SappyFest X: If This Isn’t Nice, What is?

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Photo by Katie McTiernan

It didn’t go off without a hitch, so how did SappyFest’s tenth edition still border on perfection? When the music was all said and done, after Shotgun Jimmie closed out the main stage with a Constantines cover around midnight, after Speedy Ortiz‘s last note rang out down deconstructed Bridge St. at 3AM, and after David Barclay’s festival-spanning DJ set ended at 6AM, Sackville still stood out before us, like it had when we arrived: serene, safe and sleepy.

Technical difficulties at the main stage Friday and Saturday, weirdo schedule construction, plus last minute set rearranging on Sunday night made the mechanics of Sappy X slightly tenuous. But SappyFest is a combination family reunion and adult summer camp. The atmosphere is too pleasant, and everyone is so agreeable, any negative is at most a mild inconvenience.

Ben Burnett & Co. lounging on Sappy weekend, photo by Brad Allen

Ben Burnett & Co. lounging on Sappy weekend, photo by Brad Allen

Friday evening we arrived in Sackville, pulled into the NBLC parking lot, and were immediately reunited with half of our Sappy squad whom we hadn’t seen in months. It was joyous, and exciting, and also very rushed, because there was still so much to do. This is the way of SappyFest. All plans are delayed by the familiar faces you see every half-block. There is an art to festival stop-and-talks that keeps the interactions quick, direct and pleasant. We helloed, hugged, goodbyed, and all sped off in different directions. Beers popped, tents pitched, packs unpacked. Sappy eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Michael Freuerstack and band, photo by Ben Burnett

Michael Freuerstack and band, photo by Ben Burnett

Friday evening’s music was chill until it wasn’t. Michael Feuerstack and Jennifer Castle each sang beautiful, relaxed songs, unfortunately punctuated by the aforementioned technical difficulties. Loud, tent-curdling blowout noises popped up every couple songs, most noticeably in the first verse of a song Feuerstack introduced as “a lullabye”.

Toronto’s Pup, whose aggressive audience-pointing-furiously-at-the-stage poppy rock music is somewhat similar to Japandroids, headlined the main stage. Before finishing their set with a cover of “Sabotage” Pup’s lead singer told us “I usually hate everything but I love all of this.” It was a comment Sappy veterans wouldn’t be surprised to hear. SappyFest wins over even the most bitter hearts. Pup’s warmed hearts coupled with Angel Olsen’s banter on the same stage the next night, “life is just so hard, all the time,” give a good sense of what SappyFest is all about: we are an audience of vulnerable young hearts. Real life might be hard, but this isn’t real life, this is SappyFest. And as alone and disenchanted as we might be once we go back home, this weekend always both connects and validates us.

Friday and Saturday nights both stretched into the wee hours with shows in one of the weirdest venues I’ve ever been. Secret shows/after parties are a SappyFest tradition, just like $5 Picaroons, and sets by Shotgun Jimmie. After we piled out of the Strange Attractor show we were directed to “head towards the train station.” When we arrived the bassist from Freak Heat Waves told us to “just keep walking until you get to the mudpit, then turn right.”

Such charming directions are the Sackville norm. This show took place at the old Enterprise Foundry, an industrial building that mostly burnt down three years ago. It still stands, or at least the back wall does, enough to backdrop some of the coolest / weirdest moments of Sappy X. This year’s after shows featured sets by Moon, Freak Heat Waves, Dorothea Paas, Old and Weird, JOYFULTALK and Parliament. It was such a strange, surreal place to see live music, you felt like you were watching the filming of a 90’s music video. The juxtaposition of decrepit landscape and excellent guitar-rock felt distinctly Sappyesque. It was the first of many special moments this weekend.

Jacuzzi Perth's Pizza Party, photo by Ben Burnett

Jacuzzi Perth’s Pizza Party, photo by Ben Burnett

Between the foundry shows and excellent sets by recently returned maritime favs Nap Eyes, one-woman fire-storm Mozart’s Sister, a shady afternoon performance by Museum Pieces in Jon Mckiel’s backyard, the indomitable DIANA, loud hooky punks Strange Attractor, Jacuzzi Perth’s surprise pizza party, and loveable Nancy Pants, I was pretty content with the amount of great shows I saw this weekend. Though like any good festival, Sappy’s patrons have no chill. You can’t miss a set without somebody immediately telling you it was their highlight of the weekend. Among the sets I was personally called out for missing, the buzz was loudest around Adrian Teacher, Animai, and Crosss (who, in possibly the least rock and roll moment of the festival, I missed because I was eating salad. In my defense I saw them at the Khyber earlier last week.)

 

Vogue Dots, photo by Ben Brunett

Vogue Dots, photo by Ben Burnett

Sappy X’s highlight was unquestionably the Thunder & Lightning show Sunday night. Thunder & Lightning is a combination bar and bowling alley. Originally Vogue Dots were scheduled to close out the festival in the middle of the lanes, but airport semantics interfered. Vogue Dots were switched to the main stage to cover for Speedy Ortiz’s late drummer. That meant Speedy Ortiz, the festival’s headliners, were scheduled in one of Sackville’s most cramped venues. As if that wasn’t enough the festival decided to insert an impromptu Julie Doiron set to open the show. In true Sappy fashion, what seemed like a bloated mess on paper turned into one of the best shows I’ve seen in my half dozen trips to the festival.

Julie Doiron's surprise set, photo by Ben Burnett

Julie Doiron’s surprise set, photo by Ben Burnett

The concept behind Julie’s show was to play with as many drummers from her past as she could find in the crowd. This led to festival organizer Lucas Hicks, and man of the night Shotgun Jimmie coming on stage for “Consolation Prize” and “Snow Falls in November”. It was an intimate moment that reached back to my earliest SappyFest, when Julie’s main stage set consisted mostly of material from I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day.

Every year festival-defining moments become the short-hand to distinguish each edition of SappyFest. 2011 is the year Arcade Fire cramped the main stage for a secret set as Shark Attack. 2012 was the year of the Sackville bands: Astral Gunk, the Mouthbreathers and especially Yellowteeth, who annihilated the Legion (there were people ripping light fixtures from the ceiling). Led by Nic Wilson and Josée Caron, Yellowteeth was a swamp legend that burned brightly and loudly, then faded quickly as they came (RIP).

This year’s defining moment came by way of Caron’s new band Partner. She and Lucy Niles (formerly of the Mouthbreathers) put together a band of Sackville all-stars (members of Kappa Chow, Painful Shivers, Jacuzzi Perth) to play their heavy, relatable rock n roll blazer jams. They fucking killed it. The packed crowd in Thunder & Lightning clearly came more for Partner than Speedy Ortiz. Their set felt like the celebrations while credits rolled on the weekend; you could see pockets of locals dancing on the side alleys (there is no side stage in a bowling alley), and Shotgun Jimmie’s face contorting with glee watching each of Caron’s ridiculous solos.

The moment of the festival came when Caron re-claimed her title as baddest punk at SappyFest when she ripped off her shirt and shredded a solo with X’s taped over her areolas. To paraphrase a tweet by Said the Gramophone’s Sean Michaels: Partner are the best new band in Canada. And it might not be close.

“If this isn’t nice, what is?”

Ben Burnett and gang, photo by Brad Allen

Ben Burnett and gang, photo by Brad Allen

Like I wrote last week, SappyFest is always my favorite weekend of the year. And it is also a consistent series of truly elating moments. There was a moment Sunday afternoon when I found myself completely at ease. Balanced backwards in an outdoor recliner, I was sipping an IPA, surrounded by my closest bucks, shooting the shit with new friends. A few of us started talking about Kurt Vonnegut

“If this isn’t nice, what is?” doubles as Vonnegut’s best advice, and the name for a posthumous collection of his essays. It comes from Kurt’s uncle encouraging him to take space and truly appreciate when things are going well. Don’t take life’s beautiful moments for granted. I spaced out hard when those words came back to me, lounged deeply on an overly-beautiful afternoon. I did my best to soak in my surroundings. SappyFest, like many good things, only happens once a year. How can we make the magic last?

How lucky are we that someone hosts this ideal festival, in a beautiful town, tailored almost directly to my friends’ tastes? It barely even makes sense. And yet here we are: SappyFest 10. Sappy X. Looks Like We Made It. Swamp Magic. Dear lord, can’t we please go back already?

Photo by Brad Allen

Photo by Brad Allen

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