NXNE 2011: A Thousand Rambling Words On Death, Transcendence, Toronto Indie Rock and Rouge @ Sneaky Dee's

FRIDAY - If you've been reading our reviews over the course of the last week, then you've probably noticed that our five days of shows at North By Northeast reduced us to an abject state of fandom. Any attempt to seem objective flew out the window in a whirlwind of beer and exhaustion and some of the most fun we've ever had seeing live music. We are fine with this. In fact, we're thrilled. Even if it weren't laughably, absurdly impossible, who would ever even want to be objective about music of all things? That would be missing the point: the glorious subjectivity of it. The power music has to be a catalyst and a context for our own personal dramas and memories. The physical pleasure of it.

Toronto's indie music scene, of course, has a particularly poor reputation when it comes to this stuff. Too often we fail to embrace the subjectivity, content to reserve judgment, to cross our arms and nod along when we could be dancing, as if you have to keep your distance from it, to make sure you don't give in to it, just in case you look like a fool, or not cool, or people think you think it's something it's not.

But so what if this isn't New York in the '70s or London in the '60s? So what if this doesn't turn out to be one of the great, important musical movements of all-time? We like indie rock. And Toronto is full of it right now, inspired by giants like Broken Social Scene, bolstered by Radio 3 and the Polaris Prize, championed by an army of bloggers and magazines, fanned by video projects like Southern Souls and Live In Bellwoods and The Streetcar Sessions, and focused by the efforts of tireless promoters like Sari Delmar and Bobby Kimberly. When Maylee Todd blazes through a set in a tightly packed basement at an after-party on Bathurst, or Allie Hughes or Tomboyfriend put on a full theatrical display at the Elmo, or Whale Tooth or Hands & Teeth or The Balconies or Sheezer or Ruby Coast threaten to buckle the floor at Sneaks, it's as fun as all hell. Maybe that's why some people have started to jump up and down, to dance, to mosh. This is our time and our city. These are our bands. They work in our bars, ride our streetcars, and play in our clubs. Some of them are our friends. And friends of friends. They play with swagger and with joy. And as far as we're concerned, they fucking rock.

That, at long last, brings us to Rouge.

We first saw Rouge play back in March at Canadian Music Week. They were at the Pride FM showcase at the Gladstone, opening for Gentleman Reg. The crowd was sparse that early in the night. Rouge were new. They'd never even been reviewed. But the three women who hunched over their keyboards and drums, playing Holy Fuck-style dance rock, were, if you'll excuse an expression that's maybe too often used, a revelation. As we put it at the time, "Dripping with sweat and energy they were like an unexpected kiss in the rain or a deep, drunken embrace of amazingness... one of the best kept secrets in Toronto."

Last Friday, in the wee drunk hours of the morning, they played a set that suggested the secret won't be kept much longer. They performed for a happy and surprisingly thick crowd at Sneaky Dee's, those smart enough — or trashed enough — not to have headed home after Sheezer's late night Weezer cover party. With a crowd in front of them ready to dance, Rouge put on an even better show than the one we'd seen months before. Their deep, hypnotic beats, which seem to go on and on forever, had the crowd moving in a mass of sweat and alcohol. Impressive for a band that still has only a few songs you can listen to online. (Two of which, "Destruction" and "Modern Lovers I", you can download for free below.) By the time the end of their set drew near, people were up on the speakers at the front of the stage dancing. And we were up there with them. At the end of a stretch of drinking that had started at the Live In Bellwoods show nearly fourteen hours earlier, exhausted, inspired, forgetting ourselves, we stepped out on to the stage and the crowd followed, a mess of limbs and smiles, whirling along to a cover of Fatboy Slim's "Praise You".

Now, we know it's silly and naive and unforgivably pretentious for us to throw phrases like this around, but there's something about a moment like the ones on stage at Sneaks that night that can at least feel downright transcendent. It's bullshit, of course, a thin illusion. But if it strikes you at just the right instant — like, say, when you're drunk and high, a physical and emotional wreck at the end of a few straight days of bands and parties and not nearly enough sleep — well, then those endlessly looping electronic beats can feel, for the briefest of confused moments, almost, maybe, sort of as if they might go on forever. You could all still be up there, dancing on that stage, in a hundred years or in a thousand or, hell, when the sun bursts forth and swallows the world. Or maybe it's just that in that moment, it doesn't really seem to matter that you won't be there; maybe it seems like it's all worth it anyway. It's not a bad feeling, that. And there aren't too many places you can find it.

Too soon, though, it was over. The illusion faded even in the face of that rarest of all beasts: the NXNE encore. As the crowd was coaxed down off the stage by whatever the upstairs rock venue at a Tex Mex restaurant equivalent of "the authorities" are, Rouge played one final song, a Robyn cover, and then we spilled back out into the night, sweaty and euphoric on College Street.

There would be one full day of the festival after that — and then, as we dragged ourselves out of the house on Sunday, one more — but on Monday, we'd be left with nothing but our hangovers and our memories and an awful sinking feeling as we returned to our day jobs, our dishes, our laundry, our ordinary lives. We had managed, ever so briefly, to forget the blatant truth. Songs don't go on forever, no matter how many times the chorus repeats.

Of course, there might not be much time to worry about that. There are art projects and photoshoots and writing to do, reading series to put on, websites to run. Plus Whale Tooth are playing the 'Shoe on Saturday. Hands & Teeth, too. And Rouge? Well, they're back on July 3, to play Parts & Labour and Pride. There will be plenty of time to grow old and die some other day. But maybe not just right now.

MP3: "Destruction" by Rouge
MP3: "Modern Lovers I" by Rouge

Photos and text by Adam Bunch, with liberal use of the Umbrella's royal "we". Cody McGraw and Carmen Cheung saw Rouge at CMW. Cody McGraw lunged drunkenly onto the stage at Sneaks.

More of our coverage of NXNE 2011 here

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at adam@littleredumbrella.com.


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