TURF 2016 (September 16-18)

It was Summer 2016’s last hurrah; the final music festival in Toronto before the seasons change and the shorts get put away. It was TURF (Toronto Urban Roots Festival) at Toronto’s Historic Fort York, and it did not disappoint. With a roster of acts from all over the spectrum of alternative music, the weekend was one the historians can add to the vast number of significant events that have happened at Fort York.

Friday started off intensely sunny, but local act Modern Space were prepared with the whole band wearing cool shades. The act has had a pretty busy year, gaining buzz and being introduced to rock radio. They’ve still got a fairly slim catalogue, so they supplemented their set with a series of covers. In the mix were Beck‘s “Loser”, Lana Del Rey‘s “High By The Beach”, and Arctic Monkey‘s “Fake Tales of San Francisco”. They also threw a snippet of Arcade Fire‘s “Wake Up” into their own hit single, “Pen to Paper”.

It took about half a song before The Hives‘ frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist ran off the stage and into the crowd, where he would visit many times throughout the band’s intensely energetic set. The Swedish crew were an unstoppable force on the East Stage, blazing through a decade-and-a-half’s worth of explosive garage rock bangers. The biggest hits were all played, from “Hate to Say I Told You So” to “Tick Tick Boom”. All the while Almqvist commanded the crowd’s attention with his playful bravado, peppering the set with declarations of dominance.

“The boys are back”, the Dropkick Murphys sang on the West Stage, and they came back with a roar. The hooligans kicked off their set with a triumphant curtain drop, and launched into a scathing set of their unique blend of hardcore punk, traditional Celtic music, and drunken bar sing-a-longs. Complete with a bagpiper, the crew played a very appropriate collection of songs for a Friday night; high octane chants like “Rose Tattoo” and “Shipping Back to Boston” had everyone swaying imaginary beer mugs in their hands.

Sometime in the past year and a half, folksy troubadour James Bay became an internationally renowned heartthrob, as the crowd of swooning ladies at TURF can attest. With his all-black outfit (and iconic hat), the lanky 26-year old belted out a series of heart wrenching ballads that delighted every admirer of his. Songs like “If You Ever Want to Be in Love” and “Let it Go” benefited greatly from a twinkling starry backdrop and had the audience taking their lighters out again and again. It wasn’t all saccharine love songs though; Bay is also proficient in bluesy licks and extended guitar solos. The British songwriter teased the audience clamouring for his massive hit “Hold Back The River”. Instead of going straight into the song, he played Creedence Clearwater Revivial‘s “Proud Mary” (featuring the lyrics “rollin’ on the river”) before playing the hit single.

Saskatoon’s Sheepdogs are five years into their career in the spotlight but are basically rock heroes at this point. Although the second day of TURF started out with intense rain, the power of rock n roll brought the sun out in the middle of the boys’ set. With a stable of hits under their belts now, the band kept the crowd excited as they dropped singles like “I Don’t Know”, “Feeling Good” and “Bad Lieutenant”. One fun moment was when frontman Ewan Currie took to the keyboard for a track and allowed his brother Seamus to play trombone on the lead mic, with the audience chanting his name like a champion.

Married duo Whitehorse commanded their small stage with their modern twist on folk roots music. The Hamilton couple occupy a very cool niche in indie music, and brought that unique sound to the crowd on Saturday evening. Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland kicked things off with “Devil’s Got a Gun”, a melodic tune that combined twangy guitar with looping effects. Hit single “Downtown” made for an energetic dance party at the Battle of York stage that night!

Barenaked Ladies are a veritable institution of Canadian alternative rock, and with over two decades of experience they know exactly how to put on an entertaining show. The first half of their set was largely newer material, with the odd impromptu rap performance thrown in. The hits came next, with “Pinch Me” and “One Week” overjoying the audience. The band’s hilarious rapport eventually crossed into the music itself, when the band played their theme song for The Big Bang Theory and followed it with a medley of various hits such as Drake‘s “Hotline Bling”, Celine Dion‘s “My Heart Will Go On” and the Imperial March from Star Wars.

Day 2 finished off with a performance from eclectic jam-rockers Ween. Backed with the ever-present image of their mascot Boognish, the band played a set filled with the sort of left turns expected of them. Incorporating elements from nearly every genre known to humanity (that’s only a slight exaggeration), it wasn’t uncommon to hear a pounding post-rocker followed by a Randy Newman-esque cut of ragtime blues. Gene and Dean Ween look and sound reinvigorated after their brief hiatus, and the energy transferred out into the crowd.


Day 3 kicked off with brawny indie crew The New Pornographers. Although frontman A.C. Newman wasn’t a fan of the intense sun, the group powered through their collection of indie pop with aplomb. With their very distinct, muscled-up take on sweetly melodic songs, the west coast band heated up an already sweaty crowd. A lot of material was from the group’s most recent album Brill Bruisers, but the older hits were there too, from “Mass Romantic” to “Use It”.

Fellow countryman Matthew Good didn’t like the sun too much either, and unfortunately had his sunglasses broken just that day. But after a few songs of enduring the intense glare the sun set and the alternative rock icon could play on. There wasn’t any messing around- Good got right to the hits right away. A double shot of “Load Me Up” and “Carmelina” was followed by “Hello Time Bomb”, and a bit later with the sweeping “Apparitions”, which featured an extended outro due to the crowd’s enthusiasm for it. The stark, haunting “Weapon” also made an appearance.

Emo legends Jimmy Eat World closed out the West stage with a blistering set filled with fan favourites. The hits were all there, yes, but the band knows their devoted listeners well, and included plenty of unexpected surprises. The majestic 7-minute “23” was one of these, as was the furious 2007 cut “Let it Happen”. A handful of newer songs from the upcoming Integrity Blues made their way into the set as well- opener “Get Right” with its grungy undertones and the latest single “Sure and Certain”. The band finished off their performance with a double-dose of 2001 hits: “Sweetness” and “The Middle”.

Death Cab for Cutie brought the festival to an end on an appropriately bittersweet note, with songs like “Black Sun” and “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” matching the vibes of the warm summer evening perfectly. The pensive melancholy was balanced with more upbeat offerings like “Crooked Teeth” and “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”, but the band’s at their best when they’re plaintive. “Soul Meets Body” and “You Are a Tourist”, both played, are great examples of their prime cuts, blending that yearning spirit with buoyant melodies. And so under a clear sky and full moon, TURF 2016 ended with Ben Gibbard‘s wistful voice heralding the start of autumn.