Dance music is coming back to Toronto’s beaches this summer after a shaky — and somewhat waterlogged — 2017 and there’s a renewed sense of optimism in the air along with the beats.
This Sunday, the Electric Island electronic-music series returns to its longtime home at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands after spending most of last year nowhere near an actual island at all, while June 3 will see Promise Cherry Beach Sundays back on the beach for a full season instead of the paltry two events it managed last summer — with an officially ordained 11 p.m. curfew and a liquor licence, to boot.
It’s not a bad double-bounce back for two of the city’s longest-running and most beloved dance events, and also reassuring evidence that Toronto isn’t really the “no fun” city it’s often made out to be.
Both Electric Island and Cherry Beach Sundays have their roots in Toronto’s electronic underground and guerrilla outdoor parties hatched right around the same turn-of-the-millennium time when the City of Toronto was doing its very best to clamp down on anything that could be mistaken for a “rave,” but they’ve since forged a (mostly) friendly relationship with the municipal authorities that has allowed them to grow and thrive. Who knew?
Granted, it wasn’t trouble with the city that left Electric Island suddenly homeless as the Victoria Day weekend approached last year but the rampant flooding that essentially shut down every non-essential service on the island for half the summer. Three weeks out from its 2017 season opener, the festival found out it was being forced inland.
“Everyone was really caught off guard with the water levels,” recalls co-founder Alex Mastro, who managed a hasty relocation to Woodbine Park with his partners at Embrace, Footwork and Platform in record time.
“We were lucky enough within three weeks to get it approved at Woodbine by the city.”
Because Woodbine was booked for the three other long weekends over which Electric Island hosts its five annual events, it had to pack up and move again for its Canada Day and Simcoe Day editions to the thoroughly unglamourous, paved strip of the Port Lands where Cirque du Soleil often sets up its tent.
It was a relief, then, when organizers got the word they could return to Hanlan’s Point for the final two parties on the Labour Day weekend — and only insult added to injury when a severe thunderstorm forced the cancellation of the year’s final Electric Island throwdown. No wonder Mastro calls it “our most horrible year.”
But it’s onward and upward for 2018, which kicks off this Sunday with performances by South African DJ/producer Black Coffee, Berlin techno powerhouse Ellen Allien, DJ Tennis, Koki and many more. The likes of Green Velvet, Robert Babicz, Loco Dice and Nicole Moudaber will follow through the summer at an event that now routinely hits its 7,000 capacity.
“It’s a big plus to not have to worry about having to find a new venue that could replace the magic of this venue because there almost is nothing,” says Mastro, who cut his teeth throwing “illegal” parties on Cherry Beach back in the day but realized he’d “outgrown the grey area” when 4,000 turned up to a Victoria Day weekend event in 2011.
“I mean, the name Electric Island alone; it was started to be on the island.
“The island, logistically, makes an event very much complicated. Everything has to be transported over water. Size, weight, mass, everything has to be calculated and we’re right beside an airport so we have to follow some rules of the airport and obviously we have to follow some guidelines of the park, and we have neighbours not too far from us. So it’s very difficult to throw a party on the island.
“But at the same time, the island is magical.”
Irving Shaw and David Macleod of Promise spent last summer fretting that the magic was gone forever from their own Cherry Beach events.
After an incident of irresponsible behaviour by a partygoer in 2016 laid bare the fact that people were drinking on the beach, Promise wound up getting shut down for a few weeks and was only allowed to restart with strict new security conditions and a most unwelcome 9 p.m. curfew.
Last year, the city — with whom Shaw and Macleod were finally forced to deal in 2008 after throwing their parties without permits for seven years — allowed Cherry Beach Sundays to restart under a “pilot project” that allowed for a liquor licence and a renewed 11 p.m. curfew but only for two Sundays out of the entire summer.
The Promise bears the City of Toronto no ill will, even though years ago a visit by a bylaw officer forced the cancellation of a would-have-been-legendary Sunday where the late Gord Downie had promised Shaw — who was then tutoring his son — he would come down and sing a few songs.
As Shaw puts it, “they’ve got boxes to check, (and) the more that David and I have gotten involved in it, we do see a little bit of method to their madness.” He and Macleod, in fact, enjoy such a friendly relationship with Cherry Beach’s councillor, Paula Fletcher, that they turned up at a Toronto Music Advisory Council meeting last year just to sing her praises. Amazingly, the city has allowed Cherry Beach Sundays to continue into its 17th year with its original, kid-friendly ethos intact.
“Cherry Beach has always been an all-ages environment. We value that very highly and we were able to communicate to them: ‘Look, we want a liquor licence, but we also want children to be able to be there. These things are not exclusive. For us to make Cherry Beach into what we want it to be, they have to come together.’ And the city accepted,” says Shaw.
Cherry Beach Sundays have always been a most un-Toronto kind of event, casual and freewheeling and a little loose around the edges. So even though Shaw and Macleod have had to behave more like conventional concert promoters and less like hippie-ish ravers over the years, they can also take credit for forcing the City of Toronto to lighten up a little bit. Baby steps.
Toronto is not quite Montreal yet, but we’re getting there.
“Irving and I both spent a fair bit of our 20s in Quebec,” says Macleod. “They had the jazz festival, as they do now, where they just cut off 12 downtown city blocks, they put up four stages and they sell beer in the streets and I was so taken aback as an Ontarian to see, like, a 60-year-old grandfather with his grandkid on his shoulders listening to zydeco music at 11:30 at night and having a beer. And then I moved to Toronto and it was, like, ‘Something is wrong here. And if we can’t fix it, let’s change it and do our own thing.’”
The June 3 Cherry Beach lineup features DJs Sapling, Diana McNally, Matt Von Wilde, Nadia and Sergio Levels, along with local indie-rock outfit Sahara.
Electric Island’s Mastro has nothing but admiration for his pals in Promise and what they’ve managed to do this year with Cherry Beach Sundays.
“It’s a miracle that they’ve got a liquor licence on the beach,” he says. “If you’d said that to me 10 years ago, there wasn’t even a chance. So the city has grown up a little bit and that’s kind of exciting to see.”