The Hives bring a full-on Rock and Roll show to TURF’s main stage on day one, Friday, that is big enough and strong enough to rival any stage at any time slot anywhere on the globe. They should be after being in the game since 1989. Their sound, attitude and look has been so emulated and ripped off over the years (particularly in the post-2000s) that having the original before us sounds and seems like something fresh & brand new again. They’ve long been famed as one of the best live acts in rock music.
Today, they are decked out in their finest two-tone suits in the strong afternoon sun at Fort York.
But as front man Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist says early on in the set “there are rock and roll bands that can only play in the sun. There are bands that can only play at night time. And then there are bands that can play, indifferent to outside conditions!” And we’re off.
At TURF, the line up, while broad and capably drawing from bands local, national, and international, is decidedly geared to a slightly more mature demographic. It is, after all, an Urban Roots Festival. There are a lot of men with guitars (and some women) and not exactly an overabundance of stage diving, posturing and real showmanship. An acoustic guitar just doesn’t much allow for that kind of performance. So The Hives are a true breath of fresh air this weekend. They are so much fun, so interesting, so good and so quotable.
They’ve also got their roadies/techs dressed as a black and a white ninja, respectively.
Quotes from Almqvist (there were many more then these selections, go see this band at your earliest opportunity):
“We have taken this fort. We’ve played five songs. Four and then one as kings of this fort.”
“The smartest people in Toronto…and quite possibly, the most self-employed or unemployed people in Toronto are here.”
From Toronto, The Hives went directly to Chicago for Riot Fest the next day.
The Hives 17-song set list included songs from across their catalogue starting with “Come On!”, “Try It Again” and “Hate to Say I Told You So” and ending with a two song encore of “Won’t Be Long” and “Tick Tick Boom”.
The Mekons, founded in Leeds, UK in 1977, make a most intriguing choice to close out the hidden-gem (unofficial) “punk stage” at TURF. Forever after, this stage should be called the Punk Stage or The Mekons stage. Here’s how the cool kids named their bands back in 1977 when they were sitting around at art college:
“They took the band’s name from the Mekon, an evil, super-intelligent Venusian featured in the British 1950s-1960s comic Dan Dare (printed in the Eagle).”*
The Mekons have some Venusian super powers that have allowed them to survive and continue in music for all these years and create 20 albums, even as their first major label release didn’t happen until 1989. They have, as one would expect, a devoted following. The devoted following presents itself like this at the stage in Toronto:
Ripe Old Punk, tapping on a photographer’s shoulder: “Right, now you’re going to be discreet, right? Be discreet.”
Photographer, who is not really a photographer but is a writer standing in for a photographer and loves punk music: “Yes, we’ll be here for just three songs and then out. And then I’m going to watch this gig, I’m excited for it.”
Ripe Old Punk, not getting the rise he wanted, mutters something to his female companion.
Female Companion to Ripe Old Punk: “Don’t worry about it. They’re only going to take a few pics and then they’ll all be out of here and off to Death Cab…”
Photographer, who is not a Death Cab fan, is avoiding them in fact for not the first time, and loves Punk music: “I’ll be watching the gig from the back of the crowd.”
Ripe Old Punk (Sulks).
The Mekons come out and fill the stage with all and sundry, like the best bands, can effortlessly work a non-stage, a tiny stage or a reasonable stage, and the same goes for environmental conditions, levels of drunkenness of various members, or crowds. One member comes out carrying a purse. This is something refreshingly non-hipster, isn’t it? This is something you won’t find anywhere near a Death Cab show. The photographers and audience members who choose to end their festival weekend right here, Sunday night when a hot day turns to a weird chill, are my people. Even the old punks who hate me and mistake me for a Millenial, and who dislike photographers for all the reasons they’ve earned so much dislike in crowds like these.
We are told that at The Mekons gig the night before at The Horseshoe, “A couple of Sadies fell off the stage!” Another great gig, a drunken gig, one joined on stage by members of Toronto’s The Sadies. I’m not only 30 years late, I’m a day too late. I wish myself back there, even though I was here, trying to see other bands. We are told “We aren’t as drunk tonight as last night.”
Tom Greenhalgh has a great, rambling stage presence, and a terrific vocal which is, tonight, in 2016, reminiscent of Joe Strummer. A notion they might find funny, considering their first music was a satirical take on The Clash’s White Riot “I’ve Never Been in a Riot”. He looks like something Tom Waits has been basing his act on for the past 30 years. He seems to be at least as drunk tonight as he was last night. The messiness is shambolic and beautiful, with unscripted moments today being treasured moments for my generation who knows better but never knew it would all go so sideways, and never took notes, or photos, back then.
I’m compelled to do something I haven’t done all day, and rarely do: pull out my notebook and write down lyrics. The lyrics I catch in the wind are amazing, from the type of band that comes from the thoughtful, well-read art student side of punk instead of the other.
I write down “Lose Your Head”
(fortunately this is the name of the song, so I can actually find it later)
I write down ” Where I land I will be renowned”
I’ve started to develop a critical ear, that real music lover’s ear. I knew from a 5 minute listen before TURF that I would like this, and I don’t, I love it. Sally Timms is fascinating to watch, in a simple white summer shift dress, ageless and naturally beautiful, a slash of red lipstick, the type of woman we don’t see much on stage anymore. The non-photographer with the camera takes frame after frame of this woman that won’t turn out, before giving up and just watching instead.
I write down “A stranger pulls the white sheet from your body” this is from “Now We Have the Bomb” and the lyrics are stunning, as is the delivery by Sally Timms. This song has stayed with me, and will stay with me. It’s everything. It’s about the life and death questions “we thought that we were natural survivors/ forgive me if I go out with a bang” she sings, nonchalantly, chillingly. The song contains a call for audience arm movements, followed by a free form dance break. Everyone does it. No one defies this amazing woman tonight.
“What will we do. What will we do. What will we do – when our dreams come true?” is the rallying cry from Manchester’s PINS, whose voices, in unison, infuse each repeated line of the phrase with multiple meanings. It’s gutsy. It’s fresh. It’s a delicious throwback to a time we all want, no, need to get back to when music was always raw, alive, sly with a twist of menace, pretty and dangerous. It’s the real deal. And we are getting it on the back half of a major spring tour as they’ve worked their way from Cardiff to Austin to here.
It is, unfortunately, always worth noting when Toronto rock club show crowds allow themselves to impart emotion, enjoyment, be seen moving, or express much sound beyond the furtive “WHOOO”s that come out of the dark from people like us, answered in kind by other anonymous owls in the darkness. This is just our way in Toronto the dry. One wonders what visiting bands think. Bands out of England, from places historically known for bottling their disapproval, a nation of experts and hecklers, a land of regional identities and generations of music lovers and real night owls, ones who can hold their pints, characters bred for toughness.
In the belt-tightened economy of the live music scene today, outside of the grey concrete nothingness of mega stadiums, a place like Toronto is ever-more privileged and lucky to be included in so many “American” tours of visiting U.K. bands that one could almost weep. We are routinely presented with no less than the cream of the still thriving Indie world of the U.K. and Europe, and we are visited by the best and the brightest bands of recent years and those of tomorrow-the ones who still deserve much more love after years of grinding.
On nights like tonight, it all comes together. Jaded industry types are forced to the margins while real music fans come alive. There is no pit, no obvious security, and the boundaries of stage and and crowd are respected by mutual agreement, except when a singer sits and stands among us, at first surrounded by sheepish men who cannot meet her gaze, then by females who move in and fill in a circle around her and rock out in a way long missed in these parts.
And so faces are turned upward like old footage of the devout in far away Pentecostal churches, and we come alive for a few hours on this Tuesday night, given permission and power by the marvelous energy of five strong, talented women known as PINS. This is their first time in Toronto. The music is noisy but clean, powerful and confident. The look of the band is intense, and as wonderfully uniform as all the great bands are/were once. They are young but like the best, most galvanizing young bands ever did and still do, they’ve done their homework: visually and musically. Wow. It’s all there: Jesus and Mary Chain. My Bloody Valentine. Hole. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Early Cure. The Ramones, even. PINS feels like vinyl sounded on headphones. They’re exciting. A real find. And PINS comes as we always knew it would, again, in Doc Martens. Clad all in black tonight, in all its best variations, in pitch perfect styles referencing the best days- when live music was mostly still captured in black and white. And what other colours do you need?
The Subways are the headliner tonight, and they bring a well honed body of work that is four albums strong (most recently, 2015’s self-titled release, along with a regular output of EPs and special issues). The Subways hail from Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, U.K. and their name is a bit of a curiosity for Anglophiles in Canada and the States as we know that the”subways” of our bigger cities is akin to London’s “tube”. But the subway of the band’s name is an underground walkway to cross a road (thank you, Wikipedia) an obvious choice of youth hangout which has a pretty universal, parent-defying appeal by any name anywhere as long as there has been skateboards and graffiti and Smirnoff in underage back pockets.
The Subways are a tight three-piece unit who’ve been around just long enough to be able to claim one of music’s highest honours- John Peel was the first radio DJ to play their single on National radio. This energetic band sounds much bigger than their number and brings the feeling of a great gang. In the Mod Club tonight, locals and visitors from U.S. border cities are treated to something ultra-rare and special in our culture that one imagines and fantasizes is the province of British pub life nightly at gigs big and small – some truly great stage banter that makes us feel like instant and forever friends. After the exciting cold shower of PINS (who dedicate their second-to-last song to The Subways), the headliners immediately make the stage their own with their unique rhythms and energy. The Subways emerged out of that great global mid-aughts movement that brought us The Strokes, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand when corporate pop and dance music was seriously threatened for the first time in a while. And tonight’s good news continues, The Subways are still flagbearers. They still sound so immediate, youthful and fresh, and are still needed for the revolution we are fighting for in music which will not be machine made but just like this: stripped down with a great rock vocal that is timeless, one reminiscent of the great energy and irrepressible defiance of Liam Gallagher.
In between songs, and a stage dive where Singer Billy Lunn is caught and returned to the stage with love and care, Lunn regales us with pub-like fireside tales that we don’t write down because you had to be there. The band is gracious, warm, and approachable. The set is full and fulsome. The band banters with each other and gives each member their time in the spotlight, including a great drum solo-ish song (complete with spotlight lighting) for Josh Morgan. It’s the first North American trip for the band in eight years, and there is a definite, honest, and well-earned mutual appreciation society vibe. This band has traversed the open stages of Glastonbury, T in the Park, and more across Europe (2005’s “Rock & Roll Queen” was a massive chart hit in UK and North America and is an instant classic that gets a rousing response tonight, but is among other older and newer songs equally strong). You can hear this great potential in their sound even inside the walls of the mid-size Mod Club, and a definite wish is formed to see them again somewhere in the world among one of these festival crowds. Thousands of miles away from those storied fields of the great festivals, the crowd in Toronto is made to feel just as big, just as important. Rock n’ Roll with heart and grit will win. The revolution rolls on.
The Subways North American Spring Tour 2016 rolls on through May 3rd, with support from PINS (all dates). Get out there, West Coast!
While Documentaries are their own well-defined genre and sub genres, the very best sub-sub-genre of these are films that escape their categorization and subject matter and form a new area of informative entertainment: those with stories and subjects that are a complete surprise, even in a milieu that we think we know about.
I grew up in the Bikini Kill, Riot Grrrl 90’s. Bikini Kill formed in Olympia, Washington in 1990, and were among the many bands to emerge from the Seattle scene, alongside with Nirvana. Kathleen Hanna was a friend and contemporary of Kurt Cobain, who was a vocal male feminist, something that has been sadly, lost to much of what is idolized about him. I am also a lifelong Beastie Boys fan, who erupted from another coast and another world, NYC, via the 1986 emergence of that amazing album, Licence to Ill, which said nothing to girls, but yet, could not be ignored. And that was just the artwork. We never imagined these worlds would converge in a touching, timely documentary about love and art. I was a devotee of early 90’s bible (and still singular) Sassy Magazine, even by strange luck having had a chance to visit their New York offices at the height of their reign, and see the world of magazines I longed to enter but had no idea how to approach. We met some dynamic women, owning New York in comfortable wedge shoes. I’ll never forget you, Kim France.
In my imagination I pushed ahead to forge contacts, interned and found a life in 90’s journalism. But in fact, I was just there as an 18 year old, fairly inept chaperone for a Sassiest Girl in America finalist, my younger sister (a Canadian). My sister, a truly gifted writer and thinker at just 15, won the title which came with a cover, a tidy financial prize, whatever bragging rights came from a pre-internet and non stage parented existence, and the excitement of the recognition for that year. During our stay, we got into Limelight, chatted up Corey Feldman, and later missed our scheduled flight home. While my sister worked and competed in a strange, grueling final few days with four other great young minds, I got to play tourist, and was forever imprinted with New York and all the mystique and grit it still held then.
All this is to say that I was fairly well steeped in 90’s culture but was not fully immersed in the Riot Grrrl movement. This was a time of zines, underground bootlegs, and import records. I was fairly unaware of Kathleen Hanna’s particular importance as a figure of that moment, its female centred punk that was not apathetic but fueled with activism, and its ideals and effect in American cities which were much more politicized and politically active than ours. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that as a natural-born feminist in a non-sexist family it was all a given to me, and I nodded silently as I read my magazines. Toronto kids then had a certain privileged existence where we always thought we were as enlightened as New York, even though we kidded ourselves: bland Toronto stood in for New York in so many movies and had almost no global identity then. We were mostly white-bread and endlessly suburban. We were fully 20 years behind in many things. But Sassy helped propel us forward.
Like many STELLAR aspects of early 90’s culture, I assumed that this progress, this Sassy world, this Alternative musical landscape and forward movement for women and music was firm and could not be clawed back. I read my Naomi Wolf and my Naomi Klein and I was all about No Logo. How wrong I was. As we’ve argued in other areasof thismagazine, the forces of Corporate Packaged Pop music would retaliate harshly to the organic music and cultural movements of that time, unleashing more and more plastic music with bigger budgets than ever before, pushing Alternative back to the margins where its largely stayed, making everyone not Revlon ad ready or with an instant brand built for sneaker pimping some sort of Indie poet who does it all for love and rarely for the money they deserve. Remember, in the 90’s selling out was an expression that really meant something. Integrity was a serious word and concept. Artists in major cities with healthy live scenes could afford some idealism for a while. But then the bottom fell out, and Riot Grrrls were replaced with faux-feminist Spice Girls, and Britney’s School Girl “uniform”.
The Punk Singer (2013, Directed by Sini Anderson, currently available on Netflix) fills in the blanks of whatever happened to Riot Grrrl’s Kathleen Hanna after Bikini Kill, and it’s startling. These pioneers did not enjoy the same success that Courtney Love, ever the borrower, enjoyed with the same ideas and connections she had through Hole. Through Kim Gordon, Kathleen met and fell in love with Beastie Boy (and my imaginary boyfriend) Adam Horovitz on tour, and they have amazing, touching footage that shows it in its first full bloom. This Riot girl was also a natural beauty, one who’s sunny, special glow was enough to get Courtney Love’s fists flying, as she signaled through her violent takeover, the end of Riot Grrrl.
The Grrrls and Boys had to grow up, alas. Astoundingly, the Beastie Boys became men, and men of enlightenment, all marrying strong, interesting, creative women. (Mike D has long been married to Tamra Davis, director of TV, music videos and films including the gorgeous Basquait: The Radiant Child, which will also be reviewed here in the coming weeks). In the intervening years, Kathleen Hanna continued to pursue various musical combinations (The very good Julie Ruin and Le Tigre) and solo projects, enjoying a long and devoted, low key, quite un-Hollywood marriage. Hanna has also been very ill for a number of years after contracting Lyme Disease, and the film shows her struggles and pain with the mysterious long term effects of this illness, the lack of medical support she’s had and the related strain that illness takes on a person. All the while, she’s continued to stay connected to her 90’s legacy and work and has a core of devoted fans who’ve stayed with her through it all.
The Punk Singer (the film and its subject) is everything pop film and pop music isn’t. It’s an authentic story about artists and life, and the unlikeliest, and most beautiful sort of marriage that touches the very marrow. It’s something very special that will have you reaching for your 90’s notebooks and remembering who you wanted to be then. It’s a film that will have resonance to young musicians and artists who’ve never heard of, but now see the potential of the Riot Grrrl movement, something that was good for both men and women, and all who value true equality in society. It’s an important cultural restoration of lost archival documents and footage, that worryingly sometimes don’t make it online where we now go for everything we call history.
When someone is linked strongly to one era and movement, they become fixed as an icon, separate from their earliest music (which is arguably the least interesting part of Hanna’s story). That static, brief, flickering image, is now out there, floating about online while real life goes on somewhere else. Where we aren’t, despite our hearts, girls and boys any longer, but aging men and women who go through the shittiest parts of life: illness, loss, and the deeper questions about personal legacy.
The Punk Singer is among the best and rarest genre-defying documentaries. Through the so-called (but never really) objective lens, it becomes an authentic love letter to a deserving subject. It’s riveting, surprising, and truly moving in ways that newcomers and casual viewers to the subject may enjoy even more than fans. It creates new fans and opens up new aspirations. It places nostalgia, legacy, and the beauty of youth in just the right context while giving respect to the realities of a life lived today, and to the very human and unglamourous challenges of getting older, and the beauty of maturity and self-acceptance. It’s a document made at a perfect moment about a very tough cultural time and age (40’s) when we have the difficult task of looking back at a life lived, and to what lies ahead, and neither is as certain as we once thought. Through art, and expression, we carry on.
The Punk Singer is part of our EPIC ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives.