Sappyfest XI was my second Sappyfest and it was great. The lineup was not quite as good as the lineup in 2014 (which featured Constantines, Cousins, a Shotgun and Jaybird reunion, and Dusted, among other great acts), but it was still absolutely wonderful.
For those reading about the festival for the first time, Sappyfest is a three day festival held every summer in the wonderful little college town of Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, featuring various up-and-coming, as well as long-beloved bands from across Canada. Festival goers camp out around town, chill, meet new people, shop, grab coffee, explore the area, check out sets. Everyone’s really nice and well-behaved. There’s no hard drugs (or even much soft); good vibes abound. The whole thing is pretty utopian.
In the positive spirit of the festival, I’m not going to write about any of the bands I didn’t like. There were no bands I actively disliked, but there were a couple that just didn’t really interest me much. But who wants to read about bands they shouldn’t like? Nobody. So let’s talk about the bands that were great, and that you should check out.
Due to a flat tire and other issues encountered on the drive up to Sackville from Brooklyn, I didn’t get to the festival until like 9 or 10pm. The first set I saw was Halifax/Toronto power-pop supergroup Tuns‘. It was pretty cool. As one might expect from a band consisting of former members Sloan, Super Friendz and The Inbreds, the songs were extremely well-composed, and the performance was legit.
Canadian East-coast folk-punks Horses played the first late set in the bowling alley under Thunder and Lightning bar. I’d never heard the band before, but I really liked them. The played an appropriately raucous set.
East-coast indie-rock legend Shotgun Jimmie closed the first night. A former Sackville resident himself, Jimmie’s set was effortlessly great, and easily the standout of the festival’s first night. He played most of the set solo, banging out a beat with his feet on some floor drums while playing guitar and singing.
The song selection drew on an abundant number of quasi-classics from his stellar discography. At one point he stopped playing guitar in the middle of “King of Kreuzberg” and sang both the lyrics and instrumental melodies of one song along with the audience before kicking everything back in. At another, he called Jon Mckiel (another great East-coast indie rocker in his own right) up to play drums while he sang Guided By Voices‘ “Game of Pricks” a cappella. He also played this song (it went over very well).
After the set I went to sleep.
The next day I spent most of the morning at the zine & craft fair.
I managed to catch the last song of Hamilton, Ontario’s ornate Cosmos Quartette. It was pretty impressive. A lot of people seemed blown away by them (I think Shotgun Jimmie, the night before, even said “they’ll change your life” or something).
Toronto folkies Luka went on next. It wasn’t bad. My girlfriend said they were her favourite band of the festival.
Guelph’s wonderful Kazoo! Fest had a little showcase in the bar Duffy’s. Guelph experimental two-piece Badminton Racquet played and were one of my favourite discoveries at the festival. Guitarist Kyle Coveny used a wide array of pedals to get a really warped guitar sound, banging out metal power chords and sneaky riffs over drummer Nathan Campagnaro‘s avant beats. Their $2 cassette EP was an easy sell. They were followed by Cupcake Ducktape, but I missed their set to see The Wooden Stars.
Formed in 1994 in Ottawa, The Wooden Stars were a great 90s Canadian indie rock band. They’ve reunited for a bunch of shows since more or less disbanding after 1999’s classic Julie Doiron and The Wooden Stars album (more on that later). In 2008 they even released another album called People Are Different (admittedly, not my favourite Wooden Stars album). As great as The Wooden Stars are, both as songwriters and musicians, the set was kind of low-key, and maybe didn’t feature the best song selection.
I went to sleep soon after their set, since I hadn’t slept well for two nights and was exhausted at this point.
Jay Arner opened up the MainStage show on the third day of the festival. The Vancouver synth-pop artist was another one of my favourite new discoveries of the festival, and even though he played an early set, it was nonetheless excellent. If he hadn’t run off so quickly with his merch, there’s a good chance I would’ve grabbed a cassette of his recently released Jay II.
Montreal sample-gazers Phedre also played a nice afternoon set. I’ve been a fan of the band for a long time. The chill, afternoon outdoor setting worked well for their kind of gooey experimental pop.
Moncton’s French-language Les Hotesses d’Hilaire rode into town in a distinctively-painted tour bus that let everyone know the band was a big deal. Thankfully they lived up to expectations. Their songs may not have been Radiohead-y masterpieces of creativity and composition, but all that really mattered was that the band hold down the fort behind boisterous frontman Serge Brideau, who stomped around the stage sing-shouting ridonc jokes about French-Canadian politics (“I’ll French you on the English!”) in his thick French-Canadian accent. Being from Toronto and not speaking French, I probably didn’t get half (or even 10%) of the jokes. But the man’s boundless charisma needed no translation to make for an incredibly entertaining stage show.
Julie Doiron‘s performance with The Wooden Stars some 17 years after the release of their album together was debatably the centrepiece set of the festival. As guitarist Mike Feuerstack predicted the reviews would note, the set was plagued by all kinds of technical issues, from the band not having enough beers (that’s a joke…kind of…), to a broken guitar string, to a replacement guitar that didn’t work, to monitor levels taking a while to get to where the band wanted them to be. Even with all the issues, the set was the best of the festival. The ensemble performed the album’s meticulous arrangements with the skill and grace of seasoned veteran musicians. Which, of course, they are. Even some of the album’s less memorable songs became masterpieces onstage.
The set was also notable for its non-musical qualities. The band’s (especially Feuerstack’s) hilarious stage banter kept everyone entertained while Shotgun Jimmie changed guitarist Julien Beillard‘s string backstage. At one point, in the midst of technical difficulties, Feuerstack said “oh god, I can see the Exclaim! review now…” He also asked the crowd how many people’s nipples were getting scratched by the festival wristband while they were in the shower. A lot of hands went up. Apparently this is a common problem.
It was also amazing how many people were there with small children. Kids were present throughout the festival, running around the maze of legs, wearing big, hearing-protection headphones. But it seemed this was the set their parents were all waiting to see. It was the set that brought young and old together. There was even a funkily-dressed old lady standing on a chair. After the set, I saw her walk off with a Julie Doiron & The Wooden Stars vinyl.
The last set I saw was Halifax slack-rockers Nap Eyes. I wanted to watch their set while drinking my last Canadian beer (so much better than American beer) of the trip at Thunder and Lightning. That’s why the pic above is an over-the-fence shot. I could hear the band just fine, and they sounded great. Three days of driving, sleeping in tents, bathing in rivers, watching sets and exploring Sackville had left me exhausted. The band’s lazy-day serenades served as a beautiful and fitting coda to the whole Sappy experience.
I went to my tent to get an early night in. I had to wake up early the next day to get a good start on the 12-hour drive home. I could still hear Sackville super-crew Weird Lines. Good night, sweet Sappy…good night…