Published Oct 25, 2011In a city where there's typically only one, maybe two, sure-thing shows to attend every weekend, the Halifax Pop Explosion always leaves festivalgoers elated and exhausted from show-hopping night after night. This year was no exception.
Toronto orchestral poppers Ohbijou eased into the first night with Casey Mecija's clarion voice coaxing everyone into a standstill. Braids took the stage after a slight delay, filling Reflections Cabaret with their layered and loopy sounds. A quick run to the Seahorse Tavern meant catching One Hundred Dollars and being taken by Simone Schmidt's husky, world-weary voice.
Wednesday was rainy and a doozy. Multi-talented showman Rich Aucoin celebrated the release of his new album We're All Dying to Live at St. Matthew's Church, backed by an army of local musicians, the majority of whom were featured on the record. The show was celebratory and elaborate for what's usually a one-man act, featuring three to four drummers at a time, horn and string sections, and a horde of back-up singers. Aucoin hopped back and forth from piano to trumpet and even to church pews, rousing the crowd for sing-along bits. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Across town, Quaker Parents opened at Olympic Centre. The Halifax band reunited with their now Montreal-dwelling bassist for this set and locals agreed they've never sounded better. Shortly afterwards and back downtown, things started at Reflections with new Montreal-based trio Sheer Agony -- a definite misnomer to what their sound evokes: catchy, promising power pop. Next was Bloodhouse, an amazing band who scuzzed the place up into a happy, heavy haze. The group rarely play shows, so seeing them in this stacked lineup was an extra treat. The duo Cousins then powered through a raucous set where Leigh Dotey held it down on the kit as guitarist Aaron Mangle sang, grinning often.
The final act of the night was San Francisco's prolific Thee Oh Sees, and it was nuts. John Dwyer sputtered and yelped tunefully while crowd bodies were projected at all angles: vertical to horizontal and shoved back and forth like self-righting punching bags. The breaking of beer bottles accented the hammering of two drum kits and thumping bass, with Thee Oh Sees leaving a trail of debris -- including blood and broken prescription glasses -- on the floor.
Thursday brought even heavier rain, but the chance to catch Cold Warps was reason to brave the weather; the punk/power pop four-piece play songs whose hooks grip you for days. But the headliner at Reflections was Nashville's JEFF the Brotherhood, who delivered rough-and-tumble, riff-heavy rock. The brothers played a long, loose set with Jake Orrall often wandering into or on top of the moshing crowd with his see-through guitar.
On Friday night, the beloved north end of Halifax was the place to be. Guelph's the Skeletones Four weaved through a string of atypical time signatures while people piled steadily into Gus' Pub for the night's two headliners. Shotgun Jimmie was first up. Backed by Klarka Weinwurm and Jon McKiel, the charmingly boyish troubadour crooned an assortment of his feel-great tunes. The audience, which surely exceeded the bar's capacity, was gleefully rowdy and full of admirers dancing and singing along to each song, with exception to a yet-to-be-released, but surefire hit called "3212." Jimmie was visibly stoked, and it all felt very special.
Soon after, hometown heroes Dog Day powered through another incredible performance. Seth Smith's appealingly irreverent drone contrasted nicely with wife Nancy Urich's steadily delicate, pixie-esque voice, and no matter how fuzzy the guitar got, the sound was raw and pure, as well as sparse at times, but consistently intense. Smith crowd surfed, played atop Urich's booming bass drum, and, during an encore performance, somehow managed to walk the ceiling and flip over in a complete 360 before collapsing jokingly onstage.
Saturday closed the festival, and if lucky, one caught the day's two main acts twice each. The first was hardcore punkers Fucked Up, who played an all-ages show at the Pavilion and a larger show later at the Palace. The Pavilion show marked their first time in Halifax since 2006, with the small venue packed as singer Damian Abraham yowled and swung Donkey Kong-style from the ceiling's trusses. Meanwhile, downtown at Tribeca, ISBN played a slew of sweet, inventive songs where frontman Luke Langille's vocal stylings proved earnest and endearing. Skillful songwriter Jon McKiel followed, offering a noteworthy, no-frills rock set.
Hushed but anticipated secret guest Chad VanGaalen appeared next. The musical mastermind began with a sampling of his noise project, creating a soundscape that elicited images of urban decay. The intimate set also included some of the Calgarian's classic catalogue, but ended with an unknown, arresting song where he repeatedly screamed "surprise" during the chorus. VanGaalen played the much larger Olympic Centre a few hours later, but whether due to the dynamicism and coziness of the first show or just because everybody in the audience was slowly crashing by the end of the night, the secret show was probably the preferred performance of the evening.
This wasn't just the biggest year in the festival's 19-year run, but it will likely go down as one of its best. One can only imagine what the HPX crew has planned for its 20th anniversary, but they've certainly set the bar high.
Below, you can see a collection of videos from the Halifax Pop Explosion 2011 shot by Exclaim!'s Sandi Rankaduwa.
Rich Aucoin album release show:
Thee Oh Sees - Enemy Destruct:
Shotgun Jimmie - Late Last Year:
Dog Day - Give Me Light:
Chad VanGaalen secret show:
Chad VanGaalen - "Shave My Pussy":