X Fest 2016

X Fest 2016
Fort Calgary
September 3 & 4, 2016

Photos Courtesy of Photos by Nicki Chang-Powless NCP Imaging

I will start with full disclosure and admit that I was alive and conscious when the label ‘alternative rock’ was originally coined and meant bands like Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, Rage Against the Machine, and the like.  When I finally made the effort to look up the lineup for X-fest, I found that I had never heard of any of them – oops.  When I showed the list to my fourteen year old he had only heard of a few but he had to come to Sunday’s show with Twenty One Pilots.  OK – good sign, I like a lot of the stuff he listens to.  Phew.

DAY ONE – Saturday

In order of appearance for no other reason than that’s how my notes are organized, first came the band Syd Arthur.  My first note is ‘Woodstock’.  They were a decent group of players; the tunes seemed spot on with no notes out of place.  For the more familiar, I am sure they could hear the difference, but to the unfamiliar ear sadly one tune bled into the next and their half hour set seemed like the same tune with new words every three to five minutes.  They were mellow and easy to listen to; the music started and ended pleasantly with nothing in particular to remark on.  Had I not scribbled something about them and kept the band list, I may very well have forgotten about them except that there was a band before Modern Space.

Modern Space came out bouncing and never stopped.  They were exciting and having fun on stage which brought some bounce and fun to the early, still growing crowd.  The singer was engaging.  He introduced one of their tunes as being inspired by getting stuck in a Calgary snow bank and there was a cover of Beck’s “I’m a Loser, Baby” with a sweet guitar solo.  This band was my first proof of the weekend that live music is better than a studio recording.  They were on and off too quickly for my taste and playfully took a photo ‘to prove they were here.’

The next performer was about a half an hour late affording me the opportunity to check out the crowd which was quite diverse ranging from about 2 years old to ‘hey, maybe I’m not the oldest person here.’  Time waits for no man, or woman in this case, so Zella Day blew onto the stage with a much bigger voice than that of the recordings posted on YouTube and a bit of a Dolly Parton warble that may have been the result of rushing to get to the stage, as there is no sign of it on YouTube.  If you’ve only got time for three songs, they better be your best and they certainly sounded like they might be.  There was a cover of Stevie Nick’s “Rhiannon” with a huge low end and a keyboard player that hit some amazing high harmonies and she closed with her hit single “Mustang Kids.”  Hey, I knew that one, that’s three so far if you count the covers.

And poof she was gone with apologies for being late; from a female point of view, the token woman on today’s stage only had three tunes but the show was going to stick to the schedule, so another quick stage change and out came the Banners from Liverpool opening with “Into the Storm.”  The singer has a beautiful voice but “Start a Riot” did no such thing.  We were back to the folk fest of the first band.  Well written, enjoyable music, but little of the energy of the previous 2 performers.

Halifax’s Wintersleep continued the tone with no more energy than that to produce the music they played.  You would think a group that thought to coordinate guitar straps (lead guitar & bass had bright red straps, while the centre, lead singer wore a red shirt so naturally sported a black strap) would have more fun on stage.  The music was spotless but I would have easily forgiven a note or two out of place for a laugh or smile.  “Weighty Ghost” made an appearance and “Amerika” was the big closer.  ‘Big’ is written with no sarcasm; the song is powerful and further proof that live music is much more compelling.  The audience enjoyed them from start to finish but they did so seated, munching on fries and other yummy deep fried goodies.

Next up came Jake Bugg from Britain.  This performance was with what I presume to be session players since they looked to be a decade his senior.  His guys were impeccable players and they were enjoying themselves while backing this 22 year old who doesn’t have a lot of stage presence yet but is an equally impressive artist.  For fun, I looked Mr. Bugg up on Wikipedia after the show and wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Johnny Cash listed as an influence.  He doesn’t sound like the man in black, nor does he look like him, but something struck me – he has the potential to be great.  His repertoire is diverse, the crowd was singing along and the band was smiling.  Things really do come in threes.

The Arkells came out with a burst of energy starting with “A Little Rain,” fortunately the title of the song, not a weather report.  Their energy never stopped while they were on stage.  They were dynamic; the lead singer was a total showman, revving up everyone and the crowd belonged to him through all their tunes including “Private School,” and “Leather Jackets.”  Not the best vocal of the day, that was likely the next performer on the bill; may not have been the best players on the stage that day either, that award would go to Jake Bugg and his musicians; but definitely the best performance of the day.  If you are looking for something to take away the February blahs, keep your eyes open for this band, as they will be back.

The best vocal of the day was likely Vance Joy.  Not a note out of place or missed.  I feel like he should have been somewhere more intimate; although X-fest is likely an opportunity to reach a very diverse and wonderfully large audience.  His musicians were spot on.  He introduces his tunes with an explanation like they are his babies and we need to understand how they came to be.  From “Mess is Mine,” “Red-Eye,” and “All I Ever Wanted” to the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “the Chain” or Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” and back to his own babies like “The Best that I Can,” and his closer “Fire and the Flood,”  every tune was right in the pocket. 

The headliners got what looked like chandeliers and an expanded space on the stage, although there was little need for the extra space as folk bands don’t generally move around much.  The Lumineers’ arrangements are full and it sounded like there were more players on stage than there were.  From the first tune “Flowers in Your Hair” through any number of their hits including “Hey Ho,” Cleopatra,” and “Ophelia,” the crowd was engaged but I’m afraid I didn’t feel it.  I wanted the Arkells’ energy and vibrancy.  The day could have ended with the Arkells and I would have been satisfied.  The rest was pleasant; not disappointing, just anti-climactic.

DAY TWO – Sunday

Royal Foundry started the day with a keyboard that took the folk music of their guitars and cello to a new place.  I could see how this could be ‘alternative’.  This couple and their band mates are having fun on stage and I hoped they were setting the tone for Sunday.  They were also much more dynamic than their YouTube presence; while that is playful, this was exciting.  Professional enough to plow through when the mic stand didn’t cooperate and lively enough that we bounced along with them through their entire set which included “Running Away.” 

The Darcys must have been playing to a track, so the duo had a karaoke feel to it with drums and a guitar.  There were some interesting affects and dirtier sounds mixed in with bubble-gum bounce.  They are clearly comfortable on stage but it would have been nice to see the other two or three band mates listed on Wikipedia instead of listening to a computerized track.  Regardless, I found myself bouncing along to a good grove and so far the tone for the day was not folk-fest.

Wildlife came out all dressed in black with pinkish bands on their left arms but no mention of their significance (although generally thought to be for breast cancer awareness), giving the band a little mystery.  OK, very little, but it seemed playful, as did they.  The drummer appeared to be sucking on a lollipop through the set, so it was either a really amazing sucker or just a stick by the time they were done.  This band played much heavier than their online recordings and the players were versatile, able to easily jump onto another instrument at will with first-rate harmonies.  They were head bobbing and inviting the crowd to sing along.  They announced their new tune releasing in October and threw themselves into their set, setting themselves up as a band to be watched and paid attention.

Hannah Georgas came out with a pretty voice that would likely have been nice to hear over the bass coming through the sound system.  I could hardly hear what she was singing but the players she had presumably hired were tight.  There were backup vocals that didn’t seem to be coming from anyone on stage so we had got another performance with pre-recorded tracks.  She appeared to have come for a rehearsal and wasn’t really putting on much of a show.  She was up there enjoying the music herself but not reaching out to the audience except for the occasional comment into the microphone.  The music was light pop and maybe even techno, so maybe Sunday was techno-fest.  When she was done, she went out the same way she came on – almost unnoticed, which seemed a shame as she does have a pretty voice.  Much like Vance Joy, not likely the right venue; much like Jake Bugg, lots of potential but not much presence. 

Atlas Genius opened with “Stockholm” and ‘Calgary – how you doing?’  Both were audience winners.  “Backseat” is announced as a song about sex and the crowd had a good laugh.  They work the audience and get close.  There was a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” which fit right into their pocket.  This band is polished and professional and used to being on stage.  I felt like I was watching a show – a good one.  They end with “Trojans” and we were on to the next.

 The Naked and Famous were not naked but if they aren’t famous yet, I’m sure they will be.  Engaging, with a pure soprano in the female lead and clear crisp tenor in the male, this band is further proof of my Live Music thesis.  The writing is bubbly, the vocal is clean, the harmonies are wonderful, and on stage they come across powerful.  “Rolling Waves” and “Girls Like You,” among others, further prove my point.  “Higher” is off of the new album coming out in October.  To accentuate my point, the PA blasts out “Higher” just a few songs into the break after their set and it just isn’t the same, but now I’m a fan. 

 July Talk is what I have been waiting for all weekend.  They are explosive, crazy, sexy, vital, entertaining, and I am in love.  This is the alternative of old!  The combination of the two vocalists is juxtaposition at its best:  the gravel of the male vocalist and the high pitch and almost squeak of the female vocalist is amazing.   The band opened with “Summer Dress” and performed for the next almost hour.  “Blood & Honey,” “Touch,” “Gentlemen,” “Push & Pull” off their recent September release and closing with “Beck & Call,” they are entertaining and once again the third to last band left me wanting more.  Today’s bill had some strong female presence, triumphantly making up for the token female on yesterday’s list.

American born Halsey put on a very pre-planned stage show.  Her voice was spot on, she pulled it off live as did every other performer this weekend.  We were once again listening to pre-recorded tracks along with the few musicians on stage, so it would seem that half live music was Sunday’s theme.  She closed with her newest single “New Americana” and “Colors” (American spelling as it is her tune).  Her performance was a small spectacle compared to what was to come and it ended very early.  I wasn’t converted, but I was certainly impressed.

Twenty One Pilots finally appeared almost exactly on time and opened the show with “HeavyDirtySoul”.  This is a show with which no CD or video can compete.  It is special effects, masks, face & hand paint, more pre-recorded backing tracks with an insane drummer who pops up with a trumpet, throws himself at his kit and back flips off of the keyboard.  The singer is equally mesmerizing and the audience is thrilled.  Hits like “Heathen” and “Stressed Out,” tunes with a ska feel and rap and dance and electronica and techno, played on a ukulele with crowd surfing in a giant hamster ball and on a board with a drum kit fastened to it (although that set up didn’t travel anywhere) – this is a spectacle and worth the wait.  Will I buy their CDs?  No, but my son wants to and he ended up with a t-shirt so I supported them.  Will I go see them again? Absolutely and voluntarily and I’m sure my son will not let me go alone. 

So X-fest? I don’t know about the name except that it is representative of the radio station that puts on the festival.  Folk and Techno fest may have been more apropos.  Did I have fun?  Absolutely.  Did I mind spending the $120 to get my son into the event on Sunday?  Maybe a little at the time, but not by the end of the day.  Was the cold evil by the end of Sunday’s show?  Yes.  Did we care?  I might have a little, but my son refuses to comment on the grounds that he may have to admit that he probably should have brought the gloves I told him to.  Going again next year?  If The PORTAL Magazine will have me, definitely.  Will my twelve year likely join us as well, hmmm – we’ll have to see next year’s line-up.  Lots of positives to feel good about.  Lastly and most importantly, LIVE MUSIC is the greatest music in the world.



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