Toronto’s TONE Festival spotlights experimental musicians

22 June 2023 / by Amber Ranson
Toronto’s TONE Festival spotlights experimental musicians
EXPO Vintage store holds 6th annual TONE Festival, showcasing performances from Badge Époque Ensemble, Ben LaMar Gay and Masahiro Takahashi.

Badge Époque Ensemble appeared on the bill of TONE Festival, as the first official celebration of their 2022 album Clouds of Joy. After some complications, the band’s original celebration was suspended until further notice and pushed for 10 months till June 9th, 2023 at 1978 Dundas West in Toronto. Along with two other acts, the seven-piece band graced the stage (or rather, the skate bowl) of EXPO Vintage in the name of TONE Festival. Known to give a platform for experimental acts, TONE has annually taken over Toronto since 2017 and has an array of artists performing from June 2 to 28. 

The night started off in an unexpecting DIY venue, with no signage or identification out front. The poster had no specified business name but just an address–though, while passing by on the streetcar, my hesitation quickly disappeared. Circles of people gathering outside the automotive-shop-turned-venue-slash-thriftstore at 8pm on a Friday was a clear indicator that this was the place to be. Despite the dim, cold industrial vibe of EXPO Vintage’s exterior, attendees were warmly welcomed in and helped themselves to drinks from the cashier-bar and flipping through the Telephone Explosion and International Anthem records at the merch stand. Then, as the lights dimmed, the music began and heads rose. 

The first act was Masahiro Takahashi, who had a small set up of synthesizers and mixing boards across two tables. Perched in a chair between the two, the crowd gathered around the front of the skate bowl (which also acted as the stage), sitting cross-legged. A silence swept over everyone as his set started off with a small hum of a melody. His ambient-electronica works brought the beach to the middle of the city through the use of colourful compositions.  Juxtaposed with the industrial scene outside the windows in the crowd’s peripheral, the tropical-infused pop was intensified by the breeze from a mechanical fan set to the left of the stage. His unique use of downtempo and fragments of psychedellia was intoxicating and in turn, created an infectious aura. The music slowly built on itself before bursting into a blissful resolution. 

After Takahashi, was Ben LaMar Gay with a mix of heavy experimental ambient, jazz and blues. Sporting both a trumpet and a skin drum (at different times), LaMar Gay and his band created ambient-tinged free jazz. In the midst of the chaos, the percussionist used an uninvolved chair as part of his drum set, as LaMar Gay spun skin drums on their sides before smacking them down with a mallet. Through the use of unconventional sounds and household objects as musical instruments, LaMar Gay created a truly unique sound.

Badge Époque Ensemble closed out the night, beginning with six of their members spread across the stage. Starting out with three instrumental tracks, the band hooked the crowd with their lush 70’s-inspired jazz-funk-rock soundscape. The music that they played this time was different to their most recent album, which was reimagined with hip-hop vocals and beats. Instead, they returned to their roots, pulling from their 2022 album Clouds of Joy. Letting their musicianship take the forefront, it allowed the audience to appreciate the strength of each band member. Almost as a nod to their jazz roots, the ensemble took improvisation to the next level. While it’s evident that each track is carefully mapped out, their ability to showcase each instrument and musician was sublime. Throughout their complex melodies and six different instruments, they managed a very tight performance. One of the instruments that particularly stood out was the flute, especially during their live performance. Played by Alia O’Brian, she constructs very complicated, funky parts and still manages to be a large part of each song, despite the quiet-nature of the instrument. After a couple instrumental songs, the band brought out guest vocalist Dorothea Paas, who appeared on Clouds of Joy. Equipped with a soft but powerful voice, she fit in like the last piece to the puzzle that is Badge Époque Ensemble. Her ability to use her voice as an instrument was beautiful, working not to overshine but rather enhance the musicianship of the band. There were times where her voice took the spotlight–but there were also times when it worked to support the other instruments when it was their turn to show their capabilities. The sunny guitar (Chris Bezant), congas (Ed Squires), drums (Jay Anderson), keyboard (Edwin de Goei) and soulful bass (Maximillian Turnbull) created a silky landing pad for the shimmering notes from O’Brian’s flute and Paas’ vocals. 

All in all, Badge Époque Ensemble’s performance was dizzying yet blissful at the same time- pairing especially well with Takahashi’s stunning performance from earlier in the night. As the sun set outside the windows and the night came to a close, the crowd filed out of EXPO. TONE’s choice of artists for this particular Friday night lineup was refreshing–both exploratory and dazzling while masterfully highlighting their talents.