The CBC Music Festival has what I can only describe as a very CBC-esque vibe – it’s the kind of fest with a big parking area for bicycles set up in front of the venue, the kind of fest where a large percentage of the crowd are there with small kids, chilling on blankets while enjoying the scene, and most importantly, it’s the kind of fest where Detective Murdoch will make an appearance onstage. Yes, Yannick Bisson, star of Murdoch Mysteries, took to the stage to introduce Tokyo Police Club, memorably addressing the crowd with the line, “You might not know me, but I’m sure your moms do.” And while several other CBC radio and TV personalities would make an appearance, the focus for the day was squarely on the musical talent, which included such notables as Maestro, Tanya Tagaq, Whitehorse, Alvvays, and The New Pornographers.
Taking to the stage in the late afternoon/early evening, Alvvays professed their love for the Mother Corp while Molly Rankin also took the time to talk about proper skincare. “We need some sunscreen up here. Is there such a thing as SPF 80?” After she said that, I swear I saw her getting redder as their set went on, though that may just be me projecting my own concerns about the growing sunburn I was working on throughout the day. Sunburns aside, Alvvays put on a typically delightful set, playing tunes from their 2014 debut alongside a few new numbers as well as an excellent cover of Kirsty MacColl’s “He’s On The Beach,” which Rankin noted was an appropriate song to be playing in Echo Beach’s pseudo-beachlike environs.
While I didn’t stick around for Hey Rosetta’s headlining set, The New Pornographers worked well enough for me as a de facto headliner. A.C. Newman led the band through a greatest hits set of sorts, which is pretty easy to do when so many of your songs sound like hits. Newman mentioned how much he liked Toronto, where they’d been spending a couple of days before the festival, joking that it’s on his short list of cities he would move to if he had to move back to Canada because of Trump. And I’ve got to say, on a nice sunny day with a solid lineup of bands and the skyline of the city as a backdrop, it’s hard not to like this city. Toronto, you’re pretty alright sometimes.
Either Ben Folds is amazingly eclectic in his lineup or Paul and I just took note of very different songs in our respective concert experiences with him. In my disjointed and very poorly spelled text message to myself during the show, I managed to jot down “Erase Me,” “Song for the Dumped,” “Jesusland,” “Effington,” and “Phone in a Pool” and absolutely none of the ones that Paul noted. I’m not sure if I was just distracted when other songs were played or if the lineup really changed that much (let’s be real – probably the former). Honestly I couldn’t see anything for the first half of the show anyways because the Riv is the absolute worst (for the love of God guys – get a door for that one stall in the ladies. We may be paying $7 for our PBRs but leave us with at least a little bit of our dignity intact.)
What we do both agree on is the value added by Ben’s currently touring ensemble, New York’s yMusic. The group is amazing. You’ll be mesmerized right off the bat by the violinist and flautist’s hair, and once you’re drawn in by their locks you’ll be blown away by their technical skill. Ben Folds is a charismatic and charming frontman, coming off at times as downright goofy, and while it might not seem like that lightness would pair well with the more serious chamber music that’s being produced by the backing band, they somehow make it work effortlessly, bringing the beauty and resonance of the music to the forefront without making the experience in any way heavy or somber. It’s like champagne – bubbly and fun but also an experience to be savored.
Accompanying Ben Folds on his current tour are New York’s yMusic Ensemble, a six piece featuring strings and horns with whom Folds collaborated on his latest album So There. An impressive group of players, yMusic not only helped to flesh out Folds’ compositions, but also performed a couple of their own to great effect.
With such talented musicians backing him up, you might think that Folds would veer more towards his serious side and toss in a few more ballads and such, just to keep it classy, but Ben Folds kept it real, delivering some amusing improvised lyrics about random topics such as the West Bar at the venue (“where they sell Budweiser”) and the East bar (“where they also sell Budweiser”) as well as a bit about receiving the “Canadian cavity search” at the border. Furthermore, he pulled out a surprise cover in response to a shouted request – his version of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” At first he seemed hesitant, like he was going to blow it off, but he rolled with it. “We don’t know that one,” he said, “but I think we can throw something together.” And while the trope of doing an ironically mellow cover of a gangsta rap song is a bit played out at this point, Ben Folds was one of the first to do it, so we can let that one slide.
Overall, it was an enjoyable mix of old favourites (“Army,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Mess”) and newer material such as “Not A Fan” and “Long Way To Go.” Folds ended his set by leading the crowd in a beautiful mass singalong as though they were his own personal chorale, while also jokingly telling the crowd to “Suck it, Toronto!” before dropping the mic. This seems to be typical of a Ben Folds performance, which can run the gamut from serious, heartfelt ballads (a few of which he treated us to on this occasion) to more tongue in cheek material, sometimes seemingly all at once.
Back in the day when the time that a show aired on TV mattered a whole lot more than it does now, the term “Friday night death slot” was coined. Because people would generally rather go out somewhere than stay in and watch television on a Friday night, this time slot created a sink or swim situation, thus dooming a show to a lack of viewers and often ultimately leading to cancellation if it couldn’t hold on to an audience. On a similar note, it would seem that live music may have corresponding times and places wherein, for whatever reasons, a band doesn’t get much of an audience. I happened to observe this a couple of times during CMW, and both acts responded in perhaps the only way they could: by not giving a fuck and playing the best show they can regardless.
First up was Welsh band The People The Poet, who were playing at the rather un-rock ‘n roll hour of 6:00 pm. At a festival like CMW, where the tradition of having day shows has never caught on, this ensured that they’d be playing to a crowd of mostly after work drinkers and/or people on their way to the Blue Jays game. “We’re not from here, which explains why we’re playing to this many people,” offered up singer Leon Stanford by way of introduction. The band took the low pressure environment of such a show and ran with it, playing a loose but enjoyable set and seemingly using it as an excuse to work on their goofy stage banter game, commenting about the kinds of people found on chat roulette and taking a few shots at baseball (“It makes cricket look good.”).
Later that same evening, poppy indie/punk four piece The Spook School faced a similarly tiny and mostly indifferent crowd, but the band, who introduced themselves as “a bunch of queers from Scotland” put on a tight show regardless. Though they played a 1:00 am slot at The 300 Club to a mostly empty room, they still managed to impress me with their catchy numbers on topics such as sexuality and gender identity, with “Binary” and it’s singalong chorus of “01010101” standing out as a particular highlight. “I think I saw this on an episode of Behind The Music. It’s gonna be alright,” quipped drummer Niall McCamley at the start of their set as he surveyed the audience and he later joked about how much he was enjoying it in a way. “This is great. It’s like an intimate rehearsal, but we’ve got lights. And a hostage crowd that would rather be at the bar.”