It’s midnight on the ultimate day of Toronto’s five-day Canadian Music Week festival, and I’m at a college-y jazz bar listening to a group of youngish, be-afroed white boys play Stax records covers. For someone’s coworker’s birthday. If it sounds like a particularly frightful way to spend a Saturday, it’s because it is.
But the worst part still? I paid to be here. I’m here by choice. This, despite the fact that I have a VIP wristband to Canadian Music Week on the night where the fest’s headliners play across, as its press materials proudly state, 60 venues in the most reviled and beloved city in Canada. You’d think that I’d be at one of those venues — especially since I’ve been asked to cover the fest for Fast Forward Weekly. And fuckin’ Treble Charger are playing!
But I’m not at one of those venues. And throughout the entire weekend — when I crammed the most into my schedule — I can barely find anything that excites me. Dan Mangan and the Darcys? The former is solid, the latter never justified their hype. John K. Samson and Shotgun Jimmie? Adore both, but I’ve seen them countless times. Cowpuncher and Samantha Savage Smith? Interesting to see how they’d perform in foreign climes, but not worth the trip in itself. The Inbreds? No, this isn’t 1997, and no, I’m not a Chart scribe (currently). And Treble Charger? Well, they’re fucking Treble Charger.
Seriously, though, no disrespect intended to these bands. And I don’t mean to disparage the countless musicians who applied to play, the hardworking festival organizers or the red-eyed publicists who made this event happen. But as a fest, Canadian Music Week was — like so much of the Canadian music canon — stunningly mediocre. Not terrible. But mediocre. And sometimes, that’s worse.
And that’s because, by and large, Canadian Music Week highlighted safe musical choices. Scanning CMW’s post-mortem, there was no breakout star: No, the lauded bands were those we knew we already liked. Like Rich Aucoin. Or Dinosaur Bones. Or the Weather Station. Or Treble Charger, whose decade-old press photo plastered promo materials.
And there’s nothing wrong with these bands (or going to see The Inbreds). But any fest worth its weight in sponsorships — from bigger fests like NXNE, Pop Montreal or heck, Sled Island, to smaller fests such as Sackville, N.B.’s SappyFest — thrill audiences for precisely one reason: The ever-present belief that tonight, you just might find your favourite, new, undiscovered band. And no, that band is not Treble Charger, even if the solo in “Red” is one of the finest moments in Canadian music.
And that’s the problem with safe musical choices. In them, you discover nothing. They’re not highlighting emerging acts. Nor previously undiscovered genres. Or talented musical cities — Lethbridge! Guelph! Sackville! — flying under the radar. In committing to established musical acts, a sprawling, multi-venue, week-long festival is, in essence, committing to enforced mediocrity. And Treble Charger.
That’s not to say the fest didn’t have its admirable moments. Vancouver soul-scuzz act Chains of Love absolutely razed the Horseshoe, a legendary haunt they seemed born to play. Audio Blood Media threw an off-the-hook fun rooftop party with the Balconies, a band I too frequently try to lump in with the faceless indie set, yet they never fail to impress (and who also unveiled a darker, broodier brand of pop). Montreal’s Adam and the Amethysts are perennially underrated. And doubtless there were dozens of incredible performances that I missed for whatever reason. (Treble Charger included.)
Thing is, those moments should be the backbone of a festival — not lucky afterthoughts. And I don’t mean to pan Canadian Music Week in its entirety; maybe 2012 was a bad year, but more likely, it’s just that I expect better. I expect to seek out my (or your) favourite new band, and I expect to find them. Instead, while watching that Torontonian, jazzy cover band lace into “ABC,” all I could think was, “Damn, I wish I was in Calgary catching Mac DeMarco play.” That, and why didn’t they cover “American Psycho”?