My Experiences At Canadian Music Week 2014

Canadian Music Week (CMW) 2014 has come and gone and, quite frankly, it was exhausting. It’s been a couple of weeks, but I’m still feeling the effects. If you don’t know, CMW is a 5-day music festival that features more than 850 bands showcasing in more than 50 venues. Well, I experienced it for the first time, and it really was a hectic, yet rewarding, learning experience for a newish music photographer like me. So, in case you’re interested, here’s a recap of my CMW 2014, from May 8 to May 10.

I applied for a photo pass about a month before the festival. I was denied, but they still gave me a wristband, which was basically just as good. I mostly didn’t have any trouble getting into the shows I wanted to photograph. And though it was a 5-day festival, I didn’t receive my wristband until the morning of the third day. Not sure why, that’s just when they told me I could pick it up. After that, I was off to the races.

DAY 1 – Thursday, May 8

With so many bands and so many venues to choose from, it was hard to decide where to start. Having the official CMW gig guide in hand was very helpful. It had info on all the bands, a venue listing, and most importantly, a map with location pinpoints.

CMW gig guide and wristband

7pm – Leisure Cruise @ Virgin Mobile Mod Club

I decided to start off at the Mod Club, because I’ve heard other photographers say that the lighting is really great. They were right. It is. There wasn’t a very big crowd for Leisure Cruise, a duo based out of Brooklyn, but that was better for me because I was able to move around freely and get shots from different angles. With the ever-changing lights, I was constantly having to adjust exposures and keep an eye on the light meter. Not something I’m used to, as the venues I usually shoot at have static lighting.

Leisure Cruise

8pm – The Lighthouse and the Whaler @ Virgin Mobile Mod Club

I was loving the venue so much that I decided to stick around for The Lighthouse and the Whaler, a folk/indie/pop band from Cleveland, Ohio.

The Lighthouse and the Whaler

9pm – No Sinner @ The Garrison

There weren’t many bands I specifically wanted to see during the festival, but San Francisco psych-rockers Sleepy Sun was one of them. They were scheduled to play the Dakota Tavern at midnight. My plan was to arrive at 9pm and make my stand there. Unfortunately, there was a lineup. I waited for about five minutes, but I got impatient and decided to try my luck elsewhere. The next closest venue was The Garrison, so I headed over there. I got there part way through No Sinner’s set. I was appalled when I saw that the dreaded pink and blue lighting set-up was in effect. Very tough to get sharp, non-saturated pictures. But I stuck it out and managed to get some useable stuff. What stood out about this Vancouver-based blues/rock band was the sexy female lead singer. That, and a giant stuffed bunny that sat on the stage for most of the show, until the guitarist suddenly kicked the crap out of it and stomped on its head near the end of the set, haha.

No Sinner

10pm – Thomas D’Arcy @ The Garrison

I stuck around for the next act, Toronto’s own Thomas D’Arcy. But I just couldn’t seem to get any shots in focus. Damn you, pink and blue lights! I pulled out my flash and gave it a go, but I couldn’t figure out the right settings to get a decent exposure. In total, I only took a few dozen shots before I gave up in frustration. I might have gotten one or two OK results, but nothing I was thrilled with. This was a complete FAIL on my part.

11pm – OSIYM @ Wrongbar

There was a rap showcase happening at Wrongbar, so I figured that might be worth checking out. It seems like the start times got pushed back for some reason, because it was a long wait until the first performers hit the stage. I think one of the acts didn’t show up, cancelled, or whatever. OSIYM, a rap duo from Toronto, were originally scheduled for 10pm, but they didn’t go on until well after 11. This was a really fun set to photograph – my first ever rap concert shoot. The dudes in OSIYM were really good at encouraging the crowd to show some energy. They had a huge bottle of liquor in hand that they poured into the mouths of the most exuberant fans. They also had a shot competition in which a guy and a girl from the crowd battled it out to see who could drink four shots the quickest (the girl won). The only hard part of shooting this set was trying to successfully freeze the rapid hand motions. Also, the microphones made it tough to get a clear shot of the faces.

OSIYM, shot competition

12pm – The 6th Letter @ Wrongbar

Next up at Wrongbar was The 6th Letter, another Toronto-based rapper. For some reason, they decided to turn down the lights very early in the set, which was another thorn in my side. That basically made for a lost cause, because I couldn’t freeze the action enough to get anything suitable. I got a couple of useable shots, but this was what I’d consider another FAIL. That’s two in one night, not a great start!

1am – The Strumbellas @ The Rivoli

The guidebook said there’d be a “secret guest” at The Rivoli. Who could it be? I showed up part way through the set, but I didn’t recognize the band. I asked a few people, but they didn’t know either. Finally, the sound man told me that it was The Strumbellas, an alternative/country/folk band from Toronto.

The Strumbellas

1:30am – Tanika Charles @ Horseshoe Tavern

After The Strumbellas were done, I rushed up the street to the Horseshoe Tavern to see if I could still catch some of soul singer Tanika Charles’ gig. Luckily, she was still on stage when I got there. A lovely lady with an incredible voice and a likeable personality, it was a pleasure to shoot her gig. A bit of a nice change from the “heavier” acts I usually photograph.

Tanika Charles

2am – Conversation @ Underground Garage

This was another one of the must-see bands on my list. I’ve had my eye on Conversation, a Toronto-based post-hardcore group, since I first saw them in concert last year at Sneaky Dee’s. While Conversation’s set was as chaotic and energetic as always, it seemed like the crowd there cared more about drinking beer and socializing than taking in a concert. Which is a shame. No doubt they’d have been better appreciated at a venue more in line with their style of music. But they still put on a hell of a show, maybe even the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen them a handful of times.


3am – Zoo Harmonics @ Rancho Relaxo

This was the last slot of the night. City-wide there were only three bands scheduled to play at this ungodly hour. I think I was barely awake at this point. All that was keeping me going was a cheeseburger and a slice of pizza from earlier in the night. My first time at Rancho Relaxo. A narrow, long, second-floor venue with a tiny stage. Also, it was hot as hell in there. But Zoo Harmonics, a mullet-sporting, alternative/punk/rock group from Tel Aviv, Israel, helped wake me up. And I suppose there’s no better way to get a mosh pit started than for the lead guitarist to jump off stage and aggressively bump the spectators (though I myself hate mosh pits, as you’ll see when you read about Day 3 below)! Apparently, after I left, the band was involved in a huge bar fight. Anyway, like a fool, I waited for the streetcar for 45 minutes before eventually deciding to walk to where I needed to catch my bus. I was finally home and in bed by around 5am. Phew, what a night!

Zoo Harmonics

DAY 2 – Friday, May 9

CMW presented a great opportunity for me to explore some concert venues I’ve never been to before. So, on day two, I decided to start my night not according to band, but to venue.

8pm – 36? @ The Dakota Tavern

Having lost out on a chance to get into the Dakota on the first day, I arrived early so I could catch 36? a fresh-faced group of alt-rockers from Calgary. There were lightbulbs hanging everywhere, which made a for a nice aesthetic. Not a big crowd, so I was able to move around freely. A bit more front-lighting would have been nice, but it was definitely workable.


8:30pm – Adi Ulmansky @ The Garrison

Since it was just a quick walk from the Dakota, I decided to pop in and see what was going on at The Garrison. Adi Ulmansky is a pop/electronica/rap singer from Israel. She was in the middle of her set when I got there. Again, not a very big crowd. A lot of the lighting was provided by various images that were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, as well as onto Adi herself, which made for some interesting effects. Still, it was hard to get a lot of shots in focus. But I managed to come away with a handful of pics I was happy with.

Adi Ulmansky

After the gig, I headed back to Queen Street West. I quickly popped into The Hideout, just to scope out the place. As I was about to leave, a random stranger approached and handed me a postcard-sized advert for a band called Liserstille, from Denmark. He recommended I go see their show at Rancho Relaxo at midnight. I just took the advert card and nodded, not sure I would actually take his advice.

Liserstille advert card

10pm – The Damn Truth @ Horseshoe Tavern

I’d never heard of Montreal’s The Damn Truth. This was another case of me just picking a location and hoping for the best, in terms of the quality of the band. I got there in between sets, which meant people were off getting drinks or having a smoke outside. That allowed me to get a spot right at the front of the stage. Good thing, because the place was soon jam-packed with spectators. A big plus was that the band brought their own lights, which really lit up the stage and helped make my job a lot easier. The whole area in front of the stage was lined with photographers. Shortly into the band’s set, I could see why. Their performance was electric, explosive, and intense. There was a pronounced sexual chemistry going on between the seductive singer and the rugged lead guitarist (the face-licking may have given it away). This was a hot ticket, and I happened to luck in on it. A couple of photographers to my left got into a bit of a scuffle over positioning. I just held my ground and kept shooting. In the end, I got a ton of useable shots. Definitely a highlight of the night.

The Damn Truth

11pm – White Hills @ The Hideout

Back to The Hideout to see New York psych-rockers White Hills perform. There’s nothing better than showing up to see a band that you’ve never heard of, and then being totally blown away by them, which was the case here. This band is amazing. Their music, coupled with the awesome lighting, made for an incredible sonic and visual assault. This was one of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen. And the fact that it happened in a relatively small bar venue made it even better. I was frigging thrilled with the pictures I came away with. Some of my all-time personal favourites.

White Hills

12pm – Liserstille @ Rancho Relaxo

In the end, I figured I’d hit Rancho Relaxo and check out Liserstille’s set. Progressive rock is not typically my thing, but I don’t go for the music, I go for the snaps! This Danish four-piece was quite impressive and put their all into the show. Even a lengthy delay and a grumpy sound man didn’t dampen their zeal. The lead singer/keyboardist has an amazing look, which always helps make for better pictures. By the end of the set, we were all sweating like pigs inside the narrow confines of the room. It was a fruitful night, though, especially since I was able to set up a portrait shoot with the band a couple of days later. My thanks to that random dude for tipping me off!


Saturday would be another long day, so I called it quits after that. I was home and in bed by 3am.

DAY 3 – Saturday, May 10

The final day of the festival. I was still feeling the effects of not getting to bed until 5am after the first night, but I soldiered on.

12pm – Aussie BBQ @ Horseshoe Tavern

It was an early start to the day. Noon! The Horseshoe was hosting an Aussie BBQ, complete with free food and a whopping nine Australian bands. On the bill were The Black Lullaby, The Lazys, Fairchild, Twin Lakes, Tully On Tully, Mia Dyson, Cub Sport, King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, and You Am I. The most notable band, in my opinion, was The Lazys. The lead guitarist of The Lazys getting on top of the bar and playing madly for several minutes was a highlight. Unfortunately, that was a moment I didn’t capture because I didn’t have a flash with me. Actually, I had my built-in flash, but it didn’t occur to me to use it. I dropped the ball on that one. You Am I, the last band on the bill, are apparently some kind of rock legends in Australia. They were definitely dressed like rock stars, and the lead singer was quite witty and outgoing. The crowd certainly went bonkers for them.

The Black Lullaby

Overall, I didn’t get very many great shots. It’s that hit-or-miss lighting of the Horseshoe that was on the miss side this time out, resulting in a lot of unsharp and underwhelming pics. On the bright side, I bumped into Tim, the lead singer of Conversation, and introduced myself. We talked about their show at the Underground Garage, and we also discussed setting up a photo shoot.

You Am I

The last band wasn’t done until after 5pm, so I wisely decided to go home to rest up for later in the night.

10pm – Double Experience @ Hard Luck Bar

My first time at Hard Luck Bar. Another case of wanting to check out the venue and not really knowing anything about the band playing. Double Experience is a four-piece rock group from Ottawa, Ontario. Even though there was a pretty sparse crowd, these dudes gave it their all. There were two other photographers there. Unlike me, they had flashes, which was a good thing because the lighting was pretty horrendous – just spotty and weak. Got hardly any good shots. In my opinion, another FAIL.

Double Experience

11pm – Single Mothers @ Lee’s Palace

Single Mothers are a punk rock band from London, Ontario, with a lead singer who was missing a front tooth. A good-sized crowd, but not so packed that I couldn’t get a good spot right at front, and then move around the venue relatively freely. I was pretty happy with the shots I got – SUCCESS!

Single Mothers

12am – We’re Doomed @ Rancho Relaxo

I specifically showed up to see We’re Doomed, a Toronto-based post-hardcore band. I’d seen them play once before, months earlier, at the Bovine Sex Club. Sadly, they announced that it “may or may not be” their last show with their bass player, who is heading back home to the east coast. Some jackass mosher took a couple of runs at me while I was concentrating on shooting the show. Drunk or high, I don’t know, but I seriously wanted to kick his ass. Thanks for messing up my back, a-hole! I’d planned to stick around until 3am to see The Sketch play, but my enthusiasm was killed, so I went home. A bit of a negative ending to the night, but what can you do?

We’re Doomed

And so went my Canadian Music Week 2014! A really awesome opportunity to photograph a bunch of shows, check out new venues and new bands, and really get my first taste of shooting a music festival. Bring on the next one!!