In one ear 

INDIE CITY

Although the lineup was largely Canadian, several metro-Detroit-based acts packed up their instruments and heavy gear to brave a not exactly duty-free border crossing and attend the fifth annual North by Northeast Music Festival in downtown Toronto June 10-12. With more than 400 acts performing at 28 venues across the cosmopolitan — and famously clean — city, it might have been easy to get lost in the mix. But with nearly a dozen artists on hand to represent the mitten state, eager folks at various locations were treated to shining examples of Michigan rock, funk, folk and more — including pop-punk quintet Ruth’s Hat, nine-piece horn-percussion ensemble Psy-Funk, Ann Arbor-based folk songstress Lisa Hunter and recent multiple Detroit Music Awards winners the Luddites.

But this was not a conference of major label big wigs sporting Steven Seagal ponytails and well-pressed Armani two-pieces. Unlike its more famous U.S.-based sibling, South by Southwest, the emphasis at the NXNE conference was clearly indie all the way. There was no obvious big corporate music business presence; no hype over acts "about to break"; and — refreshingly — no bidding wars. Even at the requisite convention hall location — held in the oddly buttoned-up Canadian Broadcasting Centre headquarters — nearly all of the conference booths were run by small, independent companies.

During the evening, the streets of Toronto were teeming with rabid music lovers clutching their well-worn copies of the NXNE band schedule. And most of the larger rooms were packed with appreciative fans — eager to hear the music that the big mall record stores might never carry. By nightfall, most of the smaller venues had filled up too. One Detroit highlight: Motown’s own masters of cinematic aural shimmer American Mars, performing as a stripped-down three-piece at the tiny Graffiti’s Bar & Grill in Toronto’s Kensington Fish Market. Mars singer-songwriter Tom Trimble was joined by cellist Autumn Dunbar (ex-Breech) and lap steel player Dave Feeney (owner-operator of Ferndale’s Tempermill recording studio) for this special one-time engagement. And with the club’s wide open, al fresco façade throwing a warm breeze across the patrons inside, it was a truly sultry NXNE-meets-Midwest moment.

Strict government border policies for U.S. musicians crossing over to the Great White North may make cultural exchanges such as NXNE few and far between. Lamented American Mars frontman Tom Trimble, "They charged us 350 bucks just to get across." Where’s NAFTA when you need it? (For a list of acts that played the conference, along with Web audio snippets, check out www.nxne.com.)

PAGING MR. COOK

There’s a glorious cacophony coming from the environs of Dearborn: It’s percussive, hyperactive, synthetic, sweaty, cerebral and, if you’re not careful, it’ll clock you on the noggin’ and drag you into the sound. And it’s all coming from one bespectacled man, calm in demeanor, focused in mission — Persona, aka Mr. Eric Cook. Virtuosic behind the drum kit, Cook provided the precise rat-a-tat-tat bluesapunkabilly bluster for Detroit-via-Lansing duo Bantam Rooster on its debut LP Deal Me In (Crypt) and the recently released angst opus The Cross & the Switchblade (Crypt). His work over the years with the psych-metal-noise trio Gravitar testifies convincingly to the less-is-more gospel — see Gravitar’s most recent LP Now the Road of Knives, on Charnel Music for evidence.

As if that weren’t enough, Cook’s new endeavor, Persona, is a frantic trip across remixer-mixologist-aural reconstructionist territory. Last week he dropped Maximal on the Vinyl Communications label, a 75-plus-minute opus of industrial, nightmarish, skittish beats that will move your ass insomuch as you’ll be running scared. In the sonic realm of Atari Teenage Riot, Maximal is aggressive but twisted and (occasionally) funky. And, as if that weren’t enough, he’s also contributed remixes to Stun Gun’s CD Shut Up or I’ll Kill You (working minor magic with minimal material), Morsel’s recently released Wrecked & Remixed LP (Small Stone) and a complete bottom-to-top reworking of the Wildbunch hit "Gay Bar" which will see the light of day as part of the ’Bunch’s Rock Empire CD. For sanity’s sake, Mr. Cook, enjoy the fruits of your labor for just a durned second, eh? Stay tuned to these pages for info on Persona’s live debut or e-mail Cook at ericcook@voyager.net, or visit Persona on the Web.

Speaking of In One Ear

More by Chris Handyside

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