Westward Music Festival out to create memories that last for Vancouver fans

MRG Concerts intends to build a buzz around the local scene

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      Asked for his favourite moment as an independent live-music promoter in Vancouver, MRG Concerts president Matt Gibbons first lists some of his company’s most famously epic shows. Think stadium-sized superstar Prince giving fans something truly special by playing multiple nights at the MRG–owned Vogue Theatre instead of Rogers Arena.

      But, tellingly, his peak concert experience was a night when the reaction of the audience left Gibbons feeling moved beyond words.

      “One that really resonates with me—and this is going to make me sound a little bit shallow, but it’s the truth—is when we were doing Joanna Newsom at the Vogue,” Gibbons says in a phone interview. “This was just after we had bought the Vogue. Joanna Newsom is a very talented artist, but not my particular cup of tea. At the end of the show, I was standing in the lobby, and the number of people who came out with their shirts soaked—they were crying because they were moved so much by the performance—was when I knew. I knew that we could be part of creating these memories for people.”

      For nearly a decade, Gibbons has been doing just that with MRG Concerts, a group that runs live-music rooms across the country, including the Vogue, Biltmore Cabaret, and Yale Saloon in Vancouver. It’s challenging to commit to live music in a city this expensive, but the promoter says that nights like the Prince and Newsom shows are a big reason he loves what he does for a living.

      And the power of such moments goes a long way to explaining why MRG is about to embark on its most ambitious venture yet. From September 14 to 17 the group will launch the first edition of the Westward Music Festival, a multiday blowout featuring a mix of heavy-hitting imports and top-flight Vancouver talent.

      Out-of-towners headed to the West Coast include rapper Vince Staples, blues stalwarts Gov’t Mule, electro-Aboriginal trailblazers A Tribe Called Red, and alt-pop chanteuses Bishop Briggs and Hannah Georgas. Local acts tapped for Westward include Dear Rouge, Youngblood, Gang Signs, and Little Destroyer. Shows over the five days will take place at various venues across the city, including the Vogue and the Biltmore, as well as the Fox Cabaret and the Imperial.

      Gibbons calls the Westward Music Festival an idea that took a while to go from abstract goal to realized event.

      “It’s been in conversation in the company for a couple of years,” he says. “I think we decided a year ago that it was time to put it into motion. There was no one real aha moment—it was more like, ‘We’re doing a lot of shows now in Vancouver, so what can we do to group a bunch of them together?’ It was a natural progression for us.”

      It’s not lost upon Gibbons that multiday festivals in Vancouver have proven difficult to sustain over the years. The ’90s saw the rise and eventual collapse of Music West, an ambitious undertaking that mixed international headliners and local talent with panels and workshops. More recently, marquee events like the Squamish Valley Music Festival and Pemberton Music Festival were cancelled by their promoters after multiyear runs.

      Youngblood's Alexis Young.

      Gibbons says that MRG has thought hard about what kind of event they want Westward to be.

      “I think what’s been a bit of a problem with festivals in the past couple of years,” he opines, “is that you’ve had this massive growth during a gold-rush era where a lot of lineups look very similar. It’s sort of top-down: ‘We’re going to put all these massive acts on-stage and people will show up.’ But if you do that, all you’re sort of doing is putting on a whole bunch of headlining artists who happen to be playing near each other. It’s not about the festival itself and what that experience is.”

      Westward, on the other hand, is aimed at those who love seeing shows in intimate venues. It’s also, Gibbons argues, a festival that hopes to give back to everyone who supports live music in this city, which explains the heavy local component.

      “It was important for us to work with the Fox and the Imperial to show that this was also something for the music venues,” he says. “Ideally, we’ll get to a point where every music venue in the city is full for Westward. That’s how we create a music city. We have to all support each other—that’s a simple thing that we all learned from our parents. Help others, and hopefully they will reciprocate.”

      The dream is that the first Westward will build a buzz around the city, and music fans will want to be part of things moving forward. If that sounds like wishful thinking, you’ve clearly never been on the kind of high where seeing a great show one night makes you want to go out and do it all over again the next.

      “Westward is something that we plan on doing for a very long time,” Gibbons says. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like [in the future], but we hope that the people of Vancouver and City of Vancouver want to support it. And that we can use some of the unique spaces around Vancouver, whether it’s a Malkin Bowl or a David Lam Park.”

      Asking him to pick potential highlights from the inaugural edition’s lineup is probably unfair, but that doesn’t stop him from doing just that, with the caveat that the special moments won’t stop there. In the best possible world, there will be tears—but of the same kind that Joanna Newsom provoked.

      “I think Vince Staples is a generational artist, so that’s pretty cool,” Gibbons says. “A Tribe Called Red obviously is something amazing that we’re very proud to call Canadian. Dear Rouge will be cool, especially since they are playing a smaller venue for them. Youngblood and Little Destroyer are such a part of the Vancouver music scene, so seeing them on a bigger stage in the festival is going to be fantastic. All I know is that I’m going to be running around trying to see them all.”

      The Westward Music Festival takes place at various venues from next Thursday to Sunday (September 14 to 17). For a full festival schedule, go to westwardfest.com/.