Several months ago Kate forwarded me an message from a friend of ours in Canada. The message consisted only of a link and a note that said "You should go to this." I looked at the link, my calendar, and replied "Okay." Once everything was booked, I looked at the link again. The page described a music festival in Sackville (wherever that is), lasting three days, with a $100 ticket price and featuring about 50 bands – only four that I had ever heard of. Maybe I should have read the link before booking.
Flash forward a few months and Kate and I are standing outside of a train station in the Maritimes waiting for the Canadian instigator of this odyssey. When she steps off the train, she's a part of a sea of hipsters – hipsters of all shapes and sizes, in all manners of mismatched dress and ugly sandals. Canadian hipsters seem to work harder than their American counterparts. Thank you Urban Outfitters and American Apparel for making it so easy.
After an odd falafel wrap at a local cafe, we picked up our tickets and headed into the tent. For the next 56 hours I saw 33 bands, took over 1600 photos, ate no less than six meals without holding a fork, and only slept for eight hours. I'd love to write a novel and tell you how it all went, but I haven't the time. If I could capture the mood of the whole weekend in a few lines, I'd do that. But I can't. However if you can find Sean Michaels' "Sappy Times" online, read that and you'll understand the festival. All I can do is create a quick rundown of the bands I saw. This is more for my benefit than anyone else's. Sorry.
Friday began with four local teenagers called The News. The quartet is a bouncy rock band that played a 35-minute set of originals. There were two guitars, plenty of leads with pained rock faces, and even harmonica from band leader (though curiously not frontman) Robert Blackbeard. The vocals were pretty rough.
Things picked up considerably with Shotgun Jimmie. I've seen the one-man-band thing done quite a bit but Jim Killpatrick does it better than any (sorry Craig). Wonderful pop structures but tilted and twisted in delightful indie ways. Throughout the set we got a snare and a kick as well as guitar and vocals, but at one point Killpatrick picked up a rattle and played that while still tapping the chords on his guitar with one hand. This would be merely an impressive parlour trick if it weren't for the great songs of radically different tempos and moods, and the consistently fun lyrical word play. All of it has a sort of a breezy, remotely low-fi, '90s indie thing going for it. This set brought the crowd up against the stage where they would stay throughout the night, and was definitely one of my favourite acts of the fest.
Julie Doiron was introduced as the "Queen of Sackville." I had no idea what that meant at the time, but like Killpatrick before her, Doiron would end up on stage with four or more other acts throughout the weekend. As I now understand it, Sappy Records is Doiron's venture and SappyFest, and the entire Sackville music scene, really couldn't exist without her. That's a lot to have on your shoulders.
Doiron's set was performed – like many others throughout the festival – as a duo. More often than not, Doiron played guitar while her accomplice drummed. Throughout her short set, I heard the high cracking voice of Mary Lou Lord, the bold gusto of Thalia Zedek, and even some of the raw emotion of PJ Harvey. This was particularly true when the drums grew raucous and Doiron's electric guitar growled. As a frontwoman, Doiron was a bit spastic, giggly, and probably more than a bit tipsy. Rumour is that she has a new album's worth of material ready to go, but this set didn't really cover that territory. I think I'd like to hear more from Doiron. Where should I start?
One of the festivals overriding truths came to light when the next band took the stage – bands from Ontario have a lot of members, ones from the Maritimes are small. We'll address this again later, but I believe there needs to be an exchange program where bands in Ontario are capped at five members, and all surplus members are shipped east to fill out the preponderance of duos that exist in the Maritime Provinces. This would be best for all involved.
Toronto's Steamboat is a nine-piece soul band that drifts between the blue-eyed soul of Van Morrison and the horn-driven Memphis soul captured by Stax. Although I'm a big soul fan, I wasn't able to lose myself in Steamboat. I just wasn't able to get past the aped and overwrought vocals of frontman and pianist Matt McLaren. However when the band played the new horns-a-plenty cut "Bread and Butter" I did totally bliss out.
I learned that '90s revivalism in the indie rock world is in full swing on both sides of the border when Welland, Ontario's Attack in Black performed. The two-guitar four-piece band recalls the early '90s lazy indie rock of Archers of Loaf and Pavement, and does it wonderfully. Guitar solos were fractured and edgy, the vocals of Daniel Romano moved from warm and round to sharp screamed jabs effortlessly. It was infinitely more muscular than the tracks on the band's website. Throughout the set the crowd bounced, bobbed, and sang along to every word, making me jealous that I couldn't do the same. Hearing this band was definitely the highlight of my Friday night.
As the festival unfolded, I realized that SappyFest was an insular affair. A chance for longtime friends to hang out, for next year's bands to be formed, for guest collaborators, and for studio-only side projects to take the stage. Most bands were from the Maritimes, nearly all from the eastern half of Canada, and all but one Canadian. The sole import to the festival was New York's The Felice Brothers, and Canada was ready for them.
After a painfully slow stage change (something that affects all festivals though SappyFest seemed to keep things going quicker than most) a very sleepy and/or very high Ian Felice of The Felice Brothers stepped up to the microphone. For the next hour he strummed his guitar and mumbled his best Bob Dylan impersonation into the microphone, while the rest of the quintet shuffled along with him.
The band asked for the lights to be kept low (as if 11pm was much too early to be awake), and the energy level was kept similarly in check. Only fiddle player Greg Farley seemed to be up to the task of performing for the audience. As if contagious, I began to tire while the band played its steady course. Fortunately the occasional zydeco-inspired numbers (featuring James Felice on accordion) fired up band and audience alike. "Run Chicken Run" and "Frankie's Gun" both provided needed eruptions of energy. Similarly, when the band returned for a raucous and rambling encore, those remaining in the tent spun, stomped and reeled about. It was a ridiculous sight, but as long as the flailers lost in the moment are never presented evidence of their off-tempo missteps and uncomfortable misappropriations, all will be well.
After the main stage was closed down at midnight, festival goers had options for continuing their night. I chose the bed at my hotel room over the other entertainment options – I'm quite old you know.
[SappyFest coverage continues on day 2]