While your Instagram feed was blowing up with pictures of Osheaga over the weekend, downtown Toronto’s music scene was doing just fine. More than fine. With Grove Music Fest, OVO, VELD, and Caribana all happening all at once this might have been Toronto’s most musically-inclined weekend of the summer, seeing what were probably record-breaking sales in feather headbands and leather-fringed croptops.
Grove Fest was a day for anyone who wanted the musical enlightenment of a weekend festival without having to spend the cash or energy beyond the bounds of the TTC. With some early hijinks out of the way, including an unexplained change of location from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort York Garrison Common a month before the show, loss of headliners Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Pretty Lights, Bob Mould, and then last-minute disappearing act Icona Pop, Grove Fest moved forward synthesizers-blazing and pulled off a one day show that rivalled what we can only assume was an exhausting weekend in Montreal. Plus, the view of the CN Tower overlooking a sea of flower crowns, featuring the inevitable sounds of condo construction mixed with alternative rock made for an inevitable urban-meets-boho state of affairs in the 416. Everyone took the TTC home and slept comfortably: the beauty of music festivals right in our backyard.
As is tradition in Toronto, Grove Fest brought a melting pot of genres. The one-day lineup ranged from Wavves’ garage-pop, to hip-hop with Earl Sweatshirt, down to to the synth-tinged alt rock of headliners Phoenix. Fans were as diverse as the music in age and style and were reminiscent of the mixed crowd we saw at TURF – and having warned us in advance that Fanny Packs are OK, but stuffed animals are NOT OK, festival organizers were obviously getting prepared for anything.
I arrived (unfortunately) a little late for the first act – local band Nightbox, who according to some in the crowd, did a “good job of warming things up.” Despite the rave review I saw that most of the audience was still littered all over the park, perching in the flat cardboard chairs that were being handed out at the Canadian Club booth. The next act, Young Empires, had everyone out of their uncomfortable-looking seats. The indie-pop, dance, and electro band would have been especially awesome if only we could hear them. Lead singer Matthew Vlahovich’s microphone seemed to be set on the lowest possible volume, and despite the crowd screaming, “MIKE,” and, “WE WANT SUBTITLES,” it seemed that tech wasn’t able to catch on until their set was over. Still, the instrumental was on point and fans singing along made up for the lyrics we couldn’t hear, making for a nice kickoff.
We found love with British rock band Palma Violets, the next band to take the main (only) stage. They switched set times with Wavves, which confused almost everybody. Still, guitarist Sam Fryer and bassist Chili Jesson are supposedly the best of friends and their on-stage chemistry stepped things up, despite some more sound problems that had the bass buzzing, which they were visibly not that cool with. The crowd didn’t mind, maybe because everyone was well into their Canadian Club drink samples and summer wine.
Young Empires ft. that one girl incessantly whirling around a hula hoop.
Earl Sweatshirt (née Thebe Kgositsile) was an unexpected dose of hip hop smack in the middle of the setlist, a fresh breath between Wavves and the Gaslight Anthem. Being a fan of Odd Future (or part-members in Earl’s case, having been forced to stop recording with Tyler the Creator and his collective because his mom sent him on a therapeutic retreat for at-risk boys – but he’s back) I was looking forward to seeing how he’d sound on stage. With a minor delay due to tech (surprise) he launched into a pretty mellow performance, the winner being his recognizable Earl. It was a confident set for such a young dude claiming to put the “ass” in “assassin” and a surprising number of teeny boppers emerged in the crowd knowing all the lyrics. The performance reminded us why Earl was named the most talented guy of the collective, and we’re thinking secured some sales for his album Doris coming out August 20.
The Gaslight Anthem. Photo via John Dabrowski.
Things picked up for Girl Talk. The sky rained confetti, balloons, and Charmin as Girl Talk blasted some of his older mixes and new ones, the audience wigging out for his mix of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and MJ’s “Remember the Time.” I wasn’t totally amped on the novelty of seeing Girl Talk, being more excited to see the musicians who would actually be holding instruments, but I underestimated the potential for a fun and funny experience. Colourful characters danced on stage, Gregg Gillis whipped his sweaty hair back and forth, I made new friends and was mummified in toilet paper by the end of the set.
Hot Chip came out as the sun set and stole the show. They were the headliners in my eyes, having years of experience performing in the synth-pop and alternative scene, with five albums under their wing and consistent new music since 2004. The light show added to the experience, though sound cut in and out at moments throughout their 40 minutes. Still, Hot Chip put on an incredible performance with both ballads and electric hits and were the best of the day. Colours had the crowd getting emotional, and when Alexis Taylor came down into the crowd, ladies were sobbing.
Phoenix closed down the show to huge anticipation and collective energy that mounted as the sky fell into total darkness. We gave up our spots at the front during the long break in between, leaving enough time for the lineup for french fries to wrap all the way to the back of the crowd, and ended up at the back to hear Phoenix. The band opened up their hour long set with a dramatic empty stage, instrumental, and a poppy performance of Entertainment, then hit us up with back-to-back performances of their most popular songs from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Bankrupt!. The show was almost identical to the one I caught at Sweetlife earlier this summer proving only that Phoenix can hold their own in delivering consistent energy and stellar sound. Thomas Mars hopped around the stage as they performed and everyone else stood stiffly in what seems to be trademark to Phoenix. The instrumental Love Like a Sunset was on the ball, working with the flickering lights of the condos that surrounded us.
The music was up, fries were sold out, and the day was done. Our verdict: with set delays and tech suffering in areas, Grove Fest’s organization could be freshened up, but the quality of music still made it a great use of a Saturday. Next year, we’re hoping to see more acts. The park could easily make use of the second stage, give bands like Hot Chip longer sets while still having time and space to bring in more of the little guys. It would have also made for a bigger crowd (especially with many of the Torontonians who might have been there having decamped to Osheaga), as the limited setlist seemed to strive to bring a representative from each genre, with a lot of the audience being split up into fans who were maybe just there for Earl or loyalists to Gaslight Anthem in obvious band t-shirts. Still, we’re happy to see Toronto working it out to see what pleases the location and a city with diverse musical tastes. With Grove Fest landing so quickly after the successful multi-day TURF (we called it), Field Trip, and Mad Decent’s Block Party, it was a good way to round up the growing-up-so-fast festival scene this summer. Kudos, TO, for bringing us the songs and the streetcar just on time to take us home.