Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Currente calamo: The ALL CAPS! Island Festival 2012

The ALL CAPS! Island Festival 2012 — 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.

The Wavelength collective might specialize in presenting boundary-pushing music, but as an organization they also operate with pragmatic incrementalism, letting things grow organically over each of the past three years. Although this year extended the pattern, the festival is now at the point where it's a pretty substantial undertaking. Along with incorporating the art-vibe and campout experiences that worked well before, this year saw the festival make the leap to a larger vision, incorporating outdoor stages and more high-profile touring acts. Aiming higher brings more risks, as well — especially in putting together anything outside, where bad luck with weather can cut into the walk-up draw.

Saturday August 13, 2012

Day 1 — feat. Triple Gangers / Esther Grey / Wet Hair / Tyvek / Choir! Choir! Choir! / Maylee Todd / Yamantaka//Sonic Titan

That was keenly felt on Saturday, where the remains of a storm system left high winds, a day-long grey sky and a soggy feel, causing the music to be moved inside. The sublime vibe of Artscape Gibraltar Point — housed in the re-purposed old Island elementary school — has always felt like a "retreat" in the best way, but as the day started I was wondering if the cozy confines of the Fireplace Room would be up to the task of housing the audience for bands that could pack a small club.

That wasn't too big a deal at the outset — as always, there was a fairly thin crowd at hand as the first day's music began. It was by no means quiet around the schoolhouse, with plenty of folks setting up their tents or otherwise exploring the space, and as long-time Wavelength host Doc Pickles took the stage (busily mentoring next-gen compères MC Metalman and MC Lightning Bolt) there was a respectable crowd, some forty-ish people strong, to check out Triple Gangers.

The trio somewhat undermines any associations with hustlin' street hardness that the name might imply as they took the stage in tiaras — and banished it entirely by the time they got to the songs about bunnies and flowers. Ghislain Aucoin provided beats and keybs alongside his vocals, but it was the voices of Aurora Cowie and Ida Maidstone that really lifted the band. Gifted singers both, they were also openly having a infectiously fun time on stage, trading verses and executing a few dance moves. The lighthearted and upbeat subject-matter might trick some into thinking this is something like a novelty act, but there's real talent on display here.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Guitarist Steph Yates and drummer Tyson Brinacombe took to the stage like they meant business, in straight-cut shirts and ties, but the music they were generating as Esther Grey wasn't so easy to pin down. Yates propelled the pair, rocking a look in the neighbourhood of Katie Sketch impersonating Chris Isaak. Although the setup might have implied staid singer-songwriter strumming, the outcome was instead engagingly punchy, with some of the short songs suggesting they emerged more from the process of rocking out than letting emotive words flow forth. All of which left a highly-positive impression — for me, this was the new discovery of the weekend. And it just might have been because I was thinking back to all the other artists that I'd seen playing in the fireplace room, but the memory of Carmen Elle — now a civic Rock Hero — playing the first ALL CAPS crossed my mind afterward. I'm hoping to keep an eye out to see if Yates propels herself like that — she's already found a drummer to go along for the ride.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Although the sun was struggling to fight through the clouds a bit outside, things took a heavier turn musically with a pair of American bands steering their tour through the Island. The sources on Iowa's Wet Hair all mention Shawn Reed's noise roots with Raccoo-oo-oon, but as this project has expanded from a drone-y, experimental duo, the now-trio has veered toward something that brushed against pop aesthetics. In practice, especially with Reed's synth work, that gave them the vibe of a slightly-chipper Joy Division — but still something more bludgeon-y than the grim early New order vibe that that would imply. Some of the material mushed together a bit, and it was the material crafted with that vaguely-pop sheen that worked the best on me.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Giving way to tour-mates Tyvek, things got even more bludgeon-y. Applying heavy rhythms to motorcity punkrock, the quartet alternated between frustrated belligerence and weary live-it-up positivity. Top-notch stuff.

Listen to a song from this set here.

It wasn't long after that set ended that the room started filling up with a steady queue snaking into the room. The members of Choir! Choir! Choir! — and once again they were too many for me to easily count or fit into a picture — basically took over half the room, a wall of singers keeping together thanks to Nobu Aah's conducting and Daveed Goldman's timekeeping acoustic guitar. Even from "Mad World" at the outset, Aah turned one-hundred-eighty degrees and conducted the crowd as if they were one more section, indicating that this was as much a singalong as a performance. For TLC's "Waterfalls", the group was joined by Maylee "Left Eye" Todd — who managed to delight all the more for not quite nailing the rappity-rap-rap delivery. It fit right in with the warm hug of the hey-why-not-join-us communal spirit that C!C!C! brings.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Maylee Todd would be much more steady on her feet for her own excellent-sounding set afterward. It was a good thing that it did sound that fantastic, as by this stage of the day the room was really packed and it was hard for those not right up front to see much at all. And though I theoretically know that the performance included dancers, it was only toward the end, when Todd came out as far into the crowd as her mic cord would allow, when I saw anything of the performance at all. Not too big a worry, though as her always-sharp band delivered on a set that was again packed with new material.

There were also the same covers that I'd heard at the recent Harbourfront performance, and while the Sesame Street Pinball Number Count remained pretty awesome, this time it was the version of Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" that took the prize, as Todd called Choir! Choir! Choir! up to the front to join her. With bodies surging up to the front, from where I was standing I couldn't tell where the band ended and the audience began. Funky closer "Do You Know What It Is?" definitely left the crowd wanting more. There's no word yet on when we'll be seeing a release of Todd's new material, but it has to be high on this list of most-anticipated local albums.

Listen to a song from this set here.

After that, the crowd dissipated a fair amount. For some mainlanders, it was the ferry's call home; for the campers, there was the call of the bonfire that was raging outside. Even with fewer bodies in the room, the lack of a stage was keenly felt for the recently Polaris shortlisted Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, as this is a band that puts no small effort into their visual presentation.

Although, to my surprise, they actually were presenting as more of a band and less of a spectacle than when I saw 'em in January. This time 'round, there was no ceremonial entry procession and no backdrops. That meant that the band had to rely on their music alone to evoke a sense of atmosphere, and they pulled it off with no problem. Outside of a couple tambourine-shaking laps through the crowd, this was a more straight-up performance, but musically it was very solid.

And even with strict curfew (to get the crowd to the ferry on time) looming, there was no sense that the band was rushing through it, slowly building up through their introduction to the expansive "Reverse Crystal//Murder of a Spider". The hard façade of incommunicability that they held the stage with before was abandoned for some actual banter (although not from singer Ruby Kato Attwood, who remained as composed throughout as ever). Maybe especially because, once again, I couldn't see much anyway, the intimacy of the room more than made up for the loss of theatrical spectacles, and it was very encouraging to see that YT//ST can pull of it all off without needing the extra enhancements.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Sunday August 14, 2012

Day 2 — feat. Ivy Mairi / Young Mother / Canadian Winter / Absolutely Free / OG Melody / Lioness / A Place To Bury Strangers

By the time I was making my way over to the island on Sunday, the skies were clearing up and it felt quite fine as I entered past the ranks of now-grizzled campers. I was delighted that we'd be seeing some of the bands on the outdoor stage, as was the ebullient Ivy Mairi, who projected no small amount of joy despite the feelings of dislocation brought on by performing a concert on what was once her elementary school soccer field.

I'd heard her pure voice before in Bruce Peninsula and her familial Kith & Kin trio, but'd never had a chance to hear her singing her own songs. The first, accompanied only be her own guitar, was enjoyable enough, but once joined by Lucas Gadke and Matt Bailey, fleshing out the sound with mandolin, guitar and double bass it was quite fabulous. The tunes were largely from her new No Talker album, starting with the gorgeous "Something Of Love".

The sky was still changeable overhead, patches of sunshine chased by dark cloudbanks (or vice versa), which also works as a description of the music: meditations for the partially-cloudy soul. Urbane and earthy, this was a perfect start to the day.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Although the sky was clearing up again, the dark clouds moved inside for Young Mother's hypnotic badvibe postpunk throwdown. Fresh off the release of Future Classics, their humbly-titled debut full-length, it had been a while since I'd had a chance to check in on the band, who I'd liked right from the first time I saw 'em (which was, in a serendipitous turn, also at a Wavelength festival).

But now they're employing a disciplined musical economy to produce a more focused attack, packing as much meaning and menace in a fraction of the time these songs had previously sprawled out to. Singer/guitarist Jesse James Laderoute is now backed by a solid trio (bass/drums/sax) to produce a taut groove, torquing the balance between the instruments to get some intriguing effects — one song featured an incongruously mellow saxophone groove juxtaposed against staccato guitar plucks from the strings above the guitar's bridge. An excellent set — and now that the band have become who they are, so to speak, it'll be interesting to see in what direction they push from here.

Listen to a song from this set here.

The tensions that Young Mother's music induced were minor compared to the tremors seen as word went around that the caterers were already, at this relatively early hour, out of sandwiches. In another deft improvisational twist, the organizers managed to get a backup food provider on site without too much of a delay, likely forestalling food-related rebelliousness.

Meanwhile, as that drama played out, the action returned outside for Hamilton hip-hop crew Canadian Winter. I didn't know what to expect from 'em, but was intrigued to see the DJ was flanked by a guitar player and percussionist to add instrumental textures to Kobi's raps, delivered with a straight-outta-London accent.

The music was driving and included some interesting flavours — Doc Pickles could be seen plotzing when one song led off with a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis sample. That served as a solid backdrop for Kobi's storytelling, ranging from tour stories to the emotions evoked on experiencing T.O. for the first time. Another noteworthy introduction and a savvy programming pick from the Wavelength crew. And speaking of savvy, the band's moniker is extra-clever for providing a hook that'll probably appear in nearly in nearly everything that'll ever be mentioned about 'em: something along the lines of, "keep your eyes open, 'cause you know that Canadian Winter will be back sooner than you think".

Listen to a song from this set here.

A quick flip in the scheduling put things back inside for local krautrockstronauts Absolutely Free — partially by design, I'm sure, as their mad scientist lab of a stage setup probably required the resources of the big soundboard inside. But it had the interesting effect of keeping the sunnier bands grouped together in the sunshine while isolating the darker, more simmering stuff in the schoolhouse.

Absolutely Free's emotional tenor isn't as pessimistic as the other "inside" bands on the day, but they did share a certain penchant for extended repetitive grooves based on "chug" more than "vibe" — if not the gentle chainsaw violation implied by an offhand Heathers reference, think of it as an encounter with a mildly aggressive sawtooth waveform.

In a weird bit of symmetry, just as the band was completing their set-up, most of the powder on stage flicked off — just as had happened to these guys on the same stage a year ago as members of DD/MM/YYYY. Once that was sorted out, the songs involved the meticulous instrument-switching soundscapes that they've been experimenting with, including one particularly simmering instrumental that I think was new to the setlist.

Against the backdrop of General Chaos' especially effective liquid canvasses that looked as if they were videoconferencing in from the surface of a distant star, the bandmembers' shadowselves loomed over everyone as the band closed with patient build of "Clothed Woman Sitting".

Listen to a song from this set here.

As the actual sun started dipping down in the sky, the "Sunset Stage" was closed out with some 90's-styled R&B jams from OG Melody. Working in an unusual configuration, vocalist Isla Craig was without Thom Gill on keybs and backing tracks, forcing her to get by with the help of her friends.

Those substitutions cave the set a playfully off-kilter feel, with the music sometimes swooping out in unexpected loops and bursts that kept catching Craig a little off-guard. Her reaction was to laugh and roll with it, so although the execution verged on sloppy in a few places, it was also engaging, as if the audience were just hanging out while the band experimented to see what was going to work.

Inviting Kit Knows up to the stage, he threw down a topical freestyle that won immediate approval from the crowd as he cracked jokes about camping and the ubiquitous red ants. Craig closed out the set "with the people", hopping down off the stage to join the folks swaying up front.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Since emerging in 2007 from the aftermath of No Dynamics and controller.controller, Lioness have proven to be patiently keeping their eyes on the prize. After getting out an EP in fairly short order, the band spent a good long while lying low before re-emerging this year with the full-length The Golden Killer.

Somewhere since I last saw 'em, the core trio have beefed up with an additional keyboard player, freeing up vocalist Vanessa Fischer for more full-on frontwoman duties, including staring down the audience with her eerie cat's-eye contacts. That would just be one of the many details showing an even-sharper visual sensibility for a band that's always paid a lot of attention to their presentation.

That gave the audience something to connect with as the band took a couple songs to really hit their groove — but once they leaned into that death disco beat, it started getting better and better. Even taking the tempo down didn't reduce the intensity, and though I knew I liked the band coming in, this was a fierce reintroduction, and a reminder than this hunter is ready to pounce.

Listen to a song from this set here.

The underlying vibes of menace and tension that were hinted at in Lioness' set were pushed into the red for closers A Place To Bury Strangers. But whereas the former had provided the means of catharsis with the music's danceability, APTBS felt more like a steam engine with no release valve — the pressure building and building.

Or perhaps that imagery came to mind as the band brought what felt like a stadium-sized fog machine to the modest-sized Fireplace Room, which was quickly shrouded in a thick, obscuring haze as the trio got going. Employing massive distortion piled on top of sheer volume, this was more of a physical experience than a musical one — it took me more than half the set for the sheer overload of it to sink in enough to be able to distinguish between songs in any meaningful way. Which isn't to say I wasn't enjoying the caustic force of it all, although it clearly was enough to drive more than a few people out of the room, even before it ended in a prolonged insano strobelight whitenoise obliteration.

Listen to a song from this set here.

That pummelling conclusion to the festival was certainly at odds with the previous year's mile-high doubleplusfeelgood joyburst from Rich Aucoin — perhaps in itself a bit of a self-consciously reflexive bit of contrarianism from the Wavelength crew. It did feel a bit un-Wavelength-y to spend the day building up with the local talent only to close things out with a big-name import with no previous WL connection.

Plus, that closing taste of apocalypse did give a bit of a reminder of how much less of a focus there is on ALL CAPS' original all-ages mandate. While the festival remains open to all, it feels like youth inclusion is just another by-product, rather than something the festival is going out of its way to foster. And on that score, I haven't done the math, but my strong inclination is that as things have become more "professional" the average age of the performers is going up as well — in the past we've seen more of an effort to make sure that "all ages" is something that also happens on stage.

Still, no matter what, this was on balance an excellent weekend — one that I was looking forward to all year and will look forward to again next year. Even as things get bigger, the original animating spirit and Wavelength ethos remain intact. Everything feels human-scaled, and I heard several different people independently comment on the decorum of their fellow attendees — somehow, without enforcement, this has remained an asshole-free zone, which is pretty rare for any sort of concert. In the end, even if this wasn't the best of all possible worlds, Wavelength's practical prescriptions made sure the whole weekend worked, and once again, I left the island feeling enriched.

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

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