Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fort York has been the site of many historical battles. At least, I assume so: Grade 9 history was a long time ago. But last Sunday (trumpets blaring) the battle was fought for the love and the dollars of discerning music fans at the inaugural Rogers Picnic.

Or, rather, a bunch of us showed up at Fort York for the privilege of paying $3 for a small bottle of water while baking in the sun, all for the sake of seeing an eclectic line-up of bands known for strong live performances.

The line-up for the Rogers Picnic was taking a "cover all your bases" approach with performances from The Roots, Bedouin Soundclash, Bad Brains, Little Brother, Apostle of Hustle, Tegan and Sara, The New Pornographers, and The Dears. Between sets we were treated to some solid DJ sets from the Team Canada DJs and a special guest set from Maseo of De La Soul before The Roots played (and that wasn’t the last we’d see of Maseo).

It was a good day, but not a great one I'd rave about, thanks to crappy sound, a missing frontman, and some dick-moves on the organizer's part regarding water.

The Performances:

This was a show where I’d say I was into 50% of the line-up. I’ve seen The Dears, The New Pornographers and The Roots before, and they’ve always had solid live shows.

Unfortunately the troubles associated with a festival style show like this undermined what could have been a great day.

The Dears' performance was marred by sound problems, as a muddy mix and dropped vocals undermined their ability to connect with the crowd. When you play orchestral power pop, you need to hear the all the elements of the performance to get the full effect. Songs like “Death or Life” and “Lost in the Plot” were still exciting live, but the whole performance seemed to have the wind sucked out of it after stumbling out of the gate. I don’t think they were pulling in any new fans with the sound being as it was, which is a shame given the diverse range of music fans in the crowd.

The New Pornographers fared better with the sound and the crowds. The New Pornographers, like Broken Social Scene, have a number of members who rotate in and out based on availability. Early in their career, the main female singer for the band was Neko Case. Neko’s solo career is booming, so she isn’t able to tour with the band as much. Kathryn Calder from the band Immaculate Machine (and lead frontman A.C. Newman’s niece, but they didn't know that until after she began singing with the band) began singing with them a year or two ago and has taken to the role really well. The fans used to view Kathryn as a substitute singer, but now she’s a staple of the live shows.

It was fantastic to hear Kathryn stake her claim on early hits like “Mass Romantic”, and the crowd started bopping to some of the newer songs from the upcoming “Challenger” album. As she mentioned to the crowd, the band has a knack of playing in Toronto under adverse conditions: Sunday it was in the blazing afternoon, while last winter they played a gig at Nathan Phillips Square under a wind-chill warning. Today they played to an appreciative crowd and Closing the set with “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and “Bleeding Heart Show” managed to lift me a couple feet off the ground and had me beaming like the sun.

Tegan and Sara, rocked a harder than I expected. It's not like I was expecting Lilith Fair or anything, but they kicked some ass out there. I’d take issue with the guy Ray overheard describing them as “The Canadian Dixie Chicks”. The only grounds for comparison are that charming women, who play guitar and are excellent songwriters, front both acts. Nonetheless they won over a lot of new fans on Sunday with their playing and their playfulness with the crowd.

At this point of the day, I had lost track of time and forgotten the line-up. My forgetfulness may have increased in relation to my proximity to the beer garden, when reggae punk group Bad Brains started up. I had assumed the only bands left to play at this point were Bedouin Soundclash and The Roots. Four hardcore songs in and I turn to Rayzer: “Dude, Bedouin Soundclash have gotten aggressive!” His look was enough to snap me back and make me remember Washington DC punk outfit Bad Brains were on the bill and playing before Bedouin.

The eclectic made it hard to keep a flow through the day. It went from indie pop to rasta-punk to reggae-lite to hip-hop, which kept the crowds moving in and out of the stage area pretty constantly towards the end of the day.

The Roots brought the house down. Notably absent were Questlove (drums/frontman) and Kamal (keys), who apparently had transportation issues (it’s wasn’t a no-show: Quest and Kamal would have given anything to be there). Real shame too, but the show went on. I admit though, without knowing whether it was illness or transportation problems, I kept thinking after each song that I’d see Questlove emerge from the wings, with bags in hand and shout “I’m here, let’s do this!” or fight his way past hospital orderlies while strapped to an I.V. But no problem, it just means they’re going to rock that much harder next time here.

The show had the same energy as the show I saw in March. MC Black Thought laid down a constant flow of lyrics and motion, keeping the crowd hyped. The Brass Heaven horns were swinging, Leon "Hub" Hubbard was thumping the bass, and Kirk was killing on lead guitar, filling in for the keyboard parts as well as singing. Frankie Knuckles did well manning the drum kit, as they plowed through songs from The Roots extensive catalogue, while tearing into versions of “Jungle Boogie” and “Everybody Is A Star”.

As I always say, The Roots always go beyond a straightforward hip-hop show, incorporating funk, soul, r&b, and rock. But true to form, you never know what to expect as The Roots handed the stage over to Posdnuos and Maceo from De La Soul for a song or two. Not to mention the surprise appearance by red-hot rapper Lupe Fiasco, which led to Pos, Maceo, Lupe and Black Thought jamming on stage. It was crazy good as it just turned into a house party in the middle of Fort York. There was a legacy of hip-hop up there on stage with the past, present, and future vibing together.

With the noise bylaws in effect, the show had to wrap up at 11pm, but even with the conservatively short set (90 minutes is short for The Roots, that March gig was about 2 hours and change), they made the show for me.

The Venue and The Organizers

The beauty of a concert at Fort York is that it's easy to get to transit-wise. When I saw that the show was "The Rogers Picnic", I was a bit pessimistic. It wasn't like I expected picnic baskets and coolers, but I at least hoped for the laid back vibe that I've felt at some of Broken Social Scene shows on Olympic island. The first sign my general cynicism was not misplaced? We weren't allowed to bring in bottled water. Not even the usual one bottle with the seal intact. Now I don't know if that's Rogers policy, or if Embrace Productions or REMG Entertainment had any input in that decision, but that is a dick-ish move that reaks of a money grab, charging $3 for 500 ml., especially on a hot summer day. I do acknowledge the complimentary sunscreen and alcohol-hand wash were appreciated, but still: dicks.

The place was covered in Rogers and Nokia marketing, but that’s to be expected. Lord knows you wouldn't want to forget Rogers ponyed up the cash for this soiree. And you can’t have a music festival without that cross-marketed youth-oriented synergy.

I didn’t spot too many people bringing their own food, just in case it got pulled at the door, but there was pleasant surprise when I saw the food tents. Rogers went with local “cool, youth-oriented” businesses for the food and beverage services. One of my favourite late night Queen Street restaurant/diners, Shanghai Cowgirl, was running the food and beer, with Ackee Tree supplying roti and jerk chicken. Local brewers Amsterdam Breweries and Great Lakes supplied the beer. So at least the food and beer was tasty; or at least, what we could get of it.

Now I don’t know if any of these businesses are used to serving 7500+ people in rapid succession, but the food lines were about 30 – 45 minutes at their peak. I sort of expected slow service and long lines at a festival event, but I was annoyed when I’m waiting 30 minutes in line to order chicken roti, get to the front of the line, and get told that “we have to run back to the restaurant to get more roti, so it’ll be about 15 minutes”. Yes, the jerk chicken I had was great, but couldn’t you have a runner already on the way, rather than wait until the last roti was used before you went for more?

And Shanghai seemed to have separate lines going: one for burgers and meat, one for fruit and smoothies, one for perogies, and one for fried things. In theory, this means two separate line-ups if you wanted some poutine with your burger, which doesn’t seem like a sound plan to me. I’m wondering if Rogers traded “quick and reliable planning” for “hip and cool eats”?

Similarly, the beer tent started having “tap” problems and service slowed down quick. How do you run out of beer and have tap issues when you’re literally a block from the Amsterdam Brewery facilities?

The Verdict

Too many hic-cups (water, food, sound problems) kept this show at an “it was a good day” level rather than “that was fantastic”. The Roots made the day for me, and I’m definitely a fan of Tegan and Sara now.

If the organizers can learn some lessons from this year and improve, then I’m willing to check the show next year. Ease up on the water confiscation, plan out the food side of things so we don’t get jammed in line like that, maybe a bit more cohesion to the line-up, and we’re all good.

But just in case, I’m reserving a camping spot for the Hillside Festival next year. It's their 10th anniversary next year, and I’d rather bet on the sure thing.
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