easy to navigate and move around, which is equal parts great for ticketholders and bad for business. The slowly dissipating number of people during Neutral Milk Hotel, perhaps owing to the fact that they played Sunday night (as opposed to Roberts’s Saturday), was disappointing, and raised the question nobody wanted to outright ask: Are the guys at TURF making enough money to keep this going next year?

Hopefully the answer is yes, because the festival was, for all intents and purposes, a total success. The line-up was perfectly balanced: for every major international headliner (Beirut, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jenny Lewis, Jeff Tweedy) they threw in a strong emphasis on pan-Canadian acts (Montreal’s Sam Roberts, St. John’s Hey Rosetta!, Ottawa’s Hollerado, Halifax’s the Standfields) and Torontonian ones (Born Ruffians, July Talk, New Country Rehab, the Strumbellas, The Devin Cuddy Band). You could hardly assemble a more Canadian music festival if you tried.

Rather than focus on a day-by-day analysis, let’s dole out awards to the best, worst and weirdest parts of the festival:

Best Country-Punk Band: The Strumbellas. This is a shockingly real category at a festival blatantly emphasizing “urban roots”. Between Deer Tick, Drive-By Truckers, Jeff Tweedy, New Country Rehab, Devin Cuddy, Old Man Markley, Pokey LaFarge and Shovels and Rope, the country tunes twanged on pretty hard all weekend long, and the number of bands that injected a punk-twist were measurable. But the Strumbellas earn points for going shoeless, shirtless and straw-hatted into the 7 o’clock sun, exposing their giant beards and dozens of tattoos and keeping the dancing alive.

Best Band on the Wrong Stage: Deer Tick. Deer Tick can destroy an intimate venue, shooting Jack Daniels straight from the bottle and shredding their dirty-bluesy-hillbillyish guitars, but lead singer John Joseph McCauley’s presence didn’t make nearly as big an impression on the crowd sitting on a sloping hill against the backdrop of the Gardiner Expressway, a major Toronto highway. From afar, you could barely even make out McCauley’s trademark red trucker hat and sketchy blonde moustache, and, really, if you can’t see those, what’s the point?

Violent Femmes FanMost Unexpectedly Touching Moment: Violent Femmes inviting a punk kid onstage. When the band no one under 30 remembers as the brilliant minds behind “Blister in the Sun” hit the stage, everyone knew they were going to play their killer self-titled album, start-to-finish, uninterrupted. This basically happened—until the fourth track was about to begin and an earnest fan eagerly shook his sign up over his head: ‘Can I play tambourine for “Add it Up”?’ Gordon Gano laughed. “Is there any way we can get him up here?” he asked security. As the kid made his way onstage, he requested the audience to pretend like they had just “lifted the needle” off the album, a sign of how long in the making this band’s reunion was.

Most Unfortunate Schedule Conflict: Pokey LaFarge. This Illinois singer pays more authentic homage to the bluegrass and ragtime jazz tunes of the 1920s and ’30s than probably any other living performer. His well-vested sideman played only the harmonica and washboard, and his horn section dressed in adorable sundresses and short ties, while LaFarge’s own crooning falsetto, slicked-back hair and bright red shirt won over the smallish crowds that opted to see him—that is, instead of the Violent Femmes, who’d started 10 minutes earlier on the other end of the park and attracted an infinitely greater crowd. Sorry, Pokey; one day, your day will come.

Winner of the Tobias Funkë Lookalike Contest: Black Joe Lewis’s bassist. Check out the photo gallery; you’ll know him when you see him.

Biggest Letdown: When Sam Roberts didn’t play “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”. Okay, I don’t know how big this song is outside of Canada, but inside it’s a monster classic on par with the biggest hits by Rush and the Band. Even people who don’t know Sam Roberts know the song. As is entirely within his right as an artist who wants to move on from his 1994 hit single, Sam Roberts still disappointed dozens (if not hundreds) of fans when he played every other smash-hit from his earlier albums and not the one he’s best-known for.

Coolest Kid at the Fest: Spencer Tweedy. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman who here looks like a fairly ragtag solo artist in a denim jacket, decided to employ his 18-year-old son, Spencer, as his professional touring drummer. Despite Tweedy’s sleepy sardonic presence with tracks that, if not actually Wilco originals, certainly sounded a lot like Wilco originals, Spencer has become, without question, the envy of every high-school kid in a garage rock band.

JennyLewisMost Convincing Singer That Proves Peace and Love Can Solve the World’s Problems: Jenny Lewis. Lewis has a rare gift, bestowed only to the Janis Joplins and Joni Mitchells of the world: she exudes a cool calmness onstage that proves music can, as the old saying goes, soothe even the savage beast. Her serene presence is matched only by her colourful matching outfits (her rainbow guitar blends seamlessly into her shirt, for crying out loud!), and it’s refreshing to see someone so talented be so pleasingly confident in a way that doesn’t require, say, intense screaming and gyrating on the ground. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as our next winners will show…

Best Outright Performance: TIE—July Talk / Gogol Bordello. Sunday started off sleepily until July Talk, a local indie dance-rock band famous for intensely crazy live performances involving juice boxes and loads of improv, took to the stage at the odd hour of 3:20. “We don’t usually play before sundown,” lead singer Peter Dreimanis noted, before screaming in his Tom-Waits-covering-the-Ramones-style voice against co-lead-singer Leah Fay, who evokes a bizarrely irreverent Miley Cyrus resemblance. The band’s got chemistry, and they’re not afraid to flaunt it.

Eugene HutzGogol Bordello hit the same stage two hours later, and, in keeping with their tradition of whatever the hell their traditions are (Soviet-folk-reggae-punk?), they destroyed the scene in a frenzy of a true three-day festival party, swilling wine and screaming into the crowd beyond their electric violins and accordion solos. Eugene Hütz is arguably one of the greatest frontmen to any working band, in due part because he works so damn hard.

Biggest Question Raised: Did TURF make enough money to earn a third year in 2015? Between its hard-fought anti-corporate message, relatively little sponsorship beyond Canadian companies and frighteningly modest ticket prices, it remains to be seen whether this kind of fantastic festival experience could prove wrong the dozens of prior failed attempts. It’s worth noting how considerably it’s grown since last year, including a vaster line-up and bigger, more diverse headliners. It’s also worth noting that Field Trip, another three-day music festival on the very same Fort York field, occurred several weeks prior, and the two are undoubtedly dividing eager music fans who can only afford one $200 weekend in a given month. Will they amalgamate? Is this city big enough for the both of them? Will they both follow the way of so many inner-city festivals of Toronto’s past? We’ll find out next year.

Written and photographed by Michael Fraiman

OurVinyl | Contributor