[this is a continuation of SappyFest coverage that began on day 1]
Jenn and I woke up early, and since "early" is never part of Kate's agenda, the two of us slid down to take advantage of our hotel's complementary continental breakfast. When we returned to the room we pushed Kate into the shower, and I began editing photos from the night before. Jenn drummed her fingers impatiently. There was a farmer's (and crafter's) market happening downtown and Jenn was anxious to sample the wares.
SappyFest is more than a music festival. It's simply a festival. It is a three-day celebration that affects all of Sackville. Restaurants create special dishes, shops add extra hours, the city offers up its parks and streets, and entertainment venues hand over the reins to festival organisers. Festival-goers come and go to the scheduled music venues and panel discussions, and in between they eat at local restaurants or swim in the local pond. As promised by the organisers, this is a very laid back affair.
The farmer's market was light on farmers, sated with crafters, and sprinkled with the flea market set. After one pass through the 20 or so vendor tables set up just outside the main tent, I grew tired and was ready for the first band. Kate and Jenn bought shoes, purses, postcards, prints, books, and lord knows what else.
Thankfully I was saved at 1:20 when The John Wayne Cover Band took the stage. The trio is led by Joel Carr who adds his ringing hollowbody electric guitar and lazy vocals over a mid-tempo minor key sound that is as much alt-country as it is indie folk (think of the Silver Jews but with more strained vocals). The rhythm section was always churning and dragging the songs along, with the guitar merely keeping up. The only guitar solo I can recall came in the final song of the short 25-minute set. Thankfully it was a doozy.
Construction & Destruction came to the stage next, kicking off a pair of duos. The band's set was a relatively soft and lo-fi indie affair with some raw and driving guitar rock moments poking through, and one particularly thunderous instrumental. Generally both musicians sing: David Trenaman's vocals are forceful and shouted, slapping the audience in the face. Colleen Collins' vocals are naturally light and airy, becoming shrill when volume is required. The duo switched instruments with nearly every song, with Collins playing bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums all at various moments throughout the set. Of course it wouldn't have been SappyFest if the duo were not joined on stage by at least one regular guest musician. In this set the couple were joined by guitarists Jim Killpatrick (Shotgun Jimmie) and Steve Lambke (Constantines) creating a line up very similar to the Baby Eagle line up we'd see on stage the next day.
For the next duo, Diego Medina stepped away from his duties as festival soundman and sat behind a Fender Rhodes keyboard. He was joined by driving drummer Eric Hamelin. The duo's name: Lovesinger. At the core of Lovesinger's sound are stunning pop melodies. Those melodies, however are frequently marred by Medina's weak, high, and cracking vocals. While his lower registers are more powerful, they are no less faltering. As one expects, the Rhodes frequently twinkled through the compositions, though with the kick of a pedal (or two) it was so overdriven as to sound like a heavily distorted electric guitar. These songs charged forward to great effect.
After the band's set, the day's delightful emcee (Vish Khanna from CBC Radio 3), took the stage to announce a scheduling change. Moonsocket (another Eric's Trip spin off) would not be playing; Halifax's Cold Warps would fill in. As vocalist Paul Hammond tells it, the band had just arrived in town to play an unofficial show elsewhere, when they were accosted and asked to perform in the main tent that very minute. If true, the band performed admirably.
Cold Warps played a set unlike any other at Sappy Fest. To be literal, this quartet was the first band to perform with a dedicated vocalist. Untethered, Hammond was able to run and hop about the stage, bringing a level of energy and excitement unavailable to most other bands. The resulting set was a fun affair full of sloppy indie pop, bouncing power-pop, and goofy pop-punk (such as the adorable Dead Milkmen-esque "Science Fiction"). Lance Purcell provided snapping drums on a small kit (eschewing the rack tom used by earlier acts), joining guitarist Dominique Taylor to provide ubiquitous backing vocals. The no-frills bass of Ryan Allen anchored it all. Catch the band live and buy its cassette (yes cassette) or just download the music for free on the band's website, but better yet see them live as the cassette just doesn't do them justice.
In the 20 minutes between acts, the mood in the main tent shifted dramatically. The young and playful Cold Warps were followed by the brooding, moody, and painfully serious rock fusion of The Skeletones Four. This Ontario quartet roots its compositions in indie rock with angular and off-kilter time signatures. Off the rails guitar lines are provided by vocalist Andrew Collins and Jordan Howard. Evan Gordon adds slinky bass lines from his fingered partial hollowbody bass. Drummer John Merritt plays his own songs, computing the least common denominator to know when the band will snap out of its jazzy excursions or soulful freakouts and back into the song at hand. Fun fact: he did this wearing cowboy boots. Anyway, if my label of neo-prog psychedelic post-punk doesn't mean anything to you, just imagine Andrew Bird interpreting an album of Polvo covers. Yeah, that didn't help did it?
SappyFest offered up another duo next when Ontario's PS I Love You took the stage. While I admitted in Day 1 of the show account that I only knew four or five of the 50 acts performing, how I missed this act is a bit of mystery. PS I Love You is touring the US in October, playing at top flight venues with top flight bands, playing CMJ, is on a label I enjoy, and is handled by a publicity company that I regularly work with. Shame on me.
PS I Love You was once the one-man affair of guitarist/vocalist Paul Saulnier (the "PS" in "PS I Love You"), though it is currently rounded out by drummer Benjamin Nelson. Saulnier is a big man capable of big, strong, and strained vocals. While his guitar lines might be tender at times, its obvious this guy likes to shred. Like honest to goodness shred. Like two-handed fingertaps shred. In the quieter moments Saulnier adds atmosphere to his sparse compositions via a foot-triggered bass organ. In the louder moments, the tight, no-frills drumming of Nelson rockets alongside Saulnier's guitar. And just to play by the SappyFest rules, the band brought out Diamond Rings' John O'Regan on guitar for one song.
The final act of the afternoon set was Halifax's Dog Day. Although I had seen the band perform before as its traditional four-piece, one of the two couples that comprised the band (drummer KC Spidle and keyboardist Crystal Thil) has split, leaving the band to vacillate between a trio and a make-shift duo. SappyFest got the duo. The blue-eyed Seth Smith still leads the band with his vocals and strummed Fender Music Master, while his wife Nancy Urich now plays drums (abandoning her normal bass duties). This configuration was loud with Smith's constantly-strummed guitar blaring through a Marshall combo amp that he kept turning up throughout the afternoon. He has huge hands that were used to make all sorts of fancy chords. Urich's drumming was simple and snappy, utilizing no rack toms. In hopes of finding better sound I slipped to the back of the tent where I got a slight reprieve from the din, and was rewarded with a closer featuring delightful overlapping vocals.
While a substantial (or substantial enough to have a sit-down dinner) break was scheduled between sessions, the afternoon acts had lagged and eaten into the intermission. With little time to spare, I hurried over to the grocery store for a package of Yves vegan pepperonis and a package of gourmet olives stuffed with garlic cloves. The tapas of champions? As I hurried back into the tent I noticed a vendor selling portobello burgers. Drat.
At 6:45 The Heavy Blinkers began its set. I understand the band has a long history with established members defecting over time, but the current incarnation seems to be pianist Jason MacIssac backed by a foursome reading from sheet music to provide vocals, flute/bells, cello, and violin. The band's sound is vocal pop with hints of light jazz and older '50s torch songs. MacIssac's arrangements owe a substantial debt to Burt Bacharach. While I enjoyed the musical change-up, the lack of audience interaction and the cold, concise, classically trained vocals of Melanie Stone left me yearning for something more emotional than cerebral.
Thankfully Contrived were up next to destroy the stage. As with most acts playing the festival, Contrived were a mystery to me. But as the band members began setting up their instruments, I started to recognize the players. Turns out Contrived is the same guys as Wintersleep (who'd I caught a month earlier in Springfield, Massachusetts) but with a different vocalist. Unfortunately, while I may have some familiarity with the pieces, details of the show are a bit hazy. There are two reasons for this: Instead of studying the band and its music, I was bouncing around enjoying it. Instead of taking notes and photographs, I was banging my head. Through all that, I do remember that there was lots of motion in the show as guitarist Tim D'Eon and bassist Mike Bigelow stomped and spun about the temporary stage. So much so that the flexing boards looked like they might give way any moment. And whatever sensitive pop side the band may be exploring with their latest release, it was nowhere to be found in this short 25-minute live show that took no prisoners. Now that I've seen them live, the recordings just won't suffice. When do I get to see them again?
While the Haligonians in Contrived aren't exactly local to Sackville, they are clearly part of the SappyFest family. The same cannot be said of Vancouver's Apollo Ghost. For this band, the majority of the audience was in the same predicament I found myself in all weekend – that is to say, no one had any idea who this band was. I love it when we'll all surprised together.
Vocalist Adrian Teacher leads this indie pop three-piece with the support of "Amanda Panda" on drums and Jay Oliver on bass. Teacher came on stage with amazingly wide eyes, a cape, and a wicked sugar high. The audience immediately fell in love and Teacher was crowd surfing before the first number was over. Songs bounced and snapped and bristled with an level of wonder and enthusiasm that reminded me of the happiest Jonathan Richman songs. Teacher would return to the audience's outstretched arms for what would be the band's final number, if the audience hadn't called the band back up for an encore. This was the only encore afforded to a non-headliner during the fest. Apollo Ghost was easily the surprise hit of the festival. Sadly Apollo Ghost's recordings pale in comparison to its live show.
In the 15 minutes between sets, everything changed. The sun set, the audience calmed down, and the zany antics of Apollo Ghost were replaced with the warm professionalism of musical statesmen Jim Guthrie. Guthrie has been off of the live-instrument circuit for a while and all of the SappyFest literati couldn't have been happier to see him on stage again. I, of course, wasn't quite sure who he was.
Guthrie was joined on stage by a large seven-piece band (including a flugelhornist!) comprised of many familiar faces borrowed from other festival bands. In this setting his compositions felt like breezy '70s pop songs with hints of progressive rock and an occasional galloping rhythm, all of which recalled Todd Rundgren or the solo work of Alex Chilton. The lighter and more intricate Nick Drake-styled (or Sufjan Stevens-styled if you must) compositions from his last album were presented much bolder live, although Guthrie's voice still sat perfectly and calmly on top of everything. A professional, almost reassuring, stage presence and rich blue stage lighting made me forgot I was in a tent watching a band perform on a makeshift stage assembled in the middle of the street. Guthrie's set was an honest-to-goodness concert.
Up next were a duo from Toronto (the exception to prove the rule) called Lullaby Arkestra. The band is the husband-and-wife team of Jason Small (drums) and Kat Taylor-Small (bass). The pair are a rough duo with a rockabilly aesthetic skewing towards hard rock (think Nashville Pussy) rather than the costumed camp of Social Distortion. Before the band even stepped onto the stage a handmade sign declaring "AC/DC is God" affixed to the drum kit suggested what was to follow.
To begin the set, Jason Small stood on his throne, pulled the microphone up to his huge mouth, then announced that there were many reasons that he loves his wife, but his favourite might be "Kat's bass tone." With that, a wicked, distorted, overdriven, and fuzzed sound enveloped the tent. Soon a rapid fire drumkit joined the melee. A fight then ensued where the entire audience got its ass kicked, and came out the clear winners. From my post near the stage, the vocals were buried under the same smothering sludge metal that held me transfixed. In the lone slow track, Taylor-Small's smoky, bluesy vocals hit me in the gut – then another fast track followed, the audience erupted in a pit again, and I was literally hit in the gut. The flowers that had lined the front of the stage were first trampled and then knocked over by the surging and falling audience. This is a band to experience, not to read about. So stop right here, go to the band's website, and book your flight.
Headlining Saturday night on the main stage was Chad VanGaalen. VanGaalen is evidently a Canadian superstar. Although he is signed to Sub Pop in the US, again, I was completely ignorant of his eminence. And seeing him alone on stage, squinting into a single white spotlight he certainly didn't look like a star. Furthermore he gave no hint of the crush that was to come when he spoke. Instead, he addressed the audience humbly and conversationally, explaining how honoured he was to be playing SappyFest again, and then praising the festival and its community. This humility was in direct contrast to the crowd that had packed in tight enough to compress my lungs, that screamed when VanGaalen wasn't performing, and that sung along to every word when he was.
Although VanGaalen is principally a solo artist, for this show he was joined by another guitarist (who also provided backing vocals) and a drummer. Unfortunately, to my ear (or maybe in this environment) VanGaalen sounded like any other singer-songwriter sawing across an electric guitar, occasionally blowing into a harmonica. From where I stood, pressed against the main speakers on the right side facing the stage, the sound was bad, the crowd was insane, and it felt like I was taking space from real (aka Canadian) fans. I decided to make a break for the back – this turned out to be a difficult process. Although I held my camera (with a 1' lens attached) high above my head as I tried to weave my way out of the tent, the entranced fans were simply not budging. The thick continued well outside of the main tent, through the open area, and even into a second marketplace tent. Canada is seriously in love with Chad VanGaalen.
Kate and I continued our retreat all the way out of the festival space, sitting down on the steps of a garage. From there we listened to the rest of VanGaalen's set then headed to the car to escape mosquitos and the cold. There would be other shows in the bars and clubs downtown that evening, but again, I'd choose to miss them, opting for a bed instead.
[SappyFest coverage continues on day 3]