CHMA, Sackville’s campus and community radio station, held its 14th annual Stereophonic music festival last weekend, a bright light in Sackville’s blustery winter. The festival was chock full of incredible Canadian artists, a large handful of whom have belonged to Sackville at one time or another.
Stereophonic had notably fewer folk acts this year, instead embracing the more experimental side of the Canadian music scene. It’s exciting to see this festival change and grow, and this year felt like another step forward for the fest.
On Thursday evening, show-goers unbundled from the cold and packed into the front bar of Thunder & Lightning (T&L). The kind and brilliant Newfoundland native Thom Coombes opened the show with witty folk tunes, charming the pants off just about everyone. Self-described on his bandcamp as “uneasy listening,” Coombes’ music had the crowd unsure if they wanted to laugh or cry – most notably with the track “This is Not a Fucking Love Song,” in which Coombes sings, “I wanna be the boy that you bleed on, I’m your pillow I’m your tampon, but this is not a fucking love song.”
After Coombes’s set, I thought Thursday’s shows would gently ease us into the festival, but then La Fete jumped on stage – or, maybe more aptly, the carpet – and proved me very wrong. Their set was explosive, full of unpredictable energy that kept us on our toes.
Flour, a Sackville band whose music is also strange and surprising, proved to be the perfect closing act of the night. They began their candlelit set with Jon McKiel beating a drum with a microphone while Andrea Thorne burned incense and sizzled water onto a cast-iron pan. This part of the set felt like being in a half-asleep state where downstairs noises are still a little muffled, only to go down and find Sackville’s Broken Social Scene making experimental music in your kitchen. Even your favourite English professor, Geordie Miller, makes a cameo in this band, at one point delivering lyrics from within the crowd. Flour’s set was emphatic and intricate, a true testament to some of the talented musicians still hanging around town.
Sackville staple Klarka Weinwurm is a band that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if it sometimes thinks it doesn’t. Halfway through its set, drummer Luke Patterson asked his bandmates if he was supposed to start the song. As soon as he got his answer, though, the show went on without a hitch.
Listening to Klarka Weinwurm’s set was like returning to the always charming and familiar Sackville. The tight set and lyrical sincerity brought much-needed comfort to the chilly bowling alley venue at the back of T&L.
On Friday night, everyone returned to the bowling alley for Dan Misha Goldman, LUKA, Kurt Inder and No Problem. Ringing in his fifth show in Sackville in the last two years, LUKA may not be from Sackville, but it’s starting to feel like it.
LUKA’s music is painfully earnest and his voice is as comforting as it is striking, forcing his audience to feel every love and heartbreak he sings to us. Compared to other sets LUKA has performed in Sackville, this one had the audience wanting to cry less and dance more, after a funkier-than-usual version of “Always the Same Bed” and an upbeat rendition of “O, My Heart is Full” – a track that was just released before his last Stereophonic visit, which truly made all of our hearts feel full.
Later that night the crowds trickled into the Legion for a punk revival, a show made up almost entirely of bands who met in Sackville, such as the Protruders, a Stereophonic veteran. Now based in Toronto, Sackville still claims the band as its own. The Protruders’ set cannot really be described as anything but punk: messy and loud, demanding the attention of the entire Legion. The band slid seamlessly into each song, rejecting any applause, input or approval. It was clear the band wasn’t playing for us – they were playing for themselves and we were just lucky enough to be there.
Montreal-based Towanda is another Sackville export that we will forever claim as our own. Towanda does exactly what junky and scuzzy punk music should make you do: get out every ounce of anger and aggression you’ve ever had. Once everyone, including the band, had trickled out of the Legion for a cigarette, all you could hear was praise of Towanda, with “it ruled” echoing down Lorne street. “It ruled” is certainly the best way to describe Towanda’s return to the Stereophonic stage for the second year in a row.
Girth closed Friday night’s show. Although still a relatively new band, it might just be one of the most dynamic groups to have emerged from Sackville in a while. If you think you’ve heard anything like Girth before, you probably just went to a Girth show and didn’t know it. The band incorporates pre-recorded beats with a hardcore bassline, an intense drum beat and some killer guitar solos. Its live show is loud and its sound is distinctly its own. I never thought I would hear a Rihanna cover better than the original, but Girth’s remix of “Bitch Better Have My Money” might be that exception. Honestly, Girth’s audience might have just taken the band’s advice and “Burn[ed] Down the Mall,” if there were one in Sackville.
Saturday had folk scheduled in the early-show slot to make room for a late night of electronic-based music. The early Saturday show at T&L began with Saint John’s Right Shitty, followed by Halifax’s NightBummerz and closing with London, ON.’s Whoop-Szo.
An experimental punk band, Whoop-Szo is quite possibly one of the most important bands coming out of Canada right now. The group navigates colonialism, racism and marginalization through heavy beats and distorted guitars. While performing “Genocide,” Adam Sturgeon, Whoop-Szo front man, reminded a largely white audience of their complacency, singing, “Know your enemy / Come find it in complacency / In the classrooms, education mistrust.” Few bands can put on a show that is both fun and painfully chilling, offering their audience space to think about their lyrics while also letting us enjoy
their unique talent. There might not be anything more beautiful than a band that makes you stop and think critically about the world around you and your place in it.
Another Sackville staple, Jon McKiel, opened the final show of the festival back at the Legion later that night. McKiel brings such ease to his audience that multiple members crowded around him and sat. It’s easy to take McKiel’s talent for granted because he seems to always be playing one show or another, but this show was a refreshing reminder of the incredible music the man makes.
The show took on a more electric turn when pop R&B band Loveland took the stage. I’m fairly certain the band had every single person in the audience dancing, while Erin Mcdonald’s falsetto reverberated over the crowd and put us all in a sexy haze. Loveland made us forget about the bingo sign behind them, about the fact that we were at the Legion and transformed the space into a true “Dance Party,” as their song by that title would have it.
Joyfultalk was the next performer of the night, an experimental band whose equipment looks like a time machine. Before the set, a friend turned to me and said, “I wish I was on drugs for this,” but even without them, I left the set feeling like I was in some drug-induced state. Joyfultalk’s music is so thoughtful, technical, intense and, frankly, incredibly impressive. They are another one of the many bands Stereophonic booked this year that sound like nothing else.
After L CON’s incredible set that closed the festival, we bundled back up to wander home. Everyone wanted more, looking for an afterparty to satisfy the buzz the music and the beer had created.