Blown Away: Halifax Pop Explosion 2013

For the twentieth time in just over two decades, Halifax Pop Explosion filled it's coastal capital city with world-class music programming. Running from October 22 to 26, HPX brought artists and industry professionals from all over to take part in five jam-packed days of music.

The annual festival began in 1993 and has since grown into the biggest music festival east of Montreal. With over 200 bands and two dozen venues on board (not to mention a fully operational conference, comedy series and zine fair), Pop Explosion feels like an entire season onto itself. This year's headliners included Atlanta rap legend Killer Mike, Calgary's Chad VanGaalen, Fat Possum records' The Walkmen, local hero Joel Plaskett, the award-winning post-hardcore band Fucked Up, and Californian surf-punks Wavves.

Fucked Up – Halifax Pop Explosion – The Marquee Ballroom. Credit: Noisography.

The programmer's of this year's HPX made a few very choice decisions that resulted in a marvellous sense of reanimation and accessibility that furthered the celebratory nature of the week. The festival turned Parade Square, a public property in the heart of the downtown core, into a venue for two free, family-friendly shows on Friday and Saturday. They offered a free bus service for pass-holders that looped the festival circuit all week long. And finally, they programmed three nights of hearty rock and roll at the legendary Marquee Club, a venue with saintly status amongst Halifax music fans, that has only recently re-opened it's doors after years of intermittent activity. So with much to see and hear, and a bus to take me everywhere, I delved into the 2013 Pop Explosion with a familiar fervour and excitement.

Because the festival caters to a wide variety of tastes and delights in a nice cross-pollination of styles and genres (and because peninsular Halifax is relatively small, geographically speaking), I found myself hopping happily from venue to venue each night. The streets were riddled with groups of pass-dangling, camera-checking fans chatting boisterously about all the 'must-see' or 'should-have-seen' shows, the venue doors were surrounded by welcoming throng of rosy-cheeked attendees catching some crisp, atlantic air as they awaited the next set to begin.

The first two nights brought me to local lynchpin venue Gus' Pub. Ostensibly a family-run, hole-in-the-wall bar at the corner of North And Agricola (the nexus of north-end Halifax), Gus' has become a vital space that hosts local music nearly every night of the week. HPX packed the small, one-room venue to the gills both nights with fans eager to hear Canadian pop of the highest order. Aside from Tuesday's headliners—New York rock veterans Obits—both nights showcased Canadian groups from across the country, including exquisite performances by Halifax's Moon and Vancouver's Tough Age and Jay Arner.

The Obits – Halifax Pop Explosion 2013 – Gus' Pub. Credit: Noisography.

Thursday night, largely considered 'the weekend' by festival goers, took me to the largest venue at the festival, The Olympic Community Hall. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a bike valet (a free service sponsored by HPX at key venues) and the sweet smells of Food Wolf, a food truck parked on site and serving up mexican-asian street food all festival long. Upon entering the venue, I was dazzled with the sounds of Toronto's BADBADNOTGOOD, who were added to the night's bill after an unfortunate, health-related cancellation by American rapper Action Bronson. Following their rousing performance, headliner Killer Mike gave a performance of near religious proportions. Unquestionably one of the highlights of the festival, his appearance brought out a huge number of adoring fans and proved that HPX programmers continue to stay on the pulse of exciting music worldwide and are dedicated to having that pulse felt by the music lovers of Halifax.

Friday, perhaps my busiest night, included a breathtaking show by Halifax's Broken Deer. In one of the most beautiful venues in Halifax, St. Matthews Church on Barrington Street, the mystical music of Lindsay Dobbin, along with ethereal projections by visual artist James Gauvreau, filled the 250-year-old venue. Following that I caught a typically moving performance by Sackville's Jon McKiel (as part of a birthday showcase for the illustrious PR firm Pigeon Row) and a spot-on show by festival headliners The Walkmen.

Day 1 – Halifax Pop Explosion 2013: Dana Beeler, The Darcys, Coyote and Rich Aucoin. Credit: HPXHFX.

Saturday offered a daytime performance by Chad VanGaalen in the aforementioned Marquee Ballroom. VanGaalen, no stranger to HPX, gave fans a treat by performing mostly new, unreleased material and bridging the gaps with hilarious stage banter. My evening included attendance at a totally riveting Dirty Beaches show and avoiding the cool autumn rain by making a late-night stop at the artists' lounge set up at the Khyber Centre For The Arts.

In a city like Halifax that sits off the beaten track of most touring routes, Halifax Pop Explosion continues to offer a vital and exciting service for maritime music fans. Replete with opportunities to see big names in small venues, make connections while conferencing and share a few laughs at the comedy club, HPX is a longtime supporter of local and national music that has me returning each fall for a taste of the world's culture.

Andrew Patterson

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