There’s no place on Earth like SappyFest

Losing yourself in Sackville has never been so beautiful.

August 4, 2016

Photo by Corey J. Isenor.

Believe the hype, it’s all true. Seriously. There really is no place on Earth like SappyFest.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what does it. Whether it’s that beautiful mix of the sun and the breeze coming off the marsh, all of the people thirsty for music crammed into the downtown of a tiny, weird, university border town that’s been a pocket for wonderful music for almost two decades now, or the fact that every Sappyfest you come away with about twenty new friends and just as many new favourite bands, it doesn’t matter. Just chalk it up to swamp magic, and surrender yourself to it.

Adrian Teacher and the Subs kicked the whole thing off on Friday on the main stage, after the classic Sappy staple, the Kids Corner Power Jam, and honestly I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opening act for a festival kill it that hard, with that amount of reverence from the crowd.

Seconds after hitting the stage, the tent filled with a wash of people aching to dance. With an unprecedented amount of exuberance and energy, the band blasted through a spitfire set of janky start/stop punk rock, complete with a bunch of playful banter, ripping, sweet guitar licks and crowdsurfers. It was awe-inspiring to see the crowd light up that fast; within minutes of their set winding down, it was obvious just how furious and nonstop this weekend would be.

After that, it was a non-stop deluge of killer acts throughout the day, and well into the night.

By Divine Right took the stage after the Subs, and demonstrated that even 20 years in, José Contreras’ project still absolutely slays. Backed by current drummer Geordie Dynes and bassist Alysha Haugen, they ripped through a career-spanning set that included a seriously sweet jangly song about aliens, and a whole lot of oddball banter from Contreras – perpetually a highlight.

After being reminded that I should probably eat something, and with the sunny day getting dangerously grey, we hit up the absolute godsend of a food truck, the Everyday Food Truck – run by Sackville sweethearts Jon McKiel and Allison Crinkley – in the first of what would become a daily ritual of trying, somewhat impossibly, to choose between poutine with an absolutely mind blowing mushroom gravy, a heavenly soba noodle salad, or jam-packed vegetarian burritos.

Afterwards, I headed to the bowling alley to secure a spot for Shotgun Jimmie’s set – one of my most anticipated of the weekend. Cutting it pretty close, I had to bail on an upsettingly condescending game of chess I was playing in the other room (thanks for the free drinks, though) and literally run to catch the start of his set.

Having never seen Jimmie play a Sackville show, I was blown away by the positive energy in Thunder & Lightning. With the crowd dancing, hopping along and echoing every word back at him, it was like a gigantic, beautiful hug as he rattled off classic after classic and a few new bangers like, “Join the Band,” and people hung on his every word.

However, the night was not yet over, and the afterparty brought an absolutely scathing set by Fredericton quartet LAPS who had just gotten off a tour, and it definitely showed. To quote Evan Matthews, “That band tour-tight is downright scary.”

Even though the deck at the place had collapsed, spirits were high, and the night rambled on with airtight sets by Halifax’s Glitterclit and Nightbummerz respectively, ending somewhere ambiguously between 4:30 and 6:30am.

Needless to say, this meant a pretty hazy, groggy morning – but waking up to Partner hanging out and joking around and getting ready for a gigantic set that night is a pretty awesome way to ease into the day.

The one-two punch of Century Egg and Hooded Fang on Saturday afternoon was almost too much positive energy to bear, with the former proving once again that they’re one of the absolute best recent bands to come out of Halifax, as well as one of the most engaging and energetic bands, period. They ripped through a set of joyful, radiating pop tunes and left me hanging on every sugary sweet line.

Dipping out before the Dirty Nil to catch a very special Union Suit show at the Vogue Cinema, I was instantly overjoyed with my decision. With mastermind Tate LeJeune backed by partners in crime Cedric Noel (Sentimentals, LAPS) on guitar and Charlotte Dempsey (Lonely Parade) on bass, they swirled largely improvised sonic textures around like watercolours, peppering the inside of the theatre with glossy daubs of ether. Lying down on the seats, fading in and out of half-dreams, I was totally engrossed and immersed, opening my eyes only every so often to wipe the tiny tears of joy from them. After the last haunting note hung in the air and everything dissipated, walking out into the bright light of day felt like leaving a divine realm and floating sadly back down to Earth, with only memories of that otherworldly set still lingering.

Though I sadly missed the wonderful Coszmos Quartet to go back and eat some food and recoup, coming back for the awe-inspiring, if not slightly somber sincerity of the LUKA set was enough to snap me back into that glittery netherrealm of wonder.

With a soft, haunting croon that’s as beautiful as it is pitch perfect, Luke Kuplowsky had the crowd in a hushed reverie, breaking only for bouts of wild applause. It was a staggeringly sincere performance that left everyone buzzing, wrapped up in warm blankets of feels.

Grabbing a beer at Ducky’s and catching the Kazoo! Fest-sponsored Badminton Racket and Cupcake Ductape show was an absolute 180 from the Vogue show. Both bands delivered uproarious and erratic sets of caffeine-laced, cathartic guitar jangles that grabbed my sombre and stoic mindset and flipped it on its head, as I danced sitting in a chair, desperately trying not to rock out so hard that I fell over.

Exhausted and overwhelmed by such a wealth of inspiring tunes, I still managed to catch a fair amount of the end of Little Scream’s set, before Partner took the stage to deliver an enormous and chaotic version of their already raucous set.

Backed up by a whole host of hometown buds and soaked in rad vibes, Partner’s set was a spectacle. With guitarist and vocalist Josée Caron wielding a double-necked guitar and hopping around with co-conspirator Lucy Niles, both displaying some of the sickest rockout moves I’ve ever witnessed, it was clear how much SappyFest loves its hometown pals, and for the second time that weekend, you could feel the love and pride flowing out through the crowd and back at the band.

After Partner, I managed to catch an incendiary set by the brilliant and soulful Un Blonde, whose last album “Good Will Come to You” is an absolute treasure. The live set never disappoints, and at times it felt like the entirety of Sackville was going to come crashing down in an avalanche of love. By far one of the highlights of the weekend, the Un Blonde set was nothing short of life-affirming. As the night creeped on, and devolved into hangouts in the ballfield, and shoeless ventures across town, I found myself hobbling back at around 9am, under the glaring sun, in dire need for a nap.

Waking up on the Sunday at Sappyfest is always a bittersweet moment, because you know that there’s so much to look forward to with an entire new day of music, but that it’s slowly but surely coming to an end, and the shiny, glittery magic of Sackville will slowly fade back into its sleepy small town solitude.

Luckily, with a belly full of soba noodle salad, and a slightly fuzzy head that had been properly caffeinated, I managed to drag myself back to the mainstage. Very thankful for that, because the stacked deck of the next three mainstage acts, combined with the ferocity of festival headliner Cakes da Killa solidified Sunday night as nothing short of perfect.

Starting with a reunited Julie Doiron and the Wooden Stars charming the crowd into a swaying, swooning puddle, and really hammering home the sappy in SappyFest, it was clear this was going to be a special night. Despite a wealth of technical difficulties on stage, the sweetness and beauty of the band shone through it all.

Playing the loveliest selections from the cult favourite album, like “The Second Time,” “Sweeter,” and “The Best Thing For Me,” it felt like we were all let in on some beautiful, intangible secret that was gone in the blink of an eye.

The night continued on, segueing into what is almost definitely the tightest, most charming and most enjoyable Nap Eyes set I’ve ever witnessed. The band was in super high spirits, with vocalist Nigel Chapman providing moving and engaging vocal performances of material from both, “Thought Rock Fish Scale” and “Whine of the Mystic.” The band was also cheekily cracking jokes, and nipping into some booze being passed around the crowd, really punctuating the maritime vibe of the whole thing, and providing a lovely bit of levity to the set.

Ringleader C.L. McLaughlin was on cloud nine during the Weird Lines set, looking positively enamoured with everyone and everything, and dancing and strumming about like a love-struck madman. The beautiful part is that the crowd fed off of it all in such a wild way, and hooted and hollered at everything from the slippery, dark grooves, to the squawking sax riffs, to the honeysuckle-sweet intertwined harmonies of McLaughlin and Julie Doiron. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s just nothing like the explosion of love and admiration for Sackville hometown heroes performing at Sappyfest.

While Cakes Da Killa was on fire, and his majorly lit late night set and enamouring crowd interaction drove people into a frenzy, it was his comment about the lack of people of colour being represented at the festival that struck the biggest chord.

Festivals have been doing an increasingly inspiring amount of work booking more female identifying acts, as well as LGBTQ performers, but there’s still a worrisome lack of representation of people of colour in festival lineups – especially in the maritimes.

While Sappyfest does more than most, and the diversity in the lineup this year was heads and shoulders above other festivals around, it’s still a criticism that we have to take seriously, and keep talking about. By involving more people of colour in programming committees for festivals, providing more transparency as to the selection process, and making sure that the important voices that need to be heard are heard, we can start to address what is becoming a troublingly frequent issue. I have no doubt that Sappyfest can do this in the coming iterations of the festival, and hope that they will continue to diversify, listen, and strive for more inclusivity.

After Cakes Da Killa’s set left people sweaty, wonderfully weary, and practically speechless, a swath of people headed down to Thunder & Lightening to catch one of the more unique close-outs to Sappyfest: the Greville Tapes Revue.

With a barrage of quick and dirty sets by Greville Tapes Music Club pairings Nancy Pants and Julie Doiron, Little You, Little Me and Eamon McGrath, Whoop-szo and Jon McKiel, and Motherhood and Catriona Sturton, it was a blistering – if not completely emotionally overwhelming – swan song to this year’s official Sappyfest programming.

I went back to crash, hitting the bed and conking out almost instantly, only to wake up twice: once when two guys came into my room to do a line of speed and didn’t realize I was sleeping in there, and once to the sweet sounds of Adrian Teacher and the Subs playing their raucous banger of a set at the afterparty, bringing Sappyfest full circle like some wacky punk rock ouroboros.

As people crowdsurfed and jumped around to the sweet, cathartic cacophony downstairs, all I could think about was the many friends I saw and hugged and chatted with until the wee hours of the morning, the many inspiring and wonderful new friends I’d met, all the lovingly familiar and wonderful new bands that blew me away, and above all, how much I couldn’t wait until next year.

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