An Up + Downtown 2017 Debriefing
Every Thanksgiving, various downtown venues play host to Edmontons Up + Downtown Festival. This year marked the fifth anniversary of the event, an anniversary which brought new challenges. One might say that the theme of this year was perseverance. Poor weather, technical problems, late starts and bad behaviour could have ruined the weekend for the many concert goers that packed venues in Edmonton's central core. However, Edmontonians are gritty, and tough as nails, and did not allow for these factors to ruin the best annual music festival the city has to offer. This was my first experience at Up + Downtown as I typically venture to Kamloops every year for a traditional Thanksgiving with family. This year, a new relationship between the festival and my podcast Cups N Cakes was ample reason to instead stay and enjoy three days of music.
I started out by seeing local chill-wave/beach-pop act Tropic Harbour at Starlite Room. It was a great set to kick things off and it was followed by Vancouver's Summering playing a selection of newer tracks. Summering are one of my favourite Canadian acts and they did not disappoint, their blend of post-rock, shoegaze, and slowcore always makes for an intense show, I have no doubt they picked up a few new fans that night.
Next I dropped into the basement to see Pet Blessings and Gary Debussy play at Brixx. Pet Blessings proved to be one of the highlight discoveries of the festival, expressing punk rock at its finest. Gary Debussy, never a band to disappoint, once again enthralled their fans, with drummer Sean MacIntosh playing like a madman behind the kit while leading the band through their set of crazy, jazz undertoned, experimental math-rock.
I then bounced back upstairs to Starlite Room to catch New York act DIIV. Sadly, the energy onstage was low, with frontman Zachary Cole Smith looking bored at the best of times. He came across as a spoiled toddler who was upset about being in Edmonton to play a festival for which he hadn't bothered to learn the name of. Although the energy was a drag, the band were tight and the venue had good sound. Fortunately, they made up for their lack lustre performance with their final track of the night, “Doused.” If ever there was a must-see moment during their set, it was this live performance of their most popular track. Everyone onstage seemed to find a little extra energy as they ploughed through the song in a frenetic manner, performing a ferocious rendition of a near perfect rock song.
Finally, I scurried over to Freemasons Hall to see the tail end of Sister Nancy's set only to find out that due to some mess of circumstances, she hadn't played yet. Too tired to care, I ventured home to bed.
I started out the evening hearing Alan Cross at McDougal United Church. He gave the audience a fun music trivia test which I had to duck out of early in order to conduct an interview.
I later wrapped up the interview and headed out to see Weaves play at the Needle. Terrible weather had shut down the outdoor concert at Michael Phair Park and the good folks at The Needle stepped up in a big way to help out the festival. Sadly, Weaves was the low point of the weekend. Their records have a special weirdo charm that didn’t translate into a live setting, and their songs seemed to turn into average indie rock.
After Weaves I caught Calgary’s Chron Goblin play their blend of hard-rock/metal at DECL, they performed a couple new tunes from their forthcoming album that sounded great. I quickly made my way to McDougal Untied Church once again to see one of the best sets of the weekend. Toronto’s Fiver sent shiver’s through the room as she played songs from her incredible album Songs From Rockwood. Easily one of the best albums of the year, it was a treat to hear her play a few of these song in such an incredible setting. And I do mean “a few” as she only had twenty minutes! A huge mistake in my opinion, as it turned out to arguably be the best twenty minutes of the weekend. If you haven’t been able to dig into Fiver’s Songs From Rockwood, do yourself a favour and take some time to hear the most ambitious Canadian record of the year.
Next, I bolted to CKUA to hear a beautiful set from Calgary’s Hermitess. These beautiful songs about nature and how we interact with it soared thanks to Jennifer Crighton’s harp and enchanting voice. I then headed to Rocky Mountain Ice House and caught a bit of Calgary’s funnest rock n’ roll band Napalmpom. However, they were just the appetizer, as I was also there to see the legendary Canadian indie rock band Change Of Heart. The greatest thing about a festival like Up + Downtown, for a music lover like myself, is the education you get in the music nerdery department. I wasn’t cool enough to know who Change Of Heart was back when they were current, but at this event I got to learn about their influence on the independent Canadian music scene and I couldn’t help but crack a smile as they rocked out like they where still young pups. It was rock music at it’s finest.
When Change Of Heart finished, I was off to see Here Lies Man at Freemason’s Hall, who became one of the most talked about bands of the entire festival. Their infectious blend of hard-rock and afro-beat had the packed room in awe of every note. Not a soul left Freemason’s Hall disappointed.
This soul then left, and crossed the street to Starlite to see Dan Deacon. After some mild technical difficulties Deacon lit into his spastically strange dance music. He brought back audience participation in a big way, with dance offs! He even got the audience to form a train to the exit the venues out onto the street. The crowd filed out of Starlite until he was left playing to an empty room. Deacon is an entertainer in the truest sense, anybody that may have shown up in a foul mood no doubt left grinning from ear to ear. Day two of Up Downtown was one of the highest quality days of music I’ve ever seen, kudos to the crew that curated this years festivities.
Day three kicked off for me with Library Voices at Rocky Mountain Ice House. This Regina band delivered a fun set of danceable pop-rock gems. It had been years since I’d seen them live and their performance was enough to re-invigorate my fondness for them. After they finished I made my way to Yellowhead Brewery to catch a couple local favourites starting with Birds Bear Arms, who keep sounding tighter and tighter every time I hear them play. This post-hardcore band will, no doubt, soon be one of the most talked about acts in Edmonton. They were followed by Cham who play fun post-punk with hilarious tongue-in-cheek lyrics. After their set I headed back to the Rocky Mountain Ice House to see the Canadian supergroup TUNS. Consisting of Chris Murphy of Sloan, Matt Murphy of The Super Friendz, and Mike O’Neill of The Inbreds. They have a fun pop-rock sound with all members taking turns behind the mic. As cool as it was to see these Canadian music legends sharing the same stage, the performance fell a little flat much like their debut album which seemed too predictable and too common. I left a few songs before they ended, to head back to Yellowhead Brewery for what was easily the best show on Sunday. The Highest Order are an alt-country band from Toronto, fronted by the incredible voice of Simone Schmidt (Who also played the festival solo, as Fiver). The band played a jam heavy set filled with tracks from each of their much loved two albums. The music was loud, the beer was delicious and the venue was packed as The Highest Order closed out the 2017 edition of Up + Downtown.
Let the countdown to Up + Downtown 2018 begin!
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