August 04, 2016
Before getting into the nitty gritty details of this past weekend’s SappyFest XI, a personal anecdote: Last year (SappyFest X) was my very first experience in beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick.
The town is also home to Mount Allison University and, for years now, has had a reputation as an arts hub in Atlantic Canada, lending it a mostly laidback air during its busiest weekend of the year, regardless of the countless parties—official and unofficial—that seem to be constantly going on.
I was lucky because my Maritime-born better half has connections in town, and we are both pals with enough East Coast musicians to hypothetically hold a kitchen party so raucous you could charge cover. But this year was more of a challenge.
With very little money, and a festival coverage schedule for my freelance writing gig that had me feeling ready to expire by mid-July—not to mention my said better half spending the weekend in Montreal for Osheaga instead of accompanying me to SappyFest—I almost gave up on getting out to Sackville. But after one single weekend there in 2015, I realized it was too important for me to miss.
So to stave off what could’ve been an entire year of FOMO-inspired depression, I set about finding my way there, regardless of how I was getting back or where I was staying. One of the many examples of why Sappy is different from other festivals, is even though I had very little in terms of a plan, it wasn’t that hard to make it work.
The fest operates a simple rideshare Facebook group, and the type of people who are headed there are more than willing to give you a lift if they’ve got room. My ride on the way there was another example of the amazing small world feel of the Canadian music scene. Fantastic harmonica wizard Catriona Sturton (playing/attending the festival for her first time) was kind enough to haul me and my pal Kate out in her ridiculously packed car.
It didn’t take long to realize we had a bizarre number of close connections. Her former Plumtree bandmate—a classic ‘90s Maritime band, by the way—is my editor at NOW Magazine, and because of a tour with the Weakerthans, we have a ton of friends in common (I’m a Manitoba flatlander originally).
I realize this all sounds pretty insular—not everyone who attends music festivals has some sort of musical past—but, in over a 10 hour drive, I got to bond with a really solid human being about everything from country music to harmonica skills (which takes no prior music-making experience) and gained what I consider a lifelong friend.
This whole chilled-out, easy, feel-good attitude is Sappy’s defining characteristic, and it had already shown up in an amazing way before the festival had even started. Besides catching performances from some of the best, lesser-known bands in the entire country, if you come to Sackville with an open heart (to be really cheesy, I know) you will leave with no less than a dozen new friends to help occupy it. This dynamic, in fact, runs particularly rampant throughout the East Coast music scene in general, and SappyFest is its greatest vessel. It also happens to be the most effective conduit for bridging connections between that community and anyone who wants to be a part of it.
When we showed up around sundown on Friday, the first act I had a chance to catch was Toronto power-pop heroes By Divine Right, who covered “Field of Trampolines” by Shotgun Jimmie (the unofficial Mayor of Sackville). Lead singer Jose Contreras’ son was sitting directly up front, following in dad’s footsteps. Fellow Torontonians Dilly Dally slayed next with their refreshing brand of screamy grunge, and supergroup TUNS, who all have deep roots out east, finished off the night with their hyper-catchy, pop-heavy rock ‘n’ roll—all while Sappy co-founder and Maritime music legend Julie Doiron watched from the back of the tent on Bridge Street, pushing a stroller back and forth. As friends who hadn’t seen each other for a year embraced and cheers’d Picaroons around the mainstage grounds, it was clear that this year and every year, SappyFest is a family affair.
With the buzz of late night sets from the likes of shadowy Halifax R&B act Nicole Ariana, along with Shotgun Jimmie himself, at the Royal Canadian Legion (hats off, no swearing!) and bowling alley venue Thunder & Lightning still coursing through the veins, Saturday kicked off with bright and blissful sunshine pouring over the Bridge Street stage.
Halifax’s indie/Mando pop group Century Egg had a set of low key gems to ease into Hooded Fang’s decidedly more boisterous art rock. Shortly after that you had the choice of either powering through with some beer and BBQ if you were in the know about where to go, or chilling out in the cool, dark Vogue Theatre and listening to some more bands if you needed to rest the hangover away. But you were just as likely to get it blasted out of you if you waited long enough, as local stoner power-pop powerhouse Partner—for my money, Canada’s best and most fun band right now—treated the late night mainstage crowd to a breakneck set of Dinosaur Jr.-indebted bangers that covered subject matter from getting high (“Hot Knives”) to getting drunk (“Personal Weekend”) to bedroom code confusion (“Sex Bracelet”), and featured Creative Director Lucas Hicks crowdsurfing.
The brains and brawn behind Partner—songwriting duo Lucy Niles and Josée Caron—are on fire enough with their recordings, but live they’re some other monster entirely. I don’t think there will ever be a moment when I’d turn down the chance to watch Josée shred her SG double-neck perched atop a little platform to stand above the crowd. There was a particularly sweet moment where Josée tearfully dedicated a song to (another new pal of mine) local Luke Patterson’s beloved dog “big honey, horsey, Sansa,” called “Creature In The Sun.”
Again, the wake up, and the choice between BBQ/bar/the Vogue. Usually, you can count on award-winning Canadian writer Sean Michaels to provide some brain-starting reading material each morning with the late-night written Sappy Times, but family comes first (he just had a baby!), and this year he wasn’t able to make it.
Regardless, there was lots of Sappy history to be had on Sunday night, with some of the main local draws being Julie Doiron & The Wooden Stars and another brand new East Coast supergroup, Weird Lines, playing some smiley (and giddily sloppy) sets. It all ended with Brooklyn rapper Cakes Da Killa wading into the crowd for a by-all-accounts-smashing-finale for the main stage.
After, I wandered over to Thunder & Lightning to check out Catriona’s Greville Tapes Music Club collaboration performance with Motherhood—in which she earned her nickname “Harp Beast” in an especially impressive way—adding some real dirty, electrifying blues vibes to the Fredericton band’s already sinewy, high-energy art rock.
It would be impossible, even just in the scope of a single year, to give all of SappyFest’s related projects and collaborations the space they deserve. The festival itself conjures the type of atmosphere that demands creativity from everyone in so many different manners: a zine and craft fair, numerous artistic gestures, partnerships with the Sackville community, and of course, songwriting and musical team-ups are constants.
As someone who covers music festivals running into the double-digits annually, and has been attending them for nearly 15 years, I’ve never run into a place more committed to the simple idea that music—and in an even bigger way, the pursuit and creation of art—is the only thing that should matter at a music festival.
What a novel idea, right?
SappyFest not only began as the ideal of what a music festival should be, but it has miraculously, and gloriously, held on to that ideal with a death grip. It’s fitting for me that writing about it, then, would end up making me feel and sound so Sappy.
There’s a great chance that if you end up talking to a local in Sackville, especially a young one, they’ll explain to you there was never a rhyme or reason to them ending up in the small New Brunswick community. They simply came out for SappyFest one year and didn’t leave.
On Monday morning, it took everything in me not to text my ride and tell them to take off without me. There aren’t too many music festivals, or communities, or towns that can spark that kind of magnetic pull. Sappy Futures are better, and my future summers will always include at least one weekend in Sackville, New Brunswick.
Matt Williams is a writer and photographer based in Toronto. He’d like to thank every single person who made his Sappy weekend happen, and he’ll be back soon.