SKOOKUM Festival: Day 2
At Brockton Oval in Stanley Park on Saturday, September 8
Perhaps Florence Welch missed the SKOOKUM memo about appropriate attire, or forgot to check the local forecast.
Whatever the reason, the Florence + the Machine chanteuse didn’t exactly show up dressed for the weather on Saturday night, padding down a makeshift staircase on SKOOKUM Festival’s main Skyline Stage in a sheer champagne-pink dress and bare feet.
That’s right—bare feet on an unseasonably chilly West Coast late-summer night in Stanley Park. Three hours earlier it had been raining like Vancouver during the November monsoons.
When Welch took the stage at 9:45 for Day 2 of the inaugural SKOOKUM festival, the dampness still hung in the air, sending a message that Vancouver’s long hot summer was finally over. Those who’d shown up in shorts and tank tops were left wishing they’d at least packed a hoodie, long-johns, or a garbage-bag raincoat.
The completely comfortable-looking Welch, on the other had, made a dramatic statement without even really trying. It may have been 15 degrees in Vancouver, but the flame-haired singer was quick to warm things up, bringing the audience along for a ride that was as inspirational as it was powerful.
But first, there were plenty of beautiful moments in the hours leading up to Florence + the Machine’s triumphant headlining set.
Proving you don’t need words to communicate with an audience, Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela dazzled a Skyline Stage crowd with a virtuoso display of interwoven classical guitar. What stood out—besides the fact that they can both play the shit out of their Yamaha NX acoustic guitars—was the way Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero made it all look effortless.
That they projected a sense of geniune joy even while doing a bludgeoning, percussive cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of” was somehow doubly impressive.
Remember the days when festival food meant burned hotdogs and overcooked hamburgers on white-trash-bread buns? SKOOKUM was all about high-end fresh and local cuisine, stalls run by the likes of Bao Bei, Savary Island Pie Company, Fat Mao Noodles, and The Birds and the Beets. Longest was the queue at Vij’s Rangoli stand, which was kind of like lining up at Vij’s actual restaurant in Vancouver. Except when you’re standing outside Vij’s on Cambie, Milky Chance isn’t making sunny, crowd-pleasing, reggae-tinted pop a couple hundred yards away.
Those giving Milky Chance a rapturous reception on the Mountain Stage ranged from Commercial Drive denizens in their 20s to Freedom 55ers. There was also a healthy smattering of parents with their kids, bringing one's spawn to SKOOKUM evidently preferable to paying the babysitter $10 an hour for an eight-hour shift.
On that family-friendly front, SKOOKUM was an event where kids were welcome, and not just in the onsite play area. Indeed, when’s the last time you heard someone yell “Use your words!” at a festival? And, no, talking down your best friend after two tabs of molly at Burning Man doesn’t count.
For those having a bad hair day in the rain, Commercial Drive's High Fidelity was one of the many pop-ups on site, the salon's tent doing brisk business. Looking good after a quick trim, you then had the option of heading one tent over for a timeless tintype staged photo, or joining the three-block lineup for the Jack Daniels portable bar, which came complete with a bronze statue of the man who launched a million hangovers.
Or you could have headed to the relatively intimate Meadow Stage where Bitterly Divine sounded like Los Lobos covering Motörhead in a Texas roadhouse one minute, and the Band jamming with Wilco the next.
Good God Annie Clark has come a long way from her first performance in Vancouver, which, you’ll be jealous to know, was at the Lamplighter during its dive-bar days.
The Dallas-born guitar goddess cut quite a swath when she strode onstage, wearing thigh-high dayglo orange boots with matching orange sash and choker. The woman known as St. Vincent proceeded to deliver the day’s most fascinating set, both visually and sonically.
By the time her 50 minutes was up Clark had ripped through everything from Upper Soho art rock to sex-throb disco to ‘80s Berlin new wave.
The one constant was her entirely badass guitar work, which was technically dazzling but never obnoxious. Clark wrenched all matter of noise and atmospherics from a parade of her signature guitars by Ernie Ball, switching from a sherbet-green model to hot pink to brilliant orange.
Accompanying her was ace bassist Toko Yasuda and a keyboardist and drummer wearing masks and wigs that made them look like Family Guy’s Chris Griffin crossed with a muppet that had been stripped of its eyes, nose, and mouth. If you thought about it, it was a cleverly subversive political statement, Vincent and Yasuda the undeniable focal points of the show, her male keyboardist, drummer, and guitar tech (who completed the Trifecta) all faceless support players.
The skies totally opened up during St. Vincent’s thrilling set, leading Clark to note “Thank you all for being here in the rain. I wanna splash around in the mud with you."
How perfect was her performance? It didn’t matter when she started “New York” with “And if I call you from Robson Avenue”, perhaps unaware Robson is a street. Sometimes making an effort beyond "Hello Vancouver" is enough.
After a mammoth drum solo that led one mom in the audience to earnestly shout “You’re very talented!", Welsh vets Stereophonics rolled out a quick snippet of the Tragically Hip’s “Long Time Running". Impressively, given they were on Canadian soil, the band’s subsequent shifting into “I Wanna Get Lost With You” then went over just as well.
Directly opposite Stereophonics on the Mountain Stage, the three-block-long Mac and Cheese food truck queue showed Vikram Vij what a real lineup looks like.
And on the Forest Stage, Vancouver’s Hey Ocean! showed SKOOKUM organizers made the right call by going heavy on hometown heroes, the bill weighted with acts like Mother Mother, the Matinee, and Said the Whale.
Playing to a jam-packed field, Hey Ocean! singer Ashleigh Ball stated: “This is really good. You guys are buzzing. There’s something happening here.” Hey Ocean! then dove into the candy-dipped, bass-propelled “Sleepwalker”, which was all that was needed to get the crowd moving as one.
The War on Drugs knows how to rip things up country-rock style. But the six-piece was just as potent when slowing things down to a dreamy crawl, “Come to the City” augmented by a surprisingly effective one-man horn section and major guitar pyro by singer Adam Granduciel.
Overheard near the still-lined-up-to-East-Van Vij’s Rangoli: “If I need to pee during Metric, I don’t care." This announcement was made even more admirable by the fact said concertgoer was holding two full cups of craft beer and slurring in a fashion that suggested she’d already had four or five in the previous hour. Her dedication to bladder control was rewarded by a professional and effervescent set by Metric, which has been doing festivals so long it's got things down to a studied-cool art. Just when you thought singer Emily Haines was going to take root, she’d spring to life, dancing like the Luv-A-Fair never died.
Let's give SKOOKUM bonus points for little touches like the glowing white jellyfish puppets that drifted over the crowd during Metric’s lovingly received set on the Mountain Stage. While we’re talking bonus attractions, whoever came up with the idea for communal gas fire pits—perfect for drying wet clothes, warming up, or lighting Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Eye of the Shark cigars—you are a genius and deserve a raise.
And while we’re talking genius, that word will serve as a good description for Florence Welch.
When she first padded down the makeshift stairs at the back of the stage, the singer seemed lost in her own world, standing stationary at a mic stand that looked—in a clever nod to the Stanley Park surroundings—fashioned out of wood. That sense of detachment changed over the course of the slow-building kick-off number “June”. As the song built, Welch abruptly took flight, running back and forth the length of the stage with the grace of a Palais Garnier dancer.
The simmering, focussed intensity that marked her entrance continued through to a soaring, symphonic “Queen of Peace”, the singer adding dance moves that included the whirling dervish, modified pogo, dreamy conductor, and tall ship’s maiden.
Even if you didn’t know Florence + the Machine from a Maytag washing machine, you were instantly all in, Welch putting on the kind of dramatic spectacle that separates true rock priestesses from mere mortals.
Three songs in, right before "Only If For a Night", Welch asked a question with an obvious answer: “Are you ready to dance with us?”
From that point on she gave a clinic in the art of connecting with an audience, the singer gracious and giving as performer during the songs, willing to talk openly and honestly between them.
Forget stepping no further than the lip of the stage, Welch spent time standing on the hands of the faithful after venturing into the crowd. And she copped to having as tough a time as the rest of us in a world that’s seemingly going crazy, asking fans to join hands, climb on each other’s shoulders, and generally show they care about each other.
Most of all, she seemed as happy to be in majestic Stanley Park for SKOOKUM as the SKOOKUM faithful seemed to be thankful for her mere presence.
She prefaced a majestic “Hunger” with the announcement that she never dreamed as a kid she’d be talking about her deepest, darkest issues in such a wide-screen, public way. It was a potent moment mostly because it seemed to come straight from a star who—despite all appearances—is anything but together when the stage lights go down.
After arriving barefoot on a cold summer night for SKOOKUM, Welch did something even more unexpected, brave, and daring. She stood in front of a crowd the size of an English football field and bared her soul.