TURF Day 4: Belle & Sebastian, Xavier Rudd, Cat Empire, Yo La Tengo, Kurt Vile, Wooden Sky @ Fort York – July 7, 2013
The inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) is the city’s latest attempt to make a mark on the country’s competitive festival scene. With a promising 4-day lineup including She & Him, Hold Steady, Belle and Sebastian, and an amazing crowd response, it wouldn’t be surprising if TURF joins the circle of major summer festivals alongside Montreal’s Osheaga and Ottawa’s Bluesfest.
First band, Toronto locals Wooden Sky, began the day with a calm and nostalgic set. The voice of the singer, Gavin Gardiner, had a soulful and smoky trait that paired well with the long and drawn out Telecaster solos. The songs began to pick up in tempo and the sound started to swell as they were paired gospel-like back-up vocals.
Kurt Vile and the Violators played later in the afternoon as the crowd tripled in size since the start of the day. Violators guitarist Steve Gunn was like a modern mash-up of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The band delivered a playful and effortless set with a huge sound, including atmospheric guitar sounds, crazy drum solos, and strong bass lines. Songs including “Ghost Town,” “Baby’s Arms,” and “He’s Alright,” were evenly chosen between their two albums Wakin on a Pretty Daze and Smoke Ring for My Halo.
After that set, crowds rushed to the west stage for indie rock royalty, Yo La Tengo. It began as a quiet, almost ghostly unplugged set. Eventually, the air was filled with distortion and feedback and the band shifted from their rather stiff stage presence to crazy and eccentric head-banging. The memorable moment during their performance was when the singer, Ira Kaplan, toned down the sound and invited the crowd to, “come into our living room,” as they launched into the crowd favourite sing-along song “Autumn Sweater.”
Cat Empire played the next set on the west stage and was the first band to hold the achievement of getting the entire crowd to completely let loose and swing like drunken sailors. The fusion band’s party music included anthemic choruses, fast percussion solos, afro beats, salsa, funk, and ska sounds. Best yet was trumpet player/singer Harry Angus’ scat solo in “Wild Animals.”
When Xavier Rudd took the east stage, the first thing that came into my mind was, “Sweet Moses, this guy is amazing.” The next few minutes then blew my mind. Rudd launched into a tribal-dubby song with intricate instrumental layers of the didgerdoo, stompbox, bass drum pedal, and all sorts of percussion. No loops. Just himself and a few recorded bird calls and animal noises. His socially-conscious themes and earthy-natural feel connected with the audience on an emotional and spiritual level. The crowd seemed to know all the words and it was nearly impossible to look around and not break into a smile as people swayed and danced to his acoustic reggae beats.
The crowd for the day’s headliner, Belle and Sebastian, was already waiting an hour before the actual set time, sacrificing Neko Case’s performance on the west stage. Finally, after the second torrential downpour of the day, the 7-piece band came onto the stage and delivered an amazing performance for their legion of die-hard fans. The band started with “Judy is a Dick Slap;” its catchy synth beginning got the crowd dancing and splashing mud everywhere. Frontman Stuart Murdoch was a brilliant performer, whose charming personality, dry humor, and self-deprecating dancing helped bring the stage alive. His stage tricks included playing scrabble with a fan on the stage mid-performance, asking a fan to apply on mascara as he sung “Lord Anthony,” and inviting several people on stage to dance to “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” The band ended the set with an encore song “Get Me Away from here, I’m Dying,” leaving the audience euphoric, muddy, wet, and fulfilled.