All photos by: Richard Trapunski
It's about 2 in the afternoon on a summer workday, and I'm trying to figure out how to make it to NXNE.
I've arrived at a port at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre "near the Natrel Pond," but the friendly strangers in pot leaf-adorned hockey jerseys have told me the free boat shuttle, provided by a handful of grey zone marijuana companies, won't be leaving for another 45 minutes. I check my phone to see if I can get there any quicker via public transit, but I realize that either way I'm going to miss the first two acts of the day: Tasha The Amazon and Drew Howard, the only two Toronto hip-hop acts at a festival that has been promised to take advantage of "this incredible moment in time for hip-hop in Toronto."
So I wait out the marijuana boat, ignoring the wrangler's suggestion to "come back with some ladies" and instead sip a beer on the nearby patio. After about an hour I'm aboard the boat alongside nine other passengers, a few of whom have taken NXNE up on its offer for free tickets to the new Port Lands flagship "festival within a festival" by signing up for the sponsor's marijuana dispensary. They've promised tickets for the "first 1,000 card-holding medical marijuana patients" who take the boat, but, judging by the heated argument I hear the pot bros having later in the day about how to get more people to take advantage, I'd be surprised if they reach anywhere near that.
Arriving at the Port Lands festival site one Sublime-soundtracked ferry-ride later, I can see why. The much-hyped Port Lands site, tucked away on Cherry Street on the way to Luminato's head-turning hub at the re-claimed Hearn Generating Station, is essentially one very large slab of concrete with enough circling seagulls to distract Ghostface Killah mid-set, almost no shade (a "...parking lot next to the freeway" as Father John Misty would snark the next day), and a small fraction of festival-goers needed to fill up the overly optimistic area. There's no reason this venue couldn't be half the size.
When Shamir takes the stage for an infectious, groove-heavy set, his fans have crowded into a few rows up near the stage where the sun isn't beating, the rest of the space looking like a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Have people not gotten the memo? NXNE is still on. Sort of.
Getting to NXNE has never been a problem for me in the past. That's because, at its height, NXNE felt like it was the city's music scene, at least for a week. When nearly 100 venues book shows the same week and let you hop between them, it feels like everyone is united. Music fans all converge at the same time. Yonge-Dundas Square attracts passersby. People take advantage and throw their own ad hoc parties and BBQs.
That's always been NXNE's strength. It activates the city for a weekend, if only because nobody wants to be left out.
Sure, this is technically NXNE in the way the CBGB restaurant in the Newark airport is still technically CBGB. But what is this festival's identity now that it's not club-hopping?
It all seemed to come to a head this year, where, in a strange turn of events, the entire festival staff departed under still unexplained circumstances. Many were curious if there would even be an NXNE this year.
If the festival was in jeopardy, there could have been a couple of obvious ways forward: 1) Merge with its more industry-focused rival CMW to form one mega-festival (ha!). 2) Let the community take ownership. Work with the many pre-existing promoters in the city to book their own shows and let NXNE evolve into what many in the music scene have always wanted it to be: a celebration of the Toronto music scene for and by the people that make it thrive all year-round.
Instead, Festival Director Michael Hollett made the 22nd edition into something else altogether. He turned Yonge-Dundas Square — the former free festival hub in the middle of the city where headliners like Iggy & The Stooges and The Flaming Lips played — into an E-Sports event called "Game Land." He reorganized the music industry panels into a one-day tech-focused conference called "Future Land." He recruited Collective Concerts as a third-party booker of "Club Land," but removed the festival wristband option altogether, essentially just throwing the NXNE banner over shows by artists like Kamasi Washington and Prozzäk that would have probably happened anyway.
In the midst of all this, the event NXNE pushed hardest was the Port Lands, a two-day ticketed event that moved the focus from the middle of the city and its wide network of clubs, to the more immersive, more out of the way outdoor site.
That would have made it easier to just ignore, and that's almost what happened. Live music-dabbling friends who usually ask me which bands to check out weren't aware NXNE was even happening this weekend, the festival's disastrous social channels practically directed people away from the festival, and even NOW Magazine (whose co-founder, Michael Hollett, also co-founded NXNE) opted to feature Luminato on its cover instead. For the first time ever, as both a fan and a writer, I felt like I could safely skip NXNE without an ounce of FOMO.
But I've been coming to NXNE for at least a decade. It was my introduction to the Toronto music scene and its many interlocking tentacles. I owed it to someone, either myself or the festival, to at least give it a chance.
That's how I've ended up here on a Friday afternoon, sweltering in the hot sun while rapper Mick Jenkins commands his crowd to chant his catchphrase "Drink More Water." He doesn't mean it literally, but there's no water refill station and bottles cost $3. Throughout the weekend, security will have its hands full tending to concert-goers who have passed out. (That is, when they're not hassling kids for smoking pot, which seems a little rich considering how I've arrived there).
The Port Lands festival is split into two days. Day 1 is co-presented by Manifesto and skewed towards hip-hop, R&B, soul and reggae. Day 2 is more indie rock-focused, headlined by Father John Misty and featuring an undercard of mid-level Canadian bands that would easily fit at TURF, Field Trip, or CBC Music Festival.
I'm checking out Day 1, because that's the one Hollett has been talking up in interviews. And also, it's the more unique. If I'm going to go with the new NXNE, I really want it to be new.
And by the time the sun begins to set over the Toronto skyline, I can start to see its charm. Daniel Caesar is a deserving rising Toronto talent and it's great to see he's given such a prime slot before the headliner. He's sandwiched between turn-up sets by Ghostface and ScHoolboy Q, which is a great endorsement but strange for flow. Caesar's smooth psychedelic soul is just gorgeous live, and his vocals are maybe even more impressive than on record. Still, I can't help but think what it would be like to bask in these chilled out sounds somewhere where there's grass, or even a place to sit down.
ScHoolboy Q seemed like a strange headliner, added just a month before the festival (my guess is a combo of low ticket sales and a slot opened up by Freddie Gibbs' rape arrest). That said, he knows how to get a crowd going. I never realized how many big songs he's featured on, and his double-shot of Kendick Lamar tracks definitely gets a reaction (even if that reaction is nostalgia for last year's WayHome).
He says he's running off requests, basically just winging it, but people are following him, going along with his chants of "marijuana hydro / pussy ass weed titties" — no threat of public petition at this private concert. Later, he comments on all the white people in the audience rapping the n-word, and, instead of admonishing it, encourages it. "I'm not telling you to go say nigga after this, but we at a rap show. I want y'all to participate." That's a first.
Apologizing for the hard 11pm curfew, ScHoolboy Q says not to worry because his album Blank Face will be out soon and he should be back before you know it, "maybe even in a couple of months." That's good for his fans, not so good for NXNE. What makes it special? What makes it an NXNE set?
That's hard to know right now, because it's hard to know what NXNE is. Sure, this is technically NXNE in the way the CBGB restaurant in the Newark airport is still technically CBGB. But what is this festival's identity now that it's not club-hopping? How is this different from what used to go on for free at Yonge-Dundas Square? And what separates it from the 100,000 other festivals that have sprung up in Toronto?
Maybe it'll take a few years to develop. Or maybe it will be back to its former self by next year. Maybe something else will spring up to take its place. Maybe something already has.
At the same time NXNE was carting people over to the Port Lands, NO FEST emerged to fill the dates that Buzz Records would have used for NXNE. Live In Bellwoods: Great Heart, once an extension of NXNE, gave people something to chill out to in the park. The Rare Drugs BBQ energized the ever-glamourous alley behind the Silver Dollar.
What's stopping other people from also reclaiming this weekend? Maybe if Toronto is going to have its own city-wide celebration of its music scene, it will have to flow from the ground up.
In the meantime, here's another festival.