Halifax’s Gridlock festival made me less cynical about music

The inaugural festival at a high school was an emotionally overwhelming experience.

July 14, 2016

Photo: Jon McKiel (all photos by Richard Lann)

Honestly, even with the incredibly stacked line-up, I’m not really sure that anyone expected a first-year music festival set on the grounds of a high school in Halifax to be this wildly successful, emotionally overwhelming, or just plain beautiful. In just three days, the inaugural Gridlock Festival managed to do what so many fledgling events in the city fail to do: create a unique, positive, and well-managed festival experience.

Maybe it had something to do with staging the whole thing at a high school, amplifying the pure nostalgia of it all. Maybe it had something to do with me hanging out well into the early morning, drinking in dorm rooms with inspiring new friends who make you feel young again and drunkenly roaming around the city post-shows. Or maybe it’s just that Halifax has been due for a well-curated, well-run festival for so long that people were just absolutely head over heels for it. Regardless of the reason, Gridlock’s first year was a runaway success.

Photo: Wintersleep

Wintersleep‘s headlining Friday night set immediately established the aesthetic and the emotion of this festival for me. A band I was smitten with for a long time, and then just gradually fell out of love with, just hearing them just slay Welcome to the Night Sky classics “Archeologist,” and “Dead Letter and the Infinite Yes” brought me back to a place that I’d long forgotten about. It was one without the absolute cynicism and jadedness I’d been carrying around for a long time. This would set the tone for Gridlock, which has done what so few music festivals in the last couple of years have done – made me actually have fun, and not give a shit about all of the other baggage and bullshit posturing that comes with live music.

Staying out far too late, and waking up the next day far too late, I shovelled breakfast in as fast as possible, making my way to Spatz Theatre for the all-ages Saturday show, for the spell-binding and haunting Waxahatchee. Not only did I not expect a low-lit, intimate solo show, but I also didn’t expect Katie Crutchfield to play mostly songs from her wonderfully sad debut album American Weekend. Songs like the heartbreaking “Bathtub,” or the wonderfully self-depricating “Grass Stain,” literally had me in tears – a combination of sleep deprivation, sentimental attachment, and overwhelming talent, most likely. It all seemed like an impossible scenario – an incredibly special, beyond intimate treat.

[pullquote]”What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday,” said Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield to reserved yet reverent applause. “Listening to a bunch of dark songs in a dark theatre,” she joked. “Here’s another one…”[/pullquote]

After the morose beauty of that theatre had dissipated, but continued to hang in my heart, and the lights flickered on, I made my way outside to catch local lovelies Beauts kick off the main stage for the day. Blasting through a spitfire set of straight-ahead indie rock, it slowly but gently nudged everyone out of the dank, contemplative brood and into a looser, sunnier vibe.

Haligonian expat and master of gritty, angular sludge-pop Jon McKiel was up next. Save the janky, start-stop guitars of “I Know,” from his last self-titled EP, he played a set of all new material. At one point McKiel put down the guitar and picked up a bass, proceeding to absolutely level the crowd with a brutal, sublime blast. His vocals throughout the set flitted from sweet and serene to savage and acerbic, as he performed new tracks like “Impossible Gif,” and one that targeted the increasing problem of police brutality. McKiel’s quick, raucous set not only cemented the fact that he’s a charming and consummate performer, but that we miss him… like… a lot.

After that dense head trip, it was time to get lit with one of the most engaging, energetic and quirky live acts around, Sackville’s Partner. The dynamic duo of Jose Caron and Lucy Niles – backed by Brendan Allison, Kevin Brasier and Dan Legere – delivered an insanely upbeat set of tongue-in-cheek songs about smoking hash, finding what you think is a sex toy while snooping around your roommate’s room looking for a roach, and a slew of awesome, queer-positive anthems. The band had the crowd in the palm of their hand, shouting out to friends, having friends shout out to them, playfully baiting the crowd with a loving reverence, and having it all thrown back to them in a big miasma of positivity and love. Brightening the slowly greying day, Partner’s set was like a candy-coated love bomb.

Photo: The Rural Alberta Advantage

Flash-forward to the end of Saturday night, where the raucous Canadiana of The Rural Alberta Advantage had everyone riled up, thrashing about and singing along to the gritty, Jeff Mangum-esque nasal whine of lead singer Nils Edenloff. As he howled about mundane rural life, drummer Paul Banwatt was flying all over the kit at a wild speed, looking like he was going to break apart at any minute. Multi-instrumentalist Robin Hatch managed to keep it all from spilling out into the ether, grounding the songs with an angelic croon, and wildly intricate keyboard working including working bass pedals with her feet, occasionally stopping only to wail on a floor tom or shake a tambourine.

After they left the stage, there was an immense glow that made way for maybe the most anticipated acts of the festival, the reunion and first Canadian show from late ’90s proto-emo cult favourites American Football. An absolute blur of heartfelt vocal hooks, alternatingly scathing and lush guitar riffs, and frenetic, jazz-influenced drums that seemed to somehow hold it together, they were one of the tightest, most focused bands I’ve ever seen. After they took their leave, it was clear that the night was far from over – everyone tingling with positivity.

While we tried our best to make it to the afterparty and see the secret show, our penchant for Old Milwaukee and tequila afterwards meant we showed up far too late, yet I managed to stay up until around 8 a.m. in a haze of cigarettes, cheap vodka, and inspiring conversations, finally drifting off only to wake up and come to life around 1 p.m. Running on little sleep, but a wealth of coffee, I headed back down to the festival grounds as the painfully classic chilling Haligonian rain spilled down around me.

Between the off-kilter, manically lazy drawl of angular rockers Freak Heat Waves, to the floating fog of maritime pop duo Vogue Dots’ set, backed up by two of Halifax’s best drummers, and best people, Bianca Palmer and Tri Lee, the whole day was filled with act after act that constantly delivered, and I’m not sure the crowd even noticed how miserable the weather was getting. However, it was the last three acts of Gridlock – Baths, TR/ST and Wolf Parade – that send the festival spinning into a swirling vortex of good vibes.

Baths‘ set was absolutely unhinged, and even though electronic mastermind Will Wiesenfeld only had one partner in crime, the set sounded enormous and brutally gorgeous. He was scathingly witty and self deprecating, and gave a loving shout-out to Halifax’s raddest LGBTQ bar Menz and Mollyz, which sent the crowd into a torrent of applause. Ending with a riled up version of “No Eyes” that had me shaking with chills, Wiesenfeld’s brutally honest and intimate refrain of “And it is not a matter of / If you mean it / But it is only a matter of / Come and fuck me” had the crowd in hysterics, its message of love and immediacy resonating heavily as the last haunting note faded and fell off.

Photo: TR/ST

I had no idea what to expect from TR/ST, but any slight notion of what they would be like was instantly proved wrong from the first few seconds of their set. A chimera of bludgeoning bass, infectious grooves, and soaring, gorgeous vocal hooks, their stage presence was, to say the least, enamouring. Singer Robert Alfons’ wild, shimmering orange shirt was also a highlight, as he pranced around the stage with a self-assured gait, and a frenzied look in his eyes. Between glittering synth arpeggios and grumbling, gut-punching bass, the set was kind of like what literally being 20,000 leagues under the sea would feel like – diving further and further, being compressed a murky, sublime landscape that both tears at your body and fills your heart with awe.

As they left the stage, you could feel the growing anticipation for recently reunited, emotionally charged indie royalty Wolf Parade. As soon as they hit the stage, the explosion of applause was enough to tell that this set was going to be special.

Leaning heavily towards songs from their first effort, Apologies to the Queen Mary, the band delivered a set that was both overwhelmingly nostalgic and surprisingly relevant. While I was initially a little hesitant about how their set would go, my trepidation immediately faded into astonishment. Choice cuts like opener “It’s a Curse,” classic fan-favourite “Modern World,” or the Spencer Krug-led “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain,” were wild and wonderful, sounding even better than they did before the band split.

Guitarist and vocalist Dan Boeckner admitted that when they reunited the band, the platonic ideal of what the best possible show would be was dangerously close to this one, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The reverence and excitement from the crowd was enough to send them back out for an encore of three songs, and as they left the stage, the lights came up, and the incandescent magic of the festival began to dissolve, the intense magic being slowly replaced by warm and loving memories.

Photo: Wolf Parade

Riding high on a wave of a beautiful weekend, I found myself up again until the wee hours of the morning, finally drifting off around 6 or 7 a.m., but unable to get any real rest, wheels turning, decidedly overwhelmed with the whole thing.

Gridlock had managed to do what so many outdoor festivals in Halifax have failed to – unite everyone under a love and appreciation for music. It was so relieving and so wonderful not to feel horribly jaded, or cynical, and just appreciate that a community had come together to make something that looked on paper to be almost utterly implausible work in a way that left everyone buzzing with giddiness.

That’s not to say that the festival wasn’t without its kinks or criticism, however. A lot of the earlier shows weren’t nearly as filled up as they should have been, and the comedy portion and Pavillion all-ages show seemed sort of like afterthoughts, not really fitting with the overall aesthetic. The lack of food options – especially vegetarian options – was also a point of contention.

Also, while the festival did an amazing job with inclusivity by booking a lot of incredible female artists – something most music festivals obviously don’t even give a shit about – and including a surprisingly decent representation of LGBTQ and feminist acts, there were definite murmurs around the festival and around Halifax about a lack of bands featuring people of colour, especially concerning local bands. However, with this being Gridlock’s inaugural year, hopefully they can take this criticism to heart and strive for more representation next year, expanding the general tone of inclusivity.

Overall, even with about 10 hours of sleep over three days, smoking far, far too many cigarettes and drinking many random drinks of CÎROC, grappa, tequila, and god knows what else, I left Gridlock with a wonderful glow of positivity, and a renewed appreciation of the musical community here on the East Coast. If the inaugural year is anything to go by, Halifax might just have another high-profile yearly festival to call its own.

I love you Gridlock, thanks for breaking me out of my cynical shell.

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