Ottawa Explosion is a non-stop burst of punk energy

Over five days, Ottawa Explosion spanned all subgenres and introduced new sounds.

June 21, 2016

Photo: The Lonely Parade (Ming Wu)

The first day I went to Ottawa Explosion was the same day I wrote my last high school exam. Ever since that day, now four years ago, I’ve anticipated the middle of June the same way that children who don’t know better yet dream about Santa. As soon as the sun comes out at the end of the long and cold Ottawa winter I eagerly wait to drink cherry lime Palm Bay and watch all of my favourite bands.

Ottawa Explosion Weekend (OXW), a technical misnomer for the five-day festival now in its sixth edition, is basically better than Christmas. Often a gathering point for power-pop fans in particular, the 88 bands playing this year covered all subgenres of punk, running the gamut from twee to hardcore, plus some new sounds represented at the festival for the first time ever.

Wednesday was the most crowded opening night for the festival I’ve ever seen. OXW staple venue and art gallery Club SAW was filled with pals seen regularly at punk shows, faraway friends making the trip to the nation’s capital and many stylish people I did not recognize. It’s a testament to the fact that, like a fine wine, the festival only gets better every year.

Heaven For Real (Photo: Ming Wu)

Heaven For Real were starting a seven-week tour when they got to Ottawa and it showed in their tight-knit performance. Singer Mark Grundy traded guitars with his twin brother Scott mid-set and neither stumbled with the switch. Drummer Nathan Doucet made unusually expressive faces, often as the tempo switched mid-song and seemingly for his own enjoyment.

The brothers Grundy remind me of sweeter versions of Mac DeMarco, their experimental pop sound best described by their Bandcamp tag “baby jazz.” The group’s upcoming album, Kill Your Memory, will be released July 15th on Mint Records.

Old and Weird (Photo: Ming Wu)

Old and Weird, a Halifax twee band whose line-up seems to be constantly shifting, took the stage afterwards. One of my favourite things about Old and Weird is that their set is always different (I’ve seen them three times and the only song I’ve heard twice live is the brilliant “Kirkobain”).

They almost exclusively played material from their new tape, released only two days prior. Old and Weird represent the spirit of punk as an art form, not a formula, and stand out as making music that comes from nowhere but inside themselves.

On Thursday I took the #8 bus across the bridge to Le Temporaire, an art space with an unmarked doorway in Hull, Québec that reminds me of the college house party scene in Buffy The Vampire Slayer where Bif Naked plays (think an abundance of Christmas lights and a banner pinned in the middle of the wall that said “DAVID BYRNE HELPED ME”). Thursday’s show was co-presented by Debaser, an Ottawa concert series organized by Weird Canada’s Rachel Weldon and Emily McQuarrie.

Spell (Photo: Hilary Lawson)

Despite technical difficulties with patch cords and the absence of two members, Spell were a strong opener. The sweet indie six-piece became a four-person band for the evening, the youngest of whom is only 17. However, they more than compensated for their ages with melodic bass lines, crashing drums, intricate guitar parts and lush vocals. These are elements left over from three of the members’ previous project, Ottawa teenage legends Weed Mom.

Sadly, Spell’s music is only available as a bootleg right now, but singer and guitarist Kai Thorpe promised that a music video where he and drummer Tyrin Kelly “go into the woods and hang out with a big piece of fabric” will be released shortly.

Shoe Blog (Photo: Alanna Yaraskavitch)

Local four-piece Shoe Blog performed the night’s other stand-out set. The group, led by Debaser’s Rachel Weldon herself, is possibly the only experimental art band in the region where the lead singer can play the cello while sitting down and still get a punk audience moving.

Weldon has watched her fair share of local bands, and Shoe Blog seems to have perfectly absorbed the influence of Hull’s Fet.Nat and Ottawa’s Boyhood into their own sound. Still, their heart-wrenching slow songs in particular reveal a simple, Mazzy Star-esque beauty, and I believe it is a true testament to a band if they make you start crying, as I did.

One of the numerous Friday shows took place at St. Alban’s, the first Ottawa Explosion show ever held in a church (albeit one with condoms in the bathroom and beers for sale). The show was one of two co-presented by Babely Shades, an Ottawa anti-racism and anti-oppression arts collective that has worked tirelessly to make space for bands with people of colour in an otherwise overwhelmingly white scene.

Whoop-Szo (Photo: Ming Wu)

Guelph’s Whoop-Szo, a group that describe themselves as “generally abhorrent to definition,” played intense post-rock that revealed a fondness for heavy metal in extended riffs. During the final song, lead singer and guitarist Adam Sturgeon made their way into the crowd and solo’ed for a solid minute before getting back onstage and joining their bandmates in some collective head-banging. To me, Whoop-Szo stand out as an example of one of the best parts of the Ottawa Explosion: discovering new bands that have flown under your radar and being enthralled by genres that don’t even have names yet.

Phèdre (Photo: Hilary Lawson)

Toronto’s Phèdre, a two-person electronic experimental act featuring Hooded Fang‘s April Aliermo and Daniel Lee, headlined the night. Their set was a refreshing break from the usual Friday night power-pop and stood out as unlike anything else at the festival (the closest comparison would be Ottawa expats Pith & The Parenchymas, who opened the show).

Phèdre set up their computers and samplers on the altar, projected a Janet Jackson video on an aluminum backdrop and played powerful political pop to an eager audience. Their set marked the first time I have ever seen a dance pit replace a mosh pit at OXW, a trend I hope continues in upcoming years.

Cheap Whine (Photo: Alanna Yaraskavitch)

Saturday marked day four of the festival and it was a scorcher. The afternoon show on the outside stage of Club SAW was the first time I got to see new Ottawa pop punk group Cheap Whine. The band features Canadian punk veterans Eric French, Steve Adamyk, and Jordy Bell, who’ve collectively been in about 100 bands (or at least it seems that way).

The trio played gutting and self-deprecating two-minute rippers, with both Adamyk and French sporting all-black Vans “Authentics”, the #1 shoe choice of punks everywhere. Cheap Whine reminded me of Insomniac-era Green Day and coming from me, that is a very high compliment (as The Unlovables sing, I’m a pop-punk girl at heart).

Luckily for everyone’s well-being, the weather cooled down for the night show with New York City’s Big Eyes. It is one thing to diss shredding, while another to actually shred. With two cherry red Gibson SGs, Big Eyes nailed the latter. Lead singer and guitarist Kait Eldridge sang tough punk songs with a hard-rock influence, enthralling the crowd who danced along to bangers like “Wanted Sometimes”, a track I happen to know is one of OXW co-organizer Emmanuel Sayer’s favourite songs (he was seen happily playing air guitar on the sidelines).

The final day of Ottawa Explosion was one for true believers only, with a $3 beer special as a token of appreciation. If you make it to day five of OXW, you have either triumphed over the physical and emotional limits of the human body and mind, or missed at least a few incredible bands (I heard Fet.Nat played an amazing set at St. Alban’s Saturday night, but I was busy catching up on some much needed Zs).

The Lonely Parade (Photo: Pierre Richardson)

Devoted Sunday fans were rewarded with an energetic set from Peterborough’s The Lonely Parade. The three-piece were one of the major highlights of the festival for me. The group play with a level of skill and talent that, regardless of the fact that two members are not of age, would be remarkable in musicians years ahead of them.

The trio delivered melodic post-punk with blistering basslines and tender lyrics. The highlight of their set came during the final song, when bassist Charlotte Dempsey knee-slid across the ground while guitarist Augusta Veno jumped off the drum riser. Another high point occurred when I realized mid-set that I was holding a piece of pepperoni pizza in one hand and a Palm Bay in the other, and had, after five days, finally reached peak OXW.

The last band I saw were also one of the best. Local four-piece Doxx opened the after-party at Ottawa all-ages venue and sandwich shop Pressed with a ripping set of queer hardcore. Singer Sofia Shutenko used the intimate space perfectly, energetically screaming and stomping on the stage (Shutenko, who has a “Stay Sharp” tattoo on her arm, has clearly taken some cues from TV Freaks frontman Dave O’Connor).

Doxx’s many melodic breakdowns had audience members frantically pumping their fists in the air with the beat. Closer and fan favourite “Stuck in Hetero” was the perfect last song for a final burst of punk energy after five non-stop days of the genre, in all its incarnations.

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