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Best of NXNE Fest

Another NXNE bites the dust. A thousand bands rolled through town over the past five days like a conquering army, but our reviewers Aaron Brophy, Melody Lau and Marwa Hamad not only survived the onslaught, we wrote about it, too.

Here's a round up of the best shows we saw at 2013's NXNE music festival. And now it's time for us to bite the dust, too.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Brendan Croskerry (Monarch Tavern)

Normally the opening of slot of the Monarch Tavern' Wednesday night showcase wouldn't rate much scrutiny, but Halifax-bred campfire singer Brendan Croskerry was a uniquely curious prospect considering his day job as a newly-hired member of embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford's staff. Any hopeful car crash rubbernecking was done away with pretty quickly as Croskerry's Jack Johnson rock was entirely competent if a little bit on the don't-leave-him-alone-in-a-room-with-your-girlfriend vibe. About the worst thing one could muster about Croskerry is there's a solid 15 percent Dan from "Veep" thing going on with him. —AB

The Box Tiger (The Supermarket)

The Toronto-based quartet brought a fun, youthful air with them to the Supermarket, with 23-year-old vocalist Sonia Sturino rocking out on her baby blue electric guitar, complete with its charming bright pink cable. The deliberate staccato bursts of Sturino’s voice were interspersed by the occasional punchy wail, reminiscent of the eccentric likes of singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer. Despite the band’s claims that their 12AM time slot was way past their bedtimes, they had an infectiously bouncy on-stage presence, and that -- along with their grotty guitar sounds and guttural rhythm section -- was enough to keep most the crowd moving on their feet. —MH

Thursday, June 13

Coeur de Pirate (The Great Hall)

Québécoise singer-songwriter Beatrice Martin -- popularly known as Coeur de Pirate -- took the stage solo Thursday night at the packed Great Hall. Despite having bronchitis, Martin’s soothing, throaty voice and dreamy piano progressions sated the crowd; the singer even performed a lullaby passed on by her father that she now croons to her own toddler. Chatty audience members and competing music from the venue below were an unfortunate disturbance amidst the otherwise intimate performance. Lacking a few hits, the show was ultimately cut short due to Martin’s illness, but it was a predictably sweet and charming journey while it lasted.—MH

Braids @ Comfort Zone

Debuting a number of new songs from their new EP and upcoming album, Braids took this chance to test out a new sound and set up. Heavily reliant on electronics as opposed to guitars now, the three-piece still maintained their hypnotically captivating sense of hazy dream-pop melodies. Its intricacies are technically and sonically a step-up from their previous works and just left us wanting much, much more. —ML

Quiet Company (The Rivoli)

Beastly beards, black bow ties, and pressed vests are exactly what you’d expect from an indie quintet like the Quiet Company. The Texas-based band delivered a quaint performance of powerpop with a hint of a distinguishing edge, drawing on the familiar sounds of 60s rock’n’roll without sounding like an overwrought tribute band. In between lilting guitar hooks and summer-ready lyrics about near-endless devotion, the boys charmed the crowd with gems like declaring Toronto similar to New York, “but doesn’t smell like shit” (they clearly haven’t spent enough time in the city, but it’s the thought that counts). —MH

DIANA @ Horseshoe

The Toronto four-piece continues to gain momentum for the August release of their debut album, Perpetual Surrender. Fronted by singer Carmen Elle, her dream-like vocals soar atop icy cool layers of synths, pulsating beats and the occasional saxophone solo. A dynamic and always tight performance, DIANA has become a permanent best bet for any festival. —ML

Blue Hawaii @ Comfort Zone

Raph and Agor of Blue Hawaii play the part of DJs more than musicians when they perform live. A steady balance of improvisation and carefully calculated samples and transitions, Blue Hawaii songs are barely recognizable. That’s what keeps their sets constantly interesting, though, and will continue to draw dance and indie-rock enthusiasts back. —ML

Friday, June 14, 2013

Majical Cloudz @ Sneaky Dee’s

Battling a cold, Majical Cloudz’ Devon Welsh forewarned the audience that this would become a game of watching the singer’s voice deteriorate throughout the set as much as it was a performance. But, with Majical Cloudz, every set they play is a combination of spectacles, both musical and non-musical. Regardless of vocal problems, Welsh and bandmate Matthew Otto tore through a set of minimalistic charm and spellbinding emotions. —ML

Blowfly (Horseshoe Tavern)

There are few things more weird than a 74 black man hobbling around on stage in a sequined superhero costume, pointing his uncomfortably long-nailed fingers at women in the audience, then telling them what he was going to do to them sexually. But that was exactly what musical comedian Blowfly did for 40 minutes of gleefully politically incorrect soul funk. There were dick jokes by the hundreds and blasphemous reworkings of classics like Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" into the lewd "Ho Man" and Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" into a singalong about gay prison sex. By the end of Blowfly's set there was no orifice — male or female — that hadn't been violated in bizarrely detailed song form. And it was amazing. —AB

By Divine Right (St. James Park)

Downtown's St. James Park has been ground zero for the Occupy Toronto movement so it was rather appropriate that "Hugger Of Trees" hippie rockers By Divine Right would claim the park's central gazebo for a free afternoon show. The latest BDR incarnation — currently a three-piece — leaned in a dangerously unhinged Pavement direction, but the feel-good-lost vibe of buzzy rock 'n' roll amidst the greenery made up for most sonic shortcomings. —AB

Unbuttoned (Gladstone)

A promising four-piece electro pop R’n’B act, Toronto’s own Unbuttoned was the perfect fusion of enthralling synth fills, velvety guitar solos, a tight rhythm section and the bold tones of their two lead vocalists. Kamilah Apong and Casey MQ each brought something fresh to the table: Apong with her syrupy range and ability to hold a note long enough to send chills, and MQ with his smoky timbre and tendency to belt out falsetto when you least expect it. The band’s set was built mostly around their May 2012 EP, but they debuted a song off their upcoming record with a single question for the crowd: should we keep recording our second album? The response was a resounding yes.—MH

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Villagers (Sidedoor @ Soho House)

All the way from Ireland, Villagers’ frontman Conor O’Brien had two distinct performances at NXNE this year: one as a solo act, and the other with his full band for the first time in Toronto. Though each had their high points, his stand-out slot had to be the stripped-down show he did sans band at the packed-to-capacity Sidedoor. His clear, haunting timbre, perfectly-timed tortured bellows and the resonant sounds of his handcrafted Yairi guitar filled the room with emotion. Though O’Brien looked more in his element during Villagers’ full-band, high-energy performance later that night, his poignant storytelling seemed to hit hardest in the acoustics of a small venue, with no drums or electric guitar to overshadow it. —MH

Catl (Horseshoe Tavern)

Blues exploders Jamie Fleming and Sarah Kirkpatrick used this Horseshoe show as a coming out party for the new two piece incarnation of Catl. It was all Cramps stomp and fiery rave ups from the pair, with Fleming prowling the stage guitar a-swingin' and Kirkpatrick thumpin' away on her standup drum kit. The stage banter "y'all" the pair has picked up from a recent tour of the deep south was pretty cute too and it was just the right touch to make their brimstone rock 'n' roll feel that much more authentic. —AB

Ryan Hemsworth @ BLK BOX

A basement heat wave is the perfect way to experience a Ryan Hemsworth set. DJing to a mass of half-naked festival goers, Hemsworth chopped and remixed tracks, such as Britney Spears and Kendrick Lamar, at lightning speed that kept the audience on their feet the whole night. People left sans shirts, drenched in each other’s sweat in one of the week’s most intensifying and euphoric shows. —ML

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mickey Avalon (Yonge-Dundas Square)

One of the boldest choices NXNE programmers made this year was to have trash rapper Mickey Avalon kick off the free Sunday hip-hop showcase at Yonge-Dundas Square. After all, tales of small-time hustling, scoring heroin and the gymnastic abilities of one's penis ("My Dick") aren't exactly family-friendly fare. Still, Avalon was received with perfectly defining Toronto politeness — some trashy young ladies up front shimmied, some homeless dudes ran through the crowd rocking out, and a smattering of slightly confused grannies seemed hypnotized by the whole spectacle. —AB

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