By Lily Keenan
September 19, 2015
VICTORIA — Rifflandia is the ‘choose your own adventure’ novel of the festival circuit. Its charm, much like those cherished paperbacks of our childhood, lies with the unexpected; it’s just so dang exciting when you stumble across a great band that you didn’t know about. But no one buys tickets to a festival of acts they’ve never heard before. The magic of Rifflandia is in the way the entire city becomes involved in the story. For one weekend, venues all across Victoria play house to international and local bands. The multi-venue approach makes the festival experience entirely up to the ticket holder, who is free to personally tailor their listening adventure across town.
Rifflandia is in its eighth year and slowly building a reputation as a festival for showcasing little known and local upcoming acts. This is just as well, as the headlining bill is usually weak at best. This year was no exception with a top-billing list of all those bands you used to love, pushing through one more North American tour to cover the down payments on their family homes. Modest Mouse, Chromeo, Tokyo Police Club and Julian Casablancas and the Voidz are all festival veterans in their own right, but I was left wanting for a headliner that I hadn’t already seen in summer of 2011. As a newcomer to Rifflandia and to Vancouver Island, I was there for the local bands (and beers), and arrived in Victoria on Saturday determined to be blown away by the underdogs.
Day festival viewing was made easy by a two-stage set up at Royal Athletic Park. With sunglasses against the welcome Canadian sun, a cider in hand and a dopey grin on my face I christened the festival with Toronto indie outfit Brave Shores. They have that distilled festival sound; it’s electronic but chill, and matches crisp synths with fluttering keys. It was hypnotic and infectious and made me feel as fuzzy as the cider settling in my belly. Cute-as-hell front-woman Stephanie McCarrol also pulls off that hipster fringe that everyone is trying and failing to do these days. I love her.
I’ve seen Australian vagabonds Sticky Fingers many times on their home turf in Australia. At these wild gigs it’s not uncommon for a set to end in chaos and tears – much to the glee of the wild and inebriated crowd. So I was mildly disappointed to see a fairly composed group of Canadians waiting in a polite and orderly manner for the set to start. It was a sobering performance for a band who proudly define themselves as rarely sober. Their surf-rock-reggae-rap anthems didn’t rally the crowd half as much as I’ve seen in the past – despite the medal-worthy efforts of my Australian friends around me. I left the set wondering if whiskey really does make everything better. It probably does.
My fears for the enthusiasm lacking in Canadian crowds were resolved slightly by the lively and downright exhilarating set from The Zolas. Their pull power is surely in part due to their popularity as a local Vancouver band. But the former Lotus Child two-piece definitely know how to work a stage. Front man Zachery Grey pranced all over the place, climbing on amps with a flippant flip of his fringe. Hits like “Strange Girl” and “Knot in my Heart” got the crowd roaring along to every word..
I retreated to the media tent to watch Big Data through the combined effect of a pair of Rifflandia 3D psychedelic goggles (handed to me by a bartender), and my very own custom-made beer goggles. It vastly added to the atmosphere around Big Data’s sound, which is a little bit funk and a little bit ‘outer space’. The electronic baseline in hit single “Dangerous” got hearts palpitating across the entire festival. As the sun began to set, the crowd seemed to meld into one pulsating beast, all moving together along with the beat. This could also have been an effect of the goggles.
Despite having done a fair a few laps ‘round the block these days Modest Mouse represent an important contribution to the taut, angry rock sound of the 90s and early thousands. “Hello Rifflandiaaaaaaa!” frontman Iscaac Brock crooned as he sauntered onstage in that sarcastic drawl that’s impossible to mistake. They punched straight into a few tracks from this year’s Strangers to Ourselves, keeping us interested with the occasional carrot from their breakout, and by far the most popular album, Good News for People Who Like Bad News. It was a good set, but it lacked the energy and vivacity I’ve seen in their sets in the past. Modest Mouse have been playing and touring together since 1993, they’re tired and unfortunately, it showed.
As the day venue ended the crowds spilled out onto the road. At any other festival this would be the point when you fight strangers for taxis, or walk barefoot with shoes in hand to the nearest kebab shop. But the night was far from over and, singing and laughing, we began to disseminate into the dark streets of Victoria in search of the next live music discovery. We strolled down a few alleyways and ended up at the Sunset Room watching Saskatoon locals The Pistolwhips. The atmosphere was very intimate; it felt more like a friend’s house party than a festival venue. The band also had a distinct ‘garage band’ feel about them, but were raw and compelling nonetheless.
A clear standout among the venues was Philip’s Backyard, a local brewery converted into an outdoor dance-a-rena complete with fresh beer on tap. We stumbled upon a fierce dance party in full swing, orchestrated by Vancouver afro-beat funk band Five Alarm Funk. This is not the kind of music I would actively seek out, but the energy of the set was irresistible. The band had 12 members onstage playing an assortment of brass, congas, timbales and drums to create a feverish latin-meets-metal-meets-ska set that sent the crowd wild. There wasn’t one person left standing still in Philip’s Backyard.
Rifflandia was the perfect way to explore the vast varieties of local and imported music (and beers) that Victoria had to offer. As always, its strengths lay with the smaller bands who were in their element in such an intimate festival setting. With a healthy presence of good local music and a mix of music venues that keep you guessing, it seems that any adventure you choose can only be a happy one.BC, British Columbia, Rifflandia, Rifflandia 2015