Questionable Times At NXNE

June 25, 2016

North By Northeast (NXNE), which has been described as something like Toronto’s response to Austin’s South By Southwest, took place last weekend. Traditionally, this festival used a single pass that granted access to music, film, and arts, spread across the city of Toronto. However this year NXNE decided to go in a different direction, what Canada’s Chart Attack called a “transitional phase.” This year, passes were sold in packages corresponding to venues in addition to tickets for individual concerts, making the notion of a citywide festival a bit more abstract.

I showed up with an open mind and a desire to see Father John Misty while he was on his I Love You Honeybear tour—because the album resonated with me personally, and flourished a deep knowledge of country and folk influence that was emphasized in such a way as to produce an ironically nostalgic sound when paired with his lyrics. In a word, my personal connection the music was validated by its musicianship.

From the front row of the main stage

Arriving at Port Lands, I was a little unsure of why I had imagined what I had. Being a wishful thinker I imagine Father John Misty would be best heard indoors, that there would be a small crowd and an intimate atmosphere where he could sing his nuanced, ironic lyrics to an attentive audience. But instead, I saw before me a hot concrete expanse, with little to obscure the fact that this was simply a parking lot on the port of Toronto. Now it’s no secret that music festivals are often set up quickly, but was this…just…a parking lot? Yes.

I imagined I was early, and that maybe it would pick up tomorrow, assuming Father John Misty was the headliner. This was a two-day festival after all! I left around half way through the first day to make it to the Kamassi Washington show at City Lands on the East Side of town, (which was wonderful), wishing I had brought water for the walk. The venue had no potable water that wasn’t $3 a bottle.

But the next day I thought ahead. I brought a full water bottle to the festival. And as I walked briskly towards the entrance, the security guard looked at my hand and said, “I’m sorry dude, but you’re gonna have to chug that right now. No outside water allowed in.” “What?” I said to him. “I know; I would be pissed if I were you.” So I stood there and chugged my liter of water before walking in.

But no matter, I was here for what I had come for. I just had to kill six hours until he came on. This was difficult, for there was only one act at a time, and the music was always in earshot, which was aesthetically unsettling at points.

Sorry, Dan Mangen; unlike you I didn’t find it funny when you forgot your own lyrics. But you did impress me with how far someone can get by imitating sadness with a stern continence.

Now that’s profound.

Eventually, just waiting in the front row for Father John Misty seemed to be the best bet. This show, at least, would be good. To compare him to other artists wouldn’t matter. I could identify parts of my life to his music. A little odd to think that someone who didn’t know me knew me so well — a little ridiculous, actually.

Once he came on, the drunken “I-love-you!’s” and even a “you have a beautiful MIND!” digressed into outright heckling. It had been a long, hot day on the asphalt with little more than some big balloons for shade. The crowd’s crudeness colored my desire to interact with shame. I was speaking from the same crowd, from the same context. So instead I just sang the lyrics the way I had sung them to myself, the way I liked to sing them. And I realized, it wasn’t about Father John Misty: it was about my Father John Misty, what he meant to me. And yet as I belted out confidently, singing in a focused way by looking away from the stage and into the distance, I felt an odd attention, like he was looking at me curiously.

It felt confused, for I had tried to convince myself how improbable, how it was to form an interaction like this, and how inappropriate it would be to look for. Yet I could not help but feel as though at least my photographing was having an effect on him, as if he wanted something more genuine or personal, and was disappointed. As if every time he dropped down in front of my section to immerse himself in the crowd, my photos killed the moment by turning an interaction into a an exercise in voyeurism, or my own self-advancement. At times he seemed to feed on the crowd. At times he seemed to despise it. But when he glanced at me, I raised my camera and he gained a dead expression.

After a while, it seemed as though he started to do what many musicians do on stage—he posed for my lens.

Should I have put it down? Maybe. But I was in a game of both show and tell. For me to take the photos to show here, I needed to remove myself from the moment in which they were taken to be strictly visually engaged. But for me to tell the story, I had to open myself to the experience and let it leave its impression on me, collecting something to be recollected later. In this bipolar method of recording, the the judgment of the photo interrupted the narrative. And more than that — it seemed to actually change the narrative.

So did I matter at this concert? Maybe more than I wanted to believe at the time. There were about two hundred people there, but I was in the front row. The concert meant had too for me to trust my sense of self-importance. I stuck to the role that I could control: passive observer. And perhaps he obliged this dynamic after an initial distaste. He came towards me and I took his photo, and for better or worse I removed myself from the action, removed myself from him. Perhaps his music meant too much for me to be a good judge. Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps I was scared of being disappointed by, or disappointing this man. Perhaps I was scared “my Father John Misty” didn’t exist.. Or maybe it is because I would just rather imagine him free—free from me.