Swamp Fest 2019
After eight hours of straight driving I arrived in Regina, Saskatchewan. I’d never been and had also never heard anything nice ever said about the place. My reason for the trip was a small independent music festival that came on my radar last year called Swamp Fest. My goal for the trip was to prove everyone in Alberta and Saskatoon wrong about the city of Regina... it wasn’t hard.
Regina’s music scene has been bursting with new life the past three years... perhaps it had always been good (if that’s the case, nobody outside Regina knew... or cared).
No, it seems to me like the city’s new musical surge is due to a few factors, one of which is Swamp Fest.
A small festival, very DIY, and veeeerrrrrry unique. Swamp Fest is a one of-a-kind beacon in Saskatchewan. A beacon that is beginning to burn brighter into the sky and now it’s time for Saskatoon, and the rest of the prairies to follow the light.
After Jeshaiah and I rolled into the town and got settled at our crash pad for the weekend (shout out to Pat who is in Soul Mates with Jeshaiah), we stared our Swamp Fest experience. The festivities started on Friday night at the German Club, which opened in 1968 as a gathering place for the German community in Regina. Today it welcomes everyone and hosts many events like the wrestling match going on the main floor as we walked in. I gathered my weekend pass, trying to pay attention to the lovely volunteers but my gaze was drawn to the open door ten feet away where a man in spandex was getting suplexed with a thunderous thud. Down in the basement was a room that probably hasn’t changed since it was first built. Passing from the island bar, cladded in oak, we walked into a room with a corner of the floor cordoned off for a stage. Trippy projections lined the walls behind a band called Herb & The Humans who were getting things started with some impeccable rock n roll. Best part of this set was watching the strap fall off bassist, Dave Schneider. He never stopped a beat, he just proceeded to wrap his guitar cable around his own neck, and then around the head stock of his bass and continue playing as if nothing had happened. Next was London’s WHOOP-Szo who had just announced they had signed to You’ve Changed Records. This band never disappoints with their heavy, sludge filled riffs, and poignant lyrics. They were a crowd pleaser and some of the finest folks you can meet. Finally, Pop Pop Vernac ended the night with a blast of garage-punk perfection with vocal performances from all four members (including Dave Schneider from Herb & The Humans who was doing double duty). The night was a blast, I met a bunch of great people and caught up with pals I hadn’t seen in awhile. After hopping in a Uber (which Regina just got a couple months back), my night ended with Jeshaiah, Pat, living room beers, and plenty of laughs.
Day two started with brunch at the Hunter Gatherer which is a vegetarian diner in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. After a delicious breakfast, we walked a block to Malty National which is a brewery and coffee roaster. The Sask boys had coffee but I had an Alberta breakfast drink… can’t beat a stout to start the day! Music was starting at Willow Island so we had to leave sooner than I wanted. Malty National is the kind of place I could see myself at for extended periods of time… and on a plus side, it has been certified “Not Haunted”.
We arrived at the ferry launch to Willow Island, which is the daytime venue for Swamp Fest. There is no power and no bridge. All the gear (including generators) was brought to the island on the ferry in which I was now climbing aboard. We launched away from the soviet era architecture of the dock and sped towards the island as Marissa Burwell’s beautiful voice carried over the water. The island is tiny, yet secluded. the entire perimeter is lined with trees, but the interior is a field of delightfully soft grass and a strange canopy that acts as the stage area. The day consisted of incredible music from Marissa Burwell, Shirley & The Pyramids, Veneer, Mr. Merlot, Energy Slime, Lord Byron, and Snake River. The hospitality was what I’ve come to expect from Saskatchewan as warm individuals introduced themselves to me and answered my many questions about their city and its music scene. Fun choreography from swamp monsters would arise from time to time in front of the stage which had the bands just as enthusiastic about the festival as we were. With the sun setting over the legislature, Snake River finished the evening festivities with a psychedelic blitz that brought TAB, the swamp beast, out of the murky depths to dance in a rhythmic trance. It’s safe to say that I’ve never experienced a venue as insane as Willow Island.... yet.
Saturday night ended at a venue called The Soundstage. To an outsider, that could be any bar… I didn’t expect much else. As Jeshaiah and I navigated our way toward the address, it became clear that we were not heading to a normal venue. We walked out of the darkness into a well-lit corridor accessible through a massive overhead door. The walls seemed impossibly tall as we walked to the end of the corridor to a door marked with a giant “1”. We entered the man-door into darkness and as our eyes adjusted, it was clear that we were actually in a professional soundstage. The room was the size of an airplane hanger… but taller! My best estimate is a 60’ ceiling! One wall had a giant projection that added to each performance of the night, starting with Psychic Pollution whose experimental-electronic sounds were a perfectly warm blanket after the chilly, late-summer, walk to the venue. Next was the industrial, noise-punk assault that is Calgary’s DRI HIEV. Front-person, CC, spent the entire set dancing through the audience and wailing in a microphone as the band assaulted the senses (aside from a moment of saxophone bliss). Finally, hometown heroes, Black Thunder took the stage to lay waste to the final concert goers with their amped up stoner rock. Black Thunder are an Edmonton favourite but I can guarantee, no Edmontonian has ever seen them play such a crazy room. Saturday at Swamp Fest was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Sadly, I could not take in any festivities on Willow Island the following day as I had eight hours of driving ahead of me. After dropping off Jeshaiah in Saskatoon, I sat with my thoughts. Swamp Fest was such an amazing time, the festival had invigorated my belief in the indie scene. My bliss turned to confusion as I pondered the fact that I didn’t meet anyone from Saskatoon there just as a spectator. The two cities combined are smaller than Edmonton, and they’re closer together than Edmonton and Calgary. I see no excuse for music fans in Saskatoon to not have this festival circled in their calendar every year (much like I have Sled Island and Calgary Folk Fest circled in mine). Perhaps there’s some distaste towards each other… or maybe some envy. I can’t speak to that because I’m an outsider but I do know that Swamp Fest has been a big part of revitalizing Regina’s music scene. A festival this good goes a long way. It’s definitely plausible to surmise that Swamp Fest could reach far enough North to help jumpstart Saskatoon’s scene that appears to have stalled the past couple years.
Also, acts from Alberta and BC reading this… apply for Samp Fest 2020!