On April 27, 1813, this site was the battleground between a Canadian militia (backed by British soldiers and Aboriginal warriors) and American invaders. Fast-forward 203 years and the Fort York Garrison hosts a multitude of indie acts and bands that have already made a big name for themselves. Friday kicked off a weekend of celebrating Canadian and international indie music with the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF), a much-anticipated end-of-summer festival before we all resign ourselves to more depressive Fall and Winter seasons. So here it is: the first day of our final Summer music celebration.
People started rolling in a little after 1:30 to taco stands, poutineries, and gourmet street meats galore. Simone Denny was the first one up, providing a musical backdrop for the first wave of attendants. Denny and the Stereo Diamond Allstars sported the heartbreak of soul and blues with the teeth of rock n’ roll. She took the lead with attitude on the East Stage, roaring over the construction sounds that did nothing to grind down the overall vibe of the festival. She won over the crowd in a very short time, playing her new stuff and playing a cover of “Lonely Boy” by the Black Keys (or rather, “Lonely Girl”), “And yes, I’m Canadian!”
Multiple stages started preparing, having the zany Modern Space on the Battle of Fort York stage (which was positioned next to the much larger East Stage almost like an after-thought, but it drew in crowds steadily well into the evening) and Margo Price taking the West Stage while the East Stage staff was busily preparing for something big. While the set-ups were happening, I met two new-comers to Canada who have been to a few music festivals, though not many. “Do more people than this come here?” the guy asked me in a heavy Slavic accent, “Because usually when I go to a music festival, there’s not so much grass – it’s full of bodies”. He gestures, finding the words, and his British friend agrees. They had a point, this was my first year at the festival but I always assumed that you couldn’t spit without hitting a drunken music fan. I suppose it IS a work day and this festival doesn’t get much exposure in the weeks leading up to it. Probably doesn’t help that TIFF overshadows just about everything right now.
She was called “Nashville’s next big star” before she hit the stage, and Margo Price shows that she has the spunk to back that claim. The boot-knocking tunes and Southern twang were enough to get people moving even in this hot weather. Price had a modest crowd, largely made up of obvious die-hards. This is where the attendants started to divide into groups, because the people who weren’t into country music began migrating over to the Modern Space performance, standing amongst gravel. They played Beck’s “Loser”, Lana Del Rey’s “High By The Beach”, and “Fake Tales of San Francisco” by Arctic Monkeys. They even played a few of their own songs. But how these guys could wear leather and jean jackets in this hot weather for as long as they did is just beyond me. Between their songs, their nearly poetic tangents showed them to be a spacey, not-quite-there bunch.
The biggest stealers of the show were probably The Hives. They hit the stage with the JAWS theme, then immediately catapulted themselves into a high-energy riff with the theme underlying in the bass. Alright, that’s pretty clever. The whole band (save for a black ninja and a white ninja) were donning black and white suits. They’re definitely the most fired-up band, doing the whole “swinging the microphone by the wire” trick. He tosses it around the stage like it were any other prop, but kudos to him, he never dropped it nor did he lose his enthusiasm and unrelenting force throughout the whole performance.
“So, we took this fort!” lead-singer Pelle Almqvist, “It took about six songs, and we played one song as kings of this fort!” They were definitely the most comedic band of the day, saying things like “Thanks to all of you people without jobs for coming out here early today”. The Hives are a Swedish band, but they had a few things to say about Canada: “We get a lot of fan mail from Toronto, and one thing we learned from the people of Toronto…” everyone listened, and in a rare moment, you could practically hear a pin drop at the festival, “…is that they’re very attractive…” Big laughs all around. They kept pushing the fans to be louder than they were, rowdier than they thought they should be, and maybe even drunker than they ought to be at 4:00 PM.
“Here comes the point in the show were the audience is willing to do whatever I tell them – whatever it may be,” hesitantly trusting cheer, “NOW SIT DOWN!” Everyone sat down. “Now comes the part of the show where I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing… I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK I’M DOING!” Everyone cheered again. “Now I ask you, are you ready?” People cheered once again. “Now I ask you, ARE YOU REA- sit down. Sit the fuck down,” he said to a group that got a little to into and started rising. He waited a moment… “NOW STAND UP AND MAKE SOME NOISE!” The kings of the fort are holding court.
Skinny Lister became one of the more prominent acts to take the often neglected Rebellion Stage on the Eastern-most side of the festival map. They hail from London, England but everything about them screams Irish folk, from the stag banner behind them on the stage to the Celtic style of the music. You can easily hear a hint of Scottish influence in it too, getting a feel for all the sounds in the British Isles. People were even doing a cozy jig here and there.
There aren’t many imitation acts that do the original band justice, but Dwayne Gretzky does the Tragically Hip was a fun watch. They really do sound like the Hip, and with the mannerisms on the performance, they really pulled it off. Gretzky sounds a lot like Gordon Downey, though a little lighter and more nasally, and he’s just as animated as his performances.
In the midst of walking around, I came across Jackson and his son, known as “the TURF boys”, have made it a tradition to come down here and engage with the patrons. “Yeah, you know. It’s a odd time when kids are going back to school and don’t have the money or the time to come here every year, so we kinda try to keep it alive.”
Jake Bugg on the West Stage was probably the most black-and-neon angsty artist to take that stage, drawing in a thick-crowd – even having people running over for him. That comes as now surprise seeing as he’s such a celebrated UK artist. There was a smell of Dragon’s Blood incense wafting over the crowd. Like a musical chameleon, he quickly went from a punkish rock to a modern folk. The only purely instrumental band came with Explosions in the Sky, and though they had more people with them than any other stage with a performance, they were met with an audience that largely preferred to converse with one another than to take in the subtle nuances of the show and atmospheric music. “I’d say it’s conversational music, though,” says a girl sitting on the grass before she went back to talking with her friend.
Performances become more of a background at this point as the festival started winding down, like Modern Baseball on the Rebellion stage. The one band that had everyone’s attention was definitely Dropkick Murphys who was amongst the most anticipated bands of the evening, and for good reason. When a performance has multiple mosh pits therein and has the most amount of T-shirts worn by the concert-goers, you know the outcome is going to be good.
A few other notable performances here and there closed the evening, like Matt Mays who was a fun listen, and Grammy winner James Bay who led a lighter performance, considering the mayhem that everyone indulged in tonight. The production and lighting effect were exaggerated, lighting up the curling, twisting smoke while Bay himself was donning the angelic white light. He played his usual hits like “Let It Go” and everyone was caught up in the heart of it all.
So, by the end of the night, we’re left with a bunch of sprawling drunks and staff hurriedly trying to clean up after the beer can massacre that was. All of this occurred on the same place that, two centuries ago, saw a definitive battle during the War of 1812. I can’t help but wonder what our forefathers would think. Seeing such a developed nation that has become the envy of so many others, the coming-together in a mass concert, and the freedom to do it all in – I think they would at least be somewhat proud.