I’ve always found that music festivals tend to exist in a variety of different tenses at the same time. You have future tense: bands and artists who jerk the curtain at the bottom of the bill, but whom in three to four years time might have climbed up the rungs of rawk to headliner status. (Dan Mangan, for example, went from the Company House to playing with Symphony Nova Scotia in three short years.) Then there’s present tense, bands that are happening in the here-and-now, buzzworthy and conversation-ready from the get-go.
The past tense is trickier, and it’s something that doesn’t always get much play relative to the other two. But this year’s HPX felt dominated by ghosts (and not just the haunting, creepy Kabuki makeup of a set like Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s), echoes, reflections on the past. Twentieth anniversaries tend to do that, I suppose, but even musically it felt like many band were playing with forms, structures and sensibilities from earlier days. From the re-opening of the Marquee Club, to Deer Tick’s Nirvana covers set, the past loomed large over this year’s HPX, but thankfully not to the detriment of the present and future.
How about some highlights?
One of the reasons why HPX works so well is Halifax’s walkability. But even our easy distances have their limits, especially if you want to show-hop. So for the first couple nights of the festival, I stuck pretty close to a few venues — Reflections, the Carleton, the Seahorse, St. Matt’s — in the interest of bouncing between gigs with ease.
Night one for me kicked off with the power chord riffs of Calgary’s Miseha and the Spanx (“Spanx” may refer to the fashion, or the drummer) at the Seahorse, followed by the boisterous power-jangle of Halifax trio Glory Glory, whose newer material sounded fantastic and left me eager to hear a proper follow-up to 2010’s Zombies! From there, I managed to get into the jam-packed Carleton after a bit of a wait for a bit of the fest’s first of many “secret guests.” For the past couple of years, HPX has started having its bands play secondary gigs in smaller venues, but this particular gig was a little different: a covers band involving a number of local musicians, including Charles Austin of the Super Friendz, Ruth Miniken and Mike O’Neill. It was the latter on the mic when I arrived, singing an impressive rock version of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” which flowed smoothly (and awesomely) into The Soft Boys’ “I Want to Destroy You.”
My next stop was Reflections to check out Long Weekends, whose frontman Noel MacDonald has proven himself to be an impressive songwriter and vocalist after years in one of Halifax’s best instrumental bands, Tomcat Combat. The sludgy guitars are hardly novel, but they’re catchier than most of their peers locally, and when paired with MacDonald’s unique pronunciation it makes for something quite promising. Finally, I headed back to the Seahorse for The Dudes who, appropriately, make dude rock: riffs, beer stains, fast claps, dirty shirts and sex. “Rock and roll, what a fucking gift,” said vocalist Dan Vacon, and he sure made Tuesday night sound like a holiday party.
Good thing the Dudes were entertaining, since I’d end up spending a bit of time with them on Wednesday night as well: they were the secret guest at Reflections, opening for Born Ruffians. In the interest of not completely losing my health during the week, this was the one night I turned in a bit early, electing not to stick around for the headliners (I had seen them the last time they were in town). Not that the night was uneventful; far from it. I started at St. Matt’s Church with Ado, a Nova Scotia trio who had the shortest between-song breaks of the entire festival — just long enough for fans to start clapping, but not long enough for them to finish — and who sound like they can’t decide which of six or seven different alternative rock bands they want to emulate, but pull most of them off pretty damn well.
I’m sure that many will consider Atlas Sound their set of the festival. But if Bradford Cox’s looping, layered solo project did put on a great show by the end, it sure didn’t start that way: the night’s first song was an off-key, disassembled mess, and truth be told I almost walked out and started looking for another show. But then something righted itself on the second song, and from there Cox’s escalating wall of sound suddenly became transcendent. My notepad — which minutes earlier was filled with complaints — suddenly became blank as I leaned on my pew and lost myself in the experience.
Maybe it was that mental state which kept me from staying out much later. I did bounce between Reflections and the Seahorse for a while, catching pieces of sets by local noise rockers Kuato and prodigious proggies We’re Doomed at the latter. My taste for pop won the day, though, and the Reflections was where the fun was: Halifax’s Writer’s Strike reminding me why they’re one of the city’s best upstarts, a razor-tight set by last-minute British additions Ambersand, silly upbeat hooks and crowd dance-longs with The Elwins, and a few more songs by The Dudes to bring the night to a close.
So yeah, I guess I was also an HPX performer of sorts: taking part in Halifax’s first Polaris Salon. Hosted by Steve Jordan, Polaris Music Prize executive director, the session attracted about 25 or so music fans to hear me and a couple of my more esteemed peers — Stephen Cooke of the Herald and Stephanie Johns of the Coast — run our mouths about Canadian music. We talked about the records we voted for last time and why, what we’re listening to now and, in my favourite moments, we got to talk about what excites us to albums, and why some records make it through the Polaris process and others don’t. Maybe it’s just my nature, but I sort of wish things had been a bit more, I don’t know, confrontational: there’s certainly plenty worth dissecting about the Polaris process and its results, but most of the discussion was fairly high-level. I did get to talk about Carly Rae Jepsen, though, so that was a highlight.
Afterwards, the group of us stuck around for dinner after which we did some show-hopping through a bunch of highlights: the youthful enthusiasm of hip hop crew Weirdo Click at Reflections, followed by the glorious noise and super-low lights of Freak Heat Waves at the Weird Canada showcase at the Bus Stop (so low that I got no useable photos), and the soft, soulful harmonies of Demetra at the Company House.
The end of the night posed one of the more difficult choices of the festival: seeing rapper El-P at Reflections, indie rock electro upstarts Purity Ring at the Marquee or the night’s secret guest shutting things down at Gus’ Pub. Though I heard all three shows were great, I couldn’t be happier with my choice to stick at Gus’ for “Deervana,” the all-Nirvana covers version of Deer Tick. Through 22 short minutes, the band plowed through blistering, authentic and brutal sounding versions of several Nirvana classics, with a particular emphasis on deeper cuts from In Utero. Ending their set with an awesomely raw “Scentless Apprentice,” the band smashed its guitars, broke holes in Gus’ ceiling, and sent everyone home stunned.
HPX isn’t just a music festival. It also includes two conferences: a music one and, new this year, a digital one. From what I heard, the digital conference went darn well for a first go, but I’m always surprised that more people don’t take the time to swing by some of the music sessions. Sure, it’s a bit of extra coin, but I’ve always found it to be quite interesting – a chance to dive deeper into the ideas and attitudes and artists in Halifax music and music more broadly.
On Friday, my first panel of the day was the HPX founders panel, featuring many of the festival’s early leadership. We heard stories about Elliot Smith’s famous HPX set, the all-important role that Sub Pop’s fascination with Halifax played in getting support in the early days, the complications in accepting cigarette money as sponsorship because there was not much money coming from elsewhere (upside: “We were grateful for the smokes) and more. Plus, moderator Allison Outhit used the phrase “fiddle-dee-dee” to describe Nova Scotia’s tourist-friendly traditionalist musical image, which I will now be using forever.
I found the artist interview with Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal a bit unrevealing, which may well have been the point: image conscious to a fault, Barnes seemed to even be shitting with interviewer Alan Cross at times, especially during the James Lipton-esque rapid-fire questions at the end. More informative, to me at least, was the electronic dance music panel, which featured observers and listeners of dance music discussing what is, to my ears, the most important cultural story happening in pop music today. The talk reaffirmed why the music fails to connect with me personally: it’s symptomatic of an Internet-driven ADD culture that demands instant connection. “If you’re not into it within 30 seconds, you move on,” someone said, but the other side of the story —that the music acts as a connection to community, and not an autonomous experience — is incredibly compelling to me. There were a lot of other great ideas here to unpack, such as the cyclical nature of youth-driven musical trends, and many I want to return to in the future.
Before getting my evening underway, I was drawn by the promise of free beer and more music to an AudioBlood party in Agricola Street’s most famous musical backyard. The label brought along Revelstroke, Young River and Amos The Transparent along for the party, each performing upbeat, entertaining sets to send everyone out to the evening with smiles on their faces.
Good thing too, because starting the evening proper with the epic Yamantaka//Sonic Titan isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows. Like heavy metal filtered through 70s Genesis with soul-stirring Japanese stage drama mixed in for good measure, the band’s set was epic, colossal, and huge. It could have been huger, mind you: someone didn’t have the guitar turned up nearly high enough in the mix, which left things a bit underwhelming compared to the band’s Sappyfest set back in August. I hear things improved for their show at Gus’ on Saturday night, closing out the festival with a monstrous bang.
From the church, I trekked over to Olympic Hall, which is one of our city’s most sadly underused venues (until now – there are, like, four or five major shows there in November.) I arrived just before Of Montreal – a band who I admit to have never connected with, musically, on the record. Live, though, it worked: occasionally dancy, sometimes proggy, and generally a fun time. I left before their set was over so I could catch some of Mike O’Neill’s set at Gus’. O’Neill’s last solo album, Wild Lines, was a catchy beast, and it’s always great to see one of the most distinctive bass players in Canadian history rock the four-string. I stuck around for a bit of Lantern, but knowing that my Saturday was going to be long, I turned in for the night.
Like on Friday, I spent my daytime hours at the HPX conference, starting with a panel on women in music called “This panel shouldn’t exist,” chaired by Coast writer and Dance Movie performer Tara Thorne and featuring Heather Gibson of JazzEast, Allison Outhit of Factor and Ruby and Alaska B of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan. Tara really didn’t have to do much: the conversation just flowed effortlessly here, with some great discussion about power imbalances, the fact that “girl” is often a genre when it comes to booking shows and more. Ruby and Alaska were particularly insightful, working to broaden the discussion beyond simply women in music but to larger questions about gender, sex and power. Attention smart music people: put them on all your panels. All of them.
Three other discussions filled out the afternoon: Martin Atkins, PiL drummer and acclaimed author, offering his socio-economic background to the punk rock revolution, which was charming but not hyper detailed; the 20th anniversary panel with members of Hip Club Groove, The Super Friendz, Cool Blue Halo and the Stratejackets talking about the Halifax scene and hyping their show that evening (more on that later); and Damien Abraham from Fucked Up giving a spin-and-speak lecture on his favourite punk singles, which was a bit chaotic but charmingly endearing . . . so, basically, it was just what you’d expect from Damien Abraham.
I heard through the grapevine that Toronto punkers Career Suicide was taking the secret guest slot at The Pavilion’s all-ages show, which was great as I highly doubted I’d be making it all the way to Michael’s for their main set later that evening. Plus, I love making it to at least one Pavilion show each year, as there’s something great about seeing raw, scream-out-your-lungs punk in a tiny, cramped room full of kids. (And I was super grateful, having forgot my earplugs, that the helpful snack table had ones for sale.)
After starting the night as loud as could be, things went the opposite direction entirely at St. Matt’s with a soft and sweet set from Sackville’s Julie Doiron. Easily our region’s most beloved neurotic, she spent most of her set describing her anxiety over a negative comment on the Exclaim! stream of her quite excellent new album, but in a dorky, loveable style that fuses into her wordplay and poise as a performer. The show’s headliner, Cold Specks, who emerged sans backing band: unbeknownst to me, this was going to be a solo set. “My last,” claimed Al Spx, saying it was something she’d actually promised never to do again. Having seen her stun the crowd with a full band at Sappyfest, I understand where she’s coming from, but there was something magical about seeing her take these slow burning tracks and light them afire all by herself. “Black Maps,” one of the year’s best songs, lost none of its power with just a single guitar, and the set-ending acapella spiritual, un-amplified, was a thrilling reminder of just how astonishing Spx’s voice is.
Zola Jesus’ voice is also pretty astonishing, but it would feel weird if she sang a capella. No, her music needs propulsive drums, moody synths and a rowd eager for a little bit of dance. I confess that there was a bit of a sameness to her set at the Palace, likely because of the tom-heavy drumming throughout, but its high points were exceptionally high, like when she jumped down into the crowd and had everybody dancing, or when she climbed the speaker and lost herself in the moment.
All good things must come to an end, and while there were countless other shows I considered, it made sense to end HPX near the beginning: not the beginning of the week, mind you, but among the echoes and remnants of the Halifax scene’s earliest days. This was my first time back in the Marquee, the haunt at which I began discovering Halifax music, in about two years, since it closed its doors in its last incarnation as The Paragon. I was shocked by how little had changed: the work done inside left it looking almost as it was, funky ceiling decorations, split-mirror and all.
So as Cool Blue Halo played its Kangaroo album start-to-finish, and as the Super Friendz rocked out like it was 1995, I was left with this strange sensation: that you can go home again.
Here’s to the ghosts.