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Not Dead Yet Proved That If You Build It, They Will Come

Although it's only on its fourth year, Not Dead Yet has become a destination punk music festival.
November 24, 2014, 9:04pm

Die - Photo courtesy of Shane Parent

Six months ago during the NXNE music festival here in Toronto, I went to a panel discussion meant to address the growing number of issues musicians and the public alike were having with the festival’s practices—namely, their decision to enforce a radius clause on all of the bands selected to perform. Many of us who attended were surprised to find when we arrived that NXNE had put out a press release minutes before, announcing their decision to drop the radius clause entirely. But being three days into the festival, the damage had already been done. Bands that didn’t observe the radius clause had been cut from the lineup, and the ones that did missed out on great opportunities to play shows within 45 days of the festival. It was a clever (read: shitty) move by NXNE to appear transparent while simultaneously silencing one of the main issues of debate. The Q&A portion of the panel still managed to get a little heated, with the audience using the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with how the festival treats smaller bands. One unpopular opinion came from Greg Benedetto, a local concert promoter. He said something along the lines of, “If you don’t like what NXNE are doing for small local bands, don’t play NXNE. Start your own festival.”

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Benedetto would know a thing or two about starting a festival. For the past four years he’s been organizing Not Dead Yet, an annual DIY hardcore punk festival that takes over one weekend in November. Using his connections as a promoter and touring musician, he’s able to draw in bands from all over the globe, all descending on Toronto for this one event, while still emphasizing the talents of local bands. This year’s fest promised to be the biggest and most successful, with bands like Forward, the Marked Men, Iron Lung, and Perfect Pussy headlining, and online tickets selling out well in advance. Though those bands were the main draw, this year’s Not Dead Yet billing was so abundant it spilled over into great matinee programming, “unofficial” shows, art marketplaces and record swaps. It was all a bit overwhelming, and if I wanted to see it all, I’d have very little time to say, hunt down a set of vintage end tables.

S.H.I.T. - Photo courtesy of Shane Parent

Wednesday night was the unofficial start to the festival, with a slew of local acts kicking things off at S.H.I.B.G.B’s, the basement HQ of Benedetto’s band S.H.I.T. and main location for most of his regular Stuck In The City shows. Before Conundrum, the first band of the night, had even plugged in their instruments, the place was already swarming with people. If there was a theme to these shows throughout the week it was that people show up and they show up early.

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Thursday by some accounts was a sexier night, if only because three people were caught doing it on a streetcar. It also wasn’t without its hiccups, as the blizzard in Buffalo claimed its first victim: New York’s Anasazi. Muerte (featuring Tercer Mundo’s Dave Rata) took their place, and between them and Farang, the night got off to an excellent start. Glue were also of note, as they played an absolutely crazed set. They were in town last year as well for S.H.I.T.’s annual S.H.I.T.mas show, and in both cases I don’t think I saw their vocalist’s feet touch the ground. Iron Lung and local favorites Column of Heaven were sobering counterpoints to the fun raucousness that Glue reveled in, with Iron Lung’s bass and drum assault reaching absolutely oppressive levels. Thankfully they were dosed in short, precise bursts that made it easier to digest and take a breath.

On Friday I took in one of the matinee shows curated by the guys in Wastoids, half of whom joined together with half of Snake Charmer to form Disgusti. They dialed up the noise and intensity, making me completely forget I was standing in some creepy nightclub at 3 PM on a Friday afternoon. I bailed after Born Wrong’s performance, but it was a good note to leave on—their tremendous amount of energy would’ve been hard for any band to follow.

VCR - Photo courtesy of Shane Parent

That night I went to the Garrison, where Destruction Unit and Perfect Pussy topped off a list of bands that represented the high water mark of performances at Not Dead Yet. I arrived in time to see Institute and their vocalist’s drunken Chaplin-esque physical comedy routine, as well as the urgent, hooky post-punk from their Deranged Records labelmates Pleasure Leftists. In an adjacent room at the front of the venue, the Ascetic House guys were doing double duty, with Marshstepper opening up for Puce Mary in a phenomenally noisy and abrasive set. They later joined their bandmates in Destruction Unit back in the main room, enveloping the crowd in the Garrison with a thunderous cumulonimbus of psych rock. This show sounded the least “punk” out of everything that went on at Not Dead Yet this year, but its strong roots in DIY culture still made it feel like a natural fit for the fest.

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Saturday was a little less eventful. I had major difficulties getting into anything, with the Magpie having already reached capacity by the time I arrived there at 9:30 (!!!) to try and see Big Zit, and the Forward show taking place at Hard Luck bar sold out days prior. I did finally get into Soybomb with a group of 50 other people who swarmed the venue just as the doors were opening. The best performances of the night went to Wesley Crusher and VCR, with the former’s space-themed speed metal winning major points for originality, while the latter just reaffirmed why they’re one of the best damn bands in the city.

VCR - Photo courtesy of Shane Parent

Sunday’s stacked bill at Sneaky Dee’s was another highly anticipated event, doing away with the common practice of festivals (and festival goers) to phone it in on the final day. Local groups Smart Boys and Teenanger treated everyone to great sets, but it was Sheer Mag that had the best response from the crowd. That is, until The Marked Men performed for the second night in a row. I hadn’t seen The Marked Men during their original run, so hearing them play songs like “Ditch” was a thrill, and it helped end my Not Dead Yet on a high.

It’s safe to say that back in June, Greg Benedetto might’ve come off as cocky or self-congratulatory by suggesting artists dissatisfied with NXNE should do something on their own. If he seemed too confident to anyone that afternoon, he was coming from a place of experience. His confidence stems from the fact that he has a community behind him, both here in Toronto and internationally, that he could rely on to help get shit done. Benedetto wasn’t alone in putting together this year’s undertaking, having upwards of 30 volunteers doing a number of things like working the doors at each show, stage managing and take care of the backline loading and setup. Some of them were friends and bandmates, some of them were new friends and bands from out of town who wanted to help. People show up. Asking them for help not only creates a sense of community, it sustains it.

Michael Rancic has no plans to start his own festival … yet. Follow him on Twitter.