Toronto Summer Music Festivals - Ranked best to worst

Toronto Summer Festivals, Ranked From Best To Worst

2015 was the summer Toronto's festival season exploded. Before you commit to next year, we ranked as many as we could.

- Sep 25, 2015

Now that TURF and Riot Fest have passed, transforming Toronto from a city of flower crowns and $9 cans of Molson into a sea of sensible light denim jackets and pumpkin spice, it's time to declare summer festival season over.

If you're anything like us, this declaration probably comes with a slight sigh of relief. You may have noticed an uptick of festival coverage at Chart Attack. We've spent May to September in the orbit of food truck queues, port-a-potties, brand activations, rage sticks and, in between, music. That's not just because we've developed a taste for The War On Drugs or because we prefer standing in front of loud amps to sleeping (though that has something to do with it) - this is the year that Toronto's festival market exploded.

It seemed like every weekend brought a new or returning festival, some bringing something new to the circuit, some developing and finding their own niche, and some just clogging the stages with more of the same. So we thought we'd put our festival hangover to good use and sort the good from the bad, the original from the uninspired. We've gone back through our notes and sorted this year's festivals from best to worst.

Before we get into it, a few caveats. Though we made it to lots, we couldn't make it to everything. We couldn't get our hands on an OVO ticket. We mostly concentrated our dancing muscles on Bestival. We took a break on a patio while some band played some side stage. We're humans. So we expanded the pool by expanding the definition of "Toronto" to include festivals nearby, from Hamilton to Meaford to Oro. If there's anything you want to add or if you think we way overrated or underrated something, feel free to chime in on Facebook.

unsound toronto tim hecker ephemera

Unsound

Luminato was the only festival that could have brought this Polish experimental festival of sounds and smells, which has previously only set up on this continent in NYC, to Toronto. It also landed the to-die-for lineup (Stars Of The Lid, Tim Hecker, Helena Hauff, Ben Frost, Emptyset, Lena Willikens, Lustmord, etc) by giving festival directors a tour of abandoned power plant The Hearn.

Every single droner, noise-head, and dance fan who made it out to the Port Lands were buzzing for weeks afterward over the impression made by the massive, dilapidated structure itself, with toxic puddles, rubble, and ten stories of hanging wires sectioned off by police tape, because this never gets to happen in Toronto if the city knows about it in advance. Best fest of the year. - Kristel Jax

[READ: Unsound offers a whiff of Toronto's festival future]

Camp Wavelength

The inaugural Camp Wavelength was built especially for the outsiders and weirdoes you don't usually find at big ticket music festivals, and that’s what made it such a low-key success. Everywhere you looked on their little patch of Hanlan’s Point, there was some sort of art installation: a smoke-breathing dragon on the beach path, a confusing instrument named the Aeolian Current, numerous light and sound pieces.

By immersing everyone in local and DIY art, Wavelength created an ambience as important and fascinating as any of its musical acts. But some of those acts were almost set pieces themselves. Brooklyn’s Prince Rama, with one of the weekend’s best half hours, clad in spandex camouflage for the jungle rave set, ended their psych-dance set with singer Taraka Larson on the shoulders of a blissed-out looking photographer.

Unlike the food and cigarette gorge of many artist-only festival spaces, the musicians were especially physically active, with many opting to go for a swim on their downtime, or like The Wooden Sky’s Gavin Gardiner, take a group of health keeners on a Saturday morning jog. The food wasn’t quite as healthy, with the fest’s caterer falling through last minute and replaced by some food truck that served, among other gems, the most brutal burrito I’ve ever eaten. Also bad news if you had an adverse reaction to said burrito: by my count, the port-a-potties weren’t cleaned once all weekend. Overall, though, Camp Wavelength—fittingly, a bit of an ‘Island of Misfit Toys’—was a major spirit cleanse at the end of festival season. - Matt Williams

Crowd at WayBright Stage during Alt-J - Exposures - WayHome Festival 2015

WayHome

As with any first timer, “The Canadian Bonnaroo” had its share of hiccups, but felt like the big destination camping festival Toronto (area) needed. WayHome coasted by on a (mostly) stellar line-up of acts with popularity ranging from ‘huh?’ to legendary. In the latter camp was Kendrick Lamar, whose Saturday night set was a highlight, with the Compton rapper showcasing old hits (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”! “Backstreet Freestyle”!! "A.D.H.D."!!!) and a few sprinkled tracks from his frontrunner for hip-hop record of the year, To Pimp a Butterfly (he's reportedly saving some of that headier, mind-exploding material for a dedicated full-band tour in 2016).

Long days turned into long nights, and if you were lucky (or rich) enough to be VIP, you could energize luxuriously: The Drake provided gourmet food, including a pig roast one night. (Full disclosure: author washes dishes at Drake 150 and knows how delicious the food is). You could also splurge on breakfast in bed, where someone would actually bring food to your tent. Your tent, unfortunately, was probably squished between two vehicles. This is not an ideal camping situation, but WayHome catered more to city slickers than outdoorsy types. If you have Donald Trump money (or you’re a music journalist) there was a glamping option: thousands for a bed and some electricity.

And if you ever went to a festival and thought, “this is cool, but I wish a rep for Air Miles would take my photo in a booth with the latest Samsung Universe 27X and then share it across my social media platforms to showcase the diversity and artistic spirit of my personal brand,” then A) you suck, so much, and B) you’re in the right place. There was a company "activating" every little thing at WayHome, and that drives home how much something this big comes down to cold, hard cash. But I gotta be honest: I tricked the Reebok people into thinking I was in Hey Rosetta! for free shoes. Sue me. - Matt Williams

[READ: WayHome Festival 2015, ranked from best to worst]

[EXPOSURES: Photos from WayHome Festival’s surprises, tents and flip cup tournaments]

toronto panamania

Panamania

The Pan Am games weren't quite the HOV-lane drive-away success that Toronto was hoping for (or even a successful Olympics audition), but they did do wonders for Nathan Phillips Square's Instagrammability. How many #toronto shots have you seen with a backdrop of the now-famous (and now likely-permanent) Toronto sign? How many fireworks shots did you see at City Hall? Probably a lot, because they repeated the exact same display every night of Panamania, Pam Am's music program for the the sports-averse.

It may have had an aura of official city-run event cheese, with overenthusiastic MCs and patriotism galore, but the lineup was pretty unimpeachable. How many nights can you watch a breathtaking Tanya Tagaq performance followed by The Roots covering "Trap Queen" in the middle of a public square like it's nothing? Or showing up two nights in a row for free shows by Janelle Monae and Explosions In The Sky? That's not even to mention the art, theatre and dance components. We probably won't miss Pan Am next year, but we wouldn't mind a return to the mania. - Richard Trapunski

Mykki Blanco - Wavvy - Directed by Francesco Carrozzini

Electric Eclectics

FULL DISCLOSURE: I played this fest. It was a rainy year at the Funny Farm, a home a few hours out of Toronto close to Meaford, ON, where artists Laura Kikauka and Gordon Monahan let weirdos young and old camp out on the property for three nights every July, but the art beat the weather.

Nighttime wanderings through twinkling, actually-good art installations led one to blissful outdoor sets from Mykki Blanco, The Nihilist Spasm Band, Swedish impro-electro duo The Moth (never heard them before, so good!), B L A C K I E, and way more (I missed Silver Apples playing in the studio so ask someone else about that). Gambletron’s Noise Karaoke and the rain clearing up on Sunday for New Chance made daytime magic too. My dog kinda got into a spat with Gambletron’s elderly dog. Sorry pup. - Kristel Jax

Bestival 2015 - Exposures - Florence and the Machine

Bestival

It’s common knowledge to anyone in Toronto that holding a major event on Toronto Island will be a disaster no matter how prepared you are. There aren’t enough fairies or water taxis in Lake Ontario to easily move 10,000+ people. It will never work. This was grossly overlooked and ruined the festival experience. Their idea of hosting the 2-day event on the island was to be an “escape,” yet it turns out we just wanted to escape Toronto Island after standing in a dangerously cramped ferry line for 2-3 hours.

Though there were big name headliners like Nas and Florence And The Machine, Bestival’s main attraction was electronic music. Up until the headliners, the crowds at the main stage were paper thin, yet the relatively small electronic tent was bubbling over during the entirety of the festival. The sites and stages were beautifully decorated, including the tucked away Balearic Beach Club where you dig your toes into the sand, soak in the rays, and dance away. At first glance of the Bollywood stage you go, “oh cool!” then once the flames stop shooting out of elephants, you realize that it is terribly appropriative of Indian culture, complete with shirtless white models wearing clothing that is nowhere to be seen in Bollywood.

Logistical nightmares and cultural appropriation aside, the organizers of the U.K. import put a ton of effort into the unique appearance and experience of the festival and it stood out and shined from the overcrowded Toronto festival market as unique, something we so painfully needed. It’s just too bad that Toronto has nowhere to host large outdoor events unless you go to *shivers* Downsview Park or the way-too-often used Fort York, so we’ll be force to enjoy another year of considering swimming back to the mainland to get home on time. - Ryan Parker

[EXPOSURES: Fire, Fun and Ferries at Bestival 2015]

SUUNS and Jerusalem In My Heart - "Gazelles in Flight" (Official Video)

Sound Séance

FULL DISCLOSURE: a week before the inaugural Sound Séance Fest at Geary Lane, Invocation TO’s Jay Pollard asked me to play an afternoon drone set (I played it with a lost neighbourhood dog named Diamond) and before the set, Jay bought me coffee.

Similar to the vibe of Unsound but on a DIY scale, Sound Séance brought experimental and avant-garde sounds — Suuns, Wrekmeister Harmonies, Jerusalem in My Heart, Olivia Neutron-John, Jessica Moss, Expo 70 — that wouldn’t normally find a home in the city’s festival scene to a reverent and thirsty environment, and the place was packed every night. The vibe was all the more intense because the whole thing almost didn’t happen due to City Hall hating fun (if you haven’t heard, Geary Lane is saved, and will be booking shows into the new year and beyond). - Kristel Jax

[READ: What will the Toronto Music Office do for the music community?]

Jessie Lanza - Supercrawl

Hamilton Supercrawl

The lineup wasn't as ambitious as in years past. And then, it rained the whole time. Still, Hamilton's weekend-long art festival delighted by the gravity of its own good vibes. This go-round, the popular exchange wasn't "Woah, J Mascis on James Street?!" but "how long have you been at the side stage," where on a tiny strip mall setup the savviest crawlers camped out under umbrellas and ponchos to catch Frog Eyes or Humans or HEALTH or some other bit of the fest's most exciting programming.

But if Supercrawl's official lineup wasn't enough to justify the short drive from Toronto this year, the peripheral events did. One street over, Baltimore House threw a two-day intra-festival that would've sold out near any Toronto club, featuring Bile Sister, Scattered Clouds, Black Baron, Fresh Snow and Moon King, to name just a few.

But the biggest, most revelrous crowds were won by the Supercrawl fundraiser a few weeks prior, which brought the stacked lineup of Caribou, Jamie xx, Jessy Lanza and Egyptrixx to Hamilton's Bayfront park for an evening of fairly-priced tall cans and glazed over 2-stepping. - Chris Hampton

 

Field Trip 2015

Field Trip

Arts & Crafts has essentially been in transition since the (sort-of) breakup of Broken Social Scene, but with the jump of co-founder Jeffrey Remedios to the majors it's especially in need of a new anchor. It seems Field Trip is going to be the way forward, bringing the brand beyond just records. It may have started as a label anniversary retrospective, but this year it (mostly) found its identity outside of the label's roster. Sure, Kevin Drew and Dan Mangan still played multiple sets, but there was also a ton of Bonnaroo-style Americana-rock from the likes of My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes.

The real character of this festival, though, isn't so much in the acts it books as in the family-friendly atmosphere it creates... for kids of all ages. Many of the acts, like the ultimate nostalgia shot of Sharon & Bram, jumped between the children's stages and the regular stages, eliciting many goofy childlike grins behind bushy beards. Unfortunately, though, the bouncy castle was for kids only. - Richard Trapunski

[READ: 4 Lessons from Field Trip 2015]

wilco_2015

TURF

The third annual Toronto Urban Roots Festival moved from July to September this year to avoid competing with the Pan Am Games, but still ended up sharing a weekend with Riot Fest. C'est la vie on Toronto's overcrowded 2015 festival market. Still, 2015 was its biggest yet, in a few ways. The headliners, although never particularly small, were especially massive draws, and organizer Jeff Cohen announced on Saturday, just before a dismal downpour, that they’d doubled their ticket sales from 2014.

That storm, which was quick but near-biblical, was one of few drags of the weekend, and it was at least poetically resolved mid-Lucinda Williams, as the clouds parted and the sun shone through as she sang, “can’t put the rain back in the sky.” It’s tough to fault the fest for bad weather, of course, and no one melted, so it’s forgiven. Later that night, Wilco proved they are still easily one of the world’s best-sounding live acts, blazing through all of their brand new Star Wars and then treating the audience to some classics (there are a lot of Wilco classics, by the way). On Sunday, I was totally ready to be disappointed by Pixies (I was there for the first reunion tour. Now no Kim Deal? A terrible new record?!) but was pleasantly surprised. In fact, Pixies proved to be the undeniable best set of the weekend, and it was only tracks from, ugh, Indie Cindy that tarnished their 90-minute set.

If TURF suffers from anything, it’s essentially “safe” programming: most of the acts pegged for the fest seem tailor-made for old (but eclectic and kinda funky!) WASPs. That doesn’t mean all of those artists aren’t world-class, just that the festival has a major chance to create something extraordinary, and some stuff that errs on the side of super weird could add some pop to their mostly twangy set-up. Still, thanks in no small part to the sway and experience of Collective Concerts, it's one of the best-run weekends every year. - Matt Williams

Alexisonfire announce comeback -Toronto Riotfest 2015

Riot Fest

Riot Fest is a festival about determination. It's about finally crossing that one band off your bucket list. It's fitting that it rained violently, as if the gods were playing one last test on your will to see Echo And The Bunnymen or Babes in Toyland or Wu-Tang Clan or the reunited (or not?Alexisonfire.

It's often pointed out that it's a lineup programmed around nostalgia, but this year, it seemed that the festival was trying to scratch that itch for too disparate a crew. The schedule felt incoherent. The Dead Milkmen playing back-to-back with Moneen? Who was this planned for? Unfortunately, "a carnival for the freaks" is a twee '90s idea that no longer encompasses the look, feel, or identity of the wider body of alternative music.

Then, on the other hand, I did finally get to see Echo And The Bunnymen. - Chris Hampton

Mac DeMarco // No Other Heart on a Rowboat

TIME Festival

This one-day festival started as a mostly electronic day-to-night dance party, then after a few years off returned last year with a lineup that mostly split between the club-friendly and the indie-friendly. This year, it shuffled the deck even more with a lineup that barely cohered at all. I spent the whole day playing an internal game of festival TriBond, trying to find the common link between acts like Ariel Pink, Mac DeMarco, DIIV and Die Antwood (people I wouldn't want to be left alone in a room with?). There was hip-hop (Freddie Gibbs and Tory Lanez), Drake-tronic music (Ryan Hemsworth) and relative Toronto newbies (Lobby and Elliot Vincent Jones), and though there were some good performances, it didn't hang together enough to overcome my late-summer festival fatigue. Instead, it felt like a pile of acts thrown at me just because. - Richard Trapunski

Jazz Cartier at Sled Island

Canadian Music Week

The multi-venue, industry-facing counterpart to NXNE, like the first tulip blooms, marks the opening of festival season, sending merry concertgoers across the city with no more than a wristband, a schedule of acts folded hastily into their back pockets, and the promise that at the end of the night, some establishment permitted to serve extra late on account of the special occasion, can pour a cup of piping hot Jagermeister to soothe their jangled nerves and reconstitute their melted faces. A small, bitter taste of Toronto's Music City ambitions.

As always, CMW delivered an embarrassingly low quotient of rap acts, but, to its credit, did host Jazz Cartier's incredible first headlining show and was made stronger by a bright lineup of local and local-ish acts freed from NXNE's radius clause. The festival also boasted stopovers from '80s legacy acts The Psychedelic Furs and The Jesus and Mary Chain, which after a long day of conferences about licensing for commercials and hot apps, are exactly the kinds of things an industry-type and I can clink Heinekens over. - Chris Hampton

[READ: CMW Report Cards 2015: And the winner is...]

warped4_crowd2

Warped Tour

This year’s Warped Tour was one for the books for all the wrong reasons (or the right reasons, since we need to talk about this stuff): allegations, call-outs, petitions, and discussions of sexual abuse at Warped Tour swirled around the pop-punk carnival in its 20th year. But though we old timers scoff at Warped’s existence and shake our heads at its gross, terrible exploiters, I’ll remember Warped 2015 for a sea of hopeful millennials in Black Veil Brides tees opening up their hearts.

You can read teens answering my LiveJournal survey questions at Toronto’s Warped Tour here because I don’t care who knows I’m emo. - Kristel Jax

nxne_4

Photo by: Colin Medley

NXNE

The festival that promised a new face in 2015 blew it this year. There's obviously something toxic about the culture at NXNE (especially if you listen to people in the local music scene), and though they made some extremely necessary personnel changes this year, they still totally dropped the ball. No one could explain who booked Action Bronson in a public square, but he was definitely not getting booted out, because NXNE doesn’t want to be your dog or a dog or something, and then Bronson was booted out, which petitioners had to consider a win even though dude still got paid.

In a year touted as a back-to-grassroots, we’re-listening affair on the heels of their massively expensive (and scene-alienating) 2014 anniversary blow-out, NXNE didn’t feel much different, even with a dramatic cut in venues and a confusing new ticketing system. The festival still used Sonicbids, still paid local artists next to nothing, still had volunteers who didn’t know what was going on, and still treated its artists like inconvenient means to an end, though, as they do every year, some musicians managed to pull off killer sets, just like they would at an ordinary show (Zola Jesus and JOOJ were highlights for me). Apparently 2016 will see NXNE cut back even more.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I DJ’d on Saturday at the Garrison and, though they were understandably unable to break the waves of chaos, all the volunteers and techs were super sweet to me. - Kristel Jax

[READ: The Best and Worst Sets of NXNE]

[EXPOSURES: The house parties, in-stores and arcade concerts of NXNE 2015]

[READ: How many petitions will it take to fix NXNE?]

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