Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Currente calamo: The ALL CAPS! Island Festival

The ALL CAPS! Island Festival — Artscape Gibraltar Point

While it's all fresh in my mind, a few notes from this year's ALL CAPS! Festival. Longer, more comprehensive reviews will follow down the road a piece.

Now in its third year on the Island, the ALL CAPS Festival is truly coming into its own as a remarkable event. The past two years were completely enjoyable experiences in themselves, but with a boost from the folks at Whippersnapper Gallery, the art quotient was boosted up here and everything felt a little bigger in scale.

Saturday August 13, 2011

Day 1 — feat. Moon King / Jen Castle & Yuula Benivolski / Monogrenade / Evening Hymns / Julie Doiron / More or Les. Host: Laura Barrett

Also bigger than ever (thanks to some very nice publicity) was the demand — from what I heard, there was a large lineup waiting for the doors to open, snapping up the remaining tickets instantly. When I arrived about an hour later, there was a "SOLD OUT" sign on the door and sad people being turned away.

Knowing it was going to be a busy evening, I arrived with some extra time to wander around a bit. One of the cooler elements of the festival is the facility itself — set in the old island elementary school, Artscape Gibraltar Point is now an artists' retreat, and several were kind enough to open the studios to the visiting public. I ducked into a couple and had some nice conversations with the artists about the stuff they were working on. I dug Chris Gardiner's collage-y works and just adored Pat Jeffries' project of painting portraits of the Island's hundred-year-old black willow trees, closeups of the gnarled trunks showing each one's uniqueness and personality.

Right at six, things got started in the Fireplace Room, with Laura Barrett, the day's special guest host, telling the crowd the secret and arcane origin story of the Moon King. The latest project from Daniel Woodhead finds him and his stand-up drumkit joined by his one-time Spiral Beach bandmate Maddy Wilde on guitar. With some added parts from an ipod, the music was thumping, rollicking fun — catchy pop presented with a shambling DIY edge.

Listen to a track from this set here.

After that burst of energy, it was outside to the beach behind the school for something altogether more meditative. Billed as a collaboration between musician Jennifer Castle and visual artist Yuula Benivolski, this inverted the usual order for these sorts of things where the visual component is sort of a backdrop to the musician playing. Here, instead, Castle, though present, was involved with the use of pre-recorded music soundtracking the ritual unfolding on the lakeshore. Symbolically suggestive without being to overt in its motives, the piece involved two women covered (like priestesses — or sacrifices) in thin sheets walking into the water and, at a distance, flanking an effigy-woman in wire, arms upraised. With ritual precision, the effigy was set on fire as the waves washed over the figures in the lake. With Castle's haunting voice in the background, the scene was static, with only the ungoverned fire and water breaking the stillness. As the effigy burned itself out, the figures in the water moved back to the shore, slowly following the waves to cloak their movement.

The first real wildcard of the weekend came on returning to the fireplace room. Montréal's Monogrenade don't have much profile in the anglosphere yet, but there's no reason that the language barrier should be too much of an impediment for the quartet. Showing quite a musical range, the set started with slower, moodier stuff featuring keybs and cello instead of guitar. By set's end, though, they were showing off a dancier, more aggressive sound. If bands like Karkwa and Malajube can gain notice outside la Belle Province, there's no reason Monogrenade can't follow in their footsteps.

As the sunset grew closer, it was back out to the beach for a set by Evening Hymns. What was originally going to a special presentation with Jonas Bonnetta providing a live soundtrack to a new 3-D film he's working on didn't come together, but in this environment the band's "regular" music cast a spell nonetheless.

As the audience gathered on the beach, I spotted a bearded figure and a woman out swimming in the middle distance — and for a moment I was convinced that Bonnetta and bandmate Sylvie Smith were reenacting their video for "Dead Deer". But as the actual Bonnetta and Smith stepped out to tune their instruments, I turned and saw their doppelgangers swimming back to the shore. From there, it was all quietly amazing, with the first lines of "Spectral Dusk" ("You would sit by yourself / at the end of the day / watching spectral dusk / settle in on Ontario Lake") feeling so utterly right as the evening's pink tendrils reached across the horizon. The set included several of the new songs from the band's forthcoming second album, as well reaching back for a beautiful version of "Cedars". The set ended with Bonnetta's solo version of "Mountain Song", slowly building loops of keyboards and vocals, finally getting loud enough to drown out the sound of the waves hitting the shore.

On the way back from the beach, the full moon was hovering over the lake to the east, its reflection creating a golden path across the waves. For just a second, it felt like I could have climbed on and walked down it to some more ethereal place.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Back inside (and feeling more grounded), as Julie Doiron finished setting up, the thing that fascinated me most about her set was considering how she would be able to contain herself to the strict half-hour time limit. Doiron's shows are usually free-flowing affairs, with no setlist so much as a series of songs flowing in accordance with Doiron's mood, and as many audience requests as she can cram in. Doiron also has a particularly charming way of getting caught up in her avenues of banter, and even though she resolved at the outset to talk as little as possible, she still managed to get sidetracked chatting about the features of her new iphone.

But there was still a cavalcade of songs, including a couple brand new ones — one was described as having been written immediately after SappyFest, just a few weekends ago. Plus a few interesting requests — I'm not sure when I last heard her play "Sweeter", for example. And never afraid to discover she no longer remembers all the chords and words in the middle of a song, there was also a somewhat haphazard run through The Dinner is Ruined's "Sleep Little Willie" as a nod to Dale Morningstar, whose studio is right next door. The room was packed tight for this and extraordinarily hot and sweaty, but I would have happily had this go for twice as long.

Closing out the night was brunch-loving rapper More or Les. Performing with two DJ/beat controllers on a table behind him, Leslie Seaforth brought a playful edge to his wordplay. Focusing on the daily ups and downs in life might seem old hat in the shadow of Shad, but do recall that Seaforth has been developing his style for more than a decade. It showed in his poise on stage as he ran through a rapid succession of cuts. With some people opting to grab an early ferry back to the mainland, there was enough space for the crowd to move around a bit. A fun way to end the day.

Sunday August 14, 2011

Day 2 — feat. Muskox / Dog Bus / Steamboat / The Wooden Sky / DD/MM/YYYY / Rich Aucoin. Host: Doc Pickles

Sunday's weather report brought with it the threat of thundershowers, though in the cloudy afternoon, that mostly meant it felt a little cooler. That overcast sky meant that the island felt a little less over-run, and the vibe at Gibraltar Point was a little more relaxed overall. Made sense, then, to ease into the day with the mellow-ish sounds of Muskox.

For a band I like a lot, it's just been bad luck that I haven't made it out to see 'em since they released their last album in October '09. Now, with a new album in the wings — look for Invocation/Transformations on September 6 — there was all the more reason for a revisiting. Sporting a slimmed-down five-member lineup, there was also a subtly different element to their sound — less the "progressive chamber jazz" that I identified when I saw 'em last and not even the old avant-bluegrass tag that I think I've also used before. Which is all to say, of course, that genre distinctions aren't entirely helpful in pinning down Mike Smith's compositions. With no harmonium, horns or extra percussion, this was a more agile beast than in the past, and the music a little more sleek. Perhaps best to just say that Muskox are taking their prog-Americana sound into a never-quite-happened version of the past's future, with flying cars leaving coloured trails across a post-industrial sky — but also with banjos. For some reason, they never used to think the future would include banjos.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Sunday's wildcard also represented the strong commitment that ALL CAPS has to its all-ages roots, stressing the importance of having an environment conducive to under-18's not only in the audience but also on stage. Waterloo's Dog Bus brought the day's youngest musicians, with rapper Jules Mkools (age 19) supported by his brother Jakey MkSpanky (age 13). For most of their set, the pair were backed by two-thirds of K-W pop-punk unit Courage My Love. Taking the stage in matching tracksuits, the pair of MC's proceeded to throw down on topics like space ships, ice cream and robots.

Their sound included no few nods to what I'm assuming are current trends in teenage mersh pop, which is admittedly the sort of thing I avoid by instinct, but there's no doubting that everyone on stage is talented and brimming with youthful energy. In the end, this was goofy fun, and at any rate, it's nice to know that in 2011 that the next generation of rappers are still urging people to throw their hands in the air — and subsequently to wave them like they just don't care.

Some older hands of the old school were up next as soul-rockers Steamboat took the stage. This is another band that I had some difficulty imagining in being contained to a half-hour set, given that they tend to prefer more sprawling shows where they can groove for long enough to get people up and dancing — and then exhausted, and then dancing again. Keeping things relatively straightforward for the festival set, this was just the "core" six-piece version of the band, sans driving horn section or other accoutrements they use to mix up their sets.

They still managed to get a good groove going early, leading off with "Bread and Butter", one of many cuts that the band has perfected on stage but not yet released as a recording. In fact, most of the set was dedicated to songs newer than the bands two EP's, but there was nothing "brand new" ready to be played. Still, plenty to dig in songs like "Right Back in Your Heart" and the set ended with a guest turn from Maylee Todd.

After that sweaty experience, heading outside for the next set was a more-than-welcome idea, even if the overcast skies of a couple hours previous were now looking a little more threatening. Introducing a new outdoor location for the festival, there was a stage set up right beside the pond between the Lighthouse and the water filtration plant. The clearing was home to a boat graveyard, with a matching stage constructed by the Whippersnapper crew. The faded sign reading "Paradise Falls" completed the noir-ish environment for The Wooden Sky to play against.

Gavin Gardiner's band can play it roadhouse rough when required, but can also tone it down to perform with nuanced atmospherics, and that was largely what they did here, keyboards acting like a protective blanket against the dark clouds overhead. There were a couple new songs in the mix, and during one of them, in time with the instrumental break there were suddenly fireworks bursting overhead — a very delightful surprise. As if that was too much for the sky to take, however, as the smoke cleared, the first drops of rain began to fall. A whole lotta tarps were hurredly pulled over gear as the band finished their set, the last song gaining an even larger fanfare of fireworks dazzling against the quickly-darkening sky. Truly the sort of stuff that memories are made of.

Listen to a song from this set here.

The next set had originally been slated to be on the outdoor stage as well, and though it looked as if the rain wasn't going to have a lot of staying power, the prudent decision was made to move DD/MM/YYYY back inside. That led to a bit of a scramble to keep things on schedule — this was one show that could not run late — so the band started playing while still sorting out the aftermath of a blown fuse. Admittedly, though, gear failure sorta feels like an organic part of the band's sound, given their propensity for creating a glitchy herky-jerk tapestry of noise. They managed to ride out the roughness at the start and keep flowing along. It had been more than a couple years since I'd seen a full set from the daymonths, and it seemed to me that some of the increased musicality that has found its ways into their recordings (there was a palpable shift with '09's Black Square) is coming out in the live show. Which isn't to say they're mellowing out, by any means, they're just a bit less aggressively/shiftingly noisy.

I came back from a cooling break outside to note a pair of lecterns set up at the end of the room, covered in electronic gear while a single lightbulb dangled from an extension cord overhead. The movie screen behind the stage was pulled down as Rich Aucoin hurredly got his equipment ready to go. Projected visuals are a big part of Aucoin's live presentation, and as everything wrapped up, he began running the video, which even included a segment for the sound check. As the room filled back in, the set began with a wonderful prelude — Aucoin had obviously been carefully making observations all day, and as the music slowly built, a slideshow of messages about the day's events and performers flashed on the screen.

If Aucoin has one great talent beyond his technical gifts, it's that he knows how to do lift in a way that can elevate even the most jaded heart, his simple messages cutting through to the immediacy of the now, where we're all in this together.

The performance itself was — and was probably engineered to be — a dancey blur. Each song came front-loaded with instructions for the chorus and then burst by, with explosions of confetti and dance circles and Aucoin — with his cordless microphone — working the crowd at the centre of it all. The set ended, as is usually the case, with most of the crowd gathered together under a rainbow parachute fluttering aloft just under the ceiling — which felt perfectly suited in this former elementary school lunchroom. Exhausting but kinda exhilarating, it felt like the perfect way to end the festival.

On the whole, the Festival was a triumph, and well-done by everyone involved. Given the massive good vibes engendered and what was already a demand-outstripping-supply situation, it looks like the biggest problem for next year is going to be accommodating everyone who wants in.

Addendum: I have more photos from the weekend posted in an album over at the MFS Facebook page.

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