On Thursday night, Virgin Radio Halifax opted to usher out the Summer of 2017 in grand fashion by staging their annual Summer Wrap Party in Halifax. For the unbelievable price of only $10.13, your ticket would have gotten you in to see one of the best bangs for your buck that you’re going to get. The line-up at the Halifax Forum MPC consisted of local favourites Neon Dreams, Elijah Will, the incomparable Ria Mae, and Vancouver emcee Aaron “SonReal” Hoffman. Once the four acts wrapped, then Felix Cartal took the stage to keep the party going with his EDM stylings.
Strolling into the cavernous Halifax Forum Multipurpose Centre (MPC), I was shocked at the paltry crowd that was in attendance. There weren’t that many folks there when the show kicked off at 8pm with Elijah Will, which is unfortunate for those who were off pre-gaming, that missed a young soulful R&B artist who is on the rise. Folks may recognize the name, as Elijah has performed with both Classified and Mike Boyd in the past (both of whom were milling about the Forum MPC to support their guy). Will held down the opening slot with the poise of an artist that has been in the game for quite some time, and I look forward to hearing more of his solo work in the future.
Then it was time for Neon Dreams to take the stage, a local act that has been riding a seemingly endless stream of buzz for the past number of years. Recently the band’s former DJ Corey Larue opted to move away from the stage to focus on his production work. As he said, Neon Dreams will always be his boys, but he had to step away from life on the road to focus on his mental health. On Thursday night, Frank Kadillac, Matt Gatts, and Adrian Morris brought the band’s signature EDM hybrid sound to the Halifax Forum MPC and put on a show-stealing set. While the band’s potential has always bubbled just below the surface, their most recent single “Marching Bands” was a clear breakthrough single (and this after having opened for acts such as Diplo and Down With Webster, and signing on to open the forthcoming Hedley tour).
The way that this potent trio incorporates live instrumentation and an undercurrent of pop-rock into EDM makes for an alluring sound. This, coupled with the band’s high energy live show, is a recipe for success. As the band wound down their set, I wondered how Ria Mae and SonReal could reach the bar that Neon Dreams just set with a performance that fired up the crowd. Neon Dreams are poised to become that next hot Hali-export. Catch them while you can, before the world lures them away.
After the deftly maneuvering stage crew quickly swept away the Neon Dreams set up, it was time for Halifax’s own Ria Mae to take to the stage. Mae has been riding a growing surge in popularity due in large part to her catchy, heartfelt pop tunes. Her latest album “Gold” has taken her across the country and back, so when you are presented with an opportunity to see this talented Halifax songstress perform, you seize it. For me, this was the first time where my schedule didn’t clash with the chance to see Ria Mae.
It has been a number of years since I first heard Ria perform “Clothes Off” on a radio show, where she also talked about collaborating with Classified on the track. This was long before her smash single became ubiquitous, but fast forward to today, where Ria has a handful of radio singles and a growing, adoring fan base. She hit the stage with her longtime drummer Chuck Bucket and bassist Chris Wong, and leapt into a set loaded with cuts from her most recent self-titled LP, such as “Leaving Today”, “Wherever We Go”, and the obligatory “Clothes Off”, “Gold”, and “Thoughts on Fire”. In watching Ria perform live for the first time, it transported me back to when I first saw Sarah McLachlan perform at the Rebecca Cohn. I don’t know if it was a turn of phrase, or just a look, but in that moment Ria reminded me immediately of Ms. McLachlan. All in all, Ria’s set felt a bit like a tease, as I now need to see her full set. Oh, and yes, when it came time for that Classified verse during “Thoughts on Fire”, he hit the stage rapping his verse and showing his support for another of his protégés.
This was a performance that further endeared her material to me, as it sounds so great live, especially with Chris Wong and Chuck Bucket providing the live instrumentation. It was definitely electronic-infused pop music, but it is loaded with heart and honesty. Never once does it feel ingenuine, in fact with as much sheen and veneer as you can layer onto a typical pop tune, little of that exists here, and it felt like Ria Mae’s heart was exposed and on display for all to see. Closing down the set was the latest single from Ms. Mae, “Bend”, which is a massive jam that had the crowd whipped into a frenzy. Keep your ears peeled as it should be pouring from your radio speakers at any moment. Ensure that you see Ria Mae while you can, as it will be a bit before she returns, because we have to share her with the world now.
The last act on the bill, in advance of the EDM dance party, was Vancouver emcee SonReal, who was making his 4th Halifax stop in the past 18 months. My first opportunity to see SonReal was in this very room at the Halifax Pop Explosion in 2014, as he was supporting Lights’ headlining set. That seems like a lifetime ago now, as “Everywhere We Go” was just catching fire. It’s clearly a fire that continues to burn, as the BC emcee first headlined a late-night set on the cozy Reflections stage (with Mike Boyd providing support), and with each subsequent return visit, SonReal has taken to bigger stages. SonReal started 2016 opening for Classified at the Marquee Ballroom (see a pattern here?), and then followed that up with a pair of headlining shows downstairs at the Seahorse Tavern, and now late into 2017 SonReal is headlining a show on one of the bigger rooms in town. During the past 18 months, SonReal’s stage show grew from just DJ Rich-A and SonReal, to include guitarist Joey Resley (the guitarist joined Rich and Aaron at the first Seahorse show back in 2016). The presence of live instrumentation elevates it from a standard hip-hop show to a hype experience, complete with hair flips and scintillating energetic guitar work.
At the Halifax Forum on this Thursday night, it was a definitively SonReal crowd, as the Haligoons in the room were on board from the opening salvo of “Who Care” all the way through the “vintage” tunes “Everywhere I Go” and “Preach”. For the entirety of his set, the emcee bounced and bounded from one side of the stage to the other, even feigning death at one point. With each subsequent show, the songs sound more boisterous and confident and the crowd responds in kind. This was a Halifax crowd who were ready to roar approval at every turn. As high as the bar was set after Neon Dreams’ set, SonReal managed to achieve the same mark. It was another fiery performance for the west-coast rapper, who continues to further that love affair with the East Coast. There ain’t no rivalries here, only love.