While the first two days of NXNE Port Lands Festival were beautiful and sunny, a thunderstorm watch delayed gates opening on the final day, but it would not put a damper on things at all. By the time we showed up, the sun had returned, and it would stay dry for the rest of the day. We got to the Port Lands even earlier this time, and naturally found that the crowd was tiny (both as in not many people, and also there were some children playing the carnival games). We weren’t familiar with any of the artists performing earlier in the day, so we took some time to check out the comedy tent, which NXNE added for the first time this year.
The idea sounds like a wonderful addition – having a spot to sit down and listen to stand-up comedy while maybe having a meal between bands, but the execution wasn’t so great. One of the pillars holding up the tent was dead center in front of the stage, obstructing the view of the performer, and between the bands playing in the distance and the sound of the inflatable air dancers directly outside the tent, it was hard to hear what was being said. Plus I’m sure it’s tough for comedians to perform when people are coming and going as they please throughout their set. On the bright side, performing in this hilariously distracting setup could make for some good future material for these comedians.
We eventually left the comedy tent and headed to the Canal Stage, where Canadian rock band Yukon Blonde were performing. I know nothing about this band, but they had some groovy tracks and a classy style, rocking out in dress clothes. With some catchy, up-tempo songs and wicked guitar riffs, they were able to get the modestly sized crowd moving. Yukon Blonde put on a good show, but the act I was most excited to see was up next on the main stage, and so we headed over there early to secure a front row spot.
Next up was The Soul Rebels coming all the way from New Orleans, featuring Brooklyn’s own Talib Kweli. While I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything from The Soul Rebels before, this would be my third time seeing Talib Kweli perform in 2017 alone, as he previously hit The Phoenix Concert Theatre during The Seven Tour in February, and also did a halftime performance during the Raptors’ playoff run. I’ve seen Kweli perform on many different stages and scenarios over the years, but this would be my first time seeing him with a live band backing him.
The Soul Rebels are a brass ensemble consisting of two trumpet players, two trombone players, a saxophone player, a sousaphone player, and two percussionists, and they all take turns rapping too. They started things off by playing a hip-hop type of head-nodder, which turned out to be a tribute to the recently deceased Prodigy of Mobb Deep, as one of the trumpet players rapped the hook from the classic “Quiet Storm.” They then performed an original song, “Rebel Rock,” with a style of call-and-response rapping that took you back to that 1970’s era of hip-hop. The Soul Rebels had the crowd moving on their own, playing their instruments with perfect synergy, and performing inspired tributes to the late Michael Jackson (with “Rock With You”) and Phife Dawg (with his verse from “Can I Kick It?”).
When Talib Kweli eventually came out on stage, he said he was just there to keep the party rocking, and proceeded into a performance of “The Blast,” getting the crowd to dance and sing with him. He then really wanted to get people dancing, so the band played a sped-up version of the Kanye West-produced “I Try,” and Kweli rapped his verses in double time. This of course led to Kweli’s biggest hit with Kanye West, “Get By,” and The Soul Rebels really brought the sound out of that production. Seeing Kweli perform with a brass section behind him reminded me of watching a similar performance he did in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and I really wish they performed more songs that could take advantage of this, like “Move Somethin'” or “Rush.” Despite only doing three songs with Kweli, this collaboration on stage may have been the highlight of NXNE for hip-hop fans.
The hip-hop would continue, as the next performer on the Canal Stage would be Minnesota rapper/singer Lizzo. While Talib Kweli was the obvious hip-hop heavyweight of the festival, Lizzo really put her all into her performance and may have stole the show. I had never heard her music before, but she was able to grab everyone’s attention with her wicked production, catchy raps, surprisingly awesome vocal range, and her choreography with her two dancers and DJ. She engaged the crowd by bringing fans on stage to dance with her, giving them options on what types of songs she’d perform, and pushing her message about self love and inspiration. Her entire team put on a wicked performance that gained her some new fans.
Next up on the main stage would be the final performers of the entire festival, Passion Pit. I had never heard of this band before and didn’t know any of their music, but they had some fun songs. The lead singer has a real unique, high-pitched voice, and he blended well over the two synthesizers and drum kit backing him. Not knowing any songs, it was hard to pick up on the lyrics or really tell what he was singing about, but the energy was there, and the crowd seemed into it. While the two synths gave the band a really electronic vibe, the players behind them would sometimes switch to guitars to bring more of a rock flavour to the stage. The music didn’t exactly fit my tastes, but it was still a cool performance to see.
In its second year hosting the Port Lands Festival, NXNE has improved in some areas over last year, but faltered in others. The management and execution of two stages, ensuring no overlaps, seems to come second nature to them, but what improved was everything in between the two stages. The carnival attractions and the comedy tent (despite its flaws) were welcome additions to the festival, as well as the improved seating options for when you wanted to take a break from partying and have a meal. One glaring issue I saw though was the lack of people attending during the day to take advantage of these additions. Most of the crowd showed up at night for the headliners, and even then there were still plenty of tickets for sale both at the gates and on the second-hand market.
One theory behind this is perhaps a lot of Toronto’s music fans were busy celebrating Pride weekend. Another is that maybe the lineup of artists was too eclectic. Some fans are open minded enough to try out other genres alongside their favourites, but there are also plenty of fans who probably wouldn’t buy a ticket if they didn’t know they’d enjoy the music. As a hip-hop head, I preferred the way last year’s lineup was made, where one day of the festival was dedicated to the genre I love (or similar, related genres). With the old format, fans could at least tell that even if they didn’t know all the artists on the lineup, the day with their favourite headliner would be filled with similar artists with relatable appeal. It would have been awesome to see the Port Lands filled with fans of all genres partying together, which I’m sure was the vision, but most of the people showed up late to the party just for the one or two artists they knew.
If you attended the festival, what did you think of it? Who were your favourite performers? Hit us up on Twitter @SYpherSights and @CultVultures!
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