For some scenesters, the big story about last week’s North by Northeast music festival wasn’t the big names like Television and the Buzzcocks who flew in for bonus showcases at the Phoenix, but rather who chose to opt out of this year’s big indie shindig. With well-known indie labels Baudelaire and Paper Bag Records hosting their own sold-out showcases at Sneaky Dee’s and The Mod Club, NXNE still managed to create a commotion producing winners, losers and drama galore.

Reps from the record industry clamoured into Kensington on Thursday night to catch Midland’s feral indie-kids Born Ruffians rock The Boat. After impressing a capacity crowd with their Pixies-esque sound and wild stage antics, the word on the street is that a U.K. tour is in the works, so don’t expect these boys to stay unsigned for long. Also attracting attention on Thursday were recent EMI signees Slute. While their “let’s-be-controversial” posters bear more than a passing similarity to prints put up by Drug Money only last year, their sweaty, Motley-and-Roses inspired set had a packed the Gypsy Co-op bleeding suits in spades.

Big losers included pop-punk wannabes The Hemmingway Solution whose uninspired Friday set at Holy Joe’s was universally panned by those unlucky enough to witness their whiney drivel. It might be time to implement that “solution,” boys…

One big surprise at this year’s festival was the inclusion of Dan Burke’s NeXT showcase at the Silver Dollar in the NXNE lineup. Usually happy to rebel against the fest, Burke added some much-appreciated talent with likes of Montréal soul punks King Khan and Toronto’s best post-punk militants Anagram.

And what would a Dan Burke showcase be without a full-blown fiasco? This year’s came courtesy of once-acclaimed Hamilton rockers From Fiction who decided to breakup their band (after dropping their Steve Albini recorded debut Bloodwork on Last Gang Records back in March) and cancel their upcoming tour on the day of their NXNE showcase. Lucky for us, Guelph’s D’ubervilles were on hand to fill in, and amazed everyone who turned up expecting a spastic math-rock set.

Thursday June 8

The Born Ruffians @ Boat, 9 p.m.

Brampton’s Born Ruffians began their show in a huddle, an auspicious beginning after distributing free cupcakes to the audience. The band unleashed a series of songs so fresh and crisp it was like biting into a ripe Granny Smith. A mixture of classic rock, disco, and country (with one foot in the indie door), the Ruffians used call and response, doubled bass lines, and the pretty warblings of their lead singer to win over the packed room. Their lyrics reflect the 19-year-old ideologies of the band members: the endless pursuit of jobs, chicks, and the meaning of life. While some moments in the 40-minute set were a little too erratic, by the fourth tune the band had found its groove and were controlling the pulse of their songs like a metronome. -CL

Rating: VVVv

Hostage Life @ Bovine Sex Club, 10 p.m.

This Toronto-based Underground Operations five-piece played a solid, if run-of-the-mill set. Hostage Life’s hardcore-tinged melodic punk incorporated a disco beat for one song, which was oddly refreshing in a genre that can get monotonous. Intense frontman Colin Lichti provided some charming banter, for example: “My ass is slathered in Preparation H right now, and I challenge you all to lick it.” Lovely. In any case, a small contingent of devotees shouted, “Hostage Life ain’t nothing to fuck with!” during breaks in the set, showing that their dependably tight brand of punk rock was instilling Stockholm syndrome in the Bovine audience. -JF

Rating: VVV

The Two Koreas @ Silver Dollar, 11 p.m.

Let’s face it; Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger aren’t getting any younger. So who better to pick up the slack than a bunch of rock critics from the GTA? Stuart Berman, frontman for The Two Koreas and senior editor of Eye Magazine, proved that journalists can rock and dish out some pretty sweet moves to boot. Wearing jeans so tight I’m sure he required resuscitation afterward, Berman spent his time on stage voguing with his hands in front of the microphone, pausing to rake his sweaty mitts through his brush cut and hip thrust his way into the hearts and minds of NXNE concert goers. The Two Koreas sound and look like an authentic 70’s punk band, featuring raw yet addictive chord structures, grooving bass lines, and low-key Ramones inflection. Self-indulgent rock critic behaviour has never been more successful or appreciated. -CL

Rating: VVVv

Oliver Black @ Horseshoe Tavern, 12 a.m.

At first, singer Serena Pruyn’s damp hair and cheery smile are cute and endearing. Her powerful, smoky voice hits you, and you imagine she could be the awesome townie you meet when your car breaks down in middle America, who takes you to her friend’s house for a white trash barbecue where she and her pals bust out a guitar and sing some rockin’ ditties. But then her eye makeup runs down her face, her hair becomes greasy and matted, and she looks more like someone who’d be offering seedy services behind that small-town’s gas station to get another hit of whatever she’s on that keeps her smiling so damned much. Also, by this point the volume at the Horseshoe is turned to the maximum, shredding your aural canals. You leave disappointed, and certain you’ll hear this band again on the 102.1 the Edge, right after Theory of a Deadman’s latest masterpiece. -JF

Rating: Vv

Robin Black @ Bovine Sex Club, 1 a.m.

A capacity crowd of well-coiffed and blasé scenesters were in attendance to watch Robin Black and his consorts blast their generic brand of glam rock at the Bovine. Black, who recently played a “celebrity” on MuchMusic’s VJ Search, proved once and for all that he’s pure style over substance. Black and his band (who may single-handedly keep M.A.C. cosmetics in business) strutted their stuff onstage for a set that included both old favourites and new material. When Black stripped off layers of his meshy clothes and dangled impishly from the chain-link ceiling belting “Why don’t you love me?”, more than a few convincing reasons came to mind. When he used an audience member as a foothold to better pose his hairless, pierced torso for the copious cameras, I realized that I’m not among the “some of you boys and most of you girls” who allegedly love him. Sorry Robin, your derivative sound and carefully-crafted look are as stale as they are contrived. -JF

Rating: Vv

Fjord Rowboat @ The Crowbar, 1 a.m.

With a similar feel to Healy’s, the Crowbar had a better-than-expected lighting rig, but next to no walk-up traffic, which was a shame because Fjord Rowboat are a band ready and able to make new converts out of the uninitiated. Despite deserving a much larger audience, Fjord Rowboat launched into a sea of shimmering, reverb-drenched guitars anchored by their sinister rhythm section. Despite the fact that frontman Craig Gloster looks like Ian Curtis as a vampire, his melodies are much more in step with Ride singer Mark Gardener. And while the UK shoegazer sound is a clear touchstone for Fjord Rowboat, their catchy, sing-along choruses and bouncy rhythms pack the neat, dynamic punch often missing from the pastoral soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. Highlights of their set included their creeping instrumental opener “Paragon,” “Taking the Pass,” and the infectious closer “Carried Away.” Definitely a band to watch, Fjord Rowboat are reportedly recording material with miracle producer Andy Magoffin (Constantines, The Straits, The Hidden Cameras). -JB

Rating: VVVV

Friday June 9

Television @ The Phoenix Concert Theatre, 7 p.m.

Anyone who likes what ’70s punk did to rock music worships the ground that Television walks on. Culled from the same New York scene that produced such seminal bands as Blondie, the Talking Heads and the Ramones, these proto-art rockers pretty much built the Mecca of CBGB’s with their infectious dueling guitar lines. Singer Tom Verlaine appeared in top form, considering his advanced age, and while a few songs ended less than perfectly, Richard Lloyd’s amazing guitar work on classics like “Venus” and “Prove It” easily rendered these minor errors forgettable. While bassist Fred Smith could have stepped out a bit more (at times he looked a little robotic) drummer Billy Ficca was all smiles from behind the kit, obviously thrilled to still be playing live. Television saved “Marquee Moon,” their best-loved punk-opus for their encore. Soon the cavernous Phoenix had the feel of a smoky bar-room (although it wasn’t because of tobacco) with members of the band trading knowing smiles throughout. After the final song, the new “Live Today,” Lloyd was accosted onstage by a die-hard fan desperate to claim his guitar pick as a souvenir. Security acted quickly and throat-tackled the disheveled reveler into the wings where he had one final tussle with his guitar hero. Very punk. -JB

Rating: VVVV

Mandy Kane @ The Bagel,
10 p.m.

Billed as Gary Numan meets David Bowie, this Australian solo electro-rocker worked best as a comedy act, though that was far from his intention. Apparently the author of three top-30 songs back down under (must have been a slow music year), Mr. Kane’s music sounds like a shittier version of Econoline Crush meets Placebo. Playing a distorted electric guitar over a backing track that sounded like he just opened up GarageBand and selected “generic industrial-pop song #1,” Kane was vamped up with loads of black eyeliner, supposedly shooting for last year’s Billy Joe Armstrong look. Sadly his complete lack of sincerity coupled with 90210 side burns made him look like an insane Good Charlotte imposter, and sound even worse. Eventually, I had to flee the Bagel because I couldn’t stop laughing. Oh yeah, and in this one song he sang, “If the good die young, why am I still here?” Think about it, Mandy… it’s because you suck. -JB

Rating: V

Spiral Beach @ The Drake Underground, 11 p.m.

These self-described kids “from down the street” wowed a packed house at the Drake Underground. Fusing funky beats that drop like pianos from third story windows with sultry vocals, guitars, and keys, these three-guys-and-a-girl sure know how to keep an audience watching. Their tight musicianship and quirky arrangements only fueled the fire started by their frantic onstage energy. Channeling the spirit of Debbie Harry with a touch of Metric’s Emily Haines, vocalist Maddy Wilde was both charming and proficient as Spiral Beach jumped and charged their way through their set. The general consensus seemed to be that the audience was up for much more than 40 minutes of Spiral Beach’s addictive brand of quirk-pop. Watch for them to upstage bands twice their age at this year’s Hillside festival in Guelph. -JB

Rating: VVVV

The Mark Inside @ The Rivoli, Midnight

Fresh off their acting debut on CTV’s At the Hotel, Toronto-cum-Whitby rockers The Mark Inside turned everything up to 11 and gave the at-capacity crowd a sonic endurance test. Divided between material from their acclaimed debut Static Crash, and new songs from a hopefully not-too-distance follow-up, The Mark Inside’s set was full of flailing bodies, charging rhythms and massive distortion levels. “Questions,” a new song they’ve been playing live, sounded amazing with Geoff Bennett’s fluid and catchy bass line simmering while vocalist Chris Lavoir screams “Am I doing this right?” in a nearly trace-like state. Playing to a crowd of long-time friends and fans the band seemed loose and giddy on stage, even teasing a long-lost cover of “Groovy Dead” by Rusty. Capping off their set with their current single “Sweet Little Sister,” these guys play every show like their lives depend on people walking away impressed. -JB

Rating: VVVVv

The Coast @ The El Mocambo,
1 a.m.

U of T’s biggest Brit-rock threat The Coast had the El Mocambo packed for their gig at Friday’s Doritos showcase. While the chip-maker used the night to hawk it’s new Sweet Chili Heat nacho snacks, The Coast seized the opportunity to showcase songs from their brand new self-titled EP. Lit by their trademarked white Christmas lights, singer Ben Spurr led the band through an emotionally-charged set of shimmering guitar hooks and wait-and-see choruses that always delivered by songs end. At times upstaging his own frontman, guitarist Ian Fosbery channeled the best of delay-heavy U.K. rock to create the breathtaking sonic atmospheres on which The Coast thrive. By the end they had the crowd eating out of their hands and ignoring the shitty, free Doritos that were strewn everywhere. -JB
Rating for the new Sweet Chili Heat Doritos: zero!

Rating for The Coast: VVVV

The Secret Handshake @ The Bagel, 1 a.m.

Probably still sweating from the release party for their debut album Shhhh… or Yer Fucked a few months back, Toronto punk posse The Secret Handshake took the stage at the Bagel looking to exorcise the demons of the shitty band that preceded their night-closing set. A strikingly atypical band-one guitar and drums back up a tall dude covered in tats who talks and screams instead of singing-The Secret Handshake take their cues from loud D.C. hardcore and punk. At times they remind me of Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat’s short-lived band Embrace (not to be confused with the whiny Brits who now use that name) although they never get quite that melodic. Dense lyrics, which play out as stories reminiscent of James Joyce, are spoken and then screamed as a loud-as-fuck guitar kicks you in the face. Songs like “Gloria” and “Wet Hum” among their best. If you’re into loud punk music, singers who hawk promotional merkins, and anything-can-and-does-happen stage antics, this is the band for you. -JB

Rating: VVVV

Saturday June 10

Buzzcocks @ The Phoenix, 7 p.m.

I arrived at the Phoenix at 5:45 p.m., the earliest I’ve arrived at a show since I was 17 and didn’t know any better. But this was the Buzzcocks, one of those rare bands that are probably older than your parents, and that every new punk band worth their safety pins has paid homage to. At first, Pete Shelley’s pudgy physique and wispy hairline caused some worry about the band’s stage-worthiness, but as the hour-long set progressed, it became clear that he and his bandmates can still rock like the smartass punks they were 30 years ago. The set spanned their extensive discography, with favourites like “Ever Fallen in Love” and “What Do I Get” receiving cheers from the mixed audience of adoring young fans and bespectacled oldsters. By the time the encore ended, my ears were buzzing from volume levels that stealthily increased over the course of the show, but I was also grinning from having just witnessed these punk rock legends in action. -JF

Rating: VVVv

October Guard @ The Bagel,
1 a.m.

Imagine if every time you did your job you got electrocuted. This is exactly what singer Randall Roland Savoy of October Guard had to endure at the Bagel on Saturday night. “When I touch the mic I get a shock,” he explained after picking himself up off the floor following their opening number. This is where most bands would stop the show and give up, but not these kids. Instead, the up-and-coming three piece charged forward blasting into “Nightmare Patrol,” one of many highlights from their debut album. Their dark-wave rock, which sounds kinda like Bloc Party communicating from beyond the grave after dying in a fiery plane crash, impressed the hell out of a small yet attentive audience at the Bagel. While Savoy was fun to watch climbing on tables and playing with reckless abandon, guitarist Brett Clarkson had his hands full playing some of the best indie-rock hooks I’ve heard to date. At the end of their NXNE-regulated 40 minutes Savoy asked the audience, “Do you guys want one more?” Following screams, cheers and drunken demands for the band to play an encore he resigned (with NXNE staffers tapping their watches) to retorting “Well, too bad, ’cause it’s not happening.” -JB

Rating: VVVV

The Matadors @ Bovine Sex Club, 3 a.m.

After standing outside the club for an hour and a half, I was finally admitted to the Bovine, which was bursting at the seams. The Matadors’ horrorbilly show – which includes an automated singing skeleton, smoke machines, and a hidden hose in singer Hooch’s pocket (wanna guess why?)-was shortened by the lengthy set-up the act required. The mere six songs in the set were punctuated by bassist “Creepin’ Jeff” actually leaving the stage and playing from the rammed audience on his stand-up bass, often while perched on top of it. The Matadors’ devilish rockabilly freak show was the perfect sweaty climax to the otherwise civilized festival. -JF

Rating: VVVV

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