Concert Reviews
The hottest gigs straight from the venue to your couch

A Weekend In The City: Rifflandia Music Festival 2008

on September 06, 2008, 12:56pm

Last weekend, Victoria, British Columbia played host to the first annual Rifflandia Music Festival. While not quite reaching the same echelon as some of the summer’s other major festivals, Rifflandia’s jam-packed, indie-friendly lineup combined with its unique presentation certainly served for one hell of a weekend. Thankfully, Colin Coulter was there to take it in for us…

Victoria is a city of only 330,000 people, and has a reputation as a haven for the “newly wed” and “nearly dead.” So when word came that Canada’s Garden City would be the latest Pacific Northwest location to offer a summer music festival, one couldn’t help but question the decision.

But by weekend’s end, the inaugural Rifflandia Music Festival not only proved to be a success, but also another example as to why 2008 has truly been the year of the music festival.

Day One – Friday, August 29th

For anyone who has been to a music festival before, you know that there is typically some preparation that must take place before those first chords are strummed. You have to examine the schedule and handpick all of your “must-see” acts. You have to make room on your camera by deleting those drunken pictures from last weekend. You have to toss your favourite concert Tee in the wash. But most importantly, you have to let the excitement of what you are about to experience overtake you. Before this festival I did none of those things…

sdc10569 A Weekend In The City: Rifflandia Music Festival 2008In fact, I had very little expectations coming into Rifflandia. My weekend began with a short 25-minute walk from my house to downtown Victoria. The festival offered six venues, each within a 5-10 minute walk. Festival organizers opted to schedule acts into a number of “showcases” a la SXSW. So really it felt more like I was going to a bunch of shows rather than a music festival.

There were a number of innovative ideas for Rifflandia that certainly added to the experience. Since it was located in the city, many local stores offered discounts to festival attendees. It was a nice incentive, and we were able to go out for lunch, do some shopping, and then hit a show. Perhaps the most revolutionary idea of all: Rifflandia Festival had its very own limited edition beer! Local brew masters Phillips Brewery formulated a magical concoction affectionately titled “Rifflandabru.” I can tell you that festival goers absolutely annihilated the entire supply by Sunday night.

5:00pm – Cobras Cobras Cobras

Cobras Cobras Cobras are a local band who could best be described as spaz rock. They brought the energy big time, and really set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Many of the songs were percussion driven, with the rhythm guitarist often switching to a single snare drum and wailing away along with the full-time drummer. Cobras X3 were a fantastic choice to open up for Man Man. A short 30-minute set definitely left me wanting more. It was also great to see the fellas checking out other shows all weekend long.

6:00pm – Man Man

I decided to attend the first of two Man Man shows on that evening because the late show conflicted with The Walkmen. The anticipation of watching the Philadelphia five-piece set up is comparable to a 6-year-old gawking at a giant sundae being assembled right before his/her eyes. I knew I was in for a big treat. I watched and wondered how the band could possibly navigate through the massive clusterf*ck of whistles, cymbals, cowbells, and other gadgets that decorated the stage. After an understandably long wait, Man Man the members of the band emerged dressed completely in white and sporting war paint on their faces.

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To continue my horrible analogy, if the setup is like watching that ice creamy treat being made, then listening to the band is like eating up every last mouth-watering bite. They began with a ferocious rendition of “Mister Jung Stuffed.” The set relied heavily on material from their most recent album, Rabbit Habits.  Lead singer Honus Honus led the charge with vocals that ranged from raspy to yelping and yodelling. Let me tell you, the dude also gets his exercise on stage while jumping around sporadically. While it may look like complete, avant garde chaos, Man Man are a surprisingly tight live band. Another highlight was “The Ballad of Butter Beans,” which features a xylophone part that recalls the orchestral piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” To add to the fun, a wide-eyed Honus Honus had everyone in the audience grab the keys from their pockets and shake them along to the song. Other weird and wonderful sound effects included: throwing a handful of cutlery across the stage and pouring a glass of water into a metal bowl beside the microphone. My only complaint was that they only played for about 45 minutes. But it was reasonable given that they were set to play again in another six hours. Man Man played a one song encore of “Doo Right,” which was really the cherry on top of that oh-so-delicious sundae.

7:00pm – The Whigs

The Whigs played at a venue called Alix Goolden Hall, which is a former church. Frontman Parker Gispert commented that it was the first time the band had ever played to a seated audience. It did seem a little blasphemous to have an audience seated in pews for a garage-rock show. On the plus side, Alix Goolden has amazing acoustics, and that could not have been lost on the acts that performed there.

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The Whigs also commented that they were a long way from home (Athens, GA.), but that their parents were in the crowd for their first ever show in Victoria. The announcement garnered a big cheer from the audience. The set began with a slew of pop songs. I was expecting the band to rock way harder and began to wonder if the venue was the issue. After all, the atmosphere in a massive domed church with stained-glass windows is much different than in a dark, smoky bar. Just as I was beginning to jot down notes about their disappointing wimpy sound, the first notes of “Right Hand On My Heart” rang out across the hall. By the time the song ended I had crossed out everything I’d just written. The Whigs are unquestionably at their best when they are rocking out. The opening pop songs received a warm response from the “polite” crowd, as Gispert put it. But by the end of the set people were screaming and shouting for the band. Overall, The Whigs put on a very enjoyable show, but you can bet they don’t plan on playing to any more seated crowds in the near future.

8:00pm – Johnny and the Moon

Johnny and the Moon
were one of the more renowned Victoria bands at the festival. They are fronted by Dante DeCaro (formerly of Hot Hot Heat, and sometimes Wolf Parade). Playing a mix of folk rock and alt-country, the band managed to incorporate harmonica, music box, and saxophone into the tunes. To be blunt, most of the songs were flat-out boring. Often channelling 60’s nostalgia with twangy guitars and lyrics about heartbreak, Johnny and the Moon seemed hardly excited to be playing. However, the apparent lack of interest may have been mistaken for frustration, as DeCaro pleaded with the sound guy to turn monitors up or down between almost every song. Things didn’t pick up until the end of the show, when the band broke into a number of banjo-infused toe-tappers including standout track “The Ballad of Scarlet Town.” While the band cranked up the energy, it wasn’t quite enough to save what turned out to be a bit of a disappointing show.

9:00pm – Black Mountain

Black Mountain drew in a huge crowd for its Friday headlining set. Things kicked off with a great introduction from a festival organizer who got everyone fired up and cheering. For the first time it really felt like Victoria had a festival to call its own.

The Vancouver-based band wasted no time getting started. The band embarked on a drawn-out, synth-heavy intro to “Stormy High” from their Polaris Prize-nominated album In The Future. As lead-guitarist Stephen McBean ripped into the Zeppelin-esque riff, the crowd decided they’d sat down long enough and the entire audience rushed towards the stage. Up next was the psychedelic ballad “Angels” which got the crowd swaying back and forth. Amber Webber’s quivering vocals on “Night Walks” were haunting enough to put the audience into a borderline coma. While the venue was not ideal for a band like The Whigs, seeing Black Mountain in a church was quite surreal. Their sweeping keyboards and guitar fuzz threatened to blow through the ceiling (and everyone’s ear drums).

But as wonderful as the first few songs were, things began to get dull quickly as the show progressed. I was surprised to read Matt Melis’ unfavourable review of the band’s appearance at New American Music Union a few weeks ago. However, after seeing Black Mountain for myself I completely understand Matt’s apparent disconnection with the live show. I’ve always had the personal opinion that Black Mountain is sort of like Wolfmother for the advanced listener. There is no doubt that the band has crafted some fascinating and complex songs, however they could also use a lesson in showmanship from Mr. Andrew Stockdale himself. I’m sure he’s got some free time on his hands…

After about 40 minutes of Black Mountain, I decided to bounce in favour of checking out my all-time favourite local band (yes, even more than Nelly Furtado).

9:45pm – The Paper Cranes

The Paper Cranes
were supposed to be Victoria’s next big thing. Their first official release came in 2006 with the Veins EP. With encouraging reviews from Pitchfork and Exclaim!, and considerable buzz circulating around the net, the band was poised to take the next steps to indie rock stardom. But things don’t always work out the way they should. It’s now almost three years later, and after releasing their first full length album, Halcyon Days, in 2007, the band appears to be right back where they began.

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With only two of the original members remaining (frontman Ryan McCullagh and keyboardist Miranda Roach, who also happen to be husband and wife), the band is primed for a “comeback” of sorts. Playing infectious indie pop full of hand-claps, harmonica, and tambourine, it’s a challenge not to nod your head along to the beat. Halcyon Days standouts “Middle-Class Guilt” and “I’ll Love You Till My Veins Explode” are two of the catchiest songs you’ve never heard. While I may be slightly biased, I absolutely loved every second of their live show, and encourage everyone to give The Paper Cranes a listen.

10:30pm – The Upsidedown

Up next were Portland, Oregon natives (and Dandy Warhols buddies), The Upsidedown. The band single handedly thwarted my attempt to escape from psych-rock music for the day. In the first (and only) major scheduling hiccup of the festival, organizers billed The Upsidedown directly after Black Mountain, and their sounds were annoyingly similar. They even shared vocals between a man and a woman. I won’t elaborate much on the show. After all, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, right?

11:30pm – You Say Party! We Say Die!

The acronym-friendly Vancouver  outfit, You Say Party! We Say Die!, brought the sexy to Sugar nightclub big time on Friday night. Frontwoman  Becky Ninkovic is up there with the likes of Karen O and Jemina Pearl when it comes to pure energy and sex appeal. While I’ll admit I’ve never been a huge fan of the band’s dance punk anthems, I’ve got to give them a ton of credit for putting on one of the most fun shows of the weekend and getting everyone dancing and sweating.

12:30am – The Walkmen

One of the biggest perks of a small festival like Rifflandia is that you can easily see your favourite bands up close and personal. For the night’s grand finale, New York’s The Walkmen graced the stage to a packed house. I opted to put away the notebook, and had no problem getting to the front row about 15 minutes before the start of the show. Good luck doing that at Bonnaroo or Coachella!

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The set was dominated by material from their extraordinary new album You & Me. First up was minimalist guitar track “New Country”, a great showcase of Hamilton Leithauser’s amazing vocals for those who might have been unfamiliar with the band. The Walkmen have always been known for their unique sound and use of vintage instruments. These characteristics are even more prevalent during their live shows. New song “Canadian Girl”, which surprisingly didn’t garner much of a cheer when announced, was a perfect example of how the band have fine-tuned their sound, perhaps towards the style of music their vintage instruments were designed to play. Leithauser channeled his inner 1950s crooner as he sang, “only I still call you mine, only I’m still hangin’ on.” Another welcome change was the addition of a two-man horn section to the band. This added yet another layer to The Walkmen’s already multifaceted sound. The trumpet player seemed to agree, as he appeared to have consumed a few too many Rifflandabrus before the show. The rest of the band shot glances in his direction before each horn part, but he managed to hold it together. Other highlights from You & Me included “Four Provinces” and its thunderous hook, first single “In The New Year”, and “On The Water“, which chugs along slowly like a locomotive until it is derailed by an explosion of reverb, synths, and melodic whistling.

Toward the end of the set, The Walkmen returned to the rest of their catalogue, including barnburner “The Rat”, which nearly took the house down. An encore of Bows + Arrows favourites “What‘s In It For Me“ and “Little House of Savages” left the crowd salivating. After nearly 90 minutes of bliss, fatigue began to kick in as I braved the now seemingly not-so-short walk home.

Day Two – Saturday, August 30th

After a day overflowing with goodness, the second day of Rifflandia not boast nearly the same kind of depth as the first, however there was certainly a wide array of musical genres and talents to be had.

5:30pm – The Blakessdc10583 A Weekend In The City: Rifflandia Music Festival 2008

The Blakes are a garage-rock trio from Seattle. They are raw. They are loud. But most of all, they rock hard. Much like The Whigs on Day One, it took a few songs for the crowd to warm up to the band. While the relatively small crowd seemed reluctant to hit the dance floor, there were plenty of good times and Rifflandabru to go around. By the end of The Blakes show, I had a strange urge to crack a bottle of JD and snort a line of coke (but seriously kids, don’t do drugs).

7:30pm – Blitzen Trapper

It was a night of firsts for Blitzen Trapper. It was the Portland band’s first time playing in Victoria. It was their first show in “quite a long time.” And it was the first time they played material from their highly-anticipated new album Furr. Unfortunately, all of these firsts resulted in a pretty rough show.

Blitzen Trapper began with a couple of new songs, which I must say sounded extremely different from anything on the critically acclaimed Wild Mountain Nation. The songs were louder, more experimental, and very messy. The beginning of the set was plagued by sound issues, the worst of which included frontman Eric Earley’s guitar, which completely stopped working. He had to temporarily borrow Dan Boekner’s axe (of Handsome Furs). A few songs later, after reminding the crowd that they hadn’t played in a while, Earley had to run backstage because he forgot his capo.

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Thankfully, they managed to work out the kinks by the second half of the set. The title tracks of Wild Mountain Nation and Furr steered the band back in the right direction. The latter song was reminiscent of classic Bob Dylan, featuring finger-picked guitars, wailing harmonica, and tell-tale lyrics, to boot. Interestingly, for the second time in as many days a band (the other being The Whigs) commented on the polite nature of the crowd. I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment or not…

Next came the toughest decision of the festival. Whether to stick around for Handsome Furs (who were spotted hanging out with Hot Hot Heat frontman Steve Bays during Blitzen Trapper), or to head back to the church for Owen Pallett’s Final Fantasy. Ultimately the decision was made to go to Final Fantasy, mainly because my legs were aching like crazy after two days of standing and those pews were looking awfully comfy. Little did I know that not only my legs, but also my eyes and ears would be thanking me later for the decision.

9:00pm – Final Fantasy

sdc10580 A Weekend In The City: Rifflandia Music Festival 2008For anyone who is unfamiliar with Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy, he is a violinist, pianist, and composer from Toronto. He is also essentially the coolest one-man-band you will ever see, and his compositions can only be described as amazing musicianship. Each time Owen plays a song live,  he records individual parts of the song then plays and loops the recordings back simultaneously as the song continues to build and evolve. It is truly a sight to behold and a feast for the ears.

The set was mainly comprised of new material, for which Owen unnecessarily apologized.  Mr. Pallett was alone on stage for the first few songs, which really put the focus on his incredible talent. But then he brought out a woman named Stephanie, and the concert transformed into more of a spectacle. Not only was the music awe inspiring, but the visuals were as compelling and innovative as a Radiohead show. So what kind of crazy video screens, lasers and lights did Final Fantasy have? Well, actually there was only an overhead projector, just like the one from your Grade 8 Math class. Paper stencils were layered and shifted around to create pictures and stories, often related to the songs. The projections were occasionally cast toward the ceiling to create an eerie light show while everyone in the audience gazed skyward. From start to finish, the Final Fantasy experience left me with a serious case of goosebumps and a huge smile.

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12:00am – Brother Ali

The first major hip-hop act of the festival came in the form of a late-night show from Minneapolis-native Brother Ali. After a legendary show last year, Ali’s second appearance in Victoria was highly anticipated. The crowd was respectable (although not quite as large as the crowd for The Walkmen about 24 hours earlier). Brother Ali was joined on stage by long-time collaborator DJ BK-One who took control of the decks, and also right-hand-man Mr. Wright (pun intended). The politically charged lyrics and sing-along choruses were welcomed by all in attendance. My only complaint (and it is a common one at hip-hop shows), was that the bass was pounding so heavily that most of the songs’ fascinatingly complex instrumentation was virtually inaudible. Unlike the night before, severe fatigue started to become an issue for me before the end of Day Two. We opted to leave Brother Ali after a few songs, and headed home in preparation for tomorrow’s fun, which would inevitably require every last ounce of energy we had left.

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Day Three – Sunday, August 31st

If Days One and Two were all about the music, then Day Three was unquestionably about the party. After a few local DJs performed earlier in the day, the third and final day of the festival really kicked off with DJ Z-Trip (who I mistakenly referred to as “Zed”-Trip all weekend. Lost in translation indeed).

8:30pm – DJ Z-Trip

After a lazy day, I arrived at the Strathcona Rooftop (a freakin’ bar on the roof, complete with beach volleyball courts!), about 15 minutes into Z-Trip’s set. We were welcomed by a sizable line, and word that the venue was already at capacity, which can’t be much more than 150 people (a far cry from the 500,000 person crowd he performed to at the Rolling Stones‘ SARS concert a few years ago in Toronto). One agonizing hour later, I finally made it onto the roof. Luckily, Z-Trip was set to play for a total of two hours.

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Yes it’s true, Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) may be the flavour of the week when it comes to mash-up DJs, but there is no doubt that Z-Trip is the original maestro. With cuts that included everything from Nirvana to Beastie Boys to Led Zeppelin, not only was the nearly 2.5 hour-long set a full-out dance party, but also a lesson in music history. At one point Z-Trip proclaimed, “you know what sets me apart? I play Fleetwood Mac”, before firing up a track featuring the aforementioned band. Not only is Z-Trip the king of the mash-up, but he also spins and scratches masterfully. He seemed genuinely happy to be playing to the modest crowd and thanked everyone numerous times for “getting him so drunk” as he urged them to let loose. The show ended in epic fashion with the ultimate sing-a-long song, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

11:30pm – The Beatnuts

First, I want to quickly give props to Sweatshop Union, who opened up for The Beatnuts. They are a hip-hop collective from Vancouver, who have had some commercial success in Canada. I’ve never been a fan, but they put on an entertaining show while trading verses and rhymes between six different MCs. Between sets a few local b-boys hit the dance floor to showcase their skills. It was an entertaining way to pass the time while waiting.

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Up next were New York-rap veterans The Beatnuts. Surprisingly, the duo of JuJu and Psycho Les did double duty by acting as their own DJ and rapping. The crowd pleasers came early and often with tracks such as “No Escapin’ This” and, of course, “Watch Out Now.” Rap fans and non-rap fans alike seemed to enjoy the ‘Nuts, as they extended the party started by Z-Trip a couple hours earlier. As was often the case over the weekend, things ended with a bang as two ladies from the crowd hopped on stage and shook it along with JuJu.

12:30pm – Guns n’ Bombs

Just when I thought the party couldn’t go any longer, I met Guns n’ Bombs. The L.A. electronic duo brought the dirty techno big time and kept everyone dancing into the wee hours. However, I was unsure why Turbotito (Filip Nikolic), was the only member on stage for about 90% of the set. While he hardly acknowledged the crowd, the music certainly did the talking.

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Guns n’ Bombs are signed to French-label Kitsune Records, which is known predominately for its European acts (Bloc Party, Klaxons, Hot Chip). These guys, while clearly influenced by their label mates across the pond, appear poised to bring the spotlight back to the L.A. dance music scene. I must admit it’s difficult to give a detailed critique of the Guns n’ Bombs show, simply because I was too busy dancing the entire time. But really, I guess that’s all you need to know.

Rifflandia – The Verdict:

After all was said and done, the first ever Rifflandia Music Festival was a great success. Organizers did a fantastic job realizing that the only way the event would flourish was if they offered something unique. The city festival experience is drastically different then an outdoor festival. The best things about outdoor festivals include the opportunity to travel somewhere new, meet new people, and participate in unruly shenanigans along with thousands of other campers. However, there are often may restrictions within the confines of a festival site. At Rifflandia the options were limitless. I could go anywhere to eat, meet up with friends who weren’t at the festival, and go to sleep in my own bed at night. While I didn’t travel to the desert or a giant farm, I still discovered many new things about my city and met lots of new people.

And, true, the festival’s lineup did not feature many household names, but it did possess excellent diversity and amazing musical talent. It was also great to see the inclusion of some 40 local acts, many of which I’m sure made some new fans. Ticket prices were also very reasonable at $66 for a weekend wristband. Wristbands were also sold for single days, and single ticket sales for individual shows allowed concert goers to see as much or as little music as they liked.

With the apparent over-saturation of the music festival market, promoters should really take a close look at small-scale fests like Rifflandia. It was created by locals, for locals. Keeping everything so simple kept costs low for organizers and attendees alike, and helped everything run smoothly. There was a real sense of community among festival-goers and artists. Performers were spotted taking in the sights and sounds throughout the weekend. And seriously folks…they had their own beer! What more could you ask for?

To answer my original question: it turns out that Victoria was the perfect place to launch another music festival. But that’s not to say it was a better location then your city, or any other city for that matter. It simply illustrates that any city, big or small, has the ability to host its own festival, as long as it is tailored for that specific locale. Who knows? Maybe your city could be next…

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