A Trin-Can calypso explorer, a mesmeric mad-city emcee, a rhyme-crafter straight out of reform school and a time-warped Brit-kid troubadour were here, and that was just a start and a portion of it. As the movers, shakers and others concerned work behind the scenes to continue Toronto’s movement to officially become a music destination, it was impressive business as usual at concerts and festivals on the first two nights of a civic holiday weekend. Four acts in particular were noteworthy.
Early Friday evening was drizzly and unnecessarily breezy, a weather situation which resulted in a smaller-than-deserved turnout for the homecoming of Kobo Town. Returning from a successful tour abroad, the six-piece calypso-and-more crew led by Trinidadian-Canadian Drew Gonsalves opened up the Island Soul festival at Harbourfront Centre, where the likable Gonsalves smartly sang of nostalgia and diaspora while presenting dry-toned notes in sociable patterns on his guitar. Mr. Monday was brassy but light-footed; elsewhere reggae lilts, trombone blares and charming wordplay happened. The ukulele had its moments in the sun, weather notwithstanding. On one particular upbeat selection, when Gonsalves sang of a river’s inspiration and its undeniable power, a small but brave audience knew exactly where the voyageur was coming from.
Meanwhile, also on Friday and across the way, the fresh prince of hip hop met an audience in a high state of fandom at Sound Academy, where a crowd interacted lyrically and seemed enthralled enough to follow Kendrick Lamar into hell or Compton, Calif., the hometown and musical inspiration of the rapping emcee. Listening to his vivid and uninhibited poetry, it would seem the hypnotic Lamar has all the bottles, dreams and companionship he could wish for – and his hopes are not modest. One thing: Lamar’s transparent crowd ingratiation – Toronto was with him from “day one,” Toronto was the best and loudest crowd of the tour, Toronto was his “favourite city,” yadda-yadda and etc. – was tiresome. At one point the certified platinum rapper (for 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city ) proposed a toast to his and our prosperity. Later, after waving goodbye to fans who had paid $85 to attend this rally, he left for a show in Chicago, no doubt his favourite town too. Here’s to you, Kendrick Lamar.
Opening up for Lamar at Sound Academy was Thebe Kgositsile, the 19-year-old Hollywood resident who raps under a ball cap and the moniker Earl Sweatshirt. The phenom is the son of a South African poet-activist father and a L.A. law-professor mother, the latter of which recently placed him in a progressive Samoan reform school. His island exile disrupted (but did not derail) a career which began as the most intriguing and promising member of the game-changing hip hop crew Odd Future. Unlike Lamar, who left Toronto to play Lollapalooza the next day, Earl Sweatshirt stuck around town to participate in the multi-genre Grove Music Festival, held pleasantly at the bucolic Fort York Garrison Common Saturday. There he lyrically addressed the hype and anticipation of his debut album. “I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it,” he rapped to a sun-drenched crowd, “when them expectations rising because daddy was a poet.” On the same verse he worried about being misfit and in the middle of a tornado, while rhyming “Clark Gable” with “I’m not stable.” His Doris LP doesn’t arrive until Aug. 20, and yet Earl Sweatshirt is already holding onto his hat. Smart kid, mad expectations.
Speaking of young wunderkinds, England’s Jake Bugg packed the Mod Club on Saturday. A bright new face in retro folk rock, Nottingham’s favourite son was mop-headed and coolly composed as he worked through material seemingly inspired by the seriousness of early Dylan, the brashness of British Invasion rock, the beat of Ricky Nelson and the harmonic halloo of Oasis. It all came off as unaffected and uncomplicated, with a touch of twang and with thoughtful lines sung in troubadour’s high-tenor voice. Simple as This was a cleanly strummed meditation on seeking answers, Country Song was a gently picked back-porch lament for someone missed, and a cover of Neil Young’s My My, Hey Hey jangled here and burned fiercely there. He closed with Lightning Bolt , an upbeat folk-rock number in a style first encountered on black-and-white televisions. “They say you gotta tow the line, they want the water not the wine,” sang Bugg, who calmly took just-right flights on his electric guitar when required, “But when I see the signs, I jump on that lightning bolt.” It would seem that the storm has arrived.