Halifax Pop Explosion 2012 preview: how to survive at the centre of the universe

Last week, I was interviewed for a special feature in The Chronicle Herald about live music in Halifax. (Sorry, not available online, Internet kids.) I said some very reasonable, realistic things about Halifax as a touring destination: that our low population and distance from other centres makes us a challenging place for bands to get to; that the best way to attract larger acts is to support the people already doing good work for live music in our community.

Then, in the second half of the article, Scott Ferguson of Trade Centre Ltd. actually called Halifax “the country’s top event destination.”

As Joe Biden would say: what a load of malarkey.

But I’ll give you this: there’s one week each year where Halifax actually feels like it’s not a city on the periphery of mass culture, when the touring itineraries of bands’ “Canadian” tours don’t stop at Quebec.

Welcome, Halifax Pop Explosion.

I’ve been a HPX regular now for about seven or eight of the festival’s 20 years, and some of my favourite Halifax musical moments in recent history are inextricably bound to it: Ted Leo singing farewell to Nova Scotia at the Marquee; almost losing my hearing to The Besnard Lakes; Japandroids playing one last song with the house lights up because the crowd refused to leave; screaming along to every word of The Hold Steady’s set at the Paragon; being so overwhelmed by Titus Andronicus’ secret show at Tribeca that I was compelled to join my first mosh pit in more than a decade during “A More Perfect Union.”

And now, we’ve reached HPX 2012. If I’m being totally honest, the lineup has an underwhelming side this year, lacking a bit in the “holy crap I can’t believe xxxxxx is actually going to play Halifax!” reactions that the last few years’ have generated. That said, it’s every bit as deep as usual – and the fact that the headliners may be a little less “woah” means a lot more time bouncing around venues, exploring new music.

(What, you mean you haven’t purchased a wristband yet, dear Haligonian? Come on, don’t you remember how frustratingly expensive HPX used to be when you had to buy tickets to the five or six separate shows you wanted to see? Take advantage of this!)

So in the spirit of pretending like Halifax is the centre of the musical universe for five days, here’s just a handful things I’m looking forward to at this year’s HPX. (You can find the full schedule online here.)

The Marquee Club returns: Like most Haligonians of a certain vintage, I cut my live music teeth at Gottingen’s most famous haunt: big bands upstairs on the main stage, smaller acts playing downstairs in Hell’s Kitchen, and the best late-night pizza in Halifax. It closed in January 2009, then became the smaller Paragon, which then also shut its doors in Spring 2011. But now it’s back for HPX, hosting bands Thursday through Saturday, including Purity Ring, Deer Tick and, fittingly, the HPX 20th anniversary show on Saturday night.

Tuesday and Wednesday shows: Sure, the festival’s lineup is always stacked towards the weekend nights, but come on, you want to get your wristband’s worth, don’t you? Besides, the sparser turnouts on Tuesday and Wednesday make it a lot easier to show-hop and explore. On Tuesday, I’d suggest the garage rock-y King Tuff and Long Weekends at Reflections or, if classic Halifax is more your ticket, the Al Tuck show at The Carleton, which if gossip holds true, might have more than its fair share of special guests crashing the stage. Then on Wednesday, you’ve got Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound project at St. Matt’s, after which you can choose between the spunky Born Ruffians at Reflections, iconic VanCity punkers D.O.A. at Michaels, or super-underrated songwriter Mark Davis (pictured) at the Company House.

Polaris Salon (Thursday, The Carleton, 5 p.m.): A bit of shameless self-promotion here, but frankly I’d be excited about this even if I weren’t a participant. For the past two years, the good folks at the Polaris Music Prize, for which I’m a jury member, have been hosting “salons,” or discussion events, sometimes about (or with) a particular artist or album, and sometimes just a general critics roundtable. Since starting in Toronto, the series has expanded to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa and now, finally, Halifax. It’s going to be myself, my dear Coast editor Stephanie Johns, Stephen Cooke from the Herald and Darryl Smith from CKDU discussing Polaris, Canuck albums we’re digging right now, and whatever else tickles moderator and Polaris Executive Director Steve Jordan’s fancy. Come out, have a beer and talk Canadian music with us before you head out for the night. (It’s also free, but since talk is cheap, that shouldn’t be surprising.)

Secret Guests: I don’t have any intel to share on this front — I try and refrain from shamelessly harassing my HPX organizer friends until the festival actually arrives — but the introduction of secret slots last year was an awful lot of fun, with second shows by acts like The Thermals, Chad VanGaalen and (my fave) Titus Andronicus that were oodles of fun. There’s about five or so slots on the HPX schedule just waiting to be filled; make sure to follow @HalifaxPopX on Twitter.

El-P (Thursday, 11 p.m., Reflections): I got to see Company Flow, El-P’s hugely influential nineties hip hop group, perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties last year, so I can vouch for the fact that the man is an incredibly charismatic MC. (And his first album in five years, Cancer 4 Cure, is pretty good, awful title aside.) If you’re the type who’s looking for some hip hop to add to your HPX mix, it’s really hard to argue with this one.

Purity Ring (Thursday, 1 a.m., Marquee): Undoubtedly the buzziest band to make its way to Halifax this year, this Montreal duo are riding a wave of acclaim for their debut album Shrines, released on 4AD back in July. The album has yet to fully win me over: there are great pop sensibilities on display, but also an overreliance on certain rhythm sounds and a sameness as the album draws on. But there’s more than enough there for me to place this gig high on my list, especially since the ready-to-break Southern Shores are opening (their soul-sampling dance music is actually better live than on the record, and the records are already pretty good.)

CKDU Lobby Shows: If it’s intimacy you want, look no further than HPX’s most intimate experience: crammed into the super-tiny lobby of Halifax’s community radio station, listening to some of the festival’s up-and-coming bands bash out their hits to kick off your evening. Long Weekends, Southern Shores and Outtacontroller are all scheduled to play the fourth floor of the Dalhousie Student Union Building.

Friday night theatricality: This is the night for you if you like your rock and roll performed in big, loud and colourful ways. Start off your night with Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (pictured) at St. Matt’s: it’s a global smorgasbord that fuses rock opera, metal, psychedelica, and Japanese theatre. Then, head to Olympic Hall — Halifax’s most criminally underappreciated music venue — for Kevin Barnes and his always-excessive stage of Montreal. (If you like your rock more straightforward, I’d recommend Deer Tick at the Marquee or Ceremony at Reflections.)

Cold Specks + Julie Dorion (Saturday, 8 p.m., St. Matt’s Church): One of the best one-two pairings in this year’s lineup, and two acts I had the pleasure of seeing at Sappyfest this past August. Dorion is just a joyous, generous performer — and a Maritime music legend — but make sure to stick around for Cold Specks (pictured), whose haunting, moving soul-folk sound is bound to be stunning in St. Matt’s amazing acoustics.

Zola Jesus (Saturday, 10 p.m. The New Palace): If you only know Zola Jesus as “That girl who sings on M83’s ‘Intro’,” you might want to check out last year’s Conatus, which finds her achieving a Kate Bush-esque fusion of electronica, pop and soul. Plus, it’s always nice to see the Palace’s amazing sound system and stage be used for something other than sleazy, shitfaced Saturday nights on the town. (Less nice: realizing that the floor never gets un-sticky in there.)

20th Anniversary Show (Saturday, 9:30 p.m., Marquee): HPX has had a number of great reunion sets over the years, which are always nice for those of us who were underage in the 1990s to catch up on what we missed out on. This year, HPX pairs a number such bands on one bill: Stratejakets, Hip Club Groove (who also played last year), Cool Blue Halo and the Super Friendz. Should be fun, even for those of us who think The Flashing Lights were a better band. (*ducks for cover*)

Not getting sick: Okay, to be fair, I have yet to figure out how to get through an HPX without getting a gigantic head cold at the end of it. BUT THIS IS GOING TO BE MY YEAR I CAN FEEEEEEEL IT.

One response to “Halifax Pop Explosion 2012 preview: how to survive at the centre of the universe

  1. I disagree about this year’s lineup being underwhelming, but I guess that all comes down to personal opinion. Atlas Sound, Purity Ring, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Of Montreal, Cold Specks and Zola Jesus are all up my alley.

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