By Music Lovers, For Music Lovers: The 3rd Annual Toronto Urban Roots Fesitval

Originally published in COLLECTIONS by Harvey Kalles Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage. The Toronto Urban Roots Festival plays this weekend at Fort York’s Garrison Common.
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The summer music season is now underway and the Greater Toronto Area continues to impress with a range of offerings that should satisfy most musical tastes. Want traditional jazz with marquee headliners? The TD Jazz Festival has that covered. A little too pricey? Then check out the free multi-week program of the Beaches Jazz Festival. Prefer greater variety with a little art, film and comedy mixed in for good measure? There’s always NXNE… unless you prefer music with a social message? In that case, the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic might hit the spot. And, of course there’s always the mega camp-out festival for those looking to submerge themselves in music (and probably a little more than that) for a long weekend. This year, the team that brought you Tennessee’s famed Bonnaroo have set up shop in the Great White North with the first Way Home Music and Arts Festival to be held in Oro-Medonte, and headlined by Ontario’s own Neil Young.

But despite the myriad choices available in the GTA, for the obsessive music lover, there’s always room for one more and, as luck would have it, there is! For the past three years, a local group led by club owner and promoter Jeff Cohen, of Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace fame, has built what could easily be billed as a musical love letter to Toronto, with a three-day celebration at Fort York’s Garrison Common that encompasses a range of acts as diverse as the citizens that make up this great city. “Let’s give something to the city of Toronto. All I’ve ever done is be a club owner and promoter here. I’ve done really well and it’s an opportunity to give something back,” says Cohen.

The Toronto Urban Roots Festival is a loose name at best, likely chosen more for the acronym TURF (as in home turf) than to depict any real genre of music. In fact, when put to the test and asked how he, the promoter, defines Urban Roots Music, Cohen laughs unabashedly. “I don’t think that I do… We’re punk rockers who also listen to old time blues and folk and country. So, we like our roots music tinkered with. We’re bastardizing it in the same way that the Pogues have bastardized it.”

Much of the program for the three-day event is already scheduled, and audiences will note the eclectic mix which has global acts like Wilco, UB40 and The Avett Brothers sharing multiple stages with regional icons like Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith and the Sadies, along with a slate of virtual unknowns like Sate, Hop Along and NQ Arbuckle. And therein lies the beauty of the TURF. Far from a mega festival that relies on strong headliners and corporate sponsorships, TURF wholly embraces its boutique status and consciously strives to introduce audiences to something new, while keeping it all about the music and not the ad revenue. There is little sponsorship, if any. “Last year we tried to avoid corporate food entities. This year we’ll try to do that with the wine and beer we’ll be serving,” adds Cohen.

At its heart, this is a music festival owned by music lovers and programmed for other music lovers… whether they share their tastes or not. “It’s a bit of an insider’s festival, where someone on the outside who doesn’t listen to as much music as we do may not get it. Going back to our first year, [attendees] may not really know who Kurt Vile is… they may never know who Kurt Vile is. But it sure was exciting to see him play outdoors.”

However, it’s not just the hearts and minds of the audiences that are opening up. Cohen points to an increasingly open political landscape as the impetus for the annual event, starting with the emergence of a study written five years ago by a lobby group called Music Canada. Essentially, the paper compared the music scene in Toronto to the one in Austin, Texas, and asked why Austin was calling itself the Music Capital of the World, while we weren’t branding ourselves at all, despite possessing the fourth largest music market in North America, along with several times the population, the venues, and the money of our friends to the south.

After reading the report, Cohen decided to become politically active and quickly found kindred spirits in three newly inducted city councilors —— each cut from a different political cloth, but sharing a common love for music: Mike Layton, Josh Cole and Gary Crawford. “They said that they were big fans of live music clubs and that they’d like to open up some green parks for music. At the same time, Fort York was opening up as a potential venue, and it felt like the city was ready to embrace a big music festival in the heart of downtown. I think that residential concerns about live music festivals are no longer as important as commercial concerns about building Toronto into a world class city.”

A big part of that, of course, includes supporting local and Canadian acts at home and abroad. Though Canadiana has always been central to the TURF lineup, this year’s festival will place an even greater emphasis on Toronto, ensuring that a local act will play at least once per day on each of the three stages. This is especially important to Jeff, considering that roughly 45 percent of the audiences are tourists. “I want them to leave saying they saw great bands from Toronto,” he says.

The other change of note will be the new date. Typically held mid-July, this year’s TURF will move to September because of the Pan Am Games. Jeff sees that as a positive and expects to make this a permanent change. “The weather might be better in July, but all the students are back in September, and let’s be honest, a lot of the programming is student-oriented.”

One thing that will not change, however, is the boutique vibe. Cohen has no plans to grow the festival beyond the current 10,000 capacity, citing the intimacy as a major part of the audience experience. When considering some of his favourite moments from previous runs, he points to the Violent Femmes playing Toronto for the first time in nearly two decades. Not only did they surprise promoters and concert-goers by playing their debut album in its entirety, there was also some unexpected audience interaction. “This young kid in the front row, who probably hadn’t even been born when that record first came out, had this humongous sign that read ‘Can I play tambourine during “Add It Up”?’ Lead singer Gordon Gano saw it and not only did he bring him and the sign onstage, he got to play tambourine with the band. I thought it was the coolest thing. That could never happen at a larger festival.”

The Toronto Urban Roots Festival will help wrap up the summer with three days of music at Fort York’s Garrison Common, plus a two-day club series at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace in September.