Sunday, June 20, 2010

NXNE - The Headlining Day

No matter who was talking, or where the conversation was taking place, it seemed like only a matter of time until the chatter turned to the largest name on the bill for the festival: Saturday night had arrived and Iggy Pop and the Stooges were to play the mainstage at Yonge Dundas Square. There was palatable excitement on patios and on the streets as everyone geared up to catch the punk forefathers' set.

Considering we had yet to hang out at the mainstage, and the fact that the afternoon's line-up included bands like Wavves and the Raveonettes opening for the Stooges, a hot afternoon in the beer gardens seemed like the thing to do. Surfer Blood was the first band we caught, but their set was all but terrible. Marred with technical difficulties, and compounded by a lack of charisma in front of a decent-sized crowd, the Florida indie surfer rockers' set was a complete letdown. Even their critically acclaimed single, "Swim," failed to really win anyone over.

Wavves set up next, dressed in sloppily tie-died shirts and colourful pants. Perhaps better known as Jay Reatard's backing band, with Billy Hayes on drums and Stephen Pope on bass, Wavves have enjoyed some critical success since the release of their self-titled debut in 2008. Their noisy, lo-fi punk was filled with poppy hooks that were enjoyable in the warm Yonge Dundas Square and their zany antics entertained the increasingly packed public space.

Wavves' Nathan Williams (guitar) and Billy Hayes (drums)

By the time the Raveonettes started their hour-long set, there was a vibrant current running through the crowd. Not only were the Raveonettes the last opening band for the festival headliners, but the Danish noisy alt-rockers, equally inspired by the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Velvet Underground, were also heavily anticipated. Through a cloud of fog, guitarist and vocalist Sune Rose Wagner and bassist and vocalist Sharin Foo, who was wearing her trademark black polka-dot dress, stepped onto the stage and greeted an audience that was in the thousands. The Raveonettes whipped through a set that undoubtedly converted many to their own brand of early '90s-inspired, guitar driven, noise rock.

A different kind of Foo fighter

Regardless of the strength of the Raveonettes' set, everyone was undoubtedly waiting for the Stooges' set. Flight cases were opened to reveal their guitar amps, a large drum kit was wheeled forward, and thus, the NXNE mainstage was primed for the punks' triumphant return to live performance. As soon as frontman Iggy Pop's wiry, lanky, topless form cooly sauntered onto stage, the entire square and beyond — the surrounding roads had been closed to allow for greater capacity — exploded in ecstasy. The crowd at the front of the stage messily thronged and surged in time to the opening song, "Raw Power." Pop himself seemed to revel in the glorious mess he created below, wrapping his torso around the microphone stand and contorting his frame in the most serpentine positions.

Raw power

The whole hour-and-a-half set was exactly what you could have expected: the music was loose and comfortable, the Stooges — or, as Pop put it, early in the set, "the remains of the Stooges" — were obviously having a fantastic time, and it was wildly exciting to hear classic tracks like "Gimme Danger," "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell," and, not least, "Search and Destroy" played live. And seeing Iggy Pop and original guitarist James Williamson was definitely a wonderful treat to cap an already stunning festival. But, as the set progressed and I roamed the square, moving from the very front of the stage to the sidelines and then to the back, I couldn't help but feel increasingly soured on the whole production. Because that is exactly what it was: an overdone production that seemed antithetical to the Stooges themselves. The Stooges used to play to indifferent and hostile crowds in seedy dives, and while it would be unfair to romanticize those sets as objectively better than the one on Saturday night in front of a veritable urban arena, it still felt hugely disconnected to watch Pop wind his way through "Shake Appeal" or "I Wanna Be Your Dog" underneath massive neon billboards selling thirteen-dollar H&M dresses.

Perhaps the most punk man at the festival?

More than that, the Stooges' music is meant to be intimate. It is meant to be in-your-face, savage and uncomfortable. Pop used to mangle his body in service of a nihilistic anarchy that eventually became punk in order to get a rise from his hostile crowds, in order to express, in whatever words he could, the incredible anger and angst he felt. The Stooges' music is dark and scary, revealing parts of the human psyche that are perhaps best left untouched. To hear the powerful opening verse to "Search and Destroy" — "I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/I'm a runaway son of the nuclear a-bomb/I'm a world's forgotten boy/The one who searches and destroys" — is to access a deep dissatisfaction with the world around you at large. Iggy Pop fully considered his Michigan hometown a war zone and was desperate for love in the middle of a firefight, for someone to save his soul: a tormented soul, a lost soul, a soul that grew up in a world that was illegible.

All of that was lost on Saturday night at Yonge Dundas Square, underneath the happily beaming neon advertisements and family-friendly mainstage. It was tough to, near the end of the set, catch a glimpse of Williamson soloing or Pop dancing through Playstation and Virgin Mobile banners, jutting up proudly from the tents set up at the back of the square. It was almost surreal to wander over to a street on the side and find that a double-decker tour bus had parked itself plumply in front of the Hard Rock Cafe so that tourists — either to the city, to the festival, or to the music itself — could calmly snap photos from the top deck in order to take back home and placidly share the next day. Worst of all, the sheer size of the event made it all seem like a transaction: not an economic transaction, since the mainstage itself was a free event, open to anyone in Toronto, but a cultural transaction. What was traded during the Stooges' set was presence for status-producing cultural capital. Just being there was enough — no one had to, or could, ultimately, feel anything. People could calmly shuffle and bop to "1970" as if it were another Top 40 song to be consumed — and reconsumed in stories the next hour or day, stories that are intrinsically and systemically designed to return high cultural profit margins. The sheer scale of the production was, ultimately, the production's downfall: it collapsed underneath itself because punk, proto-punk, honesty — whatever it is that was originally felt in 1969 when the optimism of the flower generation woke up to a grisly hangover — was never meant to support such a large, universal, event. The music was amazing, to be sure, but it was meaningless.

Although, as Johnny Rotten once said of the Sex Pistols' reunion in 1996, perhaps this sort of orchestration is more punk than any gutter show could ever be. It was undoubtedly effective: I hated everyone and everything as I stalked away.

No comments: