At Hendrickson Fields & Logger Sports Ground on Friday, August 7
Conventional wisdom is that—manic depressives and Smiths fans aside—no one wants a downer at their party. That made the big question going into Day 1 of this year Squamish Valley Music Festival a valid one: how did poor, tortured Sam Smith end up headlining B.C.’s biggest musical celebration of the year?
Wasn’t there someone a little more, um, spirited available? Like, say, Slipknot, Miley Cyrus, or a hologram of GG Allin?
Would Smith find himself singing “Stay With Me” while Squamish’s party people abandoned ship en masse to party in Blueprint Arena?
There was plenty to get through before such questions would be answered.
Thanks to its postwave hair, undertaker-black clothes, and ‘80s-drift synths, Coasts seems like the kind of band that normally doesn't crawl out of the casket until midnight. That didn't stop the Bristol quintet from thrilling a shiny, happy Garibaldi Stage crowd that normally wouldn't know Joy Division from long division. After a soaring set-closing "Oceans", at least one ecstatic West Coast convert yelled for an "Encore". Everyone else hotfooted it for Vance Joy while panic-strickeningly screeching "Oh my God, we're going to miss him.”
Not to condone Kick a Ginger Day, but the only thing worse than a guy with flaming red hair is a guy who appears to have poached his flaming red hair from Mick Hucknall. Immense credit, then, goes to Joy for having worked so hard to overcome his God-given physical disability. The Australian singer-songwriter got a massive Tantalus Stage cheer for his cascading folk-rocker “Mess Is Mine.” He then earned huge honesty points for admitting his beautifully understated “My Kind of Man” was basically a rip-off of a Lynyrd Skynyrd jam. Who says redheads can’t be trusted?
As anyone who's suffered through the affront to humanity known as Sublime With Rome knows, few things are more odious than white bands obsessed with the sounds of Jamaica. With their baseball caps, Sunglass Hut shades, and white basketball shorts, Slightly Stoopid looked more hideous than Sugar Ray in the "Fly" video.
But if you closed your eyes during “Devil’s Door", the straight-outta-Kingston horns and 16 layers of drum reverb suddenly made sense. That was doubly true if you were hideously baked and swinging in one of the hammocks in the nearby lounge area that was just like Jamaica’s Royal Decameron Club Caribbean resort, only in the middle of a wind-blown gravel baseball field in Squamish.
ScHoolboy Q arrived on the Tantalus Stage looking more like he'd chugged a six-pack of Red Bull than inhaled a coffin-sized bong of sticky icky. Hyped as he was, the set-opening “Gangsta” failed to get any traction, mostly because there's nothing less gangsta than a bunch of sun-scorched West Coast white kids.
Not to get picky, but it's not exactly gangster, either to complain about being out of breath because you've had a two-day cold, especially while playing a country where hockey players spit out their teeth and then get back on the ice. But ScHoolboy Q at least proved a gamer, huffing and puffing his way through “Hands on the Wheel” while demanding to see some hands in the air. Refreshingly, no subsequent request was made to wave ’em around like we just don’t care.
“Too cute” didn’t begin to describe a five-year-old fan busting sick gangster moves while ScHoolboy Q announced “I don't give a fuck. The sun is out. I'm sick. I'm high. I'm drunk. And I know that motherfucker right there came for Sam Smith.” As for said fan’s six-month-old sister in the baby carriage, who needs eardrums anyway?
When Angus and Julia Stone first surfaced in the ’00s they were pegged as feel-good folkies for folks who find Sufjan Stevens too intense. Fast-forward a few years and the Down Under siblings now sound like they've been mainlining the Velvet Underground one minute and snorting Fleetwood Mac the next.
If the sizeable Stawamus Stage audience was noticeably chill, that's because so were Angus and Julia Stone. As anyone who’s ever seen Crocodile Dundee knows, Aussies can’t help come across as laid-back, even when making a sound like Crazy Horse on a distortion rampage.
How is it possible we all know about skin cancer, the benefits of sunscreen, and giant floppy hats, and yet people still strut around festivals looking like a cross between Beelzebub and the mascot for Red Lobster?
Further on the people-watching front, the festival’s father-of-the-day award went to the bald man who walked around with his arm around his young son telling him, "It's time to find your fucking uncle and see if he's fucking done so we can go fucking get some fucking food.” Well fucking done, sir—that memory will last a lifetime.
At the Blueprint Arena circa 7:58 p.m., things were more mellow than a Bristol Chillout tent, this thanks to Slow Magic. All that changed at precisely 8:02, when Sweden’s Galantis arrived and began dropping glitter sparkled electro bombs. The duo of Christian Karlsson and Linus Eklöw would promptly preside over the day’s most raging party.
It's entirely debatable whether Brandon Flowers would be playing to a couple-thousand strong fans on his The Desired Effect solo tour if not for his Squamish Tantalus Stage invitation. But the moonlighting Killers frontman seemed to be loving going it alone, perhaps because it meant not having to play “Mr. Brightside” every night. And if parts of the set had him sounding ready for Vegas, that was somehow appropriate, considering he's from, well, Vegas.
The calypso-tinted lounge of “Still Want You” proved a set highlight, but still the biggest stampede for the stage was for “Mr. Brightside”, which evidently Flowers does have to play every night.
As lush, banging, and shrubtastic as the Perrier Greenhouse clear vinyl dance tent looked, two pieces of ID were required and no drugs were allowed. Sometimes you have to save the crank and bath salts for Sam Smith rather than risk losing it to an overzealous doorman.
On the unlikely-rock-stars front, the guys of Hot Chip are right up there with James Mercer and Rivers Cuomo. But great revelations come in nerdish-looking packages, with bespectacled singer Alexis Taylor turning the Stawamus into a credible approximation of Studio 54. If, that is, Studio 54 had existed at the height of the PBR-powered disco-punk explosion of 2002.
Taylor deserved mad respect for rocking his tin-foil basketball shorts with a panache the 50,000,000 Fans-era Elvis would have appreciated. As for the crowd, the bass-bombed burner “Over and Over” had people moving like they’d just been beamed in from the Blueprint Arena.
The revelation of the day award was St. Louis soul sister SZA, who drew a small but totally enthralled crowd on the Garibaldi Stage.
Instead of showing up in basketball shorts, the artist born Solana Rowe rocked a b-ball Jersey—a Vancouver Grizzlies edition no less. As if that wasn’t cool enough, the woman has both a voice that makes you remember how much you loved Amy Winehouse and the best hair since someone fused Macy Gray with Salt-N-Pepa.
SZA finished a captivating set with the symphonic junkyard blues banger “Babylon”, the singer nothing less than mesmerizing as she howled “I know you hate me now/I bet you hate me now.”
Any doubts about the choice of Sam Smith as day one's headliner were addressed about 30 seconds into the U.K. soul crooner's Tantalus Stage set. From the en masse sing-along on “I’m Not the Only One" to the roar that greeted the slo-mo ballad “Leave Your Lover", the crowd was on his side.
Smith rewarded them with songs and stories that were as deeply personal as they were funny. Honesty is a rare commodity in pop music these days, but Smith has it to burn. Just when things got a little too slow with “Nirvana”, the breakout soft-soul star would lift the crowd back up with the thumping "Never Love You Like I Can”. And he wasn’t working alone. When Smith demanded that everyone sing, his backup singers were promptly drowned out by the crowd. Girls wept, couples slow danced, and baseball-hat-wearing bro dudes urinated together against a fence by the garbage cans.
The ultimate appeal of Smith is that he seemed real, whether awkwardly giving the audience a dance tutorial straight out of Grade 7, or laughingly declaring his breakthrough release, In the Lonely Hour, to be fucking depressing.
That may very well be the case, but Smith definitely wasn’t.
In fact, while low-key, he came across as the world’s most gracious host, the guy that somehow makes everyone feel welcome.
That’s a skill that a rare few are born with. Good on the Squamish Valley Music Festival for making him king of the party.