Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TURF 2014 Day 3 Recap and Final Thoughts

The final day of this years' edition of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival kicked off with an early start on Sunday July 6.  When I say early, that would be 12:45pm with The Waco Brothers and the Burlington Mens Welsh Choir on the main East Stage, and the Devin Cuddy Band kicking things off at 12:50pm on the South Stage.  If you were rocking out at the Horseshoe Tavern or Lee's Palace as part of the TURF Club Bonus Series, then that was early.  What can I say, for some folks, Saturday at TURF was a long day ... a good day for sure, but a long day.

Settling in to catch the final half of the Devin Cuddy Band, I realized at that time that I could be seeing the next breakout star in the Americana scene.  The son of Jim Cuddy, one half of the lead singing/songwriting partnership with Greg Keelor that makes up the legendary Canadian group Blue Rodeo, Devin is out on his own and creating his own path.  Among the many highlights of Devin Cuddy's set, the band performed a great cover of the Hank Williams Sr. classic, "Jambalaya", and a great protest song titled "Afghanistan."  Mixing in elements of blues and jazz, with a bit of rock and country, the Devin Cuddy Band is a group that captures all the elements of Americana.  Keep your eyes and ears open for Devin Cuddy, this is a young man you will be hearing a lot of over the years.  

The hardest working band at this year's TURF had to be the Waco Brothers.  Performing their second set in just over 12 hours at the festival (with one more to go that night at the Horseshoe Tavern!), this set was special as it featured the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus.  This show had a real intimate feel to it, as the crowd was rather sparse for this performance.  This had more to do with the timing of the set, as opposed to the quality of the show ... people still had some hangovers to nurse.  As with the previous nights' set by the Waco Brothers, they once again put on a solid show.  They have such a good time together on stage, as well as the interaction that lead singer Jon Langford has with the audience, that it's impossible not to share in the fun. 

Good things were happening over on the South Stage too, as Seattle, Washington native Noah Gundersen performed a beautiful set.  Working an original song, "Stone Cold", and blending it with the Alison Krauss classic "Down to the River to Pray", this young man showed his creativity and musical knowledge.   It was performed in stunning fashion.  A true highlight of the entire festival was his performance of Neil Young's "Helpless."  An incredibly well written song, Noah delivered a stunning performance that would make Mr. Young proud.  There was a real sweetness to this set.  Noah is on the road with himself and his sister accompanying on vocals and violin.  It's a great story, just a brother and his younger sister out on the road, seeing the world and performing their music one stage at a time.  

Immediately following Noah was a real veteran of the road, Joe Pug.  Always a popular performer in Toronto, Joe warmed up the crowd with familiar favorites like the title cut from "The Great Despiser", his most recent album.  We were fortunate to hear that Joe will be releasing a new album in the near future, an album of cover songs.  He performed one such track, "She Drives Me Crazy", a hit for the Fine Young Cannibals.  Joe Pug is another outstanding songwriter, very deep and creative.  Joe mentioned that he may be returning to Toronto in the fall, and I look forward to giving a more fulsome review for this very deserving entertainer.  Both Noah and Joe performed the early set later that evening at The Horseshoe Tavern.  The crowd in attendance were treated to one of the best sets in the Club Bonus Series for the weekend with these two sharing the stage.

Up next was one of the biggest stars to take a stage at this young festival. Former lead singer for Uncle Tupelo and current leader of Wilco, Jeff Tweedy kicked off a set on the West Stage, performing before one of the largest crowds of the weekend.  With a set featuring a his full band (including his son Spencer behind the drum kit), Tweedy kicked off with "Down From Above", a solo track and followed up with "Low Key."  "Nobody Dies Anymore" was a really solid performance, but for those in attendance, a real treat was the performance of the Wilco classic, "California Stars."  Jeff Tweedy is an American original, a fearless singer-songwriter who was one of the original players in the "alt-country" movement, although really, his music cannot be categorized as anything other than outstanding. Calling what started out as his first solo album in all actuality a duo album (as his son plays drums on the project), Tweedy will be releasing their debut album "Sukierae" on September 23.  Click here for a preview and to purchase copies.

Neutral Milk Hotel closed out the Second Annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival, and while I did like what I heard of their set, I did not stay and watch.  I will catch one of their shows in the future. Speaking of the future, the promoters have announced this festival will be back next year and I'm sure for many more years to come.  I would like to have seen more in the way of attendance, but this is not to suggest the event was not well attended.  I believe the artists and performers simply deserved more people. For a second year festival to attract the likes of Gary Clark Jr., the Drive-by Truckers and the aforementioned Jeff Tweedy, is astounding.  There is every reason to believe this festival will become a staple of the downtown Toronto summertime.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable time and has enough musical variety that every fan of music, regardless of genre, will find something they will like.  I look forward to next year and beyond, as the Toronto Urban Roots Festival takes its rightful place among the important music festivals this city has to offer.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TURF 2014 Day 2 Recap

An absolutely gorgeous day greeted the thousands in attendance for the second day of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival.  Festivites on the South Stage kicked off with Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose.  Most regrettably, I did not arrive in time to catch this set which is unfortunate, as Caitlin was on my list of artists to catch this weekend.  I do look forward to attending one of her shows in the future.

So the afternoon, for me anyway, started with award winning duo Shovels and Rope.  Still riding high on the success of their second album O' Be Joyful, they are preparing for the August release of their follow up album titled "Swimmin' Time."  Judging from the performances of some new songs from the upcoming release and the response of the fans in attendance, Shovels and Rope have another hit on their hands.  A wide range seems to be covered on this new album, from relationships as noted in "Pinned", to historical events captured in "Stono River Rebellion" about the slave uprising in the 1700's at that location, to the darker edges of humanity with "The Devil Is All Around."  Favorites from O' Be Joyful were not to be ignored, as the crowd was graced with fiery performances of "Birmingham", "Keeper" and the closing number "Hail Hail."  There is a sweetness with the chemistry that exists between Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband and wife team that make up Shovels and Rope.  It translates in their performance and it resonates with the audience, which had a variety of age ranges. They are the real deal and people will always be attracted to that.

Next up on the East Stage (the main stage) was a band from the "dirty south" that's been rockin' the roads for many years.  The Drive-by Truckers are no strangers to Toronto, or Canada for that matter.  Kicking off their set with "Birthday Boy" from the album The Big To-Do, the bar was set early for what would be a highlight show at this year's TURF.  Next up was Patterson Hood on lead with "Righteous Path."  The Truckers have a tremendous advantage, in that they can trade off lead vocals with the aforementioned Hood and Mike Dooley. Both have distinctly different vocals and both work very well with the sound the Truckers have captured. Other fan favorites were "Lookout Mountain" from The Diry South album, as well as "18 Wheels of Love", a true story song about Patterson Hood's mom.  

One of the more unique artists to appear at this year's TURF is Pokey LaFarge.  Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, this young man has managed to carve out a solid career by capturing an authentic roots music sound. That's really the only way to describe an artist who's stage attire of that and his band resembled a cross between Hank Williams, Sr. and Jimmie Rodgers, and there's nothing wrong with that.  A talented group of musicians they were able to easily sway from rockabilly, as with " Angel Won't You Be Mine" to 1940's jazz with the Hoagie Carmichael classic "Riverboat Shuffle" and his own unique version of the Hank Williams, Sr. classic "Lovesick Blues."  LaFarge shows off his songwriting chops with originals "The City Summer Blues" and "Cairo, Illinois."  A generous artist, he allows his band members to take their turns front and center for a solo, and each one more than rises to the occasion.  Pokey LaFarge is continuing his tour this week with a sold out show in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom, then on to stops in Virginia this weekend.

The final act of the evening was Chicago's own The Waco Brothers, led by Jon Langford, with a special appearance by Sally Timms of the Mekons.  The Waco Brothers, for all intents and purposes, were the Iron Horses of TURF this year.  They performed on two consecutive days at the festival, as well as performing a late night gig at TURF Club Series at the Horseshoe Tavern.  Their energy on stage is infectious.  This is a band who loves what they do and the audience just joins in on the fun.  Performing with Sally Timms, I caught the Waco Brothers set as they played a solid cover of the Dolly Parton hit "Old Flames", followed by a great singalong to the John Anderson hit "Wild and Blue."  It was time to kick it up a notch after these two ballads, so what better way to start than with an ode to Alejandro Escovedo and "Sensitve Boys."  Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and The Who's "Teenage Wasteland" found their way in to the set as well.  But trust me, this is not a cover band, as I was about to find out with their performance on Sunday, Day 3 of the TURF.  

Saturday, July 5, 2014

TURF 2014: Day 1 Recap

A sun-drenched Friday afternoon greeted the opening day of the second annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival (or by it's moniker TURF) on the grounds of historical Old Fort York.  To get a certain amount of irony out of the way, the festival was fortunate enough to have some great artists from the United States performing on their stages on what was the 4th of July.  Fort York is a defensive fort that was built by the British and was the site of a few battles between British (Canadian) soldiers and American soldiers in the War of 1812.  An invasion of American artists and musicians ... that kind we'll happily take!  Anyhow, enough history for today ...

The festival kicked off mid-afternoon with folk/Americana singer-songwriter Tift Merritt taking the South Stage and later joining Andrew Bird over on the West Stage.  Andrew Bird was the first artist I was able to catch yesterday ... a little thing called my paying job pre-empted my earlier arrival. Admittedly, I was not familiar with Andrew Bird's music, but I walked away a fan. An unbelievably gifted musician and vocalist, Andrew Bird has the ability to captivate an audience from the moment you first hear him.  What this gentleman can do with a violin is eye-opening.  At one point I thought I could hear a mandolin on stage, but there was none to be found ... it was Andrew Bird strumming the violin that gave that sound.  On the road to support his latest release "Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of ... ", Bird is worthy of your attention.  And he's getting attention to be sure, as his song "Pulaski At Night", is featured in the Season 2 premiere of Orange is the New Black.  I will be watching out for Andrew Bird to catch a future performance.

As the afternoon wore on to the evening, another act I was not familiar with performed on the festival's South Stage.  Deer Tick is a roots-rock outfit from Providence, Rhode Island, and they have acquired quite a following over the years.  The large crowd gathered at the stage was a youthful and exhuberant bunch, dancing the night away.  Several tunes prompted a sing-along with the crowd, including a great cover of the Richie Valens' classic, "La Bamba."  This group put on a great, energetic performance with a sound reminiscent of another great roots-rock, alt-country act, The Bottle Rockets.  Veterans of the road, they are on tour to support their new album Negativity, and more than set the table for the nights closing act on the South Stage.

Hailing from Austin, Texas, Black Joe Lewis is from the musical breadbasket of North America. An outstanding guitar player, he brought his unique style of super-charged blues to the opening night of TURF 2014.  Performing with a stellar back up band, complete with horn section, Black Joe tore up the stage playing new tracks off his latest release Electric Slave, including "Come To My Party" and "Skulldiggin."  "Black Sin" and "Booty City" were popular cuts with the crowd, who by this time must have been feeling like they've been put through the ringer with so many high energy performances by this time, but in a good way.  

For the first day and night of TURF 2014, the show of the day surely had to be the performance of Gary Clark, Jr.  Performing earlier in the evening, Gary Clark, Jr. set a fairly high bar early in the festival for those to follow.  It would not be a stretch to say that this gentleman is one of the best guitar players in the world today.  One can tell he is a pure, natural, musician and artist. The large crowd that was gathered for the show was treated to a masterful performance. Watching and listening to Gary Clark, Jr. perform such tunes as "Next Door Neighbour Blues", "Bright Lights" and the title track to his latest release "Blak and Blu", it's not a long stretch to say that he has completed the impossible task of melding elements of Muddy Waters with the guitar prowess of Jimi Hendrix.  He manages to mix in elements of Motown with his GRAMMY winning hit "Please Come Home."  The fact that he's only 30 years old is even more astounding when you consider the talent level.  Mr. Clark will be around for a very long time, and the sky is the limit as to where this young man's talent will take him.

What adventures will day 2 bring?  Find out tomorrow, or better still, join me and the many thousands at Old Fort York in downtown Toronto, Ontario!