The Shifty Bits Circus is a fever dream of debauchery, sappiness and friendship

With stops in Fredericton and Montreal, the Shifty Bits Circus is one of most unique music festivals in Canada.

August 18, 2016

Photos by Dana Budovitch.

In a musical landscape where all every big festival blends together with similar lineups and cookie-cutter formats, it’s extremely refreshing to see festivals that dare to push the envelope. Somehow, the Fredericton-based Shifty Bits Circus manages to outdo itself time and time again, becoming more and more spectacular with each passing year.

What started five years ago as a totally DIY, ramshackle and bootstrapped festival run by Fredericton art collective the Shifty Bits Cult has since blossomed into one of the most unique music festivals in Atlantic Canada, with one of the most cheeky, jarring yet loveable aesthetics you’ll find anywhere.

Fiercely dedicated, and tireless with their commitment, it all seems to come together at the last minute to keep the circus rolling every year. After seemingly going all-out last year with the fourth iteration of the festival, the Shifty Bits Cult took things to unprecedented new heights this year, holding festivals in both Fredericton and Montreal – in collaboration with Montreal’s recently birthed Oh Hi collective.

Aptly titled, “VA5RANTS,” the fifth iteration was comprised of two back-to-back weekends, separated by a week of attempted restoration, recovery and about 900 kilometers. These were some of the most visceral, down-to-earth and just absurdly enjoyable times I’ve ever experienced, so why does it feel like a wonderful fever dream?

It’s incredible how different the aesthetics for both weekends were; the Fredericton circus feels like one of those oft-talked about “lost weekends” -— laced with late-night bacchanals, like it was some sort of debaucherous sleepaway camp, but with more uncomfortable futons and cheap ramen — while Montreal’s weekend leans more towards a sweet, yet bizarre family vacation vibe, where everyone gets just a little too sauced, gets really huggy and sappy, and tells way too many dirty secrets. What remained throughout, though, was an underlying vibe of community, friendship, and unbridled positivity.

Even at the Thursday night soft-opening kickoff show in Fredericton, the celebratory revelry was immediately palpable. Fifty people crammed into vintage store ReNeu, squished, sweaty and sidling up against each other, frenetically swaying to the sweet sounds of Fredericton angular guitar rock darlings LAPS. Hooded Fang and BART also provided enrapturing, wildly energetic sets that had the room shaking with excitement for the rest of the weekend to unravel.

The next day was hazy and languid, which turned out to be the perfect aesthetic for the Patient Records label launch. An intensely humid day made way for a sweet breeze of drone and ambient works by Union Suit, CNUS and Counting on Downstairs; CNUS’s set was particularly absorbing, with improvised textures soaring sweetly, but sharply in a swarm — an enveloping sense of the beauty of the present and dread for the future.

While past years have been more intense and belligerent with quasi-secret events, this year felt more lighthearted, more candid, and more sure of itself. It was immediately apparent that the Circus had finally established a concrete identity. The festival has never felt so well-oiled, or exuded so much confidence in its operation.

It was also more progressive, and more serious. There was an symposium for women in the music industry that was co-run by Fredericton’s Flourish Festival called Gals in the Game, and Young Satan in Love did an enthralling, multi-disciplinary art-piece-slash-talk-show. However that’s not to say the festival didn’t maintain its cheeky, derelict aesthetic, with whispers of hush-hush events like clandestine joint rolling competitions flowing in and out of ears all weekend.

At the main stage shows you could really feel the evolution of the festival. Bands like Smokes, who played the festival for the first time in 2014, now seemed like extended family, the room warm with love and admiration for them, welcoming their ferocity and the deep-cutting emotional delivery of singer Nick Maas with open arms. There was an enveloping kindness in the air, a slightly anxious excitement about the bubbling development of these butterfly-ridden musical relationships.

Having our collective cake and eating it too, Friday night was a buffet — between the poetic starkness of Ski Team, the off-the-cuff humour and spontaneity oozing from Picture Jasper and the ferocious and vicious melodic hooks of Little You Little Me, it was a non-stop deluge of deep trances, glee and dances.

It became wildly clear that Oh Hi and Shifty Bits Cult are an unwitting, but fearless combination; the two collectives are a perfect marriage of debauchery and sappiness. The collaboration of all of these people has elevated the Circus to another plane, one that’s a little more ambitious, and a little more grounded.

You could also tell how much love went into it: From the homemade wine at the afterparties and the giant, delicious batches of chili for bands, to the beeswax candles in the welcome packs for the passes. They’re little things, but they give the festival its signature feel: Reaching for the stars while still keeping it personal, intimate, and honest.

Even the after parties were more composed this year; the late nights were a reigned-in sideshow instead of a frantic onslaught, with one of Fredericton’s rising bands Cellarghost playing an engrossing, emotionally charged set on Friday – by far the tightest I’ve ever seen them – featuring new material that showcased a new, more adventurous and experimental side of the band. It felt like a perfect nightcap to an already sprawling day of music.

Saturday was especially wonderful, starting off with a much welcomed breakfast of that magical homemade chili, and the day slowly fading into a haze of hangouts and chats and coalescing into climbing onto the Wilser’s Room stage with Year of Glad. Suddenly, I got to experience all of the energy and spirit that I’d fed into the weekend being fed back to me in front of one of the most attentive and positive crowds I’d ever played too.

Saturday was absolutely more chaotic and wonderfully dark than Friday, with the erratic, electronic fury of Saxsyndrum, and the bone-rattling, heart-tingling heaviness of Whoop-Szo, the composed intensity and intimacy of Tamara Sandor and the sweet ethereality of Jane Blanchard being particular highlights.

The chaos continued far into the night, with a softer, yet messier and looser after party with Loon and Exit Someone stretching out into the dark, starry sky, and slowly, but surely, gracefully stumbling into morning. Those who could face the early afternoon light hopped on some bikes and headed down to the Nashwaak river for a soft and subtle easing out of the vibrant intensity of the circus, with a hangover breakfast, some light acoustic acts, and dirty rock crooner Keith Hallett being perhaps the first person to shred an electric guitar on the Nashwaak.

The Montreal iteration of the festival, while more streamlined and straightforward than its Fredericton counterpart, was a well-thought out and well-composed foot in the door for the Shifty Bits Circus.

The lineup for Friday night was stacked, highlighted by Smokes’ charming banter, savage drumming and violin drones, weirdo garage rock heartthrobs the Waking Night delivering a set of newer, more experimental tunes, and Little You Little Me’s gorgeous vocal harmonies.

While the final day included getting lost around Papineau and eating at a ludicrously overpriced sushi place, doing the cha-cha slide and watching Alien before heading to the last show of the festival and getting absolutely soaked in the process, it occurred to me that stretching this festival out over two weekends also means that the staggering sadness and tearful goodbye to the festival that is the last show is just that much more potent.

The unhinged, doom-tinged circus antics of Motherhood and the brilliant, wily sincerity of Moss Lime highlighted the bittersweetness; a night by all accounts wonderful and cathartic, but with a sudden twinge of loss. It’s so hard to be in the moment when you can feel the moment slipping through your fingers.

It’s extremely humbling and impressive to see people you know turn something from a plucky, “why not” pipe dream into something beautiful, life-affirming, and loaded with positivity. To see how far this festival has come in only five years is staggering. This year, the Shifty Bits Cult and Oh Hi proved to me the importance of friendship and support, and the importance of never settling; giving it your all for something you believe in, and surrounding yourself with people that care and believe in that too. It’s incredible to see such a weird and wonderful festival come into its own, and become something so different, and so unwilling to settle for the bare minimum. From the giant neon signs, to the quaint as hell props like ouija boards, right down to the beautifully hand-made passes, this above all else, was a labour of love.

The Shifty Bits Circus is so much more than the sum of its parts. Things like the heavy inclusion of local artists, a willingness to play around with and transmutate the tired festival format, and the tireless effort of volunteers highlight the importance of collaboration, artistic exploration and forming connections and friendships in independent music.

These are some key things that are sorely missing from the majority of musical festivals these days, and it’s truly stunning to see friendships come together to provide such a shining example of what it’s all about. It’s at once fresh and exciting – almost otherworldly – but yet so down-to-earth and comforting. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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