Now that the dust has settled on the 25th anniversary of Halifax Pop Explosion, and the sleep deprivation of those 4 days has finally been reclaimed, the task of thinking back over this year’s edition of the fest has begun. When I started jotting notes down on what took place between Wednesday and Saturday evening, the stats were a bit staggering. This festival (and most others) is something of a musical buffet, you try and sample as much as possible, never really hanging out in one place for too long and rarely enjoying an entire main course/event. The numbers for me broke down like this: 4 days, 25 acts, 8500 pictures, and 4 (almost 5) different venues; nothing that you can really plan for, but you just grab your camera and coffee, and head out into the wild. As busy as that may sound, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I can’t wait for next year’s event. But as we’re putting a bow on our festival thoughts and (finally!) finishing up our photo collections, it’s time for me to put together my three highlights/takeaways from this year’s festival.
#1 – Ensure you know where the venue is.
Ok, just follow me on this one, keep your arms and legs in the car at all times until the ride stops. We all know where the major rooms are in town, right? The Marquee, “New” Seahorse, The Pavilion, The Halifax Forum Multi-Purpose Centre are all fairly well known, so they don’t need much planning to get to on time. This year, I had planned to finally hit up a show at The Khyber, or so I thought. Never once did it dawn on me to verify my destination, because we all know where The Khyber is, right? Little did I know, but The Khyber Building is not where The Khyber Centre for the Arts is located??!! I tried to make it to the early Weaves show on Day 3, but in arriving at a darkened, lifeless building on Barrington, I was a bit puzzled as you would think there would be a palpable buzz surrounding the venue. After doing a lap of the block, I figured I was at the wrong place. I hit up Google, who directed me back a few blocks to a packed room where I could hear the sweet sounds of Weaves wafting out of the venue, but if I had tried to get in, it might as well have been a stereo system at the front of the room. It was an inauspicious start to the evening, but I would eventually catch Weaves’ headlining set.
#2 – A Meta Mini Countdown // My favourite 3 shows of the Festival
Partner @ The Seahorse (Day 2 – Thursday, October 19th @ 1am)
Having heard Jeff, Justin and Mitch rave on and on about how great this New Brunswick-bred two-piece (and their extended band) was, I had to see for myself. I got to chatting with the assistant brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery while the band set up, you’d think I had grown two heads in the small time we were chatting, with the look I got when I mentioned this was my first Partner show. This chick had been a long-time fan, and was over the moon excited to see Josee and Lucy tear up the cozy Seahorse stage. From the opening cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock)” to the instantly recognizable and infectious powerhouse single “Everyone Knows”, it was a night of great power indie-pop/rock tunes. Partner struck me as the band we would have gotten had Tegan and Sara opted for electric guitars rather than the electro-pop direction they headed in. They were so fucking good, I made plans to hit their all-ages show at the Pavillion the following evening, needless to say the hype was real.
Japandroids @ The Halifax Forum MPC (Day 2 – Thursday, October 19th @ 10pm)
For the past number of years, I’ve inundated myself with rock radio from either Vancouver or Toronto while I’m working, so I’ve become a fan of Japandroids’ brand of full-throttle pop-infused post-punk music and, having missed the band last time they came through town, I made it a point to be in attendance for their show during HPX. Guitarist Brian King, and drummer David Prowse are aural wizards, as they manage to find a way to create this huge bombastic indie-rock sound that is far larger than any other rock two-piece that isn’t called the White Stripes. This Vancouver duo played for well over 90 minutes and crammed as many songs into their set as time would allow. It was a treat seeing the intensity and enjoyment these two West Coast lads exhibited as they shredded the Haligoon eardrums in the room. Come back soon, fellas!
Lee Fields & The Expressions @ The Halifax Forum MPC (Day 3 – Friday October 20th @ 10PM)
The circumstances that brought Lee Fields to town are tragically unfortunate, as for the past two years the festival had booked The Screaming Eagle of Soul Charles Bradley to play, but both times cancer befell the legendary performer, and unfortunately the second fight was insurmountable. The HPX booking committee landed another soul great, who would feel equally at home on the Jazz Fest stage, but he was here to bring a warmth and positivity to us in attendance. It was a magical night in the Forum MPC, as Fields sauntered and strutted across that stage in his shimmering red-sequined coat. It was a performance akin to that of Sharon Jones, only dialed down slightly from the diminutive powerhouse’s performance a few years ago. Lee Fields was a delight, who dazzled both our ears and our souls.
#3 – Build that Line-Up to a Crescendo, Not Question Marks
I get that you want to entice as many people as possible to check out each night of the festival, so I understand the need to create a lineup to accomplish this Herculean task, but I think some attention should be afforded to the organizational structure of a show. I can only imagine that it’s akin to mixtape mastery and abiding to similar rules as that of High Fidelity’s protagonist Rob:
“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”
There were a couple of shows I saw during the fest that had some curious line-up placements, for example, on the opening night of the fest, highly-talented local act Not You played the opening slot ahead of industrial grunge rockers Metz. Not You are great to play ahead of someone a little lower key like Wintersleep, but for an energetic, frenetic act like Metz, they are a bit too chill. Then as if to book-end my fest, Saturday night’s Forum MPC had a somewhat unusual bill as it seemed to build into this anti-climatic finish, what with the night kicking off with the jangly pop-culture soaked indie-pop outfit Dance Movie, who made the growing crowd fall completely head over heels in love with them. Then BC’s Yukon Blonde hit the stage and put on a highly energetic and engaging set of power pop/alt-rock tunes, most of which were well-known rock radio fare such as “Stairway”, “Crazy”, “I Want to Be Your Man” and the infectious “Saturday Night”. At this point, the crowd has been dancing and grooving along to these two highly talented acts.
Third on the bill was arguably the night’s headliner in The Rural Alberta Advantage. The RAA were in the midst of a Cross-Canada trek in support of their hot-off-the-presses album entitled The Wild, and having caught the band a couple of years ago at the Marquee Ballroom, their taut and intense folk-rock tunes were no surprise and completely made sense as the act at the top of the bill. Instead of stopping here, the evening’s hotly-anticipated headliner Patrick Watson was ready to hit the stage shortly after The RAA’s huge single “Terrified” faded away in the din. Once Watson made his way to the piano, the energy in the room was slowly depleted, gently setting us on the ground. Watson’s atmospheric, ambient arrangements were beautiful and elegant, but they were clearly the one thing that was not like the others, the one thing that was not the same. In speaking to a friend who is a big fan of Watson’s, she agreed that the lineup seemed a bit strange to her, and the choice of venue wasn’t ideal (in listening to his studio work, Watson would probably be a great fit for a symphony show at the Cohn). It’s just a bill such as that can leave some folks scratching their heads. For me, it was the tail end of 4 great days of music, and Watson made me yearn for my pillow, so I opted to pack up the camera and head for home.
All in all, these were my three takeaways from this year’s Halifax Pop Explosion festival. I managed to sidestep a lot of the drama that seemingly took place during a couple of shows, and the crowds seemed fairly well-behaved for the most part. As for my thoughts on the line-ups, that’s part of the festival experience. Much like a buffet, you’re always going to have that outlier food that doesn’t seem to belong on the plate, but once you taste it, you’re going to want more. 2017 was another seemingly successful year, and I can’t wait to see what sort of treats the organization committee have lined up for the 26th iteration of the festival.