For years Toronto’s anti-liquor liquor laws and overbearingly Protestant reputation for dampening public glee overshadowed its place in music history. This, the place where one of the apocryphal moments in rock history occurred, when Alice Cooper purportedly first bit the head off a live chicken and drank its blood before a frenzied crowd.
That was at the Toronto Rock Revival in 1969, the same show at which John Lennon and Yoko Ono paired up for the first time as The Plastic Ono Band and recorded “Give Peace a Chance” to the accompaniment of 15,000 people singing along. (Quite a contrast to the chicken bit—must’ve been a helluva show.)
It was here that Bob Dylan found his backing group The Band, where the Rolling Stones and then Elvis Costello recorded legendary, unbridled live concerts at the El Mocambo. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jamaican immigrants in the late ’60s and early ’70s, among them several reggae and ska innovators such as Jackie Mittoo, made the city one the world’s most important outposts of that island’s sound. In 1959 Toronto’s hallowed Massey Hall was host to the one and only gathering of bebop giants—the quintet of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus—in a show dubbed “The Greatest Concert Ever.” Toronto was the first North American home to Peter Gabriel’s globetrotting world music fest WOMAD. And it was here that punk rock pioneers The Ramones sang “Gabba-gabba-hey!” for the first time outside New York. As Dee Dee Ramone said, it was the only other cool place to play.
Guidebooks to the city may have liked to repeat Peter Ustinov’s famously kind roast that “Toronto is like New York run by the Swiss,” but the city outgrew that description a long time ago. For years, Torontonians sheepishly took the knocks sent our way, knowing the city was more dynamic than it was given credit for, that some great experiment was taking place here that hadn’t yet been revealed. The dramatic demographic changes the city has experienced in the past 35 years have made it a cosmopolitan centre and an oasis to music lovers. Befitting a place where almost half the people were born outside the country, if there’s a style of music being played anywhere on the planet, there’s a very good chance you’ll find a version of it here. Not only that, but you’ll often find it mashed up with something else—say, classical Indian tabla music mixed with electronica or Latin hip-hop—to create something entirely new. World music sounds increasingly less exotic here; with such a young cultural history the city is eager to embrace whatever sounds are out there, and make them its own.
Montreal’s scene may be getting more ink at the moment for its place at the head of the Canadian music explosion abroad, but Toronto—home to punk rock soul brothers The Constantines, postmodern supergroup Broken Social Scene, acclaimed singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, Cuban jazz emissary Jane Bunnett, innovative hip-hopper K-OS—surpasses its rival to their east with its sheer diversity and scale. And while signs of Toronto’s old fuddy-duddyness can still be found in the reticence of some Toronto audiences, you’ll have to excuse us: we’re all still just getting to know each other. That and we’re trying to enjoy the music.
NORTH BY NORTHEAST
I had hit the outdoor stage on John Street near the City-TV building to see Cleveland avant garde punkers Pere Ubu wrestle beguiling and beautiful musical oddities out of their instruments. But I came away talking only of a little known hip-hop rock outfit from Brooklyn named Two Skinny Js whose rambunctious set, complete with ugly ’70s polyester togs, had the large crowd gathered body-surfing and bopping with abandon.
That’s the beauty of North by Northeast—you go to see one of your favourite groups and leave humming the tunes of a handful of new, unknown ones. Launched as the northern cousin to Austin’s phenomenally successful South by Southwest, NXNE (June 9-11) is a three-day barrage of live tuneage showcasing 400 acts in 25 venues around the city’s downtown.
Its importance as an opportunity for both fans and industry to catch new acts before they break, and better established ones eager to please Toronto crowds, ensures a stellar slate of acts from North America and around the world every year.
On the heels of last year’s NXNE reunion of Motor City rock provocateurs MC5, the eleventh edition of the fest will welcome a reformed New York Dolls, the glam-rock studs led by David Johanssen. Another of the Montreal clique currently making waves abroad, The Dears, will headline a special performance at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Other confirmed acts include Toronto faves The Rheostatics, singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright of the McGarrigle clan, and the lo-fi electropop of Iceland’s Ampop. NXNE also features an extensive line-up of music films and industry showcase gigs. Consult Now the weekend before the event for an informed pick of the don’t miss shows. North by Northeast, www.nxne.com
A wristband guaranteeing access to most shows can be purchased. Individual tickets to shows are also available, or can be bought at the door.
TD CANADA TRUST TORONTO DOWNTOWN JAZZ FESTIVAL
After a brief spell of pedestrian programming and sponsorship troubles, TD Canada Trust Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival returns for its 19th year (June 24-July 3) reinvigorated. It’s finally taking some cues from Montreal’s world famous event by broadening its tent and bringing in a more diverse array of artists.
So while jazz elder statesman and saxophonist Sonny Rollins can be expected to roll up his sleeves and deliver a blast from the bebop past, we can also look forward to witnessing the incendiary fire of Brooklyn-based Afro- beat ensemble Antibalas, with their lock-step syncopated beats and funky horn ballast.
The festival promises a generous slate of free concerts, along with ticketed performances, at 30 venues throughout the downtown, including the main stage, a 1,000 capacity tent, at Nathan Phillips Square. The city bursts with jazz sounds during the ten-day event—it can seem like every time you turn a corner a saxophone or trumpet is blowing into the sky. In addition to big-ticket concerts by Diana Krall, next generation saxophone colossus Joshua Redman, and jam funksters Medeski, Martin and Wood, there are tributes to Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus. Dozens of local artists will stir crowds, including Kevin Quain‘s Tom Waits-inspired junkyard jazz and imaginative large ensemble NOJO.
An example of this year’s broader programming is the presentation of French chanteuse Keren Ann whose muted and moody urban ballads, make her a worthy 21st century off-spring of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg. TD Canada Trust Downtown Jazz Festival, www.tojazz.com
Tickets for most events can be purchased through Ticketmaster at 416-870-8000 (www.ticketmaster.com) or at the door if they’re still available.LOVE YOU LIVE: ROCKIN’ VENUES
On almost any night of the week Toronto can satisfy whatever style of music it is you’re jonesing for. Consult the city’s weekly newspapers, Now and eye, for live music listings and recommendations.
The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern (368 Queen St. W., 416-598-4753)
The El Mocambo may have its special place in the city’s music history, but the ‘Shoe, while boasting a rich heritage of its own, can lay claim to being the city’s most vital rock and roll venue today. Catch the newest acts, and touring indie bands, before they outlive this tavern’s small, dark but properly grungy digs.
Revival Lounge (783 College St., 416-535-7888)
One of the city’s more suave nighttime destinations, Revival is 21st-century dinner club chic. Cocktails and swish Italian grub accompany an eclectic wash of sounds: Wednesday night it could be R&B, Friday Cuban jazz and Saturday a DJ’d night of ’60s rock and ’70s soul.
Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas St. W., 416-588-0307)
Lula’s arrival on the scene three years ago was well overdue. What the city long lacked was a first rate club that reflected its burgeoning Latin American community—its fastest growing immigrant population. So expect sweaty salsa throw downs, samba delirium and flights of Latin jazz, but also check out Lula for its more worldly offerings, from Indo-jazz fusion to African pop. Bohemian and urbane, Lula promises a great vibe and special occasions, including Cuban percussion instruction, burlesque evenings, and flamenco dancing classes.
Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen’s Quay W.m 416-973-4000)
For those who grew up in Toronto their first taste of world music likely happened here, a lakeside cultural complex that hosts a series of themed weekend festivals throughout the summer. Masala! Mehndi! Masti!, North America’s largest free festival of South Asian culture, returns for its fifth year (August 3-7); Beats, Breaks & Culture touches down with electronic music in myriad incarnations (July 8-10); and Dim Sum investigates cultural collisions of east and west from a Chinese perspective (July 22-24). And it’s not just music, but dance, film, art, literature, and food. If you’re here on a sunny weekend consider it your default choice—on a summer afternoon there are few better places to be in the city.
Reservoir Lounge (52 Wellington St. E., 416-955-0887)
The sophisticated swing jazz and blues joint du jour keeps a loyal following of regulars coming, from within and beyond the city, for its ’50s speakeasy elegance and down-home chow.
TUNE BOOTY:RECORD STORES
Soundscapes (572 College St.)
When this unassuming store outfitted entirely in IKEA shelves and cabinets opened six years ago, few predicted it would become Toronto’s hottest record store. The shop’s excellent selection and knowledgeable staff, though not its uncluttered, clean-cut ambience, has made it the music place you never want to leave. And they’re happy to place special orders.
Sam the Record Man (1500 Yonge St.)
A local landmark, the only big box music store in the city that retains the grimy, labyrinthine feel of an old-timey record shop. Good value, an impressive selection of both the ubiquitous and obscure, and an excellent DVD section. It’s famous for its frequent sales and often deeply discounted product.
Rotate This (620 Queen St. W.)
With a fetish for vinyl that will sate any crate-digging DJ, Rotate This is an oasis for hard core music snobs of most persuasions. I’ll let them describe their mandate: “Genre-wise, we’re down with almost everything: the hip, the hop, the punk, the jazz, the hard core, the reggae, the electronic, the indie, the un-indie. No classical or nu-country, however.”
HMV (333 Yonge St.)
The international chain’s Toronto mothership looks like a swanky, triple-decker UFO plopped near one of the city’s busiest intersections at Yonge and Dundas. You can get all your goods here, especially if you’re on the hunt for jazz or classical recordings.THE DISTILLERY SINGS THE BLUES
Blues and roots music fans are sure to check out The Distillery Blues Festival, the only blues event in Metro Toronto this year. Held at the Distillery District, the event boasts an impressive line-up of performers from Friday June 10th through to Sunday June 12th, and is expected to draw a crowd of over 100,000. More than thirty bands will perform on five different stages and admission is free. See Juno Award-winner Fathead perform original and classic cover tunes; Jack de Keyzer, an acclaimed guitarist known for his electrifying live sets, has worked with artists such as Etta James, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith; Jimmy Burns, a Mississippi-born entertainer; and Chico Banks, who successfully challenges traditional boundaries, with an energetic, funky, and soulful form of the genre. Canadian stars, Georgette Fry, Paul Reddick & The Sidemen, and Bill King’s Saturday Night Fish Fry—pianist Bill King’s band showcases the music of the late 40s and early 50s—are also scheduled.
The “Don’t Lose The Blues” contest allows the audience the chance to support the festival as a free event. By making a donation, you will receive a commemoration Distillery Blues Festival button and be entered into a daily draw to win some top notch Blues CDs. For more information, see www.distilleryblues.com. —Maranatha Coulas
The first time I visited the Toronto Music Garden (475 Queen’s Quay West) was purely by chance. Strolling along the waterfront on a beautiful summer evening, I was surprised to hear the sweet sound of the cello coming from nearby. Conceived and designed by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, the Toronto Music Garden came to Toronto by default. Originally intended for a location in Boston, the plan was scrapped after Bostonians rejected the proposal. Messervy, who specializes in contemplative spaces, has designed many gardens in the Boston area including Tenshinen, the Garden of Heart and Heaven at the Museum of Fine Arts, and The Arnold Arboretum.
The design of the 2.5 acre site represents a physical manifestation of Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. The garden is comprised of six distinct sections, the Prelude, the Allemande, the Courante, the Sarabande, the Menuett, and the Gigue, each representing one movement in Bach’s suite. Operating as distinct parts of a whole, each section attempts to consecutively communicate the musical idea inherent in the separate movements. The garden also features public art commissions, such as Anne Roberts’ Maypole, and all the furnishings including the striking Music Pavilion, were custom designed by architectural blacksmith, Tom Tollefson.
The Toronto Music Garden hosts free concerts from June 23 to September 18, on Thursdays at 7 p.m., and most Sundays at 4 p.m. Presented by the Harbourfront Centre in conjunction with the City of Toronto, the series showcases music from western and non-western traditions, as well as new music, and dance. Included in the repertoire this summer are Chinese melodies, music of the French Baroque, traditional Japanese drumming, Mediterranean melodies, and classics by Mozart and Haydn. Among the performers are string quartets, cellists, Canada’s top brass players, accordionists, a baritone saxophonist, and soloists on the 40-stringed sarangi, flamenco artists as well as ensembles.
Take part in free tours led by Toronto Botanical Garden guides beginning June 30th (Wednesdays at 11 a.m. and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m.). Self-guided tours using hand-held audio players are an option, and players can be picked for a $5 rental fee at the Marina Quay West Office (539 Queen’s Quay West.) For more information, call 416-338-0338 or visit www.toronto.ca/parks/music_index.htm. —Maranatha Coulas—Christopher Frey