Guelph’s Kazoo! makes a compelling case for small music festivals

Shows in a farmer's market, coffee shop, and boxing ring made Kazoo! Fest one of a kind.

April 13, 2016

Photo: Keita Juma

Late last month, Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff and Jon Caramanica of the New York Times wrote that they would no longer be covering big festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo. Saying that the fests “look increasingly alike in their vision of a codified, consensual, safe and purchasable bohemia,” the three writers came out in support of smaller festivals “with purpose.”

Though they may not have had Guelph, Ontario’s Kazoo! Fest in mind, as I walked from venue to venue last week during the event, I couldn’t help but think it was the ideal argument for what makes small festivals great.

The word “curated” has been over-used lately, and though the idea that your experience as a concert-goer has been thoughtfully organized remains appealing, big festivals “curate” just as much as little ones do. The difference is that large festivals often curate towards a kind of bland sameness, booking the same acts and ironing out variation for the sake of a safe bet. As a small festival, Kazoo! doesn’t have that option (or budget). What they’ve done instead is strive towards quality, no matter how risky that might seem.

Bonjay (Photo: Michael Rancic)

Toronto’s Bonjay haven’t released new music since 2011, and in a festival market that’s strongly determined by album release schedules and promotions, making them headliners seems completely counterintuitive. Yet the amount of time that had passed since their EP was released mattered very little to the packed room of people probably too young to remember it anyway.

During Bonjay’s performance Friday night at the eBar, the dancehall-soul duo were first to admit that Kazoo! had taken a chance on booking the band – but it was a chance that paid off. The moment they launched into “Stumble,” which sounded just as good as it did five years ago, all doubt in their abilities or Kazoo!’s decision to give them such a coveted spot faded. Good music doesn’t have an expiry date. Their performance offered the added bonus of hearing them work out new material which is slated for their upcoming album.

Partner (Photo: Michael Rancic)

The festival took equally bold but rewarding chances on other acts who haven’t had as long to prove themselves. If Sackville’s Partner and Halifax’s Mauno aren’t your favourite new bands yet, they likely will be.

Partner became a buzz band late last year for their very buzz-worthy song, “The ‘Ellen’ Page.” Now, they’re following that newfound fame with a soon to be released EP of songs via You’ve Changed Records. Their set previewed the group’s upcoming material and demonstrated that their sense of humour and great ear for hooks extends far beyond the hit single, and as former members of Sackville powerhouses Yellowteeth and The Mouthbreathers, maintain their city’s reputation for great, blistering guitar rock. Most of all they seemed just as delighted to be there as everyone else in the room was.

In a boxing ring, @grampamauno with visuals by Karl Skene #KazooFest

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Mauno (Video courtesy Kazoo! Fest)

I had no idea who Mauno were going into their set at TNT Boxing on Saturday night, but their name was definitely one I left remembering, a happy discovery implanted in my brain after their gorgeous performance. Their songs seemed to endlessly spool outward, only to take the form of a neat and tidy pop number once it was all said and done. Challenging music made simply. Had I not put my trust into Kazoo!’s programming that night, I might never have heard them. Kazoo! understand that the role of curator goes beyond just selecting music that people will like – it’s a chance to champion and actually help turn an audience onto stuff that they hadn’t heard before.

What’s interesting about Pareles, Ratliff, and Caramanica’s argument is that it can be expanded to cities themselves. Big cities, like big festivals, tend to eclipse whatever else is going on around them. Toronto, being the gas giant that it is, has a kind of gravity to it that not only pulls bands away from their small towns, it also absorbs those towns into its “greater area.”

But the reason Kazoo! works is not just a credit to their excellent programming, it’s a credit to the city itself. Take the festival’s model and move it elsewhere and it might work OK, but it won’t be Kazoo! Guelph’s identity was really at the forefront of this festival – whether it was in the beer you were drinking, the spaces you were in, or the bands that you were hearing – the quality of the festival and what made it so unique was just as dependent on where it was taking place.

Sandro Perri at Silence for #KazooFest #wolfman

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Sandro Perri (Photo courtesy Kazoo! Fest)

You could hear the kind of impression the city left on returning performers like Sandro Perri, who recalled his last gig there, or Fiver, who in between songs recited a story about getting thrown out of a church once, though not the same church we had gathered in to hear Fiver in the first place.

Anamai (Photo: João França)

With Simone Schmidt’s performance at the Dublin Street United Church in mind, the city’s venues also left a huge impression on the festival’s success. With only a few traditional venues at hand, Kazoo! organizers turned to churches, farmer’s markets, coffee shops, and boxing rings to accommodate their slated performances. Like Schmidt, Anamai benefitted from the intimacy afforded them by their venue, Heritage Hall, with their delicately languid, miasmic melodies taking full advantage of the room’s excellent acoustics.

Oh man @keitajuma killing it at TNT Boxing right now #KazooFest

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Keita Juma (Video courtesy Kazoo! Fest)

That same night, it was stellar watching Keita Juma pace and dance upon a boxing ring tarp as he treated an audience to select songs from both Chaos Theory and Nights In Space: A Short Film. He was one of the few performers at TNT Boxing to really use the space to his advantage, pitting one side of the crowd against the next, like a wrestler goading onlookers from the ropes.

Though nothing quite compared to watching hometown beatmaker Elaquent performing to fans and some confused children at a Planet Bean smack dab in Guelph’s downtown on Friday afternoon. With a Roland SP404SX and an iPad, Elaquent worked through his own material as well as teased out some A Tribe Called Quest, Amerie, and video game music.

Similarly, hearing local outfit Cupcake Ductape perform in front of a familiar crowd who knew all the words to their pukey pink pieces could not compare to seeing them anywhere else. The band was in their element, and the festival was really all the better for booking such great local acts.

Big and small festivals aren’t necessarily directly competing with one another (unless you consider radius clauses), but they are part of the same ecosystem. As more and more people get bored of showing up to the same empty field every year, the solution to their problem might just be the next town over.

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