Published Aug 02, 2014All music festivals should start with kid rock bands.
Okay, admittedly, this idea probably works better at Sackville's SappyFest than at most festivals, but it's a damn good one in this context. SappyFest already has a summer camp feel to begin with: 2,000 or so young-at-heart music fans taking over a small New Brunswick town for a weekend, staying in university dorms and hanging out in the middle of the street eating food and dancing/rocking out to music. Substitute Picaroons beer in place of soda pop and you've pretty much got the idea.
So it's against this backdrop that the Others took to the stage shortly after 7 p.m., the result of the Kids Corner Power Jam camp that took place all week here in Sackville. Put guitars, drums and keys in the hands of young teens and pre-teens and the results seem avant-garde and adventurous by default, no matter how poppy they're trying to be. One song, a catchy keyboard competition seemingly titled "Heart of Stone," was literally about a heart turned to stone. It was sloppy, of course, but that was part of the charm, and the kids' earnest flirtations with form earned big cheers from the festival's early keeners. The message was clear: let's keep things young tonight.
Halifax's the Grubbies, the day's first band of drinking age, didn't seem that much less youthful than previous act the Others in their enthusiasm, but with a bit more age came a lot more precision. Their brand of East Coast power pop is dipped deep in British invasion glaze, with echoes of early Beatles, Who and the Kinks shaded with more than a little Frankie Valli for good measure.
Alongside self-consciously cheeky banter — "We're so excited to be here; here's a pop record for ya!" — catchy songs like "Kop Kar" and a sharp and spunky cover of Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave" delivered bubblegum with bite.
Montreal's Freelove Fenner played an angular set of three-piece pop based around jittery, jagged riffs. I use three-piece here in the truest sense of the phrase, and not just to refer to of the number of musicians on stage: lead patterns shifted suddenly from guitar to bass and back again, one dancing around the other, the drums tying the whole operation together.
Songs like "Mary" are short, catchy and immediate, but live, they were given the space to develop a real groove, evidenced by the slow sway that began to sweep the front of the crowd as the set evolved.
The crowd continued to sway during Dusted's set (which also continued the evening's theme of small bands: other than the kids, none of the night's main stage acts had more than three members). The dancing sentiment may not be surprising given Brian Borcherdt's most well-known project (electronica act Holy Fuck) but Dusted is much more founded in folk and rock motifs.
The addition of a second guitarist, however, gave Dusted a much more muscular sound than when I saw the band last year, and as the set progressed, Borcherdt began to weave more and more keyboard loops into the mix, finding middle ground between Holy Fuck and his previous solo work under the Remains of Brian Borcherdt moniker. It might have been the most varied, and well received, set of the night.
PS I Love You, the Main Stage's final act for the evening, toys with so many rock mantras — thundering drums, blistering solos, and even some behind-the-head guitar playing — that singer/guitarist Paul Saulnier got a good laugh by making what he called the most "un-rock" request ever: "Can someone come back here and turn off the fog machine?" The ask made sense, in a way: Saulnier's guitar sounds are hazy enough on their own, a woozy fuzz of distortion punctuated with piercing flourishes.
Part of the band's sonic charm is in how Saulnier's vocals have a similar timbre to his guitar, resulting in an assaulting mix — one that, sometimes, the songs almost get lost in. But at its peak, like during a "2012" which sounded futuristic despite being two years post-faux-apocalypse, PS I Love You's set was downright beastly.
As per SappyFest tradition, of course, the night didn't end when the street tent cleared. The evening's after show at the local Legion hall was a heavy, proggy double-bill with Fredericton's Motherhood and Halifax's MOON. The former began their set in a stripped-down sonic barrage before embracing an A.D.D.-like series of quick, sharp melodic turns.
MOON offered a much swoonier soundscape, with one particular musical suite unraveling over the course of more than 15 minutes. Yet they also offered up the night's most surprising pop moment: a playful, if drone-y, cover of Cher's "Believe." Even at night's end, SappyFest's first day was certainly not lacking in its childish sense of fun.
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