Canada - Music - NXNE Music Festival in Toronto, Canada, June 11-17th, 2012.

NXNE 2012 in review

text: Michael Raine | photography: Brian Patterson

If you spent any time at this year’s NXNE festival chatting with fans and artists, you could sense the excitement building for Saturday night’s free show at Yonge-Dundas Square. A show that promised to be the type of musical trip that only psychedelic monster the Flaming Lips are capable of delivering.

By 7 p.m. the square was packed, people worming their way between the overabundance of promotional trucks and stands that littered the square (and made for reduced capacity and shitty sightlines). As Athens, Georgia’s of Montreal blew through their 40-minute set, it was clear these flamboyant rockers should have been the main opening act. Not only do they have greater name recognition than Portugal. The Man – who played before The Flaming Lips – but their poppy melodies, combined experimental instrumentation, and over-the-top vaudevillian stage show are an ideal party starter for a Flaming Lips concert. [/wpcol_1half_end]

People dressed in pig costumes were theatrically slayed by spear-wielding hunters, a nearly naked woman did some interpretive dance, and others in super hero costumes crowd surfed for truly impressive distances across the square. It’s a feat of concentration that frontman Kevin Barnes can stay on track and deliver his falsetto vocals on hip-shaking tracks like “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”.

Judging from the number of bemused smirks in the audience, it appeared that even those who weren’t familiar with the of Montreal’s music were at least entertained.

The party vibe waned as Portugal. The Man played their indie-rock-by-number set. People’s ear perked up a bit when the band sprinkled in a couple Beatles numbers – “Helter Skelter” and the na-na-na sing along of “Hey Jude”. Overall, Portugal. The Man were good but not great and were easily outdone in their opening band duties by of Montreal .

When the Flaming Lips kicked off their show 20 minutes later than scheduled, they did it with a bang. Anyone who has seen their latest very-NSFW-video, “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”, staring the very naked Badu sisters, Erykah and Nayrok, knows that The Flaming Lips are not afraid of some gratuitous nudity. The theme continued with their stage show.

A massive circular video screen lit up with a multi-coloured image of a nude women walking around before sitting down, spread eagle, in front of the camera as a glowing egg emerged from her vagina and emitted pulsating lights. Audible laughs were heard around the 25,000-strong crowd before a recording of Black Sabbath’s “Black Leaf” kicked in and the band members walked down a ramp onto the stage.

Ringleader Wayne Coyne did his usual walk around in a giant bubble (something that used to be very cool, and still kind of is, but has now become a predictable part of the show) as the band segued into “Worm Mountain”. The second song of the set, “She Don’t Use Jelly” sparked one of the largest sing-alongs of the night and was easily a show highlight.

Despite all the flare – a forest’s worth of graffiti – and lights, there was a palpable melancholy to the proceedings brought on by the tragic events at Dowsview Park (RIP Scott Johnson). Coyne paid tribute to Radiohead and the all the members of their crew, bestowing good karma upon them, before the band played a toned down cover of “Knives Out”.

Even with the massive crowd and beautiful weather, the Flaming Lips had a hard time really engaging the audience. This can be typical of free shows, which attract large numbers of casual and non-fans who come simply for something to do. And, as mentioned, the overabundance of promotional trucks and tents meant about a third of the crowd couldn’t see anything. Regardless, any of the evening’s shortcomings weren’t the fault of the band. The Flaming Lips brought those fans that could see them on a cosmic musical trip that blended eye-popping visuals with unmatched musicianship and ambiance.

Unfortunately we missed set closer “Did You Realize??” in order to catch a cab to the Phoenix Theatre to see a reunited Archers of Loaf. Luckily, missing the Flaming Lips finale was worth it as the seminal ‘90s indie band turned in a stunning hour and 20 minute set packed with fan favorites such as “The Greatest of All Time”.

There’s been a lot of buzz about Archers of Loaf lately with their reunion tour over the past year and all their albums getting the reissue treatment. For those who weren’t old enough to see them in their ‘90s heyday, it’s easy to see what the hype is about (if not all the Pavement comparisons). Their loud-but-literate songs and intense stage demeanor prompted one of the most enthusiastic crowds we’ve seen at NXNE. Singer/guitarist Eric Bachman couldn’t help but smile and laugh as one dude guy climbing onstage and diving back into the audience. “Web in Front” (which does warrant the Pavement comparisons) and “White Trash Heroes” were definite set highlights and as the band left the stage, they seemed genuinely appreciative of rapturous applause and cheers. Amidst all the synth-heavy, overly crafted indie rock that typifies NXNE, Archers of Loaf were a refreshing reminder of how great indie bands can sound when they keep in simple.