SAT. OCT. 22 – THE FORUM
Saturday’s downpour let up in time to allow crowds to flock to shows for the final night of Halifax Pop Explosion. Fans filled the multi-purpose room one final time at the Forum for the weekend’s closer. Keys N Krates were this year’s EDM headliner of choice, following a JUNO win earlier in 2016 and completing the festival circuit that same summer.
Their stage risers loomed over the buzzing crowd as stage hands rolled them forward, pulling the impressive turntable board, synthesizer, and electric drum kit toward the spotlights. When it was time for the band members to appear a chant had already broken out – the audience was already warmed up and Keys N Krates capitalized. What followed was 60 minutes of pounding dance, drum and bass, and techno that I’m honestly unfamiliar with writing about.
I was impressed by the overwhelmingly high energy KNK maintained throughout the whole show. The costumed and neon-clad crowd was rarely given a moment’s rest as the band flexibly jumped from one theme to another. Drummer Adam Tune followed time changes quite closely, adding emphasis to turntablist Jr. Flo’s bass-heavy lead. It was a bit disappointing to hear the more complicated drum parts coming from the pre-recorded track rather than Tune’s performance, but the band also included a live synthesizer, so simplicity was necessary in keeping it cohesive and together.
Highlights from the set included Keys N Krates’ single “Are We Faded” and a spastic light show during Jr. Flo’s turntable solo (which I didn’t even realize was a possibility) – both of which continued to feed the feverous dancing in the audience. The only gimmick of the night came when the band had the exhausted crowd raise lighters and phone flashlights during the encore’s finale, but the thinning crowd and downbeat “Nothing But Space” felt like the appropriate send-off to another successful year of Halifax Pop Explosion.
But wait, the openers! The first performance of the night was provided by OKAY TK, who DJ’d his heart out for the 15 people who witnessed his set. I suppose dance parties don’t usually begin punctually at 8 p.m.? Regardless, OKAY TK produced a set list of mostly remixes and rapid-fire samples that made his time spent in the cavernously empty Forum pass quickly. He seemed to enjoy the challenge, as well as the cameraman that kept flitting around him.
The crowd hadn’t filled in much when it was time for John River, a young rapper, to take the stage. At first the set didn’t seem like it would go anywhere – River’s DJ and hype man in turn struggled to invigorate the crowd – but when River himself appeared it took a turn for the better. River expressed his appreciation for the early arrivals but was still determined to pry participation out of them, which he managed with extreme charisma and wit. His endearing sincerity was matched by the few original pieces he performed, including a powerful song about the struggles of growing up black that he opted to spit without any backing track. His set was short due to an admitted illness, but John River’s emotional and inspiring lyrics made a lasting impression on the audience. He is one to watch.
Grandtheft was the final opener, another solo DJ act with an industrial accuracy in his remixes. His first song gradually morphed from a remix of the Stranger Things theme song into something entirely original, a theme that continued for his entire set. As the crowd steadily grew in anticipation of Keys N Krates, Grandtheft’s samples would progressively shift from one to another, giving the crowd plenty of time to find their groove and dance along. Pretty soon the tone shifted from performance to party, as Grandtheft became more animated and even jumped into the crowd for his finale.
FRI. OCT. 21 – THE FORUM
Hey Rosetta! was Friday’s headliner at the Forum, and even though the seven-piece had to rush onto stage (more on that in a minute), they hit their stride quickly. Frontman Tim Baker led the band in its transformation of the venue from intimidating performance hall to communal barn house jam. With his brightly appealing voice, Baker spun the semi circle of musicians around him into an image of projected welcoming, as if the audience were simply neighbours coming in from the town.
The warmth was amplified by the group’s iconic bare light bulbs set up around the stage, casting a glow to match their indie folk-rock sound. Hey Rosetta!’s string section helped to layer a vibrant and reflective optimism to the song performances. Even when the talkative crowd began to stray, a gospel-like chorus of vocal harmonies or instrumental swell would bring the chatterboxes back into the fold. The gentle command of the mood didn’t end there: when the group’s more intimate songs came up in the set a murmured hush fell, whereas a triumphant cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” received a boisterous response for the finale.
While Hey Rosetta! was the main draw of the evening, a sizable crowd was waiting for Repartee when they began the show at 8 p.m. Some fog had crept into the Forum from outdoors, adding dazzle to the stage’s lighting show and helping Repartee’s signature glowing microphone stand pop. Repartee’s synth-pop backing matched especially well with lead singer Meg Warren’s glittery voice, which was reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper’s. Warren’s charm was not wasted when she mistakenly cried out, “Let’s fucking party…with a slow jam. Whoops!” The crowd happily obliged when the short set concluded with two rousing dance numbers, including their summer hit “Dukes.”
The next band’s stage set-up also included intriguing light fixtures. Royal Canoe brought MIDI-controlled orbs that lit up and played corresponding sounds when struck. Their sound was almost as eclectic as the unconventional instruments: at times crossing hip-hop and indie, Royal Canoe also sported plenty of rhythmic input from its separate electric and acoustic drummers to produce a downbeat, sultry sort of late night folk. The band even allowed themselves to groove quite a bit, which elicited quite the dance moves with crowd-pleaser “Bathtubs.”
The final openers of the night were The Barr Brothers, a folk quartet sporting a harp that added delicate surrealism to the group’s dreamy performance. While the first two thirds of their set were relaxing and enjoyable, the remainder went so wrong that it left too much of a poor impression. A misguided attempt to play a quiet song was initially called off, but frontman Brad Barr insisted on continuing anyway. The crowd drowned out the music, the energy of the show became lopsided, and the remainder of the set never quite equalized.
When Barr was eventually told he had time for one last song, he chose a lengthy blues piece – multiple solos and curtain call included. It got to the point where crew were visibly annoyed offstage as they anticipated the speed necessary to get the concert back on schedule. Rushing didn’t help – Hey Rosetta! began almost 20 minutes late. For some odd reason the crowd seemed to adore the overstayed welcome, but maybe in this case the customer isn’t entirely right.
FRI. OCT. 21 – THE MARQUEE
Canadian supergroup TUNS have performed in Halifax before, but every other performance was prior to any official material. Since their album release in late August, the band’s name has become more ubiquitous: sporting members from Sloan, Inbreds, and Super Friendz, TUNS boasts a strong lineup with deep East Coast roots.
As buzz grew nationally and posters appeared around the city (disclaimer: I put those up. I help out TUNS’ record label so be wary of bias), I expected to see more people at the show. However, the demographic that did turn out was more mature than other HPX shows so far, and had a greater collective appreciation for TUNS’ history. They also seemed to be more willing to groove along, and the band’s performance also helped – the indie veterans were energetic, crisp, and animated from the get-go.
Tracks were short, peppy, and full of youthful spark. Even the more laid-back tracks from the self-titled debut received a live performance. The band exchanged a lot of smiles between each other and with the audience, joking along with encouragement and goading and generally reveling in their time on stage. Final track “Mind Over Matter” even got a tongue-in-cheek double-time overhaul as the band tried to rile each other up. The inevitable encore contained a couple covers, including one from guitarist Matt Murphy’s previous group Flashing Lights – an inclusion that brought the loudest cheers yet from the appreciative crowd. While this was Halifax’s first look at TUNS’ fresh offerings, the tone carried from the venue was goofy enjoyment, as if everybody there had just been back among old friends.
THURS. OCT. 20 – THE FORUM
BADBADNOTGOOD has had a good year: their successful release of ‘IV’, feature on Kaytranada’s Polaris-prize winning ‘99.9%’ and recent collaborations with Ghostface Killah and Snoop Dogg have put them as high as you could expect a Canadian experimental jazz collective to get.
Filling in for Charles Bradley at night two of HPX was no easy feat, whom drummer Alexander Sowinski humbly acknowledged soon after taking the stage at the spacious Halifax Forum.
With band-provided incense heavy in the air, BADBAD launched straight into a haywire sample of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” which had the excited crowd hooked on saxophonist Leland Whitty’s every keystroke for the remainder of the concert.
The speed and accuracy with which the entire band played was often breathtaking – members’ parts flew all over the place, popping in and out of shared tempos, solos, and volumes as if one mind was controlling a cohesive operation. Bringing opener Daniel Caesar on for a Mac DeMarco cover worked quite well, although it’s not quite time for the group to consider adding a vocalist yet – the instrumental has an almost spontaneous camaraderie, as if a jam session of incredible musicianship was breaking out on stage.
Though BADBADNOTGOOD was the main draw for the night, the group saw some very strong opening acts to warm up the crowd. Reeny Smith began the evening with an effortless performance that greeted fans as they slowly trickled in. The lush R&B sound accompanying Reeny and her backup singers was produced without a guitar’s assistance, which worked surprisingly well.
Next Lady Wray, utilizing her bright outfit and personality, wasted no time beckoning the growing crowd to the stage to groove and sing along. A particularly biting song about bill collectors that unhinged the band reflected on the audience as full-out dancing finally began. A section of individual solos cycling through Lady Wray’s band during the closing song was especially well received – as each member was introduced, their showboating meshed perfectly with the continuing background song.
The momentum of excitement died down a bit after the stage manager made the inexplicable decision to cut the house music when Daniel Caesar and his band took their time emerging from backstage. However, the 15 minute delay ended up benefitting the troupe, as their smooth styling was much more suited to a relaxed, intimate swaying. Small touches of digital samples from Caesar’s producer added to the instrumental dreamscape that the frontman crooned over, including a particularly sensual track that had released only hours ago. Though Caesar’s set was cut short because of his late arrival, his apology to the crowd and announcement of his later performance seemed to land well.
PART II: REFLECTIONS
The amount of equipment Holy Fuck unloaded onto their tiny corner stage at the Reflections Cabaret was nothing short of spectacular. Synthesizers with the majority of the black keys ripped out, a thick wire strung between pickups and sawed at with a butter knife, and some sort of spiked metal contraption were crammed in with other digital bells and whistles… as well as a full drum kit, guitar, bass and accompanying amps.
By the time it was all assembled, the cramped quarters, low ceiling, and dim red lighting were very reminiscent of a damp cave. And when Holy Fuck eagerly unleashed themselves, a primal ritual was one of the first comparisons that came to mind. Even though the live instruments were completely unrecognizable as actual people creating physical sounds on drums or guitars, the electronic wall of noise took on an organic affair. Sets of hands were frantically dancing over controls, patch cords were rearranged mid set, and a choreographed chaos erupted to match the overwhelming music.
As the diverse audience heaved and partied, the band hardly looked up from their process to acknowledge them. It became tough to tell whether the instruments were possessing the humans playing them or the other way around, but either way the crowd was entranced. The rough glitz of Holy Fuck’s experimental electronica was all too easy to lose yourself to as the percussive din climaxed unpredictably, but when it suddenly ended it felt like the show had been an experience rather than a musical concert. If it sounds like I’m on drugs, it’s because Holy Fuck seriously made me feel like I had.
WED. OCT. 19 – THE MARQUEE
Halifax Pop Explosion kicked off with last night with scrappy PKEW PKEW PKEW. Rattling off songs in rapid fire – there couldn’t have been any over three minutes long – the tone for the night was set quickly.
An audible crackle from the right-hand speakers lent itself to the loose pop-punk mayhem unfolding on stage; gang vocals about beer and messing around with friends greeted the crowd.
Next, Greys began with an impressive onslaught of urgent energy that didn’t let up for several songs. Tempos and emotions flowed the entire set, refusing to land anywhere for too long but ensuring to stay away from delicate or restful.
The lead singer’s lamenting drawl contrasted well with the grimy energy on stage and lyrics hinting invitingly at emo but supported with the snot-nosed attitude and speed of punk.
The ending was especially memorable: as the band’s final song devolved into a mess of screeching feedback, each band member dropped their instruments until the drummer was left alone, thrashing away on the snare drum he had burst earlier in the set.
White Lung rounded off the openers with a show-stealing performance by the lead vocalist. As the other band members remained stoic, she stalked angrily around stage, delivering lyrics with vindictive and authoritative anger.
Making eye contact with her throughout the show was downright intimidating.
The guitarist’s riffs often found him higher on the fret board, providing tense melodic movement that bolstered the vocals with a near gothic drive.
Last night’s headliner were greeted by chants well before they had taken the stage. PUP mentioned the last time they had played Halifax was at HPX three years prior – and the anticipation was clear – the opening tracks unleashed complete pandemonium in the crowd.
It was difficult to see who was enjoying, or tiring, themselves more.
The snide and energetic performance fueled the already-rabid crowd, which the band clearly appreciated.
A mosh pit quickly swallowed the deep standing area of the Marquee Ballroom – photographers in the media pit were retreating from their posts halfway through the set as revelers were thrown over the guard railing.
While the performance was incredibly tight and new material was met with warm appreciation, even PUP themselves acknowledged the overwhelming presence of the crowd.
By the end of the show, there were few attendees who weren’t completely amazed by the reactions the band had managed to draw out of them.