With the second edition of Westward Music Festival on the horizon, let’s get primed by reflecting on some of the nominees for the most-magical-performance award at last weekend’s inaugural SKOOKUM Festival in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
Consider Florence Welch showing up on-stage on Saturday not only barefoot, but also in a sheer dress, all on a cold and rainy night when sensible folks were swaddled in three layers of Gore-Tex, two hoodies, red flannel underwear with the ass hatch, and DIY raincoats fashioned out of Glad garbage bags. Or Mother Mother head wag Ryan Guldemond gazing out onto a rain-pelted crowd on Sunday afternoon to quip that there’s nothing he loves more than a good downpour because it provides life to all living things, including the trees, bushes, and grass-huffers in Stanley Park.
Or Annie Clark (the guitar goddess known as St. Vincent) on Saturday, when she put on a clinic in how to blend alt-rock badassery with straight-outta-Soho art-pop cool. Standing in a field and watching St. Vincent on the giant video screen, among thousands and thousands of enraptured fans, was great enough to make you jealous of those who can say “I saw her when…”. For Vancouver fans, that was at the Lamplighter a decade or so ago, back when it was still a dive bar, and Clark was so amazing on the small stage that you could almost forget the eye-watering stench of stale urine rolling out of the pre-renovated pub’s 100-year-old bathroom.
For true music junkies, catching St. Vincent—or Mother Mother or Florence + the Machine, or the White Stripes, Black Keys, or Lady Gaga, or (insert chart-topping star here)—on the way up is what makes for the kind of memories that mainstream consumers will never have.
And that brings us to the brilliance of Westward Music Festival, which serves up a bill that includes soul-jacked Grammy nominee Kali Uchis, alternative–R&B artist Kelela, and genre-splicing London expat Blood Orange in Vancouver this week (September 13 to 16). And let’s not overlook a stylistically diverse undercard that includes everything from punk visionaries Metz to A$AP Mob MC A$AP Twelvyy.
What all the above—along with the 100 or so other artists booked for Westward—have in common is that they’re playing some of the most beautifully intimate rooms in the city: the Vogue, Biltmore, Rio, Fortune Sound Club, Rickshaw, and Fox Cabaret. And by “intimate”, we mean places where you can get within a few feet of the people you’ve come to see. That’s an entirely different experience than showing up at Rogers Arena or Deer Lake Park when the doors open and then camping out all day at the front of the stage wearing extra-absorbent Depends.
As easy as it is to forget in an age when stadium-sized stars are made overnight on Spotify and Apple Music, rock ’n’ roll—not to mention soul, pop, and hip-hop—has always been at its most dangerous and thrilling at ground level. Think Nirvana opening for Sonic Youth at the old New York Theatre, rather than Nirvana going through the motions while headlining the Forum. Or Adele showing she was destined for superstardom at the Red Room.
Now in its second year, Westward Music Festival is where you can get close enough to ambient YouTube sensation Poppy at the Vogue to decide whether she’s a cyber-bot or a living, breathing organism. (Check out YouTube’s “I am not in a cult”, where she speaks in the kind of weird, dead, childlike voice that leaves you thinking “Hey, that bizarrely lifelike robot is in a cult.”)
Or watch Spain’s Bad Gyal pump a little extra life into what’s left of summer when she heats up the Imperial.
Or relive a subgenre that revolutionized rock ’n’ roll when Mudhoney gets sludge-tastic at the Rickshaw.
As a bonus, Westward Music Festival is—as its name suggests—a festival, which means that it has an added perk: once you’ve purchased a wristband, how much you see depends entirely on your own stamina. And the best part is that, each time you leave the house, you’ll find it easier to convince yourself there are better ways to spend a weekend than binge-watching Game of Thrones.
Westward Music Festival has tapped into the same thing that big bashes like SKOOKUM have, namely that music is a potent drug: the more you consume, the more you want. And when that drug is offered up in rooms where you’re close enough to make eye contact with a performer, the high is at its most intense.
So get ready to make memories at Westward Music Festival—and, if you’re lucky, wake up Monday realizing “Holy shit—I think I just saw them when…”
Westward Music Festival takes place at various venues around Vancouver from Thursday to Sunday (September 13 to 16). Go to the Westward Music Festival website for the full schedule.