World class bands. Three nights, four including our early arrival to find a spot, set up a tent, and watch disco-rock co-op The Darcys play a festival warm-up gig. The weekend weather offered up a sun so scorching that my skin is still peeling a week later. My WayHome Festival adventure was an exciting experience that took me away from the mundane, and that’s one thing we can and should expect from a big budget music celebration.
Friday morning brought thousands more cars and tents to our previously sparse open field. While purchasing my five dollar coffee I began to take notice of a diverse number of individuals in line with me — neo-boho, goth, festival fashionistas, exhibitionists, and a heavy dose of fashion-anxious and fun-obsessed millennials. Yep, we all showed up at a big field in Ontario, Canada. Looking past some of the pastel hats, dark denim, and wild animal tattoos, you could identify subsets of the festival population that also braved the heat: the unfashionable, the socially anxious, the awkward, and the shy. Toss in a few rural Ontario families as well. The visibly cool culture crusaders led the weekend in tandem with college bros and hippie-revivalists, but the less out-going bodies didn’t shy away from three days of celebratory musical concerts either, and it was incredible to be part of such an event. Big music festivals still offer society as a whole a bone to chew on.
WayHome Ushers in the Return of Punk…?
After a frustrating Friday morning of fabricating a makeshift shade situation at the campsite, I was finally free to experience a full show — one of the best of the weekend. Vancouver’s White Lung began with a killer tomahawk of punk rock. Lead singer Mish Barber Way got inside my head with her fast and furious, yet melodic at times, drag race of a performance. Feminist as fuck, talented as they come, White Lung took me back to the mid-’90s SNFU concerts that felt like a punch to the head. I had a flashback to the smell of a mosh pit, greasy blonde dreads flailing around, and getting whipped really hard in the arm by an unusually large chain wallet.
The thing was, today’s youth in attendance didn’t know how to conduct a mosh pit of any consequence. At the risk of sounding like I know something about punk, I’ll go so far as saying the audience didn’t know how to receive White Lung’s energy or music to its fullest potential. Happy millenials would push each other gently and pick up their pastel hats when they would fly off to land in the mosh-like pit. It was cute, but also kind of sad seeing the ramifications of well adjusted/wellbeing/polite culture. But who am I to judge? These kids are probably all pretty self-satisfied contributors to society — the un-punk. What do I know, anyway, save my own egocentric experiences from another time? I’m not above it at all. I stood there in stillness nodding my head to the music and taking it all in like a tired old music fan. In the words of my friend Matthew Dog: “The White Lung show just cleaned out my pipes for the weekend. Put the good stuff in me. Cleansing!”
Way stopped dead in the last quarter of the set to announce that she heard someone had got a White Lung tattoo. She went on to explain: “I hope they know that name references a woman I know who had a miscarriage. But interpret it how you like!” Her candidness and vulnerable confession came at a moment when, through my peripheral vision, I noticed a shy, vulnerable teenager sitting alone in the shade, smiling, nodding his head sheepishly. I assumed he was having a raw, outside of the box experience. Hallelujah Salvation!
Have you ever watched LCD Soundsystem from a ferris wheel at dusk? I only ask that because I want to brag that I have. My wife and I took a turn on the WayHome Ferris wheel on Friday night to take in the festival view as well as the last visible brushstroke of the sky’s butternut squash orange disappearing on the horizon, with aqua shades fading into dark navy blue, then fading to black.
The pink and purple electric machinery suspended us at the top while we watched the legendary LCD Soundsystem turn the festival grounds into a pulsing ethereal disco camp. The performance of their classic song “I Can Change” was one of the most successful sonic moments of the whole festival. Their sound was a masterful interaction with the high-quality sound system of the WayHome stage that was inevitably tweaked, adjusted, and played with all weekend, but never returned to the perfection as it was during that number. The vocals were next level live. In the moment of their reunion as a band, and after a five-year hiatus, LCD Soundsystem gave a wild performance that was also graceful at times, and somewhat playful. Change was in the air.
The weather got way too blazing hot for the Saturday afternoon performance by Bahamas. Songs about time passing, relationships, and an earnest sly n’ dry, partially assuming humor that only the most Canadian of songwriters could deli up. I am sure many craft beer drinking, furniture making, wood chopping Canadian hip-lords would have loved to be lead musician Afie Jurvanen at the party, or at least arrive with him! He won my heart over with his pointed humor and intensely genuine musicianship.
Just before treating the audience to the breezy guitar licks of “Caught me Thinkin’,” he announced into the microphone: “Looking good and feeling good, that’s the secret to my success, as I’m sure it is yours.” We were all sweaty messes at the time, and the irony and humor of this comment was not lost on yours truly. The hyper-calculated and rehearsed performance of Bahamas disguised at times as a loose jam session was a refreshing glass of Canadiana in the armpit of the afternoon.
Arcade Fire Brings Greatness to WayHome
Arcade Fire was billed as the headliner for the weekend, playing the main WayHome stage on Saturday night. It was my first time seeing them, and as a long-time fan of their music, I felt it was long overdue. The band was scheduled to play for an extended time slot of an hour and forty-five minutes. I guess this was WayHome’s way of acknowledging that they, a Canadian band, have become one of the biggest in the world. About 30 minutes to show time, a virtual stampede of festival-goers came surging over the hill to the main stage in various states of drunkenness. The diehard Arcade Fire fans were posted up in the front row an hour before the show, killing time by watching the stage’s fantastical video projections.
The concert itself was theatrically staged and genuinely energetic with frontman Win Butler sustaining the perfect combination of a manic performer in tandem with the restraint of a seasoned professional. He became a true mad scientist before our very eyes, allowing for an impenetrable aura of vulnerability to carry the words: “Let’s work it out…scream and shout…till we work it out!” delivered as his body jerked and contorted to each lyric, while his blond mop of hair hung like strings of spaghetti in front of his face. Regine Chassagne performed like an angelic banshee while hitting the high notes on “The Sprawl 2.” She moved with equal ease between vocals, piano, and drum, performing with wonderful whimsicality. The band did a quick subversive cover of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” — no doubt a nod to the “theatre of the absurd” that is the current American presidential race. Some people got it, and others seemed nationally confused.
Every musician in the audience wanted to be Win Butler that night, and Butler’s humble demeanor and gratitude made the desire all the more palpable. During one of two occasions when he addressed the audience, he announced with charming sincerity: “We’re the luckiest band in the world”. I don’t know though — I feel like the band’s hard work and creative clarity are more active agents in their success than “luck.” Though Butler did make a point of crediting Canadian arts grants for the survival of their band in its early years. Butler killed us with kindness and asked the crowd if anyone among us wanted to sing them a song, just before we got hit with a volley of fireworks to signify the apex of the weekend.
WayHome Winds Down
On Sunday afternoon I stood in a half-hour line to achieve a ten-dollar shower in the dirty soup of the collective WayHome hangover. I wasn’t hung over because I am in recovery, and was thankful for that every hot sticky tent morning. The heat wasn’t as oppressive on Sunday and we were gifted with some welcome overcast moments. I decided to check out Vancouver’s psych-rock outfit, Black Mountain. I saw them play once in Regina, Saskatchewan when I was not in recovery, and so I wanted a more coherent experience of their live show.
Their slot happened to overlap lit-rock group, Beirut. (lit-rock, or “literature rock,” is a term coined by my friend, Matthew Dog). I caught a bit of both shows and found that I liked both bands, but favored Black Mountain’s multivariate mutation of blues, acid rock, and, well, something like Led Zeppelin on ketamine. Vocalist Amber Webber brought her signature cloak of mysteriousness, and introverted and emotional epics that hit the audience swiftly. The analog synthesizers and folk strumming found on their 2016 release “IV” translates the ambitions of a band that isn’t content being defined by just one style. Their live show is anchored within their full monty crew of talented mysterios.
I had some real moments when American sister-act Haim hit the stage on Sunday night. Opening with the irresistible “If I could change your mind” really brought out the dance in an audience who appeared to be running on empty at the tail end of WayHome. That’s what great music should do! Get you off your ass when all else fails. Haim’s guitar solos and synchronized claps and hip shifts were nothing short of cinematic and felt more like a spirited film on American showbiz rather than a one-hour slot at a Canadian music festival.
Like any journey, I was happy to take a bow and make my way home when it was all over. The ethos of the weekend was about observing how much music means to people — from the cool festival parents who brought their kids, to the differently-abled bodies who braved their way through the crowds, to the star-struck millennials who would be looking for work in September. It was not exclusively a gathering of hip music aficionados. The last thing I noticed upon exit was a couple in matching tie-dye t-shirts, clogs, fanny packs and fisherman hats doing an awful dance while having an amazing time! Their joie de vivre resuscitated my faith in new music and the culture of festivals.
The drive back to Toronto wasn’t void of music — a CD of The Tragically Hip’s greatest hits played on. My mind was elsewhere, though, hungry for a sweet pastry and processing the sonic journey, I took with me some of the heart of WayHome. I imagined other young creative types who left the festival were more hungry than ever to achieve their own piece of the musical pie. I was happy just having my regular pie — Saskatoon Berry, if possible.