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Concert Reviews, Music, NXNE 2014

Festival Review: NXNE 2014 – (tUnE-yArDs, The Pizza Underground, Fresh Snow)

By: Jennifer Perkin – 




Our NXNE 2014 coverage continues with reviews of experimental pop band tUnE-yArDs, who released their third album, Nikki Nack, on May 5th, 2014 via 4AD, at Massey Hall, New York City-based parody band The Pizza Underground, which features former child actor Macaulay Culkin, at Lee’s Palace, and Toronto-based experimental electronic rock band Fresh Snow at The Great Hall. 

tUnE-yArDs @ Massey Hall

“Hey life, I am still here” began an hour of joyous, colourful and joie-de-vivre music from one of art-pop’s proper originals, TunE-yArDs. Singer/multi instrumentalist Merril Garbus and bassist/co-songwriter Nate Brenner, with a trio of percussionist/back-up singer/dancers at their sides, stood prominently decked in bold colors and face paint, purveyed over the NXNE Massey Hall kick-off.

As the soulful refrains of “Hey Life” faded out, the house lights went down and a red light flashed as the sound of an alarm rang out. The drum intro to “Gangsta” from WHOKILL started, the audience lept out of their seats to dance. Suddenly it was a party.

What can sound chaotic and dense on record is nothing short of astonishing in the live setting. Garbus had a soulful and dynamic voice which she used creatively to build her songs with live audio loops, are mostly comprised of energetic and atypical drum rhythms. It’s no surprise to find that she studied Haitian drumming for her latest record Nikki Nack, as the pan-African influence in the music is the most obvious on tracks like “Water Fountain”, along with elements of hip-hop, soul, calypso and electronic.

A humbled Garbus, who enthralled the crowd, said “I feel so shy speaking in Massey Hall!”  at the end of the life-affirming and thoroughly entertaining set. The sense that we had witnessed one of the best performances of the festival was palpable.


The Pizza Underground @ Lee’s Palace

“Joke” bands can occasionally work with healthy satire (see Tenacious D, Spinal Tap) but the joke can only last for so long without running its course. The fact that a pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band exists is amusing in theory but after watching them play at Lee’s Palace during NXNE, the joke is stale.

What could we have expected? Dragging out a one-joke pony for an entire set was painful to watch. The band drummed on pizza boxes, clad in black and Ray-Ban shades with the Velvet Underground lyrics pizza-fied (“Take a Bite from the Wild Slice”, etc). The show reached its lowest point when a thoroughly unfunny Kurt Cobain imitator performed a medley of Nirvana songs in the past tense.

It feels pointless to harp about how bad it was, but it’s worth pointing out that the most amusing part of the evening was the crowd response. While some of the audience clapped politely between songs, the phrase “Worst show of my life” was overheard at least twice, and several people mean-spiritedly yelled “Kevin!” at the stage. Oh yeah, did we mention Macaulay Culkin is in the band? Sigh.

Fresh Snow @ The Great Hall

Fresh Snow have a sense of theatre, staged in front of a projection screen, the five black clad figures with black swathed faces performed beautiful, darkly cinematic music that recalled the majesty of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Suddenly, the next song started and it was beat-driven with, synths and bombast – suddenly it’s Justice!

This seamless switch of tempo and dynamic is a hallmark of the Toronto band, who never fall for the lazy and repetitiveriffage that beleaguers too much instrumental music. The band’s performance featured exciting, clever music that drew from many sources but with a discernible flavour – heavy but simultaneously uplifting.

The traditional rock-band core was usurped as violin was a near-constant and a three-piece horn section drifted on-and-off stage. When the music whipped into a climax, all of the members were moving with the music – horns flailing, violin wailing – for the audience, it was a transcendental experience.

And suddenly, darkness as the stage was revealed to be vacant. Surprisingly, the horn section was walking through the crowd and slowly out the door as they played the melancholic closing refrains of “BMX Based Tactics” from the band’sdebut record. The crowd remained silent for a few moments, mouthes agape, eyes shinyafter the final rounds of the brassy refrains dissipated. And then the applause erupted.


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