By Maya-Roisin Slater
September 11 – 14, 2014
VICTORIA — I’ve often found the party-focused environment that festers in most music festivals to be unappealing. Perhaps it’s just my bummer personality, but the lack of focus on music that occurs at these events generally frustrates and befuddles me. Rifflandia Music Festival turned this annoyance of mine completely upside down. The lineup was more than a little confusing with headlining acts that seemed irrelevant and incoherently curated. Though the festival’s headlining acts were questionable, this happy accident opened up opportunities to highlight smaller bands that normally would’ve been swept under the rug. The festival’s main selling points were acts like Death Cab For Cutie, Serena Ryder and Zed’s Dead so it seemed unlikely that anyone would actually pay $165 to attend the event. But sitting on the packed 3 p.m. ferry from Vancouver to Victoria it looked like I was about to be proved wrong. There were patrons in the hefty lineup for ferry food sporting last year’s Rifflandia shirts, the parking deck was chalked full of sketchy vans with precariously packed guitars and amps, and strangers broke the ice over bathroom sinks by discussing antics that occurred in festivals past.
Unlike other music festivals, Rifflandia is not an event confined to one big field behind a fence. The entire city gets involved, all the best venues host shows, local businesses offer deals for those with wristbands and anti-authoritarians throw underground free shows to make sure no one in the city goes without seeing some music.
Thursday night was chalked full of $1 coffees from Habit and a fascinating glance into Victoria’s rave scene. The lineup to see Dead Air, Vaski and Zed’s Dead at Market Square was long and full of furry hats and glow sticks. The crowd exuded the kind of dopey enthusiasm one would expect from an intimate rave in a public square. Once inside the couple next to me took public displays of affection to new heights and the fellow on my other side in a tiger onesie clearly designed for a child grinded with the air in a heartwarming fashion. Once I’d had my share of the odor of Vicks VapoRub and the sound of aggressive synths I decided it was time to return home to the lumpy couch I was surfing on. On my way home I really got a feel for Rifflandia’s vibe. The streets were full of merry drunk people laughing, singing and wobbling along. Strangers were asking each other how the night was going and from what I could see nobody was being belligerent. A peaceful music festival where people are nice and considerate to others? It seemed impossible.
The next day jammed myself full of more free coffees than I can count on two hands at Discovery Coffee, ate an equal amount of tacos, per local recommendation, at Hernandez and attended another equally intimate friendly rave at Market Square. This time we saw Hrdvsion who, unlike the previous night’s DJ, performed a set that did more than just assault you with lights and loud beats by incorporating an interesting style and loveable finesse. Hrdvsion wasn’t “living for the drop” as they say. Instead, his set featured some compelling tinny and dissonant sounds but was thankfully supported by enough advancing beats for my raver friends to still get their grind on. To end the night I decided to pay a visit to Good Party — the non-Rifflandia affiliated mini-performance series, which occurred the same weekend as the festival. The shows were located in a secret little studio on the outskirts of downtown, the room was hot, the bands were ending and everybody was fighting. I quickly found out that I swung by the Good Party right after the cops did. “No ins and outs,” people yelled at one another as they blamed different pockets of people for the situation getting out of hand. I decided it was time to leave the not-so-good party and return again to the incredibly uncomfortable couch I was calling home.
Saturday was exciting for me, as it was the day with the most enticing line up. I felt it important to energize, so I got two more free coffees at Discovery and a big fat plate of decadent hot sauce slathered Huevos Rancheros at Moule. My belly was full of coffee and soft poached eggs, and my heart was light at the prospect of beautiful singing voices. I headed to the park to start my day exploring the festival’s main venue. Perhaps because it was three days into the party and the sun was beating down mercilessly but audience members at Royal Athletic Park seemed less than enthusiastic. Dancing was reduced to a dull sway, people stayed exclusive to their friend groups and the rest flocked to the shade so they could pop Advil and worry about events that transpired the night before. The first band I saw was the Dum Dum Girls, all of them were dressed in black mesh outfits with bright lipstick and saucy bondage-style collars. The band was primarily female with the exception of a longhaired guitarist wearing a T-shirt that exposed his nipples who could have easily been mistaken for his femme companions. The overpowering distortive sounds made it difficult to differentiate songs, all musical nuances and details were covered by a blanket of hissing noise. The vocals were lost amidst the band’s commitment to grunge, and compared to their recorded material the performance was fairly disappointing. To give them some credit, I’ve never seen a band look so cool, which left me wishing I looked like a Dum Dum Girl. I wandered away from the stage wishing I had bangs and wondering where in my neighbourhood I could buy chunky goth shoes.
After the Dum Dum Girls I went to see pop supergroup The New Pornographers. Now let me preface my opinion of the show with this; I really love the New Pornographers, so maybe the high expectations I had influenced my disappointment. Watching the New Pornographers perform was more like watching your parents get drunk at a dinner party and miserably try to play Rock Band and less like watching professional musicians headlining a music festival. The excitement and passion, which can be heard in their material, was completely missing, leaving a group of blasé 40-somethings playing songs that require a high calibre of energy to remain genuine. It wasn’t just the band that contributed to the faultiness of the show; the mix was very weird in the beginning, making it impossible to hear the vocals over the drums. Kathryn Calder could be seen trying to subtly duck out of sight to menacingly yell at the booth next to her before returning to her post behind the keys. Dan Bejar performed with a minimal amount of vigor and a lot of natural talent, his big sunglasses and unruly facial hair added a much needed element of cool. Standing next to two guys wearing baseball caps with “I love Dan” written in sharpie on the front made me wonder why Bejar’s backing band was so big. A.C. Newman pulled out a harmonica, I stopped being able to recognize songs I’d listened to thousands of times before, and I was feeling too emotional to stay. I left towards the end to grab a drink of water and make sense of what I just saw.
After seeing the New Pornographers I decided to give the Good Party another shot, hoping this time it would live up to the description. There was a line outside the little venue, a man with a nice haircut and glasses stood firmly in front of the door. He explained to me it was at capacity. I begged, pleaded, and charmed but he was unwavering, “Last night there were too many people, and the cops came.” He told me, “I just got possession of the space and I’ve never owned it during Rifflandia before. A friend of mine asked to put on shows here, I assumed he would organize the door and sound and everything. But he didn’t, so I’ve been doing both. It’s really stressful and last night there were so many people outside the cops came. So I’m really sorry but I just can’t let anyone in.” I felt bad for the bespeckled man with the dirty little studio space, so I waited my turn among the punks and hipsters and made it in eventually just in time for a really loud band called NEEDS. NEEDS was charming and violent, there were sparklers raining fire from the ceiling, the room was hotter than hell, and after two songs or so a healthy little mosh pit had formed in the front. NEEDS continued to yell at us with while maintaining high energy and a commitment to destructive vibes, they threw unopened cans of Coors Light at us, and we threw opened cans at each other. I moshed so hard that the strap of my dress broke off, so I buttoned my wool cardigan up all the way and decided I wasn’t punk enough to be there anymore. After the Good Party I returned to the legit Rifflandia festival shows, the last of which was performed by Rich Aucoin at the Metro Theatre. Starting off with a tantalizing Drake remix and a lengthy video presentation shouting out all the other Rifflandia performers and offering the audience some very heartwarming life advice. Aucoin went on to sing with karaoke style lyrics playing behind him, encouraging the audience to join in. His commitment to getting the audience involved was admirable; he walked in the middle of the audience and created dance circles, pulled out a giant parachute to cover us, and the intensity of the performance never once faltered. Aucoin’s show was clearly meticulously planned to be undeniable to the audience, he made it feel awkward not to be involved and dancing. By the end of the night my cardigan was covered in sweat and my ears were ringing in a way that would probably make my otolaryngologist uncomfortable, so for the last time I went back to my possibly rock-stuffed couch to experience another backbreaking slumber.
Overall, Rifflandia certainly had its core flaws, the lineup was unappealing and organizational aspects were poorly facilitated. But somehow, despite the fact it lacked those key parts, I still left the festival wanting to come back again next year. I think this is largely because of the community that surrounds Rifflandia, with all of the lower mainland involved the weekend becomes a hub for new and old friends to meet. In the future I hope the festival can take this brilliant slumber party effect their event seems to have on the city and build on it by stepping up the calibre of the performers and organizational systems in place. Rifflandia has the potential to be a festival where good vibes and good music can intercept, here’s hoping in years to come they evolve and meet this goal.BC, British Columbia, Death Cab for Cutie, Dum Dum Girls, festival season, les Bucherettes, NEEDS, New Pornographers, Rich Aucoin, Rifflandia, Rifflandia 2014, Serena Ryder, Victoria, Zed's Dead