Kazoo! Fest Makes Its "Long-Overdue Goodbye" by Doing What It's Always Done
Jasmyn, shn shn, Ducks Ltd., Mother Tongues, Phèdre, Joseph Shabason, Joyful Joyful, DijahSB and more played the final edition of the Guelph festival
Published Jul 18, 2022It's the beginning of the end of Kazoo! Fest, and shn shn is seated cross-legged on the floor of the stage at Royal City Mission, an assortment of electronics at her fingertips, plastic butterflies radiating from her forehead like a crown of change and adaptation.
"So many ways to start, it's the ending that's hard," she sings, drawing syllables into the mounting pull of electric swells. "So take time."
Kazoo! has followed that wisdom. Originally planned for April 2020, the final iteration of the series' multi-day music and arts festival in downtown Guelph had to wait more than two years to say goodbye, postponing and rescheduling three times before conditions felt right to do one more with feeling. Reemerging to an event landscape saturated by major-moneyed touring acts, they've flouted the conventional wisdom that attention scarcity should be met with hustle and grind, this version of the fest scaled down and spread out so most shows roll into the next. There are barely any scheduling conflicts for attendees to resolve as they plot out their festival experience, and Kazoo! has taken care to both bring back familiar faces and retain its reputation as a place to get introduced to new acts, a firmly intact emphasis on the local talent that keeps audiences coming back.
That relational value is embedded in the programming of the opening night showcase at the Mission, shn shn grounding the occasion in the universal terms of her ambient pop piece "Never Say Goodbye," her likeness rendered and liquified through filters on the screen above by Fezz Stenton's live visuals, fusing into the environment around it.
Eventually, Lindsay Roe bounds up and down the Mission aisle, the path of community care and worship interrogated by body and movement. Kazoo! is a music festival first and foremost, but Roe's dance performances have become an audience favourite over the years, her incorporation of hip-hop, jazz and pedestrian styles permeating an atmosphere of freedom and accessibility. Here, she performed a triptych of pieces alongside spoken word artist Truth Is…, the set verging on performance art when the poet left their station at the microphone to break down a stack of beer flats or apply a "FRAGILE" packing sticker over Roe's heart, the material conditions of waged and emotionally coded labour cross-examined through intersectional gesture and mimicry.
Performing with accompaniment for the first time, Steph Yates's Cots project closes the show pondering the celestial mechanics explored on her 2021 solo debut Disturbing Body, itself a metaphor for the unexplainable interactions of human beings and how physical space is occupied.
Kazoo! is intimately familiar with the limitations of moving and shaking in Guelph. The festival started underground, beginning as a concert series in summer 2006 after founder Brad McInerney and friends came together to figure out a way to get the shows they were hosting out of the basement of a rented house on Grange Street, concurrently home base to the scene around grassroots label Burnt Oak Records. The first show (a bill featuring performances from Ninja High School, Households and the Maynards) took place on the third floor of the now shuttered Van Gogh's Ear, itself a metaphor for the options available to downtown Guelph's music community. Like many Victorian-era cities, street-level venues in Guelph are few and far between, ones without barriers to entry even fewer: most spaces prioritize alcohol sales, and you can basically count on climbing at least a flight of stairs to reach a dance floor, washroom, or even both.
In the same spirit as the house shows it was born from, as a countermeasure, Kazoo! has spent years making its own space, directing substantial time and resources toward convincing area galleries, churches, boxing gyms, vintage stores, coffee shops, coworking spaces, and other local businesses to be their stage. As a result, it only feels right that each night of the final fest finds its footing in the ad hoc setting of Royal City Mission before sending audiences dancing into shows at Onyx nightclub or Jimmy Jazz.
Catching up between hot dogs and a honky tonk set from Ian James Bain at a Saturday barbecue show in McInerney's backyard, the festival founder takes pride in the organization's decision to stick to its comfort zone over the years, in spite of the heaping expectations people might bring to what he acknowledges is a "long-overdue goodbye."
"There seems to be this capitalist logic applied to everything that things have to grow to continue, and I wish to some degree that arts organizations and people making culture would apply the same logic that we did," he says before delighting in the multidimensional symmetry of the occasion. "If you think about it, this is a backyard show, the same way it started in backyards and basements."
Still, Kazoo! manages an instructional survey of music across genres, so by the time eager festival goers have congregated in McInerney's backyard, they've already taken in two nights of new age mysticism, shoegaze, hip-hop, folk, jangle pop, prog rock, drone and dance. Since the opening showcase, they've seen Mother Tongues seal the deal on their high volume worship with an elephantine cover of My Bloody Valentine's "Only Shallow," and Matthew Cardinal explore the space between ambient drift and dance floor propulsion with modular synthesis. Ducks Ltd. has transported them to a jangle pop hauntology grounded in the anhedonia of making art in the contemporary capital-driven world, and Andrè Ethier stripped the counterculture canon of its legacy gloss to point to invisible class conditions. Jasmyn, the new solo project from former Weaves vocalist Jasmyn Burke, introduced a new era in her career. Recently expanded into a full band, local post-punk unit Bonnie Trash filled the Mission with a set of haunting psychedelia that went under the skin to plumb the depths of generational trauma. And Fat Tony tore the roof off the club Friday night, the crowd all hands in the air before he left them on a high, heads spinning with a finale that remixed Panic! At the Disco's "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" into a tripped out hip-hop banger before the Houston DJ/rapper served up a freestyle thanking the crowd, festival organizers and stage technicians. Some have already visited the last edition of the Kazoo! Print Expo; others are just starting their days, still waking up from late-night reunions and after parties. Kazoo! is home. It introduced audience members to friends, lovers, partners, even different versions of themselves. Some people have had Kazoo! babies, some now old enough to frolic around at the final backyard barbecue.
Despite the undeniable accomplishment, McInerney's mostly excited to see what takes its place.
"There are probably already kids planning a much better festival than we ever threw," he says. "They're probably doing weird backyard or basement shows or doing shit that we haven't even thought of."
But there are still some doors to be closed, and the last night of the fest starts with consecutive blasts from the past.
Joseph Shabason, who last played Kazoo! in 2018 with a full band backing songs from that year's Anne, plays this fest solo, performing tracks from 2021's The Fellowship, which charts the saxophonist's growth and eventual disillusionment with organized religion. In his backyard, McInerney revealed Shabason became an unwitting harbinger for Kazoo!'s modern era as a not-for-profit arts organization when Mike Deane, who would eventually become President of Kazoo!'s Board of Directors, emailed about booking DIANA (Shabason's band with Carmen Elle and Kieran Adams) through Kazoo! ("I kind of one-upped him, because two weeks later I hit him up with an email that was like, 'Hey, I know this is coming out of the blue and we actually have not even had a conversation, but what do you think about meeting to talk about [joining] Kazoo!?'") Along with Dave Lander (eventually Secretary Treasurer), fresh in Guelph from St. John's after co-founding the Lawnya Vawnya festival there, they injected a new set of skills and experience into the organization, precipitating its incorporation. So when Shabason lands his set on "So Long," the gesture resonates on several levels.
Joyful Joyful fills the same room with sounds of hope and healing from this year's Polaris-longlisted self-titled debut. Speaking to singer Cormac Culkeen's experience of being rejected from the church for their queerness, the act performed the same songs at a Kazoo! Pancake breakfast in 2018, but hearing their sacred drone queer the space at the Mission felt all the more powerful.
Then more soul searching, legendary Guelph beatmaker Elaquent julienning samples that boom and clap off the church walls, a slowed-down flip of Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away" speaking to the collective escape art offers culture, audience singing along throughout. After that, DijahSB's set brings the crowd to its feet for a hip-hop party, beats sticky with grit, their rhymes about gentrification, thin wallets, weaponized public transit and the dreaded nine-to-five emerging from those nervous conditions with studied effortlessness and humour.
Before Phèdre closes out the night at Onyx with an epic dance party, Valentina Morelli's Moonbean project grooves on Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," co-producer and venue tech Colin Harrington asking the audience who's going to start the next festival and joking about throwing a bouquet before departing the stage. "At this point, art feels like a glitch," he declares, commenting on the galvanizing potential of events like Kazoo!
It ends the way it always does, the promise of free coffee, flapjacks and fixings awaiting sleep-deprived festivalgoers, volunteers and organizers alike at the pancake breakfast show, this year at Fixed Gear Brewing Canteen.
Low key by design, it might be the ideal way to decompress from several days of sensory bombardment, kicking off with the lo-fi, Raincoats-reminiscent stylings of new project Pseudo Band, with band members Mei Lein Harrison, Emma Ongman and company working through songs about making macaroni art, keeping five-finger discounts to big box stores, as well as a suspiciously Mad-Libs-y song they call "Bed and Breakfast Named Kazoo!"
The syrup is flowing and the goofball energy is through the roof, but a set from former Guelphite Claire Maeve (Blimp Rock, Le Cyc) brings it back down to earth, offering "coming-of-agency" songs about nurturing growth and relationships, inviting Lisa Conway (L Con, Del Bel) and Geordie Gordon (The Magic) onstage to perform "No Right Way, Louise," and frequently offering thanks to Kazoo! between songs.
So, emotions are high when Tison Brinacombe's new band Foods comes on stage, vaporizing any sense of seriousness with its self-proclaimed "self-destructing synth grunge pop," songs about old relationships and starting life anew invigorated with noisy electricity that recharges better than any well-rounded breakfast.
At first, Brinacombe tries to leave the last Kazoo! set ever without any ceremony, gently picking up his coffee cup after landing on a solo performance and leaving the performance area to sit with the rest of the band, but then the crowd demands an encore and something magical happens.
"We're gonna relearn a song so we can play it for you," Brinacombe tells the crowd. "We're breaking the fourth wall here and you're all part of band practice."
Taking a beat to key into the structure of the last piece, the band leans into its compositional looseness with over-the-top solos and hanging stop-and-go transitions, as if mirroring shn shn's advice from the opening night before fans demand "one more festival!"
"So many ways to start, it's the ending that's hard. So take time."