On Wednesday October 17th, Canada became one of just two countries to legalize cannabis. To mark the end of Herbal Prohibition, HPX threw a kick-ass party featuring the tandem of Partner & Matt Mays. It was a night that saw a steady stream of patrons roll in for the festivities, partly due to the fact that this was the unofficial kick-off to the festival, which officially opened on Wednesday evening.
The Marquee Ballroom had been staged for the festival, but as it was only the duo of Josée Caron and Lucy Nile, it took on an MTV Unplugged vibe with the duo remaining seated for the entirety of their set. This was a return of sorts for the duo, who played two sets during last year’s festival, at both the Seahorse Tavern and an all-ages show at the Pavillion. While the ladies sounded fine, I found myself wondering what a more earnest and straight-forward Partner would sound like, if they could keep from planting their tongues firmly in their cheeks. It just gets a little grating over time; however, as musicians both Lucy and Josee slay. But when Josee lets her guitar wizardry loose, it’s otherworldly. You can see her go away, and then these sounds emerge that drop your jaw to the ground (it was fun to watch her not leap out of her seat as she shredded). It was a relatively brief set, and then the Unplugged set was stripped away in preparation for Matt Mays and company to take the stage.
Matt Mays is an artist who originated from Dartmouth, but has grown into something of a road warrior these days. If you follow Leith, Adam, Serge, or Matt on Instagram, you see that they are hardly based here, as they’ve been making the rounds south of the border in support of Gaslight Anthem, or playing their own shows. Not to mention that they have been working on the acoustic, stripped down version of Once Upon a Hell of a Time, entitled Twice Upon a Hell of a Time. Over the course of the past 12-15 months, the guys have found time to play a handful of local shows.
January saw the band take to the Scotiabank Stage as a headliner for the first time, alongside a pair of powerhouse rock acts in The Beaches and July Talk. Then a month later, a trio of intimate acoustic shows were staged in a Burnside warehouse with an invite-only audience, which were recorded for future broadcast. Then the band departed and hit the road for a few months before returning for the annual Shore Club stint out in Hubbards, which has become the unofficial end of summer around these parts. Then, as the legalization date neared, Mays was booked as the lead-in to the Halifax Pop Explosion on a stage that he’s no stranger to, having stated it was something like his 20th show there.
Even though it was still early in the evening, there was certainly something in the air. Matt and his crew came ready to lay down an electric and energized set, a set that could have very easily shown the signs of a road-weary crew. The Marquee was appropriately packed for Mays, who continues to show that he is one of the marquee names in Canadian music, with a set that was tailored for this historic occasion with staples such as “Cocaine Cowgirl”, “Stoned”, and “Tall Trees” all making the cut. For the most part, the set was accessible and fan-friendly, culminating with the Mellotones joining the crew onstage and providing some backup on the apt Peter Tosh cut “Legalize It”. Once the clock counted us down to the zero hour, the familiar dank aroma wafted through the room as a few choice patrons blazed one up.
Having seen Mays perform in a variety of venues and capacities around the Maritimes (even once dawning his Captain’s hat and DJing in advance of Matisyahu’s performance), this is easily one of the best. The only set that squeaked out the title of my favourite was the Canada Day set from last year on the Halifax Commons, and that was by the slimmest of margins. It’s a whole new world, and when people ask, “Where were you when Herbal Prohibition fell?“, I’ll let them know I was at the Marquee watching Mays, Baldwin, Fleming-Smith, and Stanley put on a killer set of classic Mays jams.