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In light of transit strikes, a day job, and working knowledge of significantly more bands in Vancouver this year than last, New Music West this time around was an experience bordering on completely insane. A good sort of insane, but one that left me exhausted and pretty stressed out. The focus for this year's festival was more on the local scene. Where last year, it was as well, one could also find a large number of signed bands, bigger name bands that drew oodles of spectators, and maybe stole the spotlight from some of the local less-recognized talent. And the event proved that we have plenty to be proud of in this little burg.
May 9th was the kick-off day. No individual shows were scheduled, but the annual Georgia Straight (the local news and entertainment weekly, for the uninitiated) Reader's Choice Awards was on the agenda. This spectacle ended early enough that those in attendance had enough time to skip to the Commodore to catch the big Placebo show later in the evening as well. The GSRCAs are pretty unique. It's a casual awards show, with none of the grandeur of a typical Grammy show or whatever. When I arrived at Richard's Club, there were a fair number of local faces gorging themselves on the free buffet, consuming the free beverages, and schmoozing away to the sounds of Australia's The Waifs. This was my first experience with the Waifs, and certainly wouldn't be my last. The band is a sweet and fun group, kind of folky, with vocal duties shuffling mostly between a couple of gals, sisters Donna and Vikki. They played a full set, and then out popped NMW organizer, John Donnelly to give a brief inaugural speech. He then launched us into a truly twisted exhibition courtesy of Circus Orange. I'm not sure where they're from, but they came out in baggy industrial suits juggling fire torches, and shortly stripped down to femme-fatale and neon-superhero costumes, then proceeded to light themselves on fire, eat fire, and throw tiny stuffed animals into a chin-balanced overturned lawnmower. After we were thoroughly showered in animal stuffing fluff (the stage and room becoming quite the mess at this point), they tossed a bag of paper confetti into the mower's whirring blades. Poof!! Welcome to NMW 2001!
Then began a pretty backwards awards ceremony. A cheesy bright screen would light up alongside the presenters, who would read out the nominees that readers had been given to vote between. True to form, the Matthew Good Band cleaned up just about every award. Don't get me wrong, I love those boys to bits, but they've got to move over and give some of the rest of the people in town a little credit. They've got their trophies. Matthew Good hates awards shows anyhow, so why do they keep giving him these things? Suffice to say, Mr. Good was not in attendance. In fact, the only member of the band present to accept awards was their bassist, Rich Priske. I suppose one could viably count Blair Dobson as a fifth member of MGB by now. He was part of an only-in-Vancouver outfit called DSK, along with Priske and MGB guitarist Dave Genn. Dobson is typically outspoken, and downright hilarious. He accepted many awards on behalf of MGB, giving little acceptance speeches, all the while with some bandage taped across his nose.
Local morning radio DJ's Larry and Willy, Vancouver's favorite duo, were on hand to present awards, as was Nardwuar the Human Serviette, a university-radio personality. Nardwuar has met and interviewed/offended countless big name rock stars and political figures, among them Danzig, Iggy Pop, Courtney Love, Rob Zombie, Mikhail Gorbachev, Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and even Dan Quayle. The man has absolutely zero shame, is the biggest, cutest geek you could possibly imagine meeting, and also probably Vancouver's favorite media member. Some bands picking up awards included Honeysuckle Serontina, who have decided just pre-NMW to change their official moniker simply to HS to avoid all the difficulties people seem to have both saying and spelling Serontina. The New Pornographers, we are delighted to see, also picked one up, and if you know what's good for you, you'll pay attention to this band if ever you hear anything about them. What began as a between-fulltime-projects project for a group of local musicians (among them Neko Case and Limblifter's Kurt Dahle) has turned into a hugely popular gig that is spawning tours and who-knows-where-this-will-lead. Upon the opening notes of their CD, Mass Romantic, pouring over the speakers after the Dandy Warhols soundcheck last December, DW lead guy Courtney Taylor-Taylor was stricken almost dead with rapture. It takes a lot to grab that guy's attention musically, and I can guarantee you, the groovy melodies will have you tapping your toes in no time.
The performances that evening, each one lasting for a few songs as opposed to one at most awards gigs, were a spicy blend of local bands combined with selected guest musicians to create a shiny new dynamic. Chin Injeti, now on a solo project and previously with fairly popular funk group Bass Is Base, teamed up with Craig Northey. Everyone in town seems to love Craig. He is most notably a guitarist with the now-defunct band the Odds, who were notorious for their sense of humor, catchy pop songs, and amusing relationship with Canadian comedy troupe, the Kids in the Hall. Northey now seems to be playing with everyone, contributing to everyone's albums in town both musically and production-wise. He, along with fellow Odds members, has created a funky, loungy group called Sharkskin, and also plays with high-flying Canadian blues guy, Colin James.
Alternative-folk group Zubot+Dawson snagged fellow folksters Radiogram for their performance. The range of instruments from horns to strings was impressive, and the touching version of Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head turned the room into a big sing-along. The Be Good Tanyas, also still in the folk range, recruited lovable-guy Rich Hope, with his country-rock stylings, into their set. It was my first experience with Rich as a soloist, even though he wasn't really solo at this time, and wasn't playing his music. But move over for now, folk, 'cause here comes the rock…
The Black Halos leapt onstage with DOA guitarist Joey "Shithead" Keithley on guitar #3, and Grant Lawrence from the ass-kickin' Smugglers (who picked up a much-deserved award earlier in the night) taking over vocals. Halos' singer Billy Hopeless, donning a DOA shirt, remained in the background for a rare time, sitting near the back of the stage, his arm in the air and his head nodding to the music. Lawrence is an active guy on stage. The Smugglers always put on a killer show, and his leading the Black Halos for a couple songs was equally as engaging. Soon enough, Billy took his rightful forefront and began his own wailing and cavorting. As usual, he spent a lot of time right down on the stage, and guitarist Rich Jones spent a lot of time in the air. I have never been bored during one of their shows, and this was no exception.
Peculiar juxtaposition of the night? Flash Bastard, a group of crass, brazen, glammy rock boys, teaming up with Lily Frost, local pop sweetheart. Lily donned a long, platinum blond wig over her short brown locks for the performance, which threw a lot of people off at first. The guys in Flash Bastard have a tendency to hurl themselves wildly about the stage, and Lily pulls the ol' kneel-and-scream move a lot. They ended up looking really good together up there. At one point, Billy Hopeless grabbed the microphone away from the Bastards on stage to begin his own vocal performance.
The space cleared slowly after the awards were officially over. People seemed to be having a lot of fun chatting with the who's-who of Vancouver music in attendance. It was the perfect opportunity to well-wish and see everyone in the same place at the same time before the pandemonium of the actual festival took over. Times like these make you realize just how desperate some bands are for attention; I was grabbed and chatted to by numerous folks who had seen me wandering around all night with my camera, handed flyers for their bands' gigs, and asked for my information in return. The night spawned fun like a fellow reviewer convincing Billy Hopeless that Larry and Willy should really remove their clothes while on stage. It was a great way to begin the week, and the cozy, casual, technical difficulty-ridden atmosphere of these awards was far more appealing than one might have expected.
Immediately after I got off work for the day, I began my journey through New Music West 2001. First stop? The Web Café, a trendy little restaurant that basically serves as a cafeteria for the prestigious Vancouver Film School. SuperJaded was already onstage. This is a transplanted Vancouver band, now based out of Seattle. While in Vancouver, they went by the name Daiz, apparently dropped a few bucks on getting their disc mixed by Mike Plotnikoff and putting ad spots on local radio, but despite all the glitz, they never really made it anywhere. Down they go to Seattle, and since then, I have seen their video on MuchMusic, and seen more reviews and articles about them in the papers. I guess they're doing all right. They are a pretty typical rock band, nothing terribly extraordinary about the way they play. Couple catchy guitar riffs, and vocalist Ed Shebani who doesn't do too much onstage except whine. It was a lukewarm start. It was peculiar beginning the fest, sort of like the feeling one gets as a child going out early to go trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en; really excited because there will be lots of treats by the end of it all, but in the beginning, there aren't too many other kids on the streets, the big kids for sure don't come out til later in the night, and some of the homes are dark and empty with no candy to give out. That's the feeling I had as I left the Web Café to head for Gastown and Club Sonar for Lily Frost.
After Lily's show with Flash Bastard the night before, I didn't know what to expect from her solo gig. It's been almost half a year since I have seen her play on her own. Sonar was pretty empty initially, but filled up really quick as it drew near and past 9:30, her scheduled start time. By the time she hit the small, dark stage (the club is primarily a house and hip-hop room, and the dim set-up is geared toward DJ's and dancers instead of live acts. The 'stage' is really the area at the top of a wide set of stairs leading to a second lounge area and bar), there was a fairly sizable crowd arranged at her feet. She put on a tight set, complete with chiming melodies, big Bambi eyes, and lots of tosses of her hand. I've never been too big on female-vocal pop, but I must admit she is started to grow on me the more I see her play.
While in the area, I jumped across the street to the Purple Onion, where Spygirl was in the beginning notes of a very competent set that left me wondering why the hell there were so few people at their show. The Purple Onion's big room isn't the best spot in the world to watch live music - there are big, obtrusive posts all over the place, and cushy couches set far back in the room, which is where everyone tends to pool. Vocalist Koralee Tonack is incredibly strong, the music having a bit of a jazzy tough-girl quality to it. The members of the band all seem to have wide-ranging side projects going, the influences of which are seen quite easily.
I emerged from the Purple Onion around 10:20. My next destination was all the way across town at the Penthouse. The Nasty On's set began at 10:15 - could I make it in time? Most of the walk is uphill from Gastown, which is right on the water. I hadn't gone more than three blocks when I ran right into a fellow who used to drum for a pretty successful Canadian band before he was dismissed under unsavory circumstances. I had toured to a few locales with said band and knew the fellow rather well. Trying to be friendly while still getting myself on my way as quick as possible, I learned that he was here playing with another band on Day 3, so I told him I would try to drop by, and scooted off. Somewhere between Pender and Dunsmuir streets, I became aware that all around me, I could hear music. Somewhere, there was an infectious drumbeat and some really talented vocals being created. I soon realized the sounds were coming out of the back of the Marine Club on the next block and ricocheting off the surrounding buildings to me. Sounded great.
I am convinced it was that brisk walk that gave me something akin to shinsplints, and I was out of breath and in pain by the time I reached the Penthouse. The venue is, ordinarily, one of the city's top strip joints. It's in a pretty sleazy area of town, the prostitutes hovering around outside in the surrounding two blocks, the kinda-creepy gay bar up on the corner (I was inadvertently dragged there by my friend's brother one day, and almost made to sing karaoke Celine Dion songs in a room full of pretty shifty characters), and, to make matters worse, a Latin/r+b club also nearby. On the other side of all this though, are three more of the year's New Music West venues. There was an interesting demographic there over the three days. I walked in the door and up the stairs, where the NMW volunteers were trying to tell a group of guys that there were no strippers that night, and entered the room to hear the Nasty On vocalist, over the fading strains of the previous song, announce that "this is the last one!" Woo, just in time! The wall of heat and humidity in the Penthouse is unbelievable and just about knocks you flat on your face. It generally houses the most interesting, raunchy shows of the festival, and gathers the biggest consistent crowds, which generally include the most stylish rock star types. I couldn't believe my good fortune of having gotten to the show at all, and almost wished I would have left the other side of town earlier to catch more of the set. As I wrestled my way through the sweaty throng to the front, I thought "This is incredible!!" It was probably the best thing I had seen all NMW, even though I only caught five minutes of it. The band was loud and unforgiving, and all over the stage and the catwalk like only a punk band can be.
After that set, I wandered to the next block to see what was up at Richard's. Noise Therapy, for years a favorite in the Vancouver hard rock scene, had split quietly when their guitarist took off to play with Tommy Lee and his Methods of Mayhem. This NMW gig was a reunion gig for them, and there was a giant line stretching down the block for it. In the careful planning of NMW, it seems the venue didn't leave a media buffer on the place, and they wouldn’t let me in for even one song to shoot. What I heard through the doors sounded pretty loud and energetic though. That show a bust, I walked to the next block to the Starfish Room. The Starfish is the last of the great mid-size clubs in this town. It's been the best spot for bands that are beyond tiny dives like the Picadilly, but still to small for the 1000-capacity Commodore, to play in. Sadly, we have just learned of the room's fate. The entire block has been bought out for more trendy Yaletown condos, and in the new year, the Starfish Room, which is in fact a heritage building, will be no more. On this night however, the place was still hopping, and Peppersands were onstage. Citizen A fronts the band, and she is one of the most fiery little bassists I have ever seen. She's a tiny girl, but shoots forth a mesmerizing power. She's quite incredible. Her voice is breathy and smooth, and the band at her back plays a delicious heavy pop sound. Marilyn Manson, in town to deliver the keynote speech the next day, was in attendance at this show, though I never saw him hovering in the back corner.
At 11:15 or so, I walked back up to the Penthouse for a couple of Jack Tripper's songs. The band plays some pretty tight rock, and I thoroughly have enjoyed them in the past and on record, but on this day, they weren't doing it for me. The crowd wasn't too pumped up either, and I left there fairly early.
I then backtracked to the Marine Club, which is almost back on the other side of town again. This is a small room that has been around for eons. The front portion is more of a lounge with pool tables and a jukebox, and the back is a small stage area. The club has its share of regulars who cluster around the bar for hours like any old Cheers-type crowd. I walked to the back, which was significantly more crowded than it was the same time a year hence, to see that a pretty rambunctious breed of rock had taken over the room. Five guys who collectively are known as 69 Duster (now that's some sexy ve-hicle!) were shaking the place to its very foundation. The stage is maybe four inches high, and tucked into the back behind a dusty piano and an overhang cluttered with old life preservers and other marine artifacts, but the band was nonetheless a pretty formidable presence. One of the guys, guitarist Sean "Rock" Kelly, I knew from a previous, significantly poppier band called Vibrolux, and had heard about this particular show through him. I was a tad surprised (pleasantly!) at this rock endeavor he was now involved in. The guys are fronted by one Dale Martindale, who is best known for his time spent in the Canadian '80's synth-pop band Images In Vogue. His voice is as strong as ever, and he cajoled the crowd by stepping off the stage and singing from the center of the room. I caught the latter half of their set, then sat around to wait for the next band to take the stage.
That band was superGARAGE, and they play some pretty tight radio-friendly rock. I stuck there for only a couple songs before I had to head off again. They didn't leave much of an impression on me, either positive or negative. They seem to have potential to go on to big and grand things, but need to kick it into high gear a bit more. As I left the Marine Club, I stopped to chat with some of the 69 Duster kids on the sidewalk, before escorting a young fellow named Trevor to his car. Trevor, I soon learned, is in a band called Zufo, who had played earlier at the Marine Club with the legendary Randy Bachman. A quick calculation told me that was the band that had provided me with the aural delights I heard while I was walking to the Penthouse earlier. Soon enough, I headed on to the Web Café again, where Bloomsday was just getting ready to hit the stage. There's something powerful and a little bit 'different' about Bloomsday, but I can't seem to put my finger on exactly what it is that sets them apart from other bands of their ilk. Maybe it's just that they are so incredibly good at what they do. They play pretty catchy music, rock that's neither too poppy, nor too hard and snarling. Just really exceptionally tight, solid tunes.
By that time, it was well after midnight, and I decided that going to Planet Hollywood (a questionable venue for live music anyhow!!) to see June was out of the question. So was heading back into Gastown to see Honeysuckle Serontina. I headed back to the Penthouse, where rumor had it the Black Halos were going to do an impromptu performance. No such luck; the Town Pants were there instead. I lost interest and jetted down to the Starfish Room. On the way, passing Richard's again, I decided to pop in for a minute, now that the lineup had disappeared. On stage finishing their midnight set was Midge. I had never ever seen them play before, but had seen one member, James, at a variety of NMW functions thus far (and would continue to over the weekend). He's a coordinator, what do you know? The vocalist was wearing what appeared to be blue silk pajamas, and the show was really pretty good. It was straight-up heavy rock, complete with loud and screamy vocals, wailing guitars, and noisy drums. They were pretty energetic, and the vibe in Richard's is always really neat. Everyone seems really into the tunes there, the stage is gorgeous, the lights are hot. The band was dead on, and had everyone buying them drinks by the end of the set.
As soon as they were off stage, I jumped over to the Starfish to catch the now-in-progress set from Rosco P Coltrane. I suppose I owe them something, as they may be almost singlehandedly responsible for hooking me up with my NMW media pass this year! They are a fun rock band that is, sadly, in danger of not really going anywhere due in a large part to the band's name, which makes them sound a bit like a slapstick group. They are a bit of an exercise in rock excess which doesn’t really become them. Too much family-guy, portly-guy, geeky-guy, distracted-guy, a little too much of the rock shirts and substances. This makes it sound a bit like I don't like them or something, which is absolutely untrue, but the fact remains that they seem to exude a personality that doesn't jive well with their peppy, upbeat-sounding acoustic music. They have a healthy North Vancouver crowd out to all their gigs, and always get people up and dancing. They even had a fellow from another local band join in on vocals from the crowd.
And so ended New Music West Day 1 for me. Not as fruitful an evening as I had hoped, but it was really fun, and I met a lot of great people. What would await me the following day?
In the mid-afternoon, I joined a large number of people at the Commodore Ballroom for the artist keynote speech. This event was open to delegate-pass holders, media, and those who shelled out $99 for a one-day delegate pass and/or the chance to see Marilyn Manson speak for a few minutes. A quick introduction by John Donelly, a brief speech by Michael McCarty, who is the head of EMI Music Publishing, and the Manson thing were on the agenda. McCarty basically talked about what it takes to get anywhere in the music industry, that being "insanely great music" (a term he used too much, making people gag after a while, and also being really the only thing about his speech anyone in the media picked up on…) like our pop queen Nelly Furtado, and a beautiful face, again like Ms. Furtado. Hmm. The crowd in the meantime, stuffed with goth and alterna-kids waiting for Manson to come out, did not look impressed. Manson, on the other hand, came across as a very clever man. He definitely knows what he's doing with his career, and understands the way the industry works. His speech was mostly about censorship, touching on silly things like his being required to take the word 'dead' out of one of his songs. The question-and-answer period afterwards consisted of a lot of awestruck individuals asking some fairly nutbar questions. Certainly the topic of his 'involvement' with violence in schools was brought up, as were requests to come out and see various shows at the festival. He spoke eloquently and thoroughly with everyone, and after about fifteen minutes, was lead from the stage (but not before shaking hands with the sudden rush of fans who dashed from their seats the second he finished talking). Then it was off to work for me for the day.
I was already miffed before I headed out in the evening because I knew I had missed sets by Rich Hope and Alpha Yaya Diallo, both who played too early for me to see them. So, my first stop was Sonar, where electronic artist Handsome Boy Modeling School was pumping out the beats. It was too dark to shoot, and too early for many people to start dancing, so I didn't stay too long. Next up was the Commodore, where the Waifs were onstage at the beginning of the "big show" of the festival. Later in the evening, the Weakerthans and the Lowest of the Low would be taking the stage, and this was the second of what seems to be many gigs in Vancouver for the Waifs. They deserve it; I think they are really worth checking out. After that, I skipped out on the trek to the (from what I hear) unbelievably packed Picadilly Pub, where rockers the New Town Animals were tearing down the walls. Instead, I took up an offer from a friend of mine who I had run into at Jack Tripper the night before. He had introduced me to a small gal named Adrienne Pierce. She played at the diminutive Commodore Café, a room I wasn't even aware existed until NMW came around. I popped in, on the way passing and exchanging brief words with the also-tiny Sean Macdonald, whose set was on my agenda for later in the evening. The small café inside was crammed to its full capacity, the casual and social crowd, seemingly comprised of a very tight and supportive family of people, all clustered close by the performance area. Adrienne was backed by a sparse band, and projected a lot of confidence and spite in her confrontational lyrics. It was a little jewel that I am very happy I managed to drop in and see for a few minutes.
I then dashed down to the Starfish Room to take in some refreshing fun folk from Zubot+Dawson. The room was quite full when I got there, with people jigging away on the floor. The band looked happy on stage, playing a multitude of instruments, and the crowd was drinking along merrily. I wish I could have stayed! Instead, I took off and headed back to the Commodore for the Weakerthans show. I ran into a whole lot of people there. The Weakerthans were engaging and delightful, and it seems like everyone in Canada, no matter what sort of music they play, respect the band's breezy punk. Breezy punk is a bit of an oxymoron I think, but it's really more ballad-y than punky. A large audience had squished right up to stagefront to dance and sing along.
Following that, I jumped back outside to the Commodore Café. Sean Macdonald was already playing, and I have to say, I really enjoyed his set. It was like the male response to Adrienne Pierce's set. The two of them could be siblings (for all I know, maybe they are siblings…). It was sort of creepy, now that I think about it. But he was a pretty astounding vocalist. I can never get over how these tiny people have the most powerful and well-projected voices.
I sprinted back over to the Penthouse for John Ford's 11:00 show. I caught the tail end of their set, but they were just plain out kickin' it when I got there. The crowd was loving their rockabilly madness. This is one energetic bunch of kids. It was good to at least be able to take this in after missing Rich Hope's solo set, as Rich also fronts this band. The members rotate instruments now and again, and everyone takes part in singing duties. They share microphones, they leap in the air, they get right down on their knees. It's what rock is all about, baby!
I then backtracked to the Commodore, where the Lowest of the Low were finishing off the night in that room. The crowd had visibly diminished since the Weakerthans set, but those who were still around seemed attentive. Nothing hooked me about the performance, but neither was I totally disappointed in them. Average, but pretty good for what it is. And so I jetted back again to the Penthouse, where Following Horus was thankfully finishing up. All my past indifferences with the band aside, they really don't do much for me musically, and how they managed to snag a spot so late in the night at the Penthouse still astounds me. Their signature seems to be vocalist Denny's upright bass. They've changed their appearance quite a bit since last I saw them, but I still don't understand how they get pegged as a 'hard-rock band'. They're pretty tame as far as I'm concerned. And Denny still tries to get me to buy a copy of their album, despite the fact that they brutally scrapped me as that album's designer in the middle of the process, which still pisses me off. I'm glad I don't have to deal with them often.
Soon enough, Flash Bastard took the stage there and thoroughly ripped up the house. Vocalist Donal Finn sort of reminded me of a video game character the way he hopped around the stage flinging his legs up behind him, but he's just so darn pretty that we can forgive him for that little misgiving. While I have never been introduced to the other band members (and their industrial-style website has no bio on it) and consequently don't know their names, they all participated in the madness. In particular, their big, Dolf Lundgren-like guitarist is amusing. He doesn't look like the normal waif-like member of some glammy rock band, instead looking like a beefy wrestler that got stuck in his little sister's closet. He looks a little too crammed into his leather pants and zebra-print tank, and the cap of smooth, platinum-blond hair looks slightly unnatural for him. But he's always at the front of the stage (or on the catwalk, as it were), egging on the crowd or whipping his guitar about in a frenzy. In the meantime, Donal Finn is more or less making out with the microphone and sneeeeering in glorious haughty rock fashion.
That ended the evening (sort of) for me. Well, as far as concerts are concerned anyhow. Knowing I wouldn't be able to make it all the way across town to see Exit This Side, I hooked up with 69 Duster after that show, and ran all over town with them trying to find food and more drinks before engaging in a (*ahem*) exclusive photo shoot in the band's hotel room. But that's another story.
Today started a bit earlier in the day. At about 6:30, I wandered over to the Railway Club, which was not being used this year as a NMW venue. This is surprising - in past years, it's been one of the top places to pack into to see some tunes. It's a neighborhood-style little bar, with a small front room for live music, and a back lounge for sports fans and social butterflies. Tonight, the 'anti-NMW' show was going on. CBC Radio 3 was hosting a showcase with a diverse few bands. The little room wasn't as packed as it can be, but this early on a Saturday, not many people are out yet. The sets were webcast as well, which crowded the room with cameras and tech people. The snazzy little earplug-holders they were handing out were pretty great. In fact, I acquired a lot of cool swag from them.
Third Eye Tribe was the first band I saw play. They are a trio of dub-hiphop kids, and they definitely struck a note with the crowd. It wasn't long before people were whooping and cheering to the band's politically-oriented lyrics. Shortly thereafter, a long-standing local favorite, the Grapes of Wrath, started up. The band has a lengthy and fairly tumultuous history, and sort of went on hiatus (if we can call it that) for a number of years, only they did it so silently that most people simply forgot they really existed. They just drifted off into obscurity like most bands do as they start preparing a new album, and people didn't pay it any mind until one day, a few began musing about just what happened to them and why it was taking so long for them to release any new music. Side projects came and went, and then, just as silently, the band reformed and began playing some low-key shows. Much of the momentum was gone from the band's previous successes, but the faithful fans were ecstatic to finally see something new from them.
The group's stage presence is gentle and casual. They always look really pleased to be playing their songs to an appreciative crowd, and they seem to put an awe-inspiring spell on their audiences. Yes, the spell of the Grapes of Wrath, which can magically transport you back to your formative years, to summers spent by the beach with a mixed cassette taped off the radio, to your first bar shows. The Grapes' set time, much to bassist Tom Hooper's amusement, seemed to be extended after every song they played. By the end of it, they were just improvising. More than a few peoples' attentions were caught firmly when they broke into a delicious cover of Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine.
Immediately after they finished up, I ran over to the Web Café. Tonight, the Café was hosting the annual CFOX Seeds Release party. CFOX, the local rock radio station, puts out a compilation CD every year with a selection of bands that have come out as finalists in the yearly DemoListen Derby contest. The bands that appear on the disc are then featured in a highly-advertised New Music West showcase. Last year, it was held at the Commodore, and this year, they downgraded to the little Web Café. It was already hot and crowded for Booti Dharma's set. My plans were to stay there for the first three sets, with little excursions to nearby clubs in between sets. Booti Dharma is a blues-tickled band, with an amazingly talented vocalist who goes by the name of Garfield. A startling, tall figure, he also sings backup for Colin James, and in fact left on a tour with James just after NMW wrapped up. They are a great band to sit back and sip martinis to.
I then went over to the next block to see what was going on with the Orchid Highway's endeavors. Orchid Highway play 60's-influenced super-pop. Nothing in this town makes you want to get up and dance quite so badly. In lieu of a pretty lousy NMW slot that they were given, they set up their own showcase at the Artist Support Society (ASS). They plastered the city with posters featuring their naked rear ends (ASS - get it?), then locked themselves in for 48 hours over the latter part of NMW, and kept the doors open to anyone who wanted to drop by at any point during the weekend. They wrote a single, Tea With Shandra, recorded it, and filmed a video for it. They put up art installations (Citrus Suspension), had a bar running, a wall of TV's, and planned to play a set at 2 in the morning, after all the other NMW festivities were completed. They had a full schedule set up that they handed out all over town, including such amusing points as the band's breakup over creative differences and subsequent reformation half an hour later, the exact moments in which perfect guitar solos would be played, their Poptart breakfast, and of course, all points of nudity through the weekend. Sadly, they never got the live goat plans off the ground. After the weekend, they were to take their newly-recorded hit to a local recording studio for one last NMW conference, a demo by one of the city's producers. At the time I went up to see them though, not much was going on. The only people aside from the band in attendance were a couple girlfriends and helpers for the weekend. I watched them practice for a few minutes, then went back to the Web Café.
What greeted me at the door was a pure melee. What was before a small, manageable lineup had grown into an angry, pulsating crowd. People were getting miffed that they couldn't get into the show all of a sudden, for many of them, one of two or three shows they would go to all weekend. The draw? ShoCore, one of the Seeds bands, which had promised all sorts of visual treats for their Crazy Town-breed of hard rock show. The Café had been set up that night to accommodate all show-specific ticket holders, and only then the festival wristband-bearers would be allowed in. I was not permitted entry for a single song to shoot, even at one of the following band member's insistence that I come in to shoot them. Defeated and severely angry at the lack of preparation for such events, I went instead to my next stop for the night. This was my one and only trek to the Brickyard all weekend long. The Brickyard has undergone some changes recently. It is located in the worst part of town, where many a band's gear has been ripped off by desperate junkies. It is apparently zoned as a pub, which means it's only allowed to have something like 150 people inside it at a time, even though it's large enough for easily twice that many. Previous owners often crammed more people in than they were allowed, got in trouble numerous times, and finally, attempted to renovate the room so it could be rezoned as more of a club - which also means they can't serve alcohol before a certain time of day. They finally just left it as it is, and since then, it hasn't drawn quite the caliber of bands it used to.
Tonight, it was playing host to a loud rock bill. When I arrived, Limestone was still on the stage. A rather unassuming red-haired fellow sings for them, and to me, they seemed to be just another imageless rock band. Yes, I know how much we all yammer on about the virtue of the band free from the shackles of 'image being everything', but really, it is important to have an identity, and these guys seemed blah both in music and appearance. I wouldn't mind giving them a further listen to see if that's the case, or if I merely stumbled in on their last couple slower-paced tunes. But shortly, the band I had come there for sauntered onto the stage. Mr. Underhill, the self-proclaimed Vamp-rock masters. Visually riveting, the band is outfitted in the all-around shiniest, blackest duds I have ever seen a full band wearing at the same time. Vocalist Nim Vind is this tall, statuesque creature with enormous hair and tastefully-applied eyeliner. Bass is supplied by Robbie K, the only one in the band with a 'normal' name, and the drummer, Labuda, could be seen here and at the Marilyn Manson keynote dressed in this insanely large-collared black vest thing. The elaborate costumes and "Vamp-titude" seem to be a shell for the same brand of rock that guys in jeans and tshirts could be playing. That's not to say it's bad - on the contrary, I really rather enjoy it - but that the band has given rock a brand new face. Rock music isn't that terribly different across the board, but appeals to a totally unique demographic based on lyrical content and visuals. An interesting observation, if nothing else. They play a tight as hell show, and have a great energy to boot. The crowd gets uppity when they hit the stage, and all around me was black leather, vinyl, rubber, corsets, thigh boots, ornate makeup and bright hair. Pretty attractive crowd, if I do say so myself.
I left there and walked back by way of the Web Café again, where the next band was already onstage. It was still crowded with people pouring out the windows and a large line outside, and so I bypassed Morning Maker and SunLike Star and just carried on to my next destination, which was, of course, the Penthouse. The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, everyone's favorite tribute to HP Lovecraft, was weirding out the masses at my favorite venue of the festival. This year, they were attractively dressed in matching red coveralls, which was peculiar and slightly confusing, but not nearly as delightful as their get-up last year. In that, one of my first tastes of really-screwed-up rock, I walked into a packed Brickyard club to see a bunch of guys on stage dressed in giant foam bug costumes and red silk hooded outfits with cow udders and long, spindly fingers. Now that was a sight. This time, what shocked me most was the fact that the bassist is a guy I knew from another band a good year ago plus that I haven't seen since. My, they make the rounds in this town. The music is equally as off-the-wall. The subject matter quite faithfully revolves around HP Lovecraft's twisted short stories, and so both the bands' lyrics and music are kind of jarring. Good for them for doing something so zany.
Off I went then to the little G-Note restaurant, which is a pretty unique venue for NMW. The restaurant has undergone a few name/management changes in the past couple years, and is basically just a really small, cozy, dark place to grab a bite, have a chat and a beer, and see some music. It is not a good spot for shooting, but that's beside the point. On stage then was Citizen Strange, a youthful group of guys from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. I saw them about two years ago, and loved it instantly. Something really endearing and sad about the songs. They seem angry, but more of a passive angry rather than an I'm-gonna-beat-the-stuffing-outta-you angry. And again, the tiny vocalist with the enormous voice is so captivating. They describe themselves as a mix of a whole bunch of really mainstream rock bands, but I think they deserve more credit than that.
After a couple songs there, I took a quick trip over towards Planet Hollywood to see if I could catch Ashley Park. I've never seen them before, but have heard a mountain of good stuff about them. I arrived out front to see the Ashley Park guys loading their gear out. They hadn't played a set at all, as the band who was lending them a drum kit for the night apparently packed up and took off early. Nice. That failed, I turned back to the Penthouse for the Saddlesores. More killer rock-a-billy from these boys. I've seen them play a few times before, but watching them take full advantage of the Penthouse stage with its catwalk and golden slide poles was a huge treat. Loud, obnoxious, and the best covers of Johnny Cash one could hope to witness. I was thrilled to hear vocalist Billy Jay Millions proclaim to the crowd that he had shaved his armpits for this gig as he tossed his arms in the air for our inspection. The year before on the same stage, on the same day, at the same time, eccentric Canadian glam-boy Robin Black strutted out to the catwalk, and announced exactly the same thing before blasting the audience with pyrotechnics. Was this planned, or just some creepy coincidence? Apparently, body hair has no place in glam rock. The band, with a new drummer now in place of the fellow who fell in love while the band was touring in San Francisco and refused to come back to Vancouver, rocked heartily to an extremely enthusiastic and thoroughly entertained crowd.
A quick hop back to G-Note to see Star Collector. With a brand new album just released, the guys continue on the tradition of chiming 60's pop. Classy Rickenbacker guitars and cute shaggy haircuts add to the whole peppy, poppy feeling. They looked stifled on the teeny little G-Note 'stage', but also appeared to be having a lot of fun. After shooting them for a few songs, I crept around back, through the kitchen, and to a claustrophobic back alley closed off by chain link fencing, where the Citizen Strange boys had gone to escape the crowds and have a few smokes. I corralled them there, ever aware of how much it seemed like some odd mystery novel. It was a good chance to have a quick chat and learn about the band a bit before I went back to the Penthouse to endure a bit of the spectacle that is Thor.
The folks I was with (those 69 Duster guys again) couldn't handle it for long, and neither could I. The full-body armor and bending metal poles around his head were a bit much. It was fun only until the gimmicks became a tad too gimmicky. We then piled into a van and scooted across town to the Purple Onion to pick up some more band members, then back to the Penthouse to find the last pair of 69 Dusters, as well as a stray Black Halo and a NMW organizer. Now somehow successfully cramming 10 people into a van usually meant for no more than 7, we all headed over to the ASS to join in the rest of Vancouver in one last big hurrah for NMW 2001. This is truly where everyone seemed to be drawn to, with the promise of more schmoozing, more drinks, and more music. We missed all the earlier fun of the video shoot and the naked sushi (Orchid drummer Adrian is quoted as saying "the highlight of my night was eating sushi off my girlfriend's crotch.."), but the atmosphere was crowded fun nonetheless. Among the crowd were Star Collectors, Limblifter's Ryan Dahle, the aforementioned Black Halo and 69 Dusters, local diva Siobhan Duvall (who's Toronto cop story I must have heard a dozen times that night), and that guy who plays Michael Kelso on That 70's Show. I went into the bright green room, beneath the ceiling from which hung dozens of spinning lemons, to grab a plastic cup of wine from the makeshift bar. Then, out to the tiny balcony, where far too many people were trying to convene to smoke. I soon realized I was leaning against a duct-taped hockey stick, which was the only thing between me and the fire escape ladder four stories up overlooking a back alley. By then, it was about time to catch Orchid Highway in action. This was a room with a ceiling height on par with your average basement, lit by the wall of TVs and a couple lava lamps, the mix being taken care of by fellow multi-talented pop guy, Scott Fletcher from the Roswells. The Orchids are an interesting breed. The five members, three of which are brothers, all live in one giant house in the suburbs, and drive a huge diesel bus painted somewhat like the Partridge Family's. They play extremely clever and well-crafted pop songs that had the room raging in mere moments. They played for 45 minutes or so, and then let the party continue until the last stragglers had left the building and it was getting light out. There were seagulls perched on the adjacent roof.
I ended up catching a cab with a couple other girls to a pancake house to see if I could get some breakfast. The taxi left me behind the building, and I walked around front to see that it was closed, and not going to open for another hour (at which time it would be 8:00am on a Sunday morning). With no transit running for another hour either, I walked back downtown to a gross McDonald's to choke down some food before I could catch a train home, a few hours of sleep, and then get back downtown for the evening's awards show.
West Coast Music Awards
The WCMA's, besides being an awards show, had one thing in common with the Georgia Straight Reader's Choice Awards earlier in the week; the Matthew Good Band. The show was a lot more of a big-production type of event, but lacked character on the whole. I walked in through a 'special' media entrance (the red carpet splayed out the front doors of the Commodore and rolled overtop of the worn and grungy sidewalk in the somewhat rundown Granville Mall seemed a bit out of place), and ascended the stairs past statue-still girls who were painted completely silver and covered in ornate decorations made out of shiny CDs. I entered a room that was fairly full, but it was quite hard to gauge just how many people were there because the floor was packed with enormous round tables. The house lights were low at this point, most of the illumination being provided by candles set atop intricate CD centrepieces. Everything was segregated - VIP tables cluttered the floor, and media and 'common areas' were along the sides. Certainly this did not offer the same sort of social atmosphere that the GSRCAs provided. It was hard to even tell who was there at this point.
Soon enough, the house lights dimmed completely, and the stage lit up to a colorful and energetic performance by Scrap Arts Music, a group of fit individuals who do well-choreographed dancing and drumming on these huge steel drums. It was reminiscent of other industrial troupes like Stomp and Tap Dogs, and also seemed a familiar unusual start to the show, much as Circus Orange was at the GSRCA's. Maybe the awards would be more interesting than I had thought.
Our host for the night was Angela Kelman, one of the wholesome gals who make up the country group, Farmer's Daughter. She started the show with a few cracks regarding her nervousness, and imagining some of the notable West-Coasters in their underwear. She introduced the first presenters for the night; CFOX's Larry and Willy. Before any awards were handed out, Larry, in reaction to Kelman's mentioning only Willy in her speech on anxiety, walked to the front of the stage and deftly removed his pants, shook his ass for the crowd, and returned to his spot behind the podium. Ah, now the show can begin!
Larry spent the full time he was onstage in his shorts, and no one batted an eyelash at receiving an award from such an individual. Anything this duo does in Vancouver is perfectly acceptable.
As can only be expected, the Matthew Good Band won everything they were nominated for, aside from one award where Nelly Furtado was nominated in the same category - Best Release with Major Distribution. Again, Matthew Good himself was not on hand to accept awards, and neither was Dave Genn. But this time, drummer Ian Browne joined bandmate Rich Priske and honorary member Blair Dobson on stage. Dobson was wearing a neat suit for the casual Georgia Straight Awards, so it was only fitting that this evening he be wearing a grungy black leather jacket and jeans. They took home five awards. Our princess, Nelly Furtado, was not in Vancouver to accept her pile of awards either. She sent along an exceptionally cheesy video speech from Sweden that was far too gushy and lasted far too long, especially coming just after we had all been lectured by Larry and Willy about keeping the acceptance speeches to a minimum to keep the show running along ("All right, we're happy that you won, but shut the hell up and get off the stage"). She received four awards.
Many incredible bands went unacknowledged as they happened to fall into a category that MGB was also nominated for, but some that received well-deserved awards include Zubot + Dawson, jazz guys Metalwood, jazz pianist Michael Kaeshammer (who believes he's too young to win an award!), and big local favorite, Luke Doucet. Doucet is best known for his role as guitarist, vocalist and all-around cynical guy in the band Veal, but also just released a wonderful solo album called Aloha, Manitoba. Also on the menu for the night, local gal Sarah McLachlan took home the Industry Builder award predominantly for her work with Lillith Fair, the all-girl summer festival. She accepted the award from a distracted Vancouver Mayor Phillip Owen, whose eyes kept darting to the barely-dressed silver award girl standing a couple feet beside him. McLachlan has been on a bit of a hiatus from touring and recording to concentrate on family life with her husband and drummer, Ashwin Sood. She looked happy and healthy and was all smiles accepting her award. We also were presented with a video tribute to Scott Smith of '80's rockers Loverboy, who passed away tragically in a boating accident last year.
The whole event was fairly bland overall, but colorful moments occurred by way of Blair Dobson, and some little technical glitches. Probably the most amusing (and best taken in stride) was when the Puentes Brothers, winning best world release, walked onto the stage to the tune of Nelly Furtado's I'm Like A Bird. The crowd looked amused at this point, and upon reaching the stage, Alexis Puentes immediately began singing the song. Shortly after their acceptance, they hit the stage to perform, and began with a salsa-flavored rendition of the song. Other performances were by Michael Kaeshammer, Kim Kuzma, and the Paperboys. Kuzma put on an exceptional performance, spirited and incredibly fun. She was positively beaming from just winning an award (on stage, sobbing, she proclaimed, "I'm a girl; I can cry!"), and sang with a big smile on her face. The Paperboys, also winners on the night, played the last set of the evening, and continued playing after the awards while the bar remained open and people stood and began to mill about.
Aside from the pushy and rude videographers, who thought nothing of walking right over my head to stand directly in my line of sight, the show went pretty well from a photography standpoint. A fair bit of stagefront space was allowed us, and the lights were bright, bouncing all over when reflected off the wall of CD's that framed the podium. The event went relatively smooth and was pretty short as well. The performances were all chosen to be as inoffensive as possible to everyone. Nothing was too loud or too soft or too off the wall. It was basically a scaled-down version of the Grammys. Efficient, mainstream, generic, and generally tepid. It had some grand moments, but was mostly just a customary awards show, more of a formality of being in the music business than anything else. It was so different from everything that transpired over the rest of the week, it hardly seemed as though it should be associated with New Music West at all, but it did effectively wrap the weekend up tightly and leave me pining for next year's festival.
In the end, New Music West was an amazing success, and the showcasing of more local talent was a big plus. It kept most of the shows on the same level, and made it much more exciting to drop in on shows just to see what was going on. NMW isn't as high profile or quite as large as its eastern and southern counterparts, but grows every year, and should enjoy the same level of respect as its bigger brothers. The people in Vancouver responded to the 'festival' tag to prove that music-lovers do exist here, and that if a few more bucks are spent on improving show advertising in this town, the newly-informed populace will come out and support the scene. Things like the Vancouver Seeds shows and IndieBlast give huge exposure to independent bands and make folks aware that some of the best music they will ever hear exists right under their noses, and not necessarily on some huge, mass-production, big-label scale. It also shows that some of the last great remaining small clubs in this town, such as the Starfish Room, need not be destroyed in favor of condos as a money-maker. Such a revelation can't save the ill-fated Starfish Room now, but hopefully it will spawn a resurgence in peoples' interest and excitement, and maybe create some new spots to play music in this town and keep the indie music scene growing. We have the talent - we have the interest - now we just need regular support.