On a perfectly cool August Saturday evening, I board the ferry for the 10-minute ride to Olympic Island in Toronto Harbour. Surrounded by vacationing families and young concertgoers, I watch the sun setting over the calm harbour as the ferry approaches the island. A song that I heard on the radio runs through my head with the introspective lyrics, "I think my life is passing me by." The tune is "Brother Down" by Sam Roberts, Canada's new rock wonder kid who's playing on the island tonight. Anxiously anticipating my first Roberts experience, I proceed to the lower deck of the ferry and line-up to disembark.
From the dock, I follow a fenced path leading to the concert site. The tiny island is stunningly beautiful with a large lawn in the middle, surrounded by trees. The postural location gives the event a festival atmosphere compared to a typical rock show.
I sit down under a tree to observe the scene. Seagulls scurry about, eating garbage scattered on the grass; as the crowd of 8,000 quietly mingle as they await Roberts, the headliner along with Sloan of the summer's premier outdoor rock show, dubbed the Olympic Island Festival.
Then without an announcement, Roberts runs on stage wearing a white t-shirt, tight blue jeans and sporting his trademark beard, which he describes as 'Canadiana'. "Are you ready to rock 'n' roll," he asks the young crowd as he launches into a one-hour set.
Rock 'n' roll, indeed. His live show is much harder, faster and louder than I expected based on the radio version of "Brother Down." His performance style is straight ahead cock-rock with a definite retro sensibility.
His passionate, honest delivery works well on "The Canadian Dream," "Don't Walk Away Eileen" and "Brother Down," all from his acclaimed 2003 album "We Were Born in a Flame," which earned the 28-year-old Montrealer three Juno Awards and three Much Music Video Awards this year. It's only rock 'n' roll, is his stage attitude; and his rocker-dude dancing (well, jumping around) is unpretentious, sexy and feels real.
"I hope you're enjoying some of the best music Canada has to offer, some of the best music in the world. Hopefully this starts spreading across the country," Roberts says of the day-long event, which was spearheaded by Jay Ferguson, guitarist from Sloan. Also on the bill were: East Coast rapper Buck 65, Broken Social Scene, Pilate, Arcade Fire, Death From Above 1979, The Stills and The Constantines.
Roberts is a powerful performer but he doesn't have an irresistibly distinctive voice like, say, a young Bryan Adams. He's cute but he's not Corey Hart. His appeal stems from his poetic alt-rock persona, intelligent writing and skilled guitar work. He's just so Now. It's his turn. Let's see what he can do with his current momentum and hype, impressive as it is.
Roberts is followed half-an-hour later by Sloan, who've been touring in support of their latest album "Action Pact." The Toronto-based but Halifax-bred band receive the most enthusiastic reaction from the crowd because they are more established and their work is better known.
Their show is also so loud it can be heard well beyond the island. You can hear the whole thing from the Royal York Hotel, I'm sure. The thunderous volume makes it hard to hear the lyrics of some songs, although the sound quality is better further back, away from the speakers. Like Roberts, the boys (guitarists Jay Ferguson and Patrick Pentland, bassist Chris Murphy and drummer Andrew Scott) just came to rock. Hard! There is little audience interaction between songs. To the uninitiated, at some points it feels like a party for fans only. Fair enough.
Their hour-long set is highlighted by "The Rest of My Life," "The Good in Everyone," "Ready For You," "Losing California;" And they close the show with the beautifully vulnerable radio hit "The Other Man."
As they finish their encore, I begin walking toward the ferry terminal. The city lights of Toronto sparkle on the water and the Big Dipper hangs large and bright in the clear night sky. It is indeed a very cool summer night.
Writer: Dominic Darrah