Halifax Pop Explosion Halifax, NS - October 11 to 15, 2005

By Carsten Knox, Iain K. MacLeod and Scott Reid Jill Barber Standing confidently in front of a capacity crowd with a guitar in hand, Jill Barber strummed, dipped, swayed and, most importantly, sang her way through a selection of songs from Oh Heart and A Note To Follow So (recently liberated from obscurity by Zunior.com). Older beyond her years, Barber delivered a blend of pastoral folk and jazz leanings all underpinned with a pop sensibility. Picture Sarah Harmer transported to the 1930s. Barber becomes more and more comfortable on stage as she continues to seduce her adopted Halifax home. She sent the capacity crowd on their way with a rendition of "The Tennessee Waltz" and a tune by her older brother Matthew. IKM Death By Nostalgia Beneath the Marquee, a crowd gathered like moths to the light. It became difficult to sit still when the sound of the overarching keyboards and methodical rhythm section was delivered through the speakers. Death By Nostalgia is lovingly linked to the past but you are never bombarded with any unearned or overbearing sentimentality. The T-shirt clad trio of Matt Reid (vocals/keyboards), Rod Affleck (bass) and Spencer Cantley (drums) is more than apt at unleashing a steady stream of instrumental deviance, passionate melancholy and all-out rockers since shifting from a four piece. Former DBN guitarist Jim Cooper was even present to momentarily rock the mic. IKM Dog Day A couple of couples make up Dog Day. It's the musical marriage of 50-percent of the Burdocks (Seth Smith and Nancy Urich) and half of the Hold (Casey Spidle and Crystal Thili) that compose the full-on priceless-ness of this side-project with main stage presence. At the centre is Smith's voice, both a lyrical and sonic gift to Halifax's indie rockdom, weaving through standouts from their Thank You EP like "Use Your Powers," "Sleeping On Couches" and "Zombie." Seeing a young band that is simultaneously reminiscent of a Halifax past yet fresh and primed for a full future at the historic Khyber club is a textbook pop explosion moment. IKM Ghosts of Modern Man A four-piece band of serious-looking fellows from Regina, they are a no-nonsense, well-rehearsed rock act with time signatures that shift at 90-degree angles. We're in orbit over Mars Volta here, with a dash of Foo Fighter pop smarts in the shout-y choruses. Monster drumming anchors the solid riffs and the songs don't linger, they hit and run. It won't be the vocals you recall, however, and as one song bled into another without a discernable variation in tempo, energy or intent, the band may appeal to thrash fans only. Still, good to see guys who play well and mean business. CK Jenn Grant Playing on the tiny stage of an over-lit room to a chatty crowd was an uphill battle, and her first song on an acoustic guitar accompanied only by a guy with a shaker and xylophone was lost. But when the bass guitarist, drummer and trombone player came up, she made plenty of headway. Grant's songs have a desperate quality, a loping and lonely folk pop that recalls both Sarah Harmer and Feist. "Don't Worry Baby," the lead track from her EP, is an anthem for 24 year olds everywhere, and is the song that will guarantee her success beyond the folk clubs. CK Shawn Hewitt "This is gonna be a black Bob Dylan kind of set," said Scarborough's Hewitt, but he's actually more threatening than Bob, with open-tuned hell hounds on his trail. A fairly unheralded name on the bill, Hewitt sat behind his keyboard and drenched the audience in a haunting, dangerous sound. His attack on his acoustic guitar was no different, with vowels and lisped consonants in a strong, gorgeous voice riding songs about his grandpa and men ruling the sea. Hewitt isn't some folk throwback, but a new, serious artist combining a soul music conscience with a touch of Radiohead's darkness. Startlingly good. CK The Hot Springs Montreal's Hot Springs, despite more than a passing resemblance to NYC's Yeah Yeah Yeahs, right down to singer Giselle Webber's stage theatrics, played an impressive set for the Marquee's early crowd. Their solid rhythm section expanded on the YYY's sound, focusing more on pop hooks than rock melodrama. It's art rock that's a lot more rock than art, entertaining to watch even with the modest turnout for their earlier start-time ("I feel like I'm playing for the sound guy," Giselle quipped.) and definitely one of HPX's better surprises. Too bad most people waiting for Ted Leo missed out. SR In-Flight Safety Hometown heroes of a sort, this was the final gig of the year for the band, and the faithful turned out. They play a capable alt-rock not out of place on the radio at the moment, which may or may not be a good thing. Armed with many potential singles, they gave the crowd a striking show, especially in the delicate ballads, but the combination of Matt Good and Coldplay in the songwriting doesn't make for anything that sounds new. The Chris Martin-esque falsetto in the last few songs over a repeating piano signature cinched it. Sleeve-worn influences are fine, but only to a point. CK Japanther Usually when a band "phones in" a performance it's a bad sign. With the dynamic dyad of Matt Reilly and Ian Vanek, it just adds another layer to the sonic salad. Two jury-rigged pink telephone receivers, bass guitar, credit card pick, rear-facing drums, a pile of cassette accompaniment and litres of sweat all round out the Japanther experience. Like a Frankenstein version of the Ramones, the Beach Boys and Public Enemy being channelled by a far less chaotic Lighting Bolt, Reilly and Vanek have themselves a lo-fi travelling road show of relentless rhythms, grafted melodies and well choreographed vocal samples. IKM K'naan The daylong deluge outside didn't keep away the curious who came to see what some have called "the saviour of Canadian hip-hop" by way of Mogadishu. Armed with djembes, a Spanish guitar and a backing singer/vocal percussionist, K'naan brought an extraordinarily self-assured set of joyous music and spoken word espousing freedom, youth and love. He scoops the crowd up with a touch that recalls Michael Franti at his lightest. There are even moments when the deftness of his rapping sounds like Eminem, though without the self-loathing and smarm. This, the most anticipated show of the festival, was probably the best. CK Ted Leo & The Pharmacists Leave it to Ted Leo to steal a show from Chad VanGaalen. At his first of two sets, Boston's Ted Leo & the Pharmacists lived up to their reputation as one of indie-rocks finest live acts. Leo constantly defended his vest ("it's fucking cold here") and joked with the crowd as he and his rhythm section tore through many of the band's best tracks, including "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone" and relentless opener "Little Dawn." The band's diversity, blending power pop, punk and riff rock, played into Leo's uninhibited political-but-easy-going stage persona, making for one of the HPX's best all-around performances in years. SR Kate and Anna McGarrigle It was a less of a triumphant East Coast return for the denim-clad, clog-wearing Montreal folk godmothers and more of a friendly and low-key hoedown in their living room that the audience was lucky enough to share on a corner of couch. Between-song tuning, banter and bickering are as much a part of the show as the songs, which don't really begin but shamble to life. Loudon Wainwright III's "The Swimming Song," "Goin' Back to Harlan," "Jigsaw Puzzle of Life" and "Heart Like A Wheel" all shone, but an elegiac high point was "First Born," where les soeurs and their new band really came together. CK North Of America Their first of two HPX sets, Halifax's North of America ploughed through a deafening set of melodic and screechy math punk. The band's infamously tight playing was intact, shifting structures and tempos while trading instruments and rotating vocal duties. It more than made up for a couple of monotonous songs that half-sung/yelped their way into one another. All's forgiven with the band's energy, which matches their debt to DC hardcore with the kind of performance such spastic, four-vocalist progressive punk demands. Still one of Halifax's best live acts. SR Priestess Having been in town the last time in support of Mötorhead, Montreal's Priestess had already established a rep for solid, meaty rock. This time out they did not disappoint, bringing their Brit metal-influenced sound and hammering the crowd with broad riffs and a sense of fun absent from much recent radio crunch. Lead guitar and singer Mikey Heppner's voice stresses melody, which can't be a bad thing, and the guitar solos sail over the heavy groove. This is music aimed squarely at the chest of the T-shirted dude in the back of some midwestern rock arena, which, of course, includes a drum solo. CK Christopher Rees This was the Welshman's first stop on a trip across Canada by bus and train carrying his three guitars. He coaxes a lugubrious twang out of his blue Strat, accompanying himself with a harmonica. His is a moribund blues, songs about death and loneliness sung in a strong voice. Lyrics like "what you do with wasted life" give an indication of the despair in his dirges, but his Cooder-esque national steel slide work injected some welcome sex into the proceedings on "Haitian Cannonball." Enjoyable, but it should come with a warning sticker to avoid razorblades immediately following the show. CK Royal Wood Halifax may have welcomed Wood to town with unrelenting rain, but his performance was far from dampened by the experience. Backed with airtight precision by In-Flight Safety (who apparently had practiced only briefly that day in less than accommodating conditions), each song, such as the heavy "Weight Me Down," the bouncy "Once" and the enlightening "The Spirits and I," came to life, anchored by either his piano prowess or guitar playing. Wood is on his way to establishing himself alongside the Canadian royalty of artists such as Slean, Sexsmith and Wainright. IKM Sons of Butcher At once a band and an animated series on Teletoon, one would expect these Hamilton boys to be both funny and cartoon-y. They were certainly the latter but only sporadically the former. Clad in black tights, gold chains and red satin, the band stumbled through a pile of their own songs and a few well-chosen covers (Journey's "Any Way You Want It" and Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams"). It's hard not to remember that Spinal Tap scorched this earth more than 20 years ago. The closing song, supposedly for the guys in the audience, with a refrain "Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" combined with a little sucking on condomed meat snacks, really took it to another level. CK Chad VanGaalen Calgary's Chad VanGaalen played a gorgeous solo set of art folk and indie rock backed by Catch & Release's Ian Russell and, for the last few songs, New Brunswick's Shotgun & Jaybird. Though breaking a string on his "weirdly tuned" guitar early on, VanGaalen played a stunning set, including the best material from his debut, Infiniheart, including the gorgeous "Somewhere I Know There's Nothing," a playful cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" and a couple of great, upbeat new songs that reiterate what a promising Canadian singer/songwriter he is. A short set, but a definite festival highlight. SR Hawksley Workman Hawk! Where is the rock? Two years back you gave Halifax the best show of the year, destroying us with your crack troops and hot new songs. Then there was the Citadel show, more of a cabaret thing. Fine, but this was just more of the same. Like a campy Phil Collins you spend half the set behind the drums. It just doesn't cut it. A segue into Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love" in the midst of "Striptease" was a nice touch but not enough to satisfy. Next time, tour a new album, bring a drummer and end the tease. Disappointing. CK