[this is a day 3 of festival coverage that began on day 1]
When we woke up on Sunday morning, we all felt the weight of the weekend. Jenn asked if we had to see more bands, I tried to correct her, telling her that we got to see more bands. I was able to paint a rosy picture, but my feet were tired after standing for 17 hours, an. not excited about the prospect of 14 more that day. So weary but not beaten, we left the hotel room and returned to town to find a proper breakfast.
After eating (good food if not exactly breakfast), it was back to the market area to see the crafters and farmers set up outside of the main tent. Some were the same as yesterday but with new stock, others were entirely new to the marketplace. When that scene was exhausted it was over to the Salvation Army to continue our perusal and to fill the hour before bands would begin. Neither expedition yielded anything I couldn't live without, but, of course, Jenn and Kate did manage to find an armful of goods.
Sunday afternoon's performances at the main stage began quietly with a set from Sackville's Corey Isenor. While there was no emcee to announce the band, Isenor himself proved to be a personable and snappy frontman able to start the show rolling without any help. Corey's voice is nice; it's a bit rounded and soft but still focused and direct. He works his vocal range nicely, slipping in and out of his folkie indie songs. Think maybe Mark Kozelek, Alexi Murdoch, or even Hayden but without all the finger picking. Isenor generally played electric guitar, though occasionally he would switch to an acoustic. This, we were told, was his back-up acoustic, as his primary acoustic guitar had been stepped on and destroyed earlier that morning. That guitar sat on . chair, centre stage with a microphone on it, as if it might still tell its story. Isenor used a variety of tunings throughout the afternoon, making it difficult for him to honour the requests shouted out from the substantial but seated audience. He was accompanied by a trio featuring a second guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer (who was previously seen drumming for Lovesinger). I've read that Isenor has released two albums; I think I'd like to pick up both of them.
After a 15-minute break, Halifax's Cousins began its set. While the band had previously performed as a four-piece, it appears that the band is now a dynamic duo consisting of drummer/vocalist Aaron Mangle and guitarist Pat Ryan. The band has a driving indie rock sound with the direct punch-in-the-throat of garage rock mixed in. Typically Ryan's guitar lines are simple power chords with easy and expected changes. Better songs have Ryan playing more syncopated and complicated runs. Frequently Ryan's guitar leads hold the same melody line as Mangle's vocals. Those vocals are neither here nor there, nor is his drumming to be honest. However, few singing drummers have the confidence to sing (actually sing) through complex drum fills, but Mangle did it all. The audience responded to the band, and soon the chairs were all moved to the side of the tent by festival goers who suddenly found themselves awake and rocking early on a Sunday afternoon.
After the rowdy set from Cousins, odd scheduling brought Michelle McAdorey to the stage. McAdorey may be familiar to some of you as the vocalist for Toronto's Crash Vegas in the late '80s. Now, she is a dedicated middle-of-the-road singer/songwriter. As McAdorey set up, it was obvious she was of a different generation, one much closer to hippie than hipster. The audience caught on quickly and the chairs returned to the tent in neat organized rows. McAdorey perched herself precariously (those who saw the set will understand what I'm talking about) on a chair, set up a music stand with sheet music, and then strapped on a large hollowbody electric guitar. Her vocals are ethereal, and at the high end of her register very breathy. These were balanced by the rich baritone of Eric Chenaux who accompanied her on a nylon-stringed classical guitar. Although McAdorey's set was firmly in the Lilith Fair tradition, curious synthesizer noises that were largely immaterial to the songs at hand were provided by a gentleman seated on the stage floor, obscured by the vocal monitors. On records, when mixed properly, these may advance the songs, but live, when noticed at all, the synthesized noise seemed merely out of place.
At 3:40 a very hungover Jay Baird took the stage. The members of Lullaby Arkestra sat directly beside the stage, smiling pleased smiles as he told fuzzy stories of the drunken escapades that nearly destroyed him the night before. Drummer, and brother, Jesse Baird joined him on stage looking no worse for the wear. Together the pair performed as Baird Bothers, although I wasn't able to find any history of them recording as such. Instead the duo seems to have been involved in countless other regional acts, with its backing duties for Feist being the highest profile of the lot. Although I'm not familiar with any of the songs played, most were likely compositions from Jay Baird as he seems to perform solo regularly.
The duo played the sort of indie alt-country tracks that record label Drag City has built a small empire upon – and not coincidently, ones that Jay Baird's worn vocals were born for. Jay Baird's guitar work was expressive, but not terribly intricate. It was there to set the scene, but not tell the story. Jesse Baird's drum work was inventive and perfectly filled out the sparse compositions. His backing vocals were spot on too, unaffected by his demanding drumming. In my estimation he was the best drummer of the festival. The band's songs typically crawled along through lonely verses while choruses frequently (but without gimmick) exploded with emotion. And yes, the band were joined by Julie Doiron for a terribly sweet and rich duet reading of "Big City Ditty." A song, I was told, that dates back to a previous band named "Drummer" that featured Jay Baird, Jim Killpatrick and Fred Squire. The combinations are limitless folks. Limitless.
Sunday moved along quickly as most bands shared the same equipment. Only ten minutes after the Baird Brothers left the stage, Baby Eagle was beginning its set. The project is the solo effort of The Constantines' frontman Steve Lambke, although on stage he was supported by an all-star SappyFest line-up featuring both members of Construction & Destruction, Daniel Romero, Jim Killpatrick, and an unidentified (by me, anyway) didgeridoo player. Lambke's vocals are spoken – occasionally low and gravelly, other times high and nasally – in yet another of the weekend's Bob Dylan impersonations. His songs are slow, descriptive folk built on a very solid country foundation. Several songs flirted with chaos, but I wasn't aware enough of his material to know what might have been a cover. While I enjoyed the set, ther. was little excitement to note. The seated audience must have agreed.
The final act of the afternoon was Toronto's Gentlemen Reg. Because of the band's work with the insurmountable Arts & Crafts record label, this was an act I was already familiar with. The audience was familiar with Gentlemen Reg through frontman Reginald Vermue's collaborations with both Jim Guthrie and Steve Lambke. But this was Gentlemen Reg's first SappyFest, and the audience seemed apprehensive about welcoming an outsider to its festival. Vermue actually began the set confessing that this was the band's first tour "out east," further clarifying that the band was playing both in Ottawa and in Sackville. His description of Ottawa as "out east" brought a handful of guffaws and harrumphs from the audience.
Fortunately the band then began its set, leaving its delightfully infectious pop songs to quickly create inroads. Vermue is a great frontman: he's theatrical, a little queeny, conversational and witty. He also appeared to be the only festival performer to have changed into clothing particularly for the stage. Although dressed in black from head to toe, a popped collar reached up towards this styled facial hair and ultra-blond kinky curls. When not tethered to his guitar, he bounced and danced about the stage. His voice is high with just a hint of affectation and lisp recalling that of Boy George. Most of the band's songs are quick-paced, high energy pop recalling Squeeze and other late '70s gems. "How We Exit" got not only backing vocals from his keyboardist, but from the rest of the band and a good chunk of the audience as well. The disco-infused "We're In A Thunderstorm" even got a few of the bolder audience members dancing.
At this point the main tent was closed down to prepare for the evening's shows. I, like the majority of the evictees, hurried over to the historic Sackville United Church across the street in hopes of catching the Daniel, Fred and Julie set. This would be Daniel Romano, Fred Squire, and Julie Doiron if you haven't become fluent in SappyFest-ese quite yet. All three members contributed blended and harmonised vocals while both Romano and Squire finger picked acoustic guitars. Interspersed with these group efforts were solo performances from each musician. The sound of these three quiet voices rising up to vaulted ceilings was no less than divine. Most of the set was drawn from the British folk songbook (sometimes as filtered through Appalachia), although a glacial reading of Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair" was quite memorable. Fans of Low would have been beside themselves.
After Daniel, Fred, and Julie left the alter, a chair was brought out and a microphone was lowered for Old Man Luedeckei. Old Man Luedecke is Chris Luedecke, and he's not actually old. He's a banjo player, a singer, and above all a personality. He's the sort of regional (if not national) treasure that entertains at every open fair and festival. Many of his songs are corny – the sort that appeal to both your grandparents and your toddlers – and, unfortunately, I just wasn't in the mood for that. While I had high hopes for the set when I heard him first frail his banjo, it wasn't long before the heat and my empty stomach conspired to get me off the pew and back out into the world.
Outside was lovely and the walk to a neighbourhood pizza joint was too short. However this is a good time to give you an important Canadian language lesson. 1) A "panzeratti" is merely a calzone. 2) "Garlic Fingers" are just cheese sticks. Not like mozzarella sticks, but the sort of cheese sticks that Papa Johns sells. 3) A "donair" is a gyro with beef instead of lamb and with a little different sauce. Okay, now back to the music.
A bit after 8pm the main tent reopened and I found myself participating in a uncharacteristic stampede towards the stage. This confused me as never before had SappyFest goers made such a dash for a band, and furthermore, this was a band that I had never heard of. Once I heard the band, I was even more confused.
One Hundred Dollars is a country music act from Toronto. The band is fronted by Simone Schmidt who looks like she couldn't be 21 years old. In fact, in her jean jacket, black jeans, and unlaced white hightop tennis shoes, she reminded me of every 16 year-old girl that hung outside of the convenience store by the trailer park, asking for someone to buy her cigarettes. And before someone fires up the hate mail, throughout the middle '80s I live. next to that trailer park, and that was the girl I always wanted, but knew I could never get until I had a kickass Nova of my own.
The band's live sound (which differed considerably from the recorded work I later sampled) was much closer to new country than alt-country, although no modifiers really applied. Specifically there was more than enough rock in the band's live sound to make me uncomfortable. In the studio, this gusto is tempered by organ and pedal steel, however neither of these instruments were on stage at SappyFest. This left only a rhythm section to shuffle along while two electric guitarists provided expected solos in expected places. Thankfully Schmidt's voice was expressive and full of nuance. At times it was squeaky and aged well beyond its years, and other times it was warm and drawn recalling some of country's classic ladies.
While I couldn't count myself a fan, the Canadian audience were simply over the moon during One Hundred Dollars' set. I suppose something must have been lost in the currency conversion.
After a 35-minute set the band took its bows and vanished from the stage. Five minutes later it returned, not to pack up its gear, but to play another half-hour set as the backing band for Rick White. Rick White is the founder, guitarist, and vocalist for Moncton, New Brunswick's on-again-off-again Eric's Trip. Since that band's initial demise he has recorded with several other bands, and released three solo albums. The solo albums have been mostly studio affairs with White playing the majority of the instruments himself. Although White's long hair hung forward over his face throughout most of the set, when it was pushed back, it invariably revealed a delighted smile – playing these songs live, with a full band, tickled White to no end.
Several of the songs carried the shuffling back beats reminiscent of his band, although his own noisy and psychedelic pop songs were able to dominate the set. White's face-melting extended guitar solos were simply jaw-dropping. The highlight of the set was "Sorry We Missed You" from White's 2007 solo album "Memoreaper.. In the studio the track was merely a romp; live, with a powerful backing band, it was a statement.
Up next were the would-be headliners (we'll get to that in a moment) The Sadies. The Sadies are a Toronto four-piece consisting of duelling guitarist brothers Dallas and Travis Good, backed by Sean Dean on upright bass and Mike Belitsky on drums. The band plays an infectious, high-energy blend of psychobilly, surf, and country built from a near canonical knowledge of music. With over a dozen records in as many years, countless international tours, stints as the backing band for Neko Case and others, as well as participation in several other bands (including The Unintended with Rick White), this band is nothing if not experienced. All this time behind their instruments have made the individual musicians not only sublime players (you'd be hard pressed to find a faster finger picker than Travis Good), but also excellent showmen. Frontman Dallas Good never pandered to the audience, but instead presented a warm show that balanced the informal with the honest-to-goodness concert experience that fans would get at a venue 1000 times the size of the SappyFest main tent. Maybe it was just the way the perfect lighting shone off Dallas Good's fancy honky tonk suit, but I could imagine no better way to end the festival.
But wait, there's more.
The curiously sparse Sunday night schedule showed only four bands. For the detectives among us, it was obvious another band would be added. Nearly a week before the show, Jenn, our Canadian connection, declared that she knew a secret. All was revealed once she arrived in Sackville: Sloan would make a surprise appearance to perform its 1994 album "Twice Removed" in its entirety. This secret was not well kept by anyone.
However, before the audience got Sloan, it had to endure an insultingly long 45-minute set change. While the band stood offstage, a single roadie crawled over all the equipment, placing everything just right, testing wireless microphones and headsets, and tuning. So much for SappyFest being an informal gathering of friends, this was big rockstar bullshit. If the band would have just stepped onto the stage, and played the same gear as the rest of the evening's bands, it would have been an awesome surprise. Instead, everything stalled as the area by the stage grew increasingly crowded and hostile. Despite a midnight curfew, the band didn't take the stage until 11:35. There's no way to get through the entire album in 25 minutes.
Sloan, for the uninitiated (and where have you been?), is a Halifax power pop institution that has been slogging it out for 20 years, through ten albums released on major labels, indie labels, and their own label as well. The band is curious as it is the creative outlet for four different song writers, who (more or less) balance the songwriting on each album. This creates a bit of a headache when describing the individual members of the band and their unique performances, as each member is required to play several different roles during a normal set. A normal set, however, would minimize this instrumental fire drill by grouping sets of songs together. By choosing to play "Twice Removed" in order and in its entirety, after nearly every song there had to be a shift. Bassist Chris Murphy would run back to drums sending drummer Andrew Scott up to guitar, while guitarist Jay Ferguson took on the bass roles. Guitarist Patrick Pentland and a mostly-anonymous keyboard player hidden behind amplifiers were exempt from this escapade. Was it worth all the delays? Well that depends on how you feel about "Twice Removed." In Canada, they love it.
A bit of history: "Twice Removed" is an muscular pop gem released in 1994 on DGC Records. Although it received no real support from the label upon its release, it has nonetheless grown to mythical status – particularly in Canada where it has frequently been voted the best Canadian album ever released (edging out Neil Young's "Harvest" and Joni Mitchell's "Blue" each time).
The band is a tight, professional unit, and never disappoints with its live shows. I stayed up front for the first three or four songs, but soon the audience's swollen enthusiasm proved to be too chaotic for me, so I made my move to the back of the tent. I was surprised to find that after a few hundred bouncing fans, the crush let up. Instead of the packed tents of VanGaalen the night before, I found older fans (those past 30) standing in the back, holding conversations and beers. I suppose these are the old timers who had seen Sloan a dozen times before, and just weren't up to the challenge of seeing them in this environment. At least that was my story.
In previous nights my posse headed home after the headlining act, however to send the festival out in a grand finale, we opted for the after show at Uncle Larry's (a bar and pool hall). While Kate and I settled into the empty club, enjoying a cranberry juice and a bag of chips, the majority of SappyFest rocked with Sloan past the midnight curfew. When the final notes of "I Can Feel It" faded, they rushed to Uncle Larry's for the last sets of 2010's SappyFest.
Up first was BA Johnston. Johnston is a man with a schtick. First, he's dressed and coifed as though fashion ended in 1977 when he dropped out of high school. His stage banter, and nearly singular lyrical inspiration, revolves around his pathetic life – specifically how he still lives with his mother. While this may sound like a bit of a downer, he has instead created something odd and joyous, tapping into some universal life disappointment. The audience sings along to "Deep Fryer In My Bedroom" as if it's their lives as well. He's generally shirtless, has quite the beer belly, and is known for a preponderance of "snot rockets." This isn't a man you want to take home to mother.
Johnston entered the club to the strains of "Sweet Child Of Mine" while the over-served crowd went crazy. Just before the lyrical explosion, the walkman (cassette mind you) stopped and Johnston explained he hadn't had time to learn any more of the song, besides, "that's all you deserve. He's GG Allin sanitized by a dose of Weird Al. Johnston's songs are played on acoustic guitar or keyboards; they're simple, short. No great musicianship, but a fare bit more than the Wesley Willis routine (who I've heard him compared to – a comparison that doesn't really hold up as Johnston is self-aware). For the last song (as frequently happens), Johnston ran the crowd outside, where he performed "Toyota Previa" on the roof of his mother's Toyota Previa borrowed for the show. He ended the song with fireworks from a singular roman candle while hipsters stomped their approval on the dumpster that served as their bleachers.
Inside Toronto's John O'Regan was setting up his own one-man keyboard and guitar show – this one, however, would have dramatic lighting. O'Regan's Diamond Rings persona is all about the dramatic.
I could make a solid case that Diamond Rings was the highlight of the festival. Maybe it was just late, or it was the novelty of seeing music performed in doors, or maybe that I was worn down and ready to embrace the ridiculous, but I was 100% on board with O'Regan's '80s-inspired synthpop.
O'Regan himself is a striking figure; he has a shock of blond hair that rises from the top of his otherwise shaved head, falling to the left where it meets several strips of exaggerated eyeshadow. Gold lame stretch pants hang flaccidly on O'Regan's terribly thin frame. He's an update of Bowie's Aladdin Sane. However, his acid-washed jean jacket and white high-top tennis shoes place him firmly within today's hippest throwback fashion circles.
Most of Diamond Rings' songs are fluffy keyboard pop numbers that run on autopilot while O'Regan sings and dances. Surprisingly catchy melodies recall Yaz, making Diamond Rings just as good in your headphones as it is on the dance floor. Several of Diamond Rings' studio songs are understated indie pop built instead on guitar. These show no trace of the over-the-top choreographed dance routines that dominated the live show, but were just as wonderful.
The audience responded to Diamond Rings by storming the stage and turning it into a dance party. While the audience were eventually run off, it refused to leave the club until O'Regan came back for an encore. After that, it was over. All of it. Over.