To say that this was a complicated week for the Halifax edition of the Virgin Music Festival would be an understatement.
First was the announcement circa Thursday/Friday that tickets were not only available at a two-for-one price, but that the deal was retroactive: people who’d already purchased tickets could now bring along a friend to the gates at no extra charge. Festival organizers spun this with almost hilarious confidence, saying that ticket sales were “brisk” and that this was merely a way to let more Haligonians take advantage of a great show. That, my friends, is what we call “bullshit.”
Things took a turn for the even worse on Friday afternoon, when headliner The Tragically Hip announced they would be unable to perform due to an unspecified urgent family emergency. Now a festival that was already literally GIVING tickets away no longer had its top draw. When you add in the fact that Halifax has been going through the worst stretch of summer weather in years – rain and drizzle for almost two weeks straight – with a forecast for more dreariness on concert day, things were looking crazy bleak for Halifax’s first Virgin Fest.
So give credit to Virgin Mobile for making the best of very bad circumstances. Cutting their losses for the sake of brand promotion, Virgin announced that not only would they be refunding everyone’s ticket costs, but the show would go on with the rest of the lineup still intact. Oh, and it was going to be free and open to anyone in Halifax.
Those that took advantage of the desperate generosity got treated to a rather impressive – if muddy – day of alternative rock. Days of dampness followed by torrential rains in the morning left the Wanderers Grounds on Citadel Hill a muddy mess, easily the worst sludge the city’s seen since the Rolling Stones concert three years ago. But the music was solid and, for many, would have been worth the ticket price.
After sets from Dog Day, In-Flight Safety and the Arkells, Montreal three-piece Plants and Animals put on a solid demonstration for why they’re one of the best up-and-coming indie bands in Canada and were followed by a typically crowd-pleasing performance from Hey Rosetta, although both sets felt quite short. Originally V-Fest was supposed to have two alternating stages, eliminating downtime between bands and allowing for longer set times. As a cost-cutting measure only one stage was used, so most of the earlier bands got shortchanged.
My two favourite sets of the day belonged to the Handsome Furs and Dinosaur Jr. The Furs actually performed while Dinosaur Jr.’s gear was on stage, which was a bit of an amusing juxtaposition: this punky, minimalist duo surrounded by J. Mascis’ Stonehenge of Amplifiers. But they were the two highest energy performances of the day, the Furs with their blistering stage presence and Dinosaur Jr. through sheer volume. I expect that the latter’s cover of “Just Like Heaven” – a standard of their set – was a highlight for many.
I’ve now seen Metric twice outdoors and twice indoors, and no matter how much they try they never quite seem as comfortable in the elements. They also made some weird set choices: “Twilight Galaxy” was as strange an opening as “Stadium Love” was underwhelming as a closer, and the absence of hits like “Combat Baby” and “Poster of a Girl” was noticed. But the big tracks still kill: I never tire of how they reinvent the bridge of “Dead Disco” different every time.
As for the Offspring, well, I won’t lie and say that there wasn’t some nostalgic entertainment going on – there’s a photo on a camera somewhere of my mid-late 20s peers and I dancing an awkward white punk jig to something off of Smash – but there’s always something a bit strange about seeing a band going through the motions only a decade past its prime. A fun set – I had heard disastrous things about Dexter Holland’s vocals, and they weren’t terrible by any stretch – but a somewhat forgettable one.
All in all, the music of Virgin Fest Halifax hardly dissatisfied. The disappointment, then, was the festival’s failure to attract an audience. Admittedly, it’s a difficult summer to put together a festival (with a competitive calendar and an economic downturn) but last year’s SummerSonic was also a turnout disappointment. And while the V-Fest lineup may not have been populist enough to pull in huge numbers, festival organizers were budgeting for a reasonable 15,000; even at free, they only got just about 9,000 according to “estimates.” It seems like our city’s standing on the alternative rock touring circuit is in an awkward in-between state: we would get more fans out with bigger bands, but we can’t turn out enough fans for the smaller acts to justify those bigger bands. We’re stuck in the mud.
EDIT: After initial news stories – such as The Chronicle Herald – claimed 9,000 fans, promoters are now claiming a crowd of double that. I have no idea quite who to believe.
After the break, photos of the day’s acts…
Plants and Animals