Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TURF's third year offered something for everyone

While I was able to attend all three days of the just-ended Toronto Urban Roots Fest (TURF) at Fort York, circumstances prevented me from getting there as early as I had during the two previous years and I didn't get to see and hear as much as I would have liked.

But I packed some fine music and plenty of socializing into the time I was there, and here are my personal highlights from the weekend:

The Avett Brothers
Any band that covers George Jones' "The Race Is On" is OK in my book. The fact that the group followed that up with my favourite of its original tunes, "Slight Figure of Speech," sealed the deal -- although I could have done without the drum solo and other wankery inserted into the middle of the song. Ending the set with the mid-tempo ballad "I and Love and You" left the large and fervently supportive audience happy.


I've been buying this Birmingham, England reggae band's records for more than 30 years, but this was my first time seeing it in person. It was worth the wait, even if personal differences have split the band in two and left various members launching lawsuits over who owns the rights to the name. This version featured original lead singer Ali Campbell, toaster Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue, and the other eight musicians on stage were totally tight in lying down reggae-pop grooves.

UB40's biggest successes were from its Labour of Love albums and interpretations of earlier hits, and that's what most of the fans wanted to hear. Things kicked off with Al Green's "Here I Am (Come And Take Me)" and some of the more popular covers that followed included Boy Friday's "Version Girl," Eric Donaldson's "Cherry Oh Baby," Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" and the Elvis Presley hit "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love with You."

A couple of early original favourites, "One in Ten," "Rat in the Kitchen" and "Food for Thought" were joined by the title track of the new Silhouette album and another of its songs, "Fijian Sunset." Neither sounded out of place.

The set wound down with a cover of Lord Creator's "Kingston Town" and, not surprisingly, the band's North American breakthrough hit, Neil Diamond's "Red, Red Wine."

Campbell may be looking a bit like William Shatner these days, but his clean vocal lines will never be confused with the Canadian actor who emoted his way through 1968's The Transformed Man.


It's been several years since I've seen Fishbone, but the passing decades don't seem to have slowed down frenetic frontman Angelo Moore and the two other original members who formed the group in Los Angeles in 1979. Bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, trombone, trumpet and saxophone delivered the funk-fuelled rock that has long been the band's trademark.

Although Fishbone has never made much of a mainstream impression, you should at least be familiar with "Everyday Sunshine," "Ma and Pa" and the group's covers of Sublime's "Date Rape" and Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead." All were played with aplomb, as was the crowd-pleasing set-closer "Party at Ground Zero."

I would have loved to have gone back to the beach with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon by skanking to "Jamaica "Ska," but there's not much else that was missing from this set.


The Chicago group surprised almost everyone when it dropped its Star Wars album out of the blue in July, and it was an especially pleasant surprise for me since I enjoyed it more than any record by the group since 2004's A Ghost Is Born. So while some of the folks in the audience may have been disappointed that Wilco played the album in its entirety to start its Saturday set, I was okay with it -- especially considering what followed.

There was a good cross-section of material from the band's catalogue, including "Handshake Drugs," "Art of Almost," "I'm Always in Love," "Box Full of Letters," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "Dawned on Me," "Impossible Germany," "The Late Greats," "Red-Eyed And Blue," "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." There were a couple of extended instrumental jams that I would have rather been replaced by a couple of more songs, but there was no denying that the band was firing on all cylinders.

Cake is another of those acts that has long entertained me with its music, but I've never seen perform. Singer John McCrea's wry lyrics and deadpan delivery, Vince DiFiore's trumpet embellishments and an overall penchant for incorporating varying styles of music have created a genre over the past 20-plus years that can almost be defined as "Cake."

Setting up shop under a large and shiny disco ball, the group pulled out favourites from a career that has earned its members gold- and platinum-certified albums. The humour was present, the musicianship was sharp and the hits flowed, including "Sheep Go To Heaven," "Mexico," "Sick of You," "Love You Madly," "Wheels," "Never There" and "The Distance."

St. Paul and The Broken Bones
This Birmingham, Ala. band formed three years ago and has created quite a buzz since then with its performances. That was certainly the case on Saturday, as the hill in front of the south stage was full of revellers enjoying the group's old school soul sounds performed with boundless energy. I wasn't able to see the full set, but what I witnessed was enough to convince me that there's substance beyond the hype.

Ron Hawkins (The Lowest of the Low)
TURF is somewhat unique in that, in addition to the three stages at Fort York, it also incorporates club shows at the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee's Palace after things wind down outside.

There was talk that Hawkins' scheduled performance at the Horseshoe on Saturday night would actually be a Lowest of the Low show. Since Shakespeare My Butt is my favourite Canadian album and I've probably seen the band dozens of times through its on and off existence and never tired of it, it was a no-brainer to find out for myself. While I refuse to call the group The Lowest of the Low without Steve Stanley in tow, other valued members were on hand and that was good enough for me.

I moved to the front of the stage and was singing and dancing along as I relived my twenties through such beloved songs as "4 O'Clock Stop," Kinda the Lonely One," "For the Hand of Magdalena," "Bleed a Little While Tonight," "Salesmen, Cheats and Liars" and "Eternal Fatalist."

Neko Case
I just can't get enough of this woman's voice. Although I was disappointed with 2013's The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You compared to Case's earlier records, I still enjoy seeing her and become enraptured with her singing. It's even better when she has Kelly Hogan providing harmonies and acting as the other half of a female comedy duo with Case, but she had other obligations and unfortunately didn't make this trip.

I arrived just in time to hear the Virginian end her Sunday evening set with "Maybe Sparrow" before she and her bandmates left the stage. A short encore included "Lady Pilot" and a cover of a song written by Canadian singer, songwriter, actress, director, radio and television host Sook-Yin Lee.


I was lucky enough to see the Pixies' last-minute show at the Horseshoe on June 7 when its scheduled performance opening for Robert Plant at the Molson Amphiteatre was cancelled due to the former Led Zeppelin singer being ill. Ironically, I was even closer to the stage for this performance, which closed TURF on a very high note.

Perhaps my favourite band of the late '80s and early '90s played a lot of the same songs from three months ago, but in a different order, so the set seemed fresh. I was surrounded by friends and TURF performer Steve Poltz at the base of the stage, and there were thousands of people behind us revelling in what frontman Frank Black (who I saw at the bar of The Drake Underground for two Robyn Hitchcock shows earlier this month), guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering and bassist and newest addition Paz Lenchantin tossed our way.

"Cactus," "Magdalena," "River Euphrates," "Blue-Eyed Hexe," "Silver Snail," "Nimrod's Son," "Indie Cindy" and "The Holiday Song" set a more than respectable baseline. But things were taken to another level of intensity and audience fervour with "Crackity Jones," "Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Bone Machine," "Caribou," "Gouge Away," "Tame," "Mr. Grieves," 'Wave of Mutilation," "Broken Face," an amazing cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On" and "Planet of Sound."

There was a chorus of "ooh ooh ooh" echoing through Fort York for "Where Is My Mind?" and, although there was a vociferous demand for an encore, a City of Toronto-imposed 10 p.m. curfew ended the show at that point.

TURF hosts Donny Kutzbach, Jeff Cohen and Dave Hodge

TURF was conceived by and is run by good friends of mine, and many other associates worked serving drinks and food, hosting and making sure that everything ran smoothly. But even if these connections didn't exist, I'd still say that TURF has become the best music festival in Toronto over the past three years and is deserving of continued support and respect so that it can carry on this celebratory tradition for the foreseeable future.