Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Toronto Urban Roots Fest finished with a flourish on Sunday

Jean Cook and The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus

I got my earliest start (after my latest night) for the third and final day of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest, and it was worth it.

Jon Langford, backed by members of The Waco Brothers and frequent contributor Jean Cook on violin, came on stage at 1 p.m. to perform songs about southern Wales from his 1998 Skull Orchard album and this year's follow-up, Here Be Monsters. The early focus was on three newer songs ("Drone Operator," "Mars" and "Lil' Ray O' Light") and the vintage "Tubby Brothers" before the musicians were joined by a few dozen members of The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus to sing material they recorded on the Skull Orchard Revisited re-do of that 1998 album as well as a few other tunes.

It's quite an amusing collection of songs in its own right, especially with Langford's witty introductions of them, but the choir adds another entertaining element. The addition of vocalist and longtime Langford musical foil Sally Timms was the icing on the cake as the small but appreciative audience of fans and choir family members were treated to "Pill Sailor," "Butter Song," "Youghal," "Inside the Whale," "Deep Sea Diver," "Come Home Tom Jones," "Tom Jones Levitation" and "Are You an Entertainer?" The choir then sang a Welsh folk song that none of us could understand, but it's apparently about how angry the Welsh still are with the Romans, according to Langford. The set ended, fittingly, with a sing-along rendition of one of the frequently-referred-to-in-the-set Welsh superstar's signature hits, "Delilah."

Twin Forks

I was much less familiar with Twin Forks, the Americana music project from Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba. I arrived just in time at the west stage to hear a jaunty, acoustic-based cover of Talking Heads' "And She Was." That was my highlight of the country-folk-based set from the sextet, which I liked but certainly wasn't blown away by. The female harmonies were a nice counterpart to the frontman, and I got to hear "Blister In The Sun" for the third time during the festival (joining Violent Femmes on Saturday and a cover by Hollerado on Friday), which was okay by me.

July Talk

July Talk has been creating a buzz and playing to increasingly larger audiences, which was evident in the reaction it received on the east stage at 3:20 p.m. There's great chemistry and vocal counterbalancing going on between Tom Waits-like singer Peter Dreimanis and cohort Leah Fay, who definitely adds a degree of sex appeal. The quintet's self-titled debut album has a unique mix of indie rock and Americana, but it's taken to another level on stage and the group proved it can hold its own on a big one. "Guns + Ammunition" and "Paper Girl" may have been the standouts, but the entire set showed that July Talk is a band to continue to look for big things from.

I confess that I spent more time chatting with friends than paying attention to Jenny Lewis during her set on the west stage. There was nothing wrong with the performance; it just didn't make much of an impression.

Gogol Bordello

That certainly wasn't the case with Gogol Bordello, which was probably the most frenetic and eclectic act of the festival -- and that energy carried over to the healthy-sized crowd. "My Companjera," "Last One Goes" and "Start Wearing Purple" were standouts from the rotating cast of gypsy punk masters fronted by wine bottle-swilling Eugene Hutz. An encore was demanded and granted. Good times were had by all.

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy will release his Sukierae solo debut album in September and he's assembled a new backing band that includes his 18-year-old son Spencer on drums. Much of the new material was on the mellow side, and the sometimes plodding delivery was, frankly, a comedown after Gogol Bordello. While the pacing didn't pick up much, and Tweedy banished the band to play solo towards the end of the set, my enjoyment heightened with such favourites from the Wilco catalogue as "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," "Passenger Side," "Jesus, Etc." and "I'm The Man Who Loves You." Tweedy also performed: "You Are Not Alone," the title track he wrote for Mavis Staples' Grammy Award-winning 2010 album; Uncle Tupelo's warmly welcomed "Give Back The Key To My Heart;" and Woody Guthrie's brilliant "California Stars" from the 1998 collaborative Wilco-Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue LP.

Neutral Milk Hotel is one of those bands that inexplicably flew below my radar when it was in its prime back in the '90s and I've never made a major effort to remedy that -- even after group member Julian Koster played his singing saw in my living room at a Christmas party I hosted a number of years ago. But I've appreciated everything I've heard and was happy to have the opportunity to see the influential band perform since it looked for so long like that would never happen again.

We ducked over to the south stage to catch a couple of songs by Hollerado and I was pleased to see that not everyone at TURF was watching Neutral Milk Hotel. The young Canadians had a large throng of folks eating out of their hands.

Waco Brothers

The TURF staff party was held at the Horseshoe Tavern, but open to the public, and the Waco Brothers performed for the fourth and final time to end the festival. There were no concerns with repeating songs from the first two nights, just with letting loose and having a great time. Mission accomplished.

TURF has made great progress in its two years and hopefully has established a strong enough foundation for it to become a staple of Toronto's busy summer schedule from now on.

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