October 28, 2014
Once again, October in Halifax was enlivened by its biggest annual music festival and digital conference, Halifax Pop Explosion. Celebrating its twenty-first year, HPX brought an array of rising Canadian talent, a select group of local stalwarts and a handful of international superstars to the coastal city for five days of entertainment.
With a new executive director at the helm, James Boyle (whose experience comes from working with both Fredericton’s Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival and Antigonish’s Evolve Festival), HPX managed to retain its identity by booking a number of big names familiar to the city’s stages including Ghostface Killah, BadBadNotGood, Chad VanGaalen, Tokyo Police Club, Lights, Kevin Drew and Zeds Dead.
This year’s programmers also managed to score the much-beloved Gainesville punk outfit Against Me! and, perhaps the biggest name to grace HPX in recent memory, Detroit’s own maniac extraordinaire, rapper Danny Brown.
I spent five days wandering in and out of all types of events at all hours of the day, from large-venue, bright-light rapstravaganzas down to an intimate acoustic performance in a radio station lobby. To my mind, the most inspiring moments of the rain-soaked week came early in the day and at no cost. In an attempt to shed light on the little gems of a big festival, here is my account of five shows you may have missed:
Telstar Drugs at The Carleton Bar and Grill
On a damp Wednesday night, this Calgary quartet opened the evening with a blast. The set began by singer Michael Halls explaining quietly that most of his favourite bands come from Halifax before launching into a thundering lock-groove. True to their word, the Montreal-by-way-of-Calgary band sounded right at home with their own blend of angular and restructured pop concepts. Spindly guitars roped together and gave way suddenly to hushed vocals, the rhythm section carried the set with a motorik precision. Despite some amp troubles and cold feet sheathed in four pairs of soaked-through sneakers, Telstar Drugs managed to channel their nervous energy into a fully saturated, totally radical performance.
Nigel Chapman at CKDU
Thanks to the fine folks at CKDU, Halifax’s top community radio station, festival-goers were treated to a rare and intimate set from Nap Eyes’ frontman, Nigel Chapman. Perched in the corner of the radio station lobby, Chapman played a weightless set of originals and covers. With nothing but a nylon-string guitar as accompaniment, Chapman’s unique songwriting shone brightly, allowing the audience to focus in on his peculiar narratives and heartfelt sentiments. As an added bonus, the show was broadcasted live and included an interview segment offering further insight into the mind of one of Halifax’s best songwriters.
Fixture Records Showcase at Gus’ Pub & Grill
Another afternoon of the festival proved to be unfortunately rainy; nearly torrentially so. But that didn’t stop eager fans from soaking up the free daytime programming at Gus’ Pub. Programmed by flawless Montreal label Fixture Records, the day saw sets from elusive mope-rockers Brave Radar, making a first and much-anticipated appearance in Halifax, festival darlings Freelove Fenner and power-pop wizards Sheer Agony. The dimly lit room and air suffused with moisture proved an ideal setting for Brave Radar’s hushed, atypical rock songs. Following that, Freelove Fenner provided a sweet afternoon taste of their spotless rock songs. And finally, Sheer Agony tamed the heavy air with an effortless, rollicking set of songs recalling with wit and charm the cheekiness of Todd Rundgren.
Weird The Gathering at The Khyber Centre For The Arts
At 2:30pm on Saturday, a humble group of people gathered at The Khyber Centre For The Arts for an afternoon of discussion facilitated by Aaron Levin and Marie Flanagan of seminal arts initiative Weird Canada. Topics included issues surrounding DIY music making, inclusion within the arts, and community engagement and activation. Refreshments included an urn of tea and a soothing background of new age music. Participants included a number of local and national performers, press agents, show organizers, music business students and non-profit advocates. The Gathering offered beautiful transparency, honesty and insight, whilst offering festival goers an opportunity to educate themselves and their peers, make connections and begin tackling the many struggles surrounding being a Canadian artist in the 21st century.
Jon McKiel In A Basement On Fuller Terrace
After a blistering afternoon set from Calgary’s Un Blonde at local watering hole Gus’ Pub, I ventured with ringing ears to a house around the corner to see a no-case show. This musty basement show featured spacey kraut sounds courtesy of JOYFULTALK, the sleek pop sensibilities of Freelove Fenner and the swamp-rock of Jon McKiel. McKiel has long been a favourite around the Maritimes and it seems he’s only improving with age. Joined by an impeccable backing band featuring long-time collaborator Jay Crocker on guitar, Cousins’ Aaron Mangle on drums and Shawn Dicey on bass, McKiel powered through a short set of typically beautiful and nuanced rock songs. Easily my favourite set of the festival.