At the Logger Sports Grounds and Hendrickson Fields, Squamish, on Saturday, August 10
It’s a perfect day for logrolling in the estuary, and only just a shade too humid for landbound concert-going comfort—unless you’re one of the shirtless dudes going apeshit in the pit for Yukon Blonde, in which case you own your sweat, and your neighbours’ too. It’s just past 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the first band on Saturday’s Stawamus main stage is pushing hard, and its confidence is contagious: this crowd is here to party, and sunburn be damned.
The only shade to be had is at the side of the beer garden, and as Yukon Blonde progresses from the sweet invitation of “My Girl” to the near-thrash of its set-ending rave-up, it’s being occupied by a pair of RCMP officers, apparently exuding some kind of invisible force field. No one wants to stand within earshot, but since when has the Straight been afraid of engaging with the fuzz?
At first, our well-armed guardians of the peace eyeball me like I might want to swipe a service revolver and wreak havoc. Then, recognizing that I just want to escape my own body heat, they thaw. “It’s a really good crowd,” says one. “There’s a nice breeze, and no one’s overheating. Last night there were some drunks, but they were friendly drunks, not troublemakers.”
“Friendly” seems to be the motto here. Back on the main stage, Bath, England’s the Heavy is doing its best to unite the crowd, and there’s a whole lot of arm-waving going on to the anthem “Short Change Hero”. Despite its name, the Heavy is more about bringing people together than crushing their bones: the reggae-influenced rhythm section is powerful, but singer Kelvin Swaby’s soul melodies are the warm wind that’s rippling the crowd.
A lull follows, one that’s not entirely dispelled by Diamond Rings’ oddly sterile set at the secondary Garibaldi stage. Part of the problem is that the first few numbers are nearly drowned out by the generic blare of the Ballantynes coming from the Red Bull Tour Bus, an impressively amplified rolling stage parked at the nearby Market Square. Part is that although John O’Regan comes across as a big, bouncy golden setter of a frontman—a big, bouncy, fey golden setter—he’s so awkward he makes Morrissey look gainly.
Another issue is that his accompanists, though skilled, don’t offer O’Regan any competition in the charisma department. (Memo to the Toronto musician: it’s time to watch those early Roxy Music videos again, or at least find your guitarist and synth-player some bug-eyed shades.) But the main problem is that his simple, sing-songy tunes waft into the brain and then waft out again without making any discernible impact.
It is undeniably heartening to see a man happily wearing rouge and eye shadow where so many burly loggers once played. And once I get back to the media tent and scan the lyrics online, it becomes obvious that Diamond Rings’ “All the Time” is actually a heartfelt pride anthem, rather than the idiotic love song it seems to be this afternoon.
Context, I guess, is everything. And the context here is the kind of sunny banality that infects even a much-anticipated set from Divine Fits, an indie supergroup fronted by Spoon singer Britt Daniel and Lake Cowichan–born Dan Boeckner, of Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade. Driven by drum powerhouse Sam Brown, whose pedigree includes time with New Bomb Turks, the band sounds tight and textured, while Daniel and Boeckner work a kind of good charisma/bad charisma contrast, with the former playing the handsome boy next door and the latter the tattooed enigma. But their songs, at least as heard through a festival PA, don’t add up to much. Does anyone really need another number about the “chains of love”?
Eugene Hütz would say likely say no. Finally, after so many mid-pack pop-rockers, the Ukrainian-born frontman of Gogol Bordello offered a hint of genuine mania in his polka-powered Gypsy-punk anthems. Hütz was clearly born to lead a band: even in his outsize mustache and shiny boxing shorts—hell, even alongside his sinuous costar, Elizabeth Sun—he has everyone’s eye. But he’s also smart enough to recognize that energy is not enough: his band also boasts a powerful anticapitalist message and serious musical smarts.
“We Rise Again”, from new album Pura Vida Conspiracy, is a mid-set highlight, and is reprised just before Hütz and company leave the stage. It’s about resilience and struggle, and it’s the first hint of the political that’s emerged all day. The crowd, to its credit, is into it—and into “Lost Innocent World” as well, even though it takes a much less anthemic approach to the equally serious topics of ageing, loss, and absent friends.
The lull between Gogol Bordello and Band of Horses is time for a wander, with all three subsidiary stages offering variants on aerobic sing-spiration. A powerful synthetic beat is pulsing from the Woodshed, courtesy of Calgary’s Smalltown DJs, who belie their name with sophisticated production touches. At the Garibaldi Stage, Fitz and the Tantrums are midway through a faithful and thus pointless cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. Meanwhile, back at the Red Bull bus, Dear Rouge singer Danielle McTaggart is showing considerable star power in a set of electro-pop tunes pitched right at the gym crowd. The transition from a two-piece with her keyboard player and husband, Drew, to a rockier but still polished quartet bodes well for the future.
And then, with the sun sinking west of Garibaldi Mountain and the temperature dropping somewhat more slowly, it’s time to settle in at the main stage for the one-two punch of headliners Band of Horses and Queens of the Stone Age.
Sound levels have been inching up as the park fills, and by the time Band of Horses takes to the Stawamus stage they’re high enough to obliterate most of the nuances that can be found in the North Carolina quintet’s spooky-mournful recordings. But the band’s doing its part, too, trading acoustic guitars for electric Les Pauls, pumping keyboardist Ryan Monroe’s Hammond organ higher in the mix, and just generally painting in broader strokes than might be expected.
“Band of Horses—they’re country rock, right?” someone asked as I headed stageward. Well, maybe when they started out, but these live renditions of tunes from 2012’s Mirage Rock and 2010’s breakthrough Infinite Arms sound more like incomprehensible anthems. And I’m not being snide; in a recent interview with the Straight, BoH guitarist Tyler Ramsey admitted that he had no idea what most of singer Ben Bridwell’s lyrics mean. Nor do I, but the bandleader’s genius lies in his ability to convey a sense of deep feeling, and he did so at Squamish even if most of his words were garbled.
Queens of the Stone Age main man Josh Homme’s skills are harder to quantify. He doesn’t write songs that are going to enter the standard repertoire; he’s a very good but not exceptional guitarist; and he sings in a high, plaintive voice that manages to be both emotionally intriguing and unsettlingly inhuman. What he’s really managed to do, though, is plot exactly how much weirdness the market will tolerate and deliver accordingly, with QOTSA’s festival-ending set at Squamish being a prime example.
After all the fuzzy, friendly acts that preceded it, Homme’s barrage of noise—coupled with smart, slick, projected images of burning cars, monster crows, and slithery, coiling snake-worms—is a tonic. So is his band’s professionalism. New drummer Jon Theodore, formerly of the Mars Volta, proves an especially valuable addition, threading dazzling polyrhythms into bluesy favourite “No One Knows” and driving hard on every song from the recently released …Like Clockwork. But all of Homme’s accomplices address their leader’s clattering rhythms and jarring harmonies with brutal precision—and they aren’t above being sweet, adding truly beautiful vocal harmonies to several songs.
So Homme’s work is about contrast, too. Again, that’s something not too many other Squamish Valley Music Festival bands explore, preferring instead to find a groove and sit in it.
There’s a lesson here. Don’t be timid. Try anything and everything. Be noisy and vulnerable. If you’re a musician, find some art-school friends and add visuals to your set; even if they’re abstract, trust the audience to make a connection. Queens of the Stone Age didn’t get to headline this event by playing safe, but by playing rock ’n’ roll, which needs danger and daring to be great.
And enjoyable though Squamish’s handsomely sited festival was this Saturday, it wasn’t truly fabulous until the Queens ascended to the throne.