Lead image: Skepta. Photo by: Anders Marshall
We'll be honest: CMW has always been the bridesmaid of Toronto's two rival club-hopping festivals, more of an industry conference with a music component than vice versa. But this year, with NXNE mutating into whatever it is that it's mutating into, CMW is kind of the only game in town.
So in the interest of proving (to ourselves?) that putting on a wristband and jumping from venue to venue is still a prime festival experience, we made it to a lot of CMW sets. And some CMW-partnered Hot Docs screenings. And we saw quite a few things we liked! We're sticking to our original plan of putting these in order of what we enjoyed most to least, but this method comes with a couple of caveats:
First, a lot of stuff that we enjoyed a lot (like, say, Keita Juma) falls towards the middle. Second, there's some confirmation bias. For all the pleasant surprises we caught here, there's still a huge mushy middle of mediocrity. We just largely picked the stuff we wanted to see.
So, what you see here are mostly favourites and a few big duds. Keep it in mind as you scroll, but stay open to some discoveries. After all, that's what this should be all about.
Skepta @ The Danforth Music Hall, Friday, May 6
Walking out on stage in a black trench coat and an obligatory OVO cap, Skepta looked calm and focused in front of the sold out Danforth Music Hall. DJ Maximum cut on the title track from Konnichiwa, and the energy in the crowd began to boil. As the first lines left the London MC's mouth, the place finally exploded into one giant most pit, a sweaty, chaotic sea of people pulsating up and down for the duration of the song and every one after.
At one point, some dude in front of me, just having caught a shoulder to the face, tried to stop flow of blood that ran from his nose, still smiling and trying to dance as beer cans and water bottles flew through the air above. Drake endorsement or not, it seems like people in Toronto are really feeling grime. - Adam Pugsley
— Chart Attack (@ChartAttack) May 7, 2016
Eagles of Death Metal @ Opera House, Saturday, May 7
Okay, holy shit. Have you ever played Guitar Hero? This was basically a screen capture of Guitar Hero. EODM blew the house down with their openers, and frontman Jesse Hughes was particularly up for the night, sporting a (Canadian opener) Beaches t-shirt to boot. Hughes knows how to work a crowd to the extent that every wink, smile or strained neck muscle makes the audience scream that much louder, jump that much higher. Which is to say, they know how to rock. The crowd got into it, maybe too much. - Anders Marshall
Eagles of Death Metal, Photo by: Anders Marshall
Duchess Says @ 8-11, Friday, May 6
There's a special energy to basement shows, especially at a stodgy industry festival like CMW — it's the nexus of intimacy and permissiveness and maybe a bit of danger. At a secret M for Montreal showcase in the dingy space beneath a Spadina gallery, Montreal synth punk stalwarts Duchess Says terrorized, coaxed, and otherwise engrossed a room of about 30. It was the best thing I saw all weekend. Singer Annie-Claude Deschênes has an undeniable power. When she says "sit on the floor," everyone does. When she barks in your face, what can you do but bark back? - Chris Hampton
Yuna @ Mod Club Theatre, Thursday, May 5
Toronto loves Yuna. The Kuala Lumpur via LA indie pop artist and recent Usher collaborator's early, sort-of-CMW ticketed event set saw one of the most enthusiastic and diverse Toronto crowds I've ever seen — fans were draped on Yunalis Mat Zara'ai's every note like the gold robe draped around her. Yuna pens intimate songs that touch fans at a personal level, and glitter and heartbreak were in equal measure.
With Taylor Swiftian energy, Yuna felt like the whole audience's best friend forever after her first song, and when she asked what the weather's like in Toronto this time of the year in "Places to Go," I think I would have given her keys to my apartment. Any industry in the crowd took note of this power, and we should be seeing more of this charismatic songwriter soon. Try this softserve "Hotline Bling" cover if you don't believe it. - Kristel Jax
BOSCO @ Mod Club Theatre, Thursday, May 5
BOSCO thought she was in Detroit for the second half of her CMW set, her shouts of "How are you feeling Detroit?!" triggering some tension with the packed, sweaty 7PM Mod Club audience — Toronto's still in the honeymoon period of our burgeoning identity, after all — but the mishap adds up in the context of how busy Brittany Bosco has been this year. The experimental Atlanta R&B artist and new Fool's Gold signee is touring in support of Yuna, and just dropped the highly addictive mixtape Girls in the Yard with Speakerfoxxx.
I've been waiting to see her for years, but BOSCO slayed all my expectations with unrelenting command of the stage before and after the Detroit mishap, pulling up goofy dancers, blasting a megaphone in front of her mic, and loving every minute of her time with us. Bosco's new world order is avant enough to be a fit for NON Worldwide's label, but her new signing with Fool's Gold also makes sense. This artist can write, and perform the fuck out of an indie rock festival - Kristel Jax
Bob Mould @ Horseshoe Tavern, Wednesday, May 4
There isn't this much rambunctious energy at a midwest Warped Tour stop. Bob Mould enters by spinning into the guitar that his roadie holds up by the strap. The guy in front of me is pogoing. I saw an honest-to-god jump kick. Everybody on stage with Mould — Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster — hold business cards that read "total indie rock pro." The set crisscrosses Mould band, Sugar and Hüsker Dü tunes — a songbook of alt and underground gems three decades long.
There's a large contingent of Mould lookalikes in the room, each with a different beard to belly to baldness ratio (you will probably, one day, count me among them). One of the lookalikes, Damian from Fucked Up, joins the band for a screamthrough of the 1985 Flip Your Wig track "Divide and Conquer." Mould smiles throughout. Pop punk isn't just a kid's sport. - Chris Hampton
Clairmont The Second @ Revival Bar, Thursday, May 5
With only a microphone and a voice available at their disposal, oftentimes MCs struggle to engage the crowd past subtly bobbing heads and iPhones held into the air. Up until Clairmont The Second took the stage, there was a whole lot of that cool-guy stuff going on at Revival. Then "I don't want to see the floor" he declared, pointing to the hardwood and encouraging people to push towards the stage.
For the duration of his brief 20 minute set, Clairmont's youthful energy was contagious, growing stronger with each passing minute. "I just want you guys to dance," he said, not long before jumping down from the stage and busting a move while the entire audience formed a circle around him and cheered. Talk about leading by example. - Adam Pugsley
— Adam Pugsley (@ajrpugs) May 6, 2016
Partner @ The Silver Dollar Room, Thursday, May 5
There's a specific brand of East Coast charm that has been elevating earnest guitar bands since the '90s. Would that be enough to propel Sackville, New Brunswick's Partner through three nights at the Silver Dollar? On night 2, it certainly seemed to. It helped that the duo was now a five-piece, brandishing their crunchy slacker rock tunes with some serious guitar shredding.
But it was that unpretentious charisma that kept a smile plastered on my face. Songs about daytime TV, hot knives, keeping a gross secret, Ellen Page ("a fellow Maritime lesbian") and being unable to pass for someone who isn't high. And, while they were tuning, snippets of Moldy Peaches and Tegan and Sara. If you couldn't enjoy that, you're made of stone. - Richard Trapunski
Tegan and Sara @ iHeartRadio Fest, Sheraton Toronto's Grand Ballroom, Friday, May 6
Admitting they just got back their touring legs after an 18-month hiatus, Canadian indie pop darlings Tegan and Sara showed no signs of on stage rust during their headlining performance at Toronto's inaugural iHeartRadio Fest. Stoically planted in front of two mic stands, the sisters sang revitalized, electronic renditions of old favourites like "Walking With A Ghost," along with newer pop heavy-hitters "Closer" and their latest single "Boyfriend." Not an acoustic guitar in site. The audience was captivated - swaying along to the '80-inspired tunes. And once their set wrapped? Half the crowd immediately vacated the premises, clearly a sign of their draw, even on a fully pop-focused lineup like this one. - Julia Lennox
SATE @ Lee's Palace, Wednesday, May 4
These days in Toronto it's about gliding bass and obscure samples for hip-hop nerds to pore over on Reddit. Draped in black, sporting a golden up-do, SATE (Sadiah Baba Talibah) is a versatile singer capable of both throaty blues and soaring pop melodies. It works. SATE's band and her audience pick up everything she puts down. - Anders Marshall
SATE, Photo by: Anders Marshall
Blanka @ The Silver Dollar Room, Saturday, May 7
In my mind leading up to their set at CMW (and maybe this is a quirk of my overfull-feeling head), Montreal's Blanka were a good post-punk band in the tradition of Women. There are, however, many good post-punk bands in the tradition of Women. I was ill-prepared for the intense electro-industrial duo that turned up. I had my brooding cap on; my dancing shoes were at home with my five more beers. That didn't stop a pair of kids nearby from grinding through their set, which is either a sign of the End Times or a glorious new beginning, I'm unsure which. - Chris Hampton
— Chart Attack (@ChartAttack) May 8, 2016
Keita Juma @ The Danforth Music Hall, Friday, May 6
Folks were just starting to trickle into The Danforth as Keita Juma walked out on stage. Compared to the mass of people who would later come out to see Skepta, the crowd for the hometown boy was relatively small, but judging by the smile on his face, it was clear that he didn't give a shit. With just his DJ on stage with him, the guy played his set as if he was the headliner. He made sure to praise and encourage those who were dancing along to his rhythmic, grime-flavoured jungle tracks, eventually jumping down from the stage to join in on the action himself. Nothing but positivity all around. I'd be surprised if his magnetic energy didn't gain him a few new fans that night. - Adam Pugsley
Keita Juma, Photo by: Anders Marshall
Vallens @ Velvet Underground, Thursday, May 5
Back in January, we called Vallens one of the 12 bands we were excited about this year, so naturally we had to check in. I arrive two songs late and sweaty (on account of being two songs late), but float right upfront on Vallens' smoky, smoldering vibes. The songs are each daunting walls of reedy synth and guitar and cymbal wash, but porous and delicate, too, as if made of cinder. The Velvet Underground also smells slightly burnt or burning maybe. Which really adds to the whole scorched image for me. - Chris Hampton
No Joy @ Velvet Underground, Thursday, May 5
Why oh why won't you ever play me "Everything New"? I fucking love that song. I wanted to fold myself, finally, into its mystical, obliterating gaze. (And, not only that, I think it represents the aesthetic way forward for this band). Whatever. No Joy are one of the country's most powerful and dynamic guitar acts and — my song or not — they gave me fuzzy waves aplenty to bang along to. - Chris Hampton
Grounders @ Bunz Trading Zone's CMW Day Party, Handlebar, Saturday, May 7
First of all, the disclosures: 60% of the band was made of former Chart Attack staffers, and about 40% of the crowd were former contributors. That might be too high a percentage to review the band, but Grounders were the only act I caught at this daytime Bunz day party and any showcase where I could trade a Blue Jays patch for a little plastic Meowth figurine or an unauthorized biography of W. Axl Rose is one worth mentioning, right? So I guess instead of reviewing the band I'll review the vibes of the party: 3 tokens, a nice houseplant, or a couple of tall cans. - Richard Trapunski
Caveboy @ Lee's Palace, Thursday, May 5
Montreal's Caveboy will make you want to dance, they’ll make you want to kiss your partner. Lee’s dark, elevated stage bathed in a rainbow of light acted as the perfect backdrop to their light, airy sound that hits you hard and makes you want more. Try their self-titled EP as the soundtrack to Drive. - Anders Marshall
Caveboy, Photo by: Anders Marshall
Mura Masa @ Mod Club Theatre, Friday, May 6
The 20-year-old UK producer leads a one-man, live drums 'n all revue of trap, dub step and hip-hop. A good consolation for that Disclosure shitshow last fall. Similarly, packed. I think there's sweat dripping off the ceiling. Nobody cares. People are here to dance and party. I accidentally punch a guy in the face and he later compliments my shirt. Mura Masa sets that kinda tone. - Chris Hampton
For Esmé @ The Silver Dollar Room, Saturday, May 7
For Esmé offer electro-pop buffet style: they serve almost every flavour. My quibble with their performance is the same as my issue with buffets. There were moments I absolutely loved. There was some I didn't want seconds of. Never mind the rock 'n' roll. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover is a bit on the nose. BUT, and this is crucial, there were songs — some you might call Cranberriesian dream pop, some post-disco, others were playful no wave things — that made me feel like some version of For Esmé could be my new favourite. - Chris Hampton
— Chart Attack (@ChartAttack) May 6, 2016
Acid Priest @ Hard Luck Bar, Wednesday, May 4
It's past midnight, and Acid Priest have just finished their fifth song. The lead singer notices my camera amongst the sparse crowd. He calls me over, asking who I'm taking pictures for. "Hey, I'm Norman," he says. I was picturing an "Axel" or maybe a "Dallas." Three out of four people in this band could fill in for Trash Talk. But not Norman. He's cool yelling obscenities in a striped salmon t-shirt with a warm domestic in his hand. I dig that, and its clear Acid Priest dig being a metal band without the über hard metal attitude. - Anders Marshall
Acid Priest, Photo by: Anders Marshall
She-Devils @ The Silver Dollar Room, Saturday May 7
Like an apparition or a ghost-sighting, the buzzy Montreal duo appear just briefly — near the true witching hour, in fact — but their image won't soon be forgotten. Playing from a suitcase filled with samplers and other tech, Kyle Jukka and Audrey Ann's retro-pop hypnotism routine consumes the room quickly. Her voice beckons you into the vintage tone whirlpool. Then, just as I'm fully mesmerized (and before getting to anything I recognize off their EP), they vanish offstage. Come back, ghosts!!! Don't leeeeeaaaveee!!!!1! - Chris Hampton
Tor Miller/Hailee Steinfeld @ Revival, Wednesday, May 4
When it comes down to it, CMW is more for the industry than it is for the average music fan. And so it's a perfect occasion for something like Universal Music Canada's nextis showcase. A buffet of big and small name artists paraded across a stage for the assembled suits, each getting exactly two songs to make their impression.
At the tail end, Tor Miller played a much more upbeat version of "Carter and Cash" than he played for us, showcasing his big white guy dance moves as much as his big voice. Then actress-turned-singer Hailee Steinfeld played a short acoustic set that probably looked a lot different than her usual concerts. You could tell the small handful of contest winners from the invited guests, standing near the front of the stage and screaming along to "Love Myself" while the rest nodded along politely. But no one was too polite for a selfie. After her set when artists came to mingle, there was a long lineup of people waiting to pose with the Pitch Perfect 2 star. - Richard Trapunski
— Chart Attack (@ChartAttack) May 6, 2016
NAO @ Mod Club Theatre, Friday, May 6
British alt R&B singer NAO came third in the BBC's Sound of 2016 and a near capacity crowd packed the Mod Club for a glimpse of the future. I'm not sure that's what we saw. Toronto is, right now, the post-Weeknd ground zero, and though NAO's a charming, supremely talented performer, the songs and sounds themselves felt a bit stale. Best of 2012 maybe. - Chris Hampton
Amir Obè @ WayHome x CMW @ Mod Club Theatre, Saturday, May 7
It's hard to swing a lint roller in the GTA without hitting a Drake imitator, but apparently The New Toronto spreads all the way to Detroit. Following a set by Kiki Rowe who certainly, uh, exists, Motor City native Amir Obè spent most of his set mired in hookless, repetitive sing-rap and OVO lite beats, which seemed to fall flat on the WayHome party crowd, many of whom seemed to be there for the free vodka. Then he just said "fuck it" and played "Know Yourself," which, in the 6, is basically the equivalent of an Edge 102 rock band shouting out the Leafs. Sure, it works, but it just feels cheap. - Richard Trapunski
— Chart Attack (@ChartAttack) May 8, 2016
Alberta Cross @ Google's Toronto HQ, Thursday, May 5
While Alberta was burning, Alberta Cross, a flock of hat wearin' dudes from Brooklyn, played alt-country suspender soft twang at Canadian Music Week without a mention of the disaster currently befalling their namesake. Maybe Fort McMurray's displaced can all move to Brooklyn? As for the hats, not sure if that's supposed to be how pioneers in the mythical land of Alberta dress, or if that's just a Brooklyn dude thing. Nice lap slide but points docked for slide player's hat. This band was at least 50% hat. - Kristel Jax