Walking into the dusty, dim-lit, divine trappings of the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern always has a certain hominess to it. It’s a familiarity—from the photos on the wall, the recognizable mugs on the bartenders, the taste of cold dad beers, the notes that resonate through its walls—that reminds you where you’re standing: hallowed musical ground. The ‘Shoe is legendary for good reason. For decades, its where some of the greatest acts in the world have been born, broken, bruised, and built into unstoppable forces, juggernauts, heavyweights. It’s one of the suns in the massive and storied solar system of North American music.
Curated with the notion of an all-star cast in mind, the Toronto Urban Roots Festival is kind of like The Horseshoe post-Super-Soldier Serum. Gone are the wooden floorboards and the honky-tonk stage kitsch, but the whole shebang is run by a group of dudes who really just wanted to put on a festival where they could see all of their favourite bands. Year after year, Jeff Cohen and Dave Hodge get up on stage and gush about how much they love every single act of the weekend. It would almost get a bit tired if their enthusiasm wasn’t so obviously authentic. Listening to them makes you comfortable: you’re in the hands of real music fans. Just like you.
So, despite some adverse weather and a few time delays (wouldn’t be a music festival without those issues in the mix), TURF, which Cohen announced doubled its ticket sales from 2014, was pulled off pretty breezily. It’s still one of Toronto’s most relaxed music festivals, partly thanks to the average age of TURFers, which is to say, middle-aged. That’s not a slight, by the way. Sometimes it’s a real treat to go to a music festival and not suffer the sensory overload of drunk, neon-clad teenagers. But, lest I start yelling for someone to get off my lawn, here’s what happened.
Thanks to half a day in hell, I kicked off Friday a bit late, hitting the last half of Built to Spill’s set. They’re a band no one should ever pass up, mostly because they’re fronted by one of 90s college-rock’s most brilliant guitar heroes, Doug Martsch. After wailing through fan favourites like “You Were Right” and “Carry The Zero”, the dudes from Idaho ripped out a cover of “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths. Killer start. The Avett Brothers brought their rollicking, high-energy roots tunes to the main stage, and Of Monsters and Men sure gave everyone the feels during their closing set, but for my money, no one used their time more wisely than The Sadies, who shacked up with the Devil himself at the little South Stage and melted faces with some face-melting Ameri-Canadiana. Those guys make the impossible look easy.
Saturday almost washed everyone away. While The Elwins enjoyed some clear weather for their bouncy early set, The Strumbellas, with frontman Simon Ward in skull facepaint, brought on a thunderstorm that didn’t totally stop until Lucinda Williams parted the clouds and pulled out the sun for a bit, aptly during “Are You Down”. After some rolling, badass grooves, she ended with “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by The Clash and “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” by Neil Young.
Cake brought the funk, and with it an appearance from Choir! Choir! Choir! during “Short Skirt Long Jacket”; St. Paul and the Broken Bones laid waste to the South Stage with some southern soul; and Wilco, sounding as perfect as ever, played out the sunset as the temperature dipped with an encore medley of tunes from 1996’s Being There. Wilco not only never sound bad live, they sound, every time, like no one could ever sound better. Saturday’s main attraction was Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, with vocalist and boogie-man (dancin’ wise) Alex Ebert routinely heading off into the audience and bringing a couple kids up on stage: one to dance along to the tunes, and one little boy in a Blue Jays hat, who Ebert had everyone at the fest sing “Happy Birthday” to. Might be tough for future birthdays to top that one.
Sadly, Sunday reminded us that eventually these things have to end, but if you gotta go out, you might as well go out with a bang. First among the bangs was Philadelphia’s blistering Hop Along on the South Stage, fronted by Frances Quinlan, who has the best scream in rock ‘n’ roll right now. After that solid dose of catharsis, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club looked super cool in all their leather, smokin’ cigarettes on stage and wearing their radical shades. But it’s tough to top the cool of Neko Case’s devil-may-care aura. With her massive rusty hair tangled and matted and wild, looking like a lion’s mane, Case dropped jaws with deep cuts that showcased her impossibly flawless pipes, treating the TURF faithful to a drier version than the one she played a few years ago in the torrential rain.
Pixies, though of course minus one Kim Deal, ripped and roared through 90-minutes of thrashy, screamy, brilliant weirdo-rock, reminding everyone they sound just as cool now as they did over 25 years ago. Over that hour and a half, the legends of alt-rock stopped barely at all to acknowledge the audience. Singer Frank Black, stopping a song to address some mysterious problem, quipped, “let’s do something where I can get my frustration out. “Tame” or something.” They then, of course, slayed through the acerbic classic. In a set that laid the hits on heavy (with a little bit of their new stuff injected into it), they saved the big one for last, going out with “Where Is My Mind?” and taking a bow. The crowd chanted for one more, but the law’s the law. ‘Til next year.