You may think that five days of music, movies, and multimedia may equate to a brontosaurus burgers’ worth of fun and frolic but it is actually a coldly contemplated maze of mayhem designed to separate the guitar heroes from those who merely play one on their PlayStations. Disregard my words at your peril. Undertaking North by Northeast recklessly could lead to missed shows, ringing ears, and years of regret.
While I’m only (partially) joking, there are tips and/or tricks to negotiating the annual festival that turns the Toronto cityscape into the world’s coolest and largest dive bar. These tips and/or tricks are designed to get the most out of June 17-21 and leave you with a feeling of anticipation for next year — not the feeling more could have been accomplished eating Pixy Stix outside the local 7-Eleven.
1. Do Your Homework!
If you’re reading this article, you obviously plan on attending at least one show (or, more likely, one venue) during the festival, which means you owe it to yourself to do some research. While the banners bragging the attendance of hundreds of bands, comics, filmmakers, and miscellaneous artists sound enticing, making sense of the schedule and the maps ad hoc is perhaps the best way to ensure disappointment. Don’t get me wrong: There is something visceral about walking into a random bar at a random time to see a random band and walking out having seen the next Strokes but (and it pains me to admit) these occurrences don’t happen often enough to gamble a NXNE night away. Which brings me to…
2. Nothing Better Than The Real Thing
NXNE.com should be visited and often. The site’s designers have excelled themselves this year with an easily navigable compendium of information, music playlists, and videos. Whether you’re searching by artist or day, you should be able to find what you’re looking for — even if you don’t know what that is while typing in the URL. It should be noted, however, that the artist profiles now feature embedded Spotify playlists and not the artist-centric YouTube video playlists of yesteryear. For some of you, this is ideal. For those of us who don’t have Spotify accounts and are loath to change that, we must consequently visit the artist’s official page in search of audio samples or — don’t laugh — visit their MySpace profiles, which usually bear a playlist of the artist’s newer material.
3. There’s An App For This
The NXNE app is one of a rare breed of smartphone programs that is as stylish as it is functional. And its necessity will prove itself before your first night is through. By logging into Facebook on the NXNE site, one can sync their bespoke lineups with the app thereby circumventing the need for archaic pen’n’paper notes of artists, clubs, and timetables. Should an upcoming show go awry, the app will update and notify you of the change in schedule.
Standing alongside the standard features (venue maps, timetable, band profiles) is the “Recommender’, which extrapolates from your Facebook band “likes’ and NXNE artists you’ve bookmarked and, you guessed it, recommends artists of a similar breed. This could be useful when trying to make sense of the myriad bands on display. Simply find one band you like and let the app do the rest.
4. The TTC Is A Way (But Probably Not The Best)
Some NXNE patrons let venue dictate how their night will play out. I, on the other hand, prefer to plan my nights around the bands I want to see, which means that transit plays an integral part in a smooth night. More often than not, however, transit is more an obstacle that must be overcome, as you can’t rely on the TTC to get you to a venue within the 20 minutes allocated between shows. Two recommendations: (i) ride a bike; or (ii) let the proximity between venues be the tie-breaker when trying to decide between two artists you’d like to see.
5. Little Italy Street Festival
NXNE syncs up with two annual events: Father’s Day and The Taste Of Little Italy Street Festival. Father’s Day, being on the Sunday when the festival is winding down, doesn’t pose much of a problem. The festival, on the other hand, consumes much of the West End of College Street and indoingso, makes travel — whether by streetcar or by bike — a much more daunting task. If you’re relying on this thoroughfare to get to a show (or worse, going to a show within the frenzy of green, white, and red) give yourself a lot of extra time. You’ll need it.
6. Spread The Word
Fledgling bands would prefer your recommendation than your cash, which is why they can often be found proferring free “music download’ cards or EPs on burned discs after their shows. In the spirit of the festival, take these freebees. Listen to them. Share them. Display them on your coffee table as a reminder to check for the band’s next visit. NXNE is a charming experience full of hopes and dreams and the realization that you, as an audience member, can effect them.
7. Yonge-Dundas Square
Tip #6 extolled the virtues of supporting the little guy. This tip looks further on down the evolutionary road to a world of riders, roadies, and really big crowds. For many, the shows at Yonge-Dundas Square is the gateway drug that will encourage them to seek out the more obscure artists across town. The shows are free, a word that attracts more bees than honey in an area of downtown Toronto that is already a veritable hive of activity on Saturday evenings. To wit, go early.
8. Theme Nights
Magazines, newspapers, breweries, arts collectives, and even other festivals regularly present a venue’s music for the night and, depending on the entity’s agenda, implies a certain musical consistency from one artist to the next. Whether the bands be from the same city, genre, or all prefer the same beer, you may want to consider these themes when choosing a venue for the night. If you like one band on the bill, there’s a solid chance you’ll like the others.
9. Second Time Round
NXNE.com visitors will no doubt notice that bands regularly play more than the one show during the festival. Evening foot traffic lured into a bar by the siren sounds coming from within, however, may be ignorant of this fact and consequently, rue only catching the tail-end of a band’s set. Fear not. Hit up the website (or open an ear — all bands will promote their next show later in the week) and make note of when you can see them in full.
10. Catch Some Z’s. Or Not.
Primetime festival, er… festivities run typically from 7pm to 2am each night (with Friday and Saturday going late 102.1-at-the-Phoenix style). Sleep as required. Those not requiring much sleep (damn you, well-rested SOBs!) should get out of the sweltering afternoon sun and take in a show. Many venues kick things off as early as noon for the “I want to check out a band but I also want to eat a sandwich”; crowd. It may also alleviate some of the congestion in your evening schedule; as #9 above notes, many bands will play these afternoon shows to complement their post-dinner slots.