Rifflandia 2013 - Fill The Streets - By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Rifflandia 2013 – Fill The Streets

Adrian attends four excellent days of Rifflandia 2013. Author: on September 20, 2013
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In six short years, the organizers of Rifflandia have done nothing short of work a miracle.  In that time, they have turned the event from a small-scale showcase of localized talent (1,500 guests and 65 artists in 2008), into a massive, city-wide event which attracts such internationally renowned acts as Big Boi, Courtney Love, Death From Above 1979, and Danny Brown, to name only a few.  In 2013, thanks to the lofty ambitions of Nick Blasko and Dimitri Demers, Victoria’s end of summer bash attracted a stacked lineup of over 200 artists playing on 13 stages scattered throughout the city’s downtown core. They brought an eclectic mix of musicians as well, this year’s musical offerings ranging from hip-hop to dubstep to indie-rock to whatever the hell Beats Antique is. The rapid growth is nothing short of phenomenal, and it has turned Rifflandia into one of the Northwest’s defining festivals.

The setup is relatively unique as well. Instead of holding the event out in a soggy field somewhere dozens of kilometres from civilization, Rifflandia is an opportunity for music lovers to really get to know the city of Victoria. Everything occurs within city limits (which means no sweaty camping and less reliance on abysmally maintained outhouses, thank god), and all of the venues are within walking distance of each other. During the day, Royal Athletic Park plays host to two stages upon which the headliners can share their music with large quantities of people.  When the sun goes down, Victoria’s quirky downtown is allowed to shine: this year featured 11 night venues including bars, empty lots owned by brewing companies, radio studios, a public square turned into a sweaty rave, and much more.  It’s a wonderful way to expose the city’s unique charm and introduce people to its live music scene, both local and international. The opportunity to interact with the city in this unique way will always remain one of the festivals biggest draws.

Instead of giving a day-by-day rundown of my experience over the four-day extravaganza (piecing things together on a timeline is still proving quite difficult; my head is still pounding…), I have decided to hand out some mock awards for the artists in attendance (similar to By Volume’s coverage of Outside Lands 2013). The more serious awards will come near the end, so stay tuned for the real gold. Before I launch into it, let’s take a minute for some honourable mentions. The following artists held their own, but were either not witnessed in full by me, or else were not worthy of any of my prestigious awards. They are still worth mentioning though, as they helped make the Rifflandia experience what it was.

Honorable mentions go to: Rob Garza (of Thievery Corporation), Mounties, Disco 3, Pat Mahoney, James Murphy, Wintersleep, and Hannah Georgas.

As is the case with any festival, scheduling conflicts and mismanaged priorities meant that there were a few artists that I unfortunately missed out on seeing.  Artists that I missed included Braids, Courtney Love, Watsky, Cold Specks, Humans, and Aiden Knight. Also, one of the festival’s biggest draws for me personally, Detroit rapper Danny Brown, was denied entry to Canada at the border, and so three shows were cancelled, including his Rifflandia date.  This was massively upsetting to me as he was probably the artist I was most excited for, but somehow I managed to dust myself off and enjoy the rest of the acts. Lastly, my biggest mistake of the entire weekend was taking too long to get to the park on Friday, meaning that I missed all of Easy-Star All-Stars’ set, definitely one of the festivals most interesting acts in 2013.  During the wristband check lineup, I was able to faintly hear some of Dub Side of the Moon (for the uninitiated: they do reggae covers of classic albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and OK Computer), which only helped to rub salt into the wound when I finally arrived at the stage just as their set was finishing. Anyway, that’s enough housekeeping; it’s time for the good stuff.


The Mixed Feelings AwardMykki Blanco

Mykki Blanco put on a show Thursday night at Club 9One9 that was interesting to say the very least.  The New-York underground rap sensation took to the stage dressed half in drag, passionately delivering lyrics which attempted to challenge society’s idea of normality. For most of the show, I was torn between losing my mind in the hyped up crowd, and standing motionless in the corner, silently mulling over Blanco’s thought-provoking assessment of gender issues in North America. It was definitely an impassioned performance: Blanco’s level of energy was off the charts. But after a certain point, it began to feel somewhat gimmicky. Fellow festival-goers around me kept exclaiming things like “this is so weird….I love it!” or “what is he wearing?! I can see his penis!” to the point that it began to feel like a show fueled only by shock appeal.This was quite possibly, the exact point: shocking the audience into considering things they hadn’t before.  For someone not well-versed in his music though, the novelty of Mykki Blanco’s shtick unfortunately wore off before the show came to an end.  It was an intellectually challenging performance though, I will say that much, and that’s quite a bit more than I was expecting from a 12:30 AM rap concert.

The Most Indie Thing I Have Ever Seen Award: Oh No! Yoko

Vancouver’s Oh No! Yoko took their poppy riff-infused rock to studio CMCT on Friday night.  The venue itself was a small room (max. capacity easily under 100) with simple back-lighting and no stage, and in the corner was a festival volunteer making and distributing free bags of popcorn. As the few dozen flannel-clad twenty-somethings stood, eating free snacks, watching four young men rock away without the need for a stage, in a room which played host to a small radio station’s broadcast by day, I couldn’t help but feel that I had arrived at the quintessential hip experience of the festival. I mean this not in a negative way though: that set perfectly illustrated much of Rifflandia’s charm. There were ten other bands playing at the same time, and so here was a small contingent of dedicated fans supporting a local act in a venue not even designed for live music. This has always been a festival strongly rooted in support for local musicians and businesses, and Studio CMCT epitomized that ethos. And for the record, the show was excellent. The band was tight and technical, definitely a prerequisite for enjoying a show from a band with such off-the wall, jittery songwriting as Oh No! Yoko. They gave it their all as they energetically belted out their jubilant summery rock music, their sounds bouncing off the walls of the small room and pleasing their grinning fans.

The Never Had a Chance Award: Tie – Wavves and Matt & Kim

One can be musically open-minded to a point, but we all still have a handful of bands we simply cannot stand. For me, two of those groups are Wavves and Matt & Kim. I will never understand how they rose to moderate popularity within indie music, but I’ve seen both enough times to know that I’ll never come around. For other attendees, these two names were likely big draws. For this fickle asshole, however, they represented forty-five minute time slots during which I could sit in the beer garden, half-listening from a distance, and silently scoffing at two of indie’s most overrated artists. Nice effort guys, but you never had a chance.

The He Did Not Just Do That… Award: Z-Trip, for mixing The Beatles’ “Let it Be” into a Skrillex song.

Z-Trip got Royal Athletic Park absolutely bumping with his DJ set, keeping the crowd on their toes at every turn by dropping hit after hit. All eras and genres were represented, including clips from artists such as Dead Prez, Radiohead, Run the Jewels, Led Zeppelin, and a smattering of EDM superstars.  Be snobby and question his song choices if you must, but it would be impossible to deny that this man is not incredibly talented behind the decks. He united young and old in a raucous dance party which rapidly shifted from song to song, never letting any single vibe settle for longer than a minute. I was immensely conflicted when he mixed one of my all-time favourite songs (“Let it Be“) into one that grinds my gears (“Bangarang“), but I kept on dancing throughout the entire ordeal, and that’s the bottom line for an artist like Z-Trip. He had us all singing along and shaking our asses for a solid forty-five minutes: mission accomplished.

The “I’m There In Spirit” Award: Stars

By Sunday, the heavy drinking of the four-day weekend had begun to catch up with me, and by the time Canadian indie-pop heroes Stars took to the main stage, I had taken to an outhouse for a solid twenty minutes of re-assessing my life choices.  They sounded great from a distance, but my mind was otherwise occupied.  I managed to make it to the stage for the last ten minutes of their set, but I opted to hang out in the fenced-off area that had chairs (at least it was close to the front of the stage). The meaning of this award is two-fold, the other part of it coming from my lack of familiarity with their music.  I’m a fan of their album Set Yourself on Fire, but that is where my knowledge of their work comes to an end.  So, it sounded great, they are surely wonderful performers, but I was only there in spirit.  Sorry guys, you know how festivals go.

The Least Amount of Fucks Given Award: The crowd at Bliss N Eso (zero fucks given)

On Sunday, the forecast called for overcast skies with scattered showers.  Nevertheless, the optimistic festival attendees stormed Royal Athletic Park in our t-shirts, shorts, and fake, brightly coloured ray-bans.  When the skies finally opened up, it was during the blistering set from Australia’s most beloved rap duo, Bliss N Eso. The effect was negligible however, as the few thousand strong continued to groove to their catchy, conscious lyrics as if nothing had changed at all. The two were genuinely impressed at our commitment to the show, both seeming absolutely shocked that the crowd didn’t rush for the covered areas when the showers turned into an outright downpoor.  Silly Aussies, this was a nice summer day in Victoria: rain has never stopped anyone on the West coast from getting anything accomplished.  They brought their camera guy onstage to capture some video, and got the whole crowd jumping in the pouring rain, to “show all the Aussies back home how hard Canada comes out for a Bill N Eso show!!” It was one of those concerts that united strangers, that made us feel like we were a part of something bigger than ourselves.  The love that the two MCs showed to the crowd, and vice versa, was simply a wondrous sight to behold.  Rain or not, that was one of the hottest sets of the entire weekend.

The Pass the Joint Award: Action Bronson

Though his tour buddy Danny Brown had been denied access at the border, Action Bronson of Queens NY managed to show up and help to alleviate the pain.  After building up quite a bit of hype, his DJ finally brought Bronson to the stage to thunderous applause.  He swaggered towards the front of the crowd, arms defiantly crossed. Then, as he delivered his first words of the evening, a gigantic cloud of smoke rose from the crowd at Philips Backyard Brewery, hundreds of onlookers lighting up simultaneously. Action Bronson’s molasses-like flow had everybody bobbing their heads in unison.  Much like the smell of herb hanging in the air, the only way to describe the set is “dank”: purposefully delivered rhymes and the sort of swagger that only a 300 pound head-chef-turned-MC could pull off.  He commanded the stage for a solid 45 minutes, almost making me forget that it’ll be another year at least before I get a chance to see Danny Brown in action.

Best Discovery of the Festival: Beats Antique

This duo from Oakland put on the sort of live show that words simply cannot do justice to.  One of them plays a drum kit, while the other uses a DJ setup to anchor the set and rotates between various instruments such as violin and banjo (to name only a couple).  The music is heavily beat driven and delivered in such a way that had the 4:00PM outdoor park crowd looking more like a 3:00AM Boiler Room crowd.  Whether sawing away beautifully on the violin, or building up and dropping the most engrossing beat these mortal ears have heard, Beats Antique had the audience hanging on their every movement. Unknown to me before the festival, this duo from California easily won me over as a lifetime fan, and I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one.

Honorable Mention: USS

Consisting of a drummer, a guitar player, and a turntablist/hype-man, this trio from Ontario really know how to get a party started. From drum-n-bass fueled dance-parties, to non-stop guitar-riffage, USS created pandemonium for the entirety of their set.  Their live show was nothing if not exciting, and it had all of Royal Athletic Park absolutely bumping.  If their studio albums can live up to their uproarious live show is for me to discover, but this is one live-music enthusiast who will forever be keeping his eyes peeled for USS’ next show on the West coast.

The Work the Crowd Award: Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros

It seemed odd that Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros were chosen to close the festival over Big Boi (the latter seemed much more fitted for a night-time slot) but it all worked out brilliantly. As the sun slowly faded away for the last time that weekend, Edward Sharpe and his large group of musical cohorts had thousands of observers swaying in unison and joining hands with each other. They play the type of music that conjures up unhindered elation; an overwhelming positivity was in the air as they played through their feel-good tunes. Sharpe expertly interacted with the crowd, telling nonsensical stories wherever he saw fit, uniting us all again in bashful laughter.  He even surrendered the microphone on a few occasions to his starry-eyed mega-fans in the front row, allowing them to ad-lib a verse.  And then, before the song that we were all waiting to hear, he asked if anyone had a love story to share (“any kind of love story, I’m easy to please!”) After listening to the barely understandable ramblings of someone from the audience, he took the microphone back and began whistling that knee-melting melody and thousands of fans united in singing one of the purest love songs ever written.  “Home is wherever I have you…” the words hung around in the crisp Victoria night long after the show had come to a close, someone faintly humming it around every corner I turned that evening.  It was a truly magical way to end a wonderful weekend of live music.

Honorable Mention: Bosnian Rainbows

Though their early afternoon time slot meant that barely a few-hundred people got to witness their spectacle, the progressive super-group worked the miniscule crowd nonetheless. Their rambunctious front woman, Teresa Suárez of Le Butcherettes fame, was a constant source of entertainment.  Whether she was air-humping some invisible prop, slow-walking in exaggerated movements across the stage, or jumping into the very thin crowd to force people to dance or rub their asses on the wet dirt, she was somehow able to ensure that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, for once, was not the most interesting person on stage. It was a performance driven by her piercing, androgynous vocals and backed up by some very technical performances by Rodriguez-Lopez, Deantoni Parks on drums and keys (at the same time?), and Nicci Kasper. It’s a shame they had such a small crowd to work with, because Bosnian Rainbows could have easily entranced ten times the amount of people in attendance that afternoon.

The Why Don’t I Live in the UK? Award: Kahn and Eprom

One thing I love about Rifflandia is that the organizers are in touch with such a wide variety of musical genres. They always attract great dubstep producers from the UK (a scene which I am very big fan of), last year attracting the legendary Kode9. In previous years, names such as Distance and Mount Kimbie graced the lineup. For the 2013 edition, the organizers were able to book Kahn, fresh off the release of his massive self-titled EP, and Rehab Nightclub felt like downtown Bristol, if only for one night. Sweat dripped off the walls as he spun monster tune after monster tune, including tracks of his own EP like ” Badman City” (already a legendary track), mixing with careful precision. It’s the sort of show that is unfortunately a rare occurrence in North America, but Kahn’s hour of wall-shattering DJing was almost enough to tide me over until Phaeleh comes to Vancouver next month. Following Kahn was a producer out of San Francisco by the name of Eprom. Experiencing his set gave me hope for North America’s growing scene (maybe I won’t have to move to the UK after all…). He assaulted the subwoofers with walls of mind-bending bass, genre-hopping all the while. From laid-back garage beats to organic sounding synths to ass-kicking bass lines, Eprom had the crowd entranced the entire time. Together, the two sets combined to produce what was a truly unforgettable night, one in which the helpless spectators were completely spellbound and overtaken by the desire to dance the night away.

The Kick The Crowd’s Ass Award: Death From Above 1979

Having seen these Canadian legends once before at Sasquatch 2011, I led myself to believe that I knew what I was getting into by pushing near to the front of the crowd for their set. How wrong I was though, as my second experience with the newly reunited duo was even more intense than I could have possibly imagined. From the first crash of the cymbal to the last furiously picked bass-line of the night, the crowd absolutely erupted.  Elbows were flying, shoes were forever lost under a sea of sweaty legs, and the mosh-pit did not let up for one second. I reluctantly had to drag myself away from the fray about halfway through their set as my vision was beginning to blur and I honestly feared that I might pass out if I stayed any longer. Belting at the top of my lungs: “now that it’s over, this wedding’s off my shoulders!” as the crowd jerked violently and spontaneously from side to side; it was probably the most cathartic experience I had all weekend – exactly the sort of thing I went to Rifflandia for.

The Living Legends Award: Tie – Big Boi and Souls Of Mischief

Personally, Rifflandia 2013’s main attraction for me was the absolutely stacked lineup of hip-hop acts. Though Danny Brown was cancelled, it was hard to waste too much time being upset over that when I would be seeing parts of two of hip-hop’s most legendary crews. OutKast have always been a favorite of mine, and Big Boi has become one of my favorite rappers over the years. Combine his appearance with that of Souls of Mischief, the legendary crew from Oakland, and I was about as excited as one could possibly imagine.  Though only half the Souls of Mischief crew managed to make the show, getting the chance to see “93’ Til Infinity” performed live was nothing short of glorious. They also cherry-picked songs from The Hieroglyphics catalogue (the two crews were intricately related in the 1990s), causing those fans in the know to absolutely lose their minds in disbelief of what we were witnessing. It’s unfortunate that I began to enjoy hip-hop as late as I did, as I have missed the chance to see many legends of the golden era in the flesh.  Rifflandia 2013 helped out where it could though, and I can now cross three of my favorite MCs off of my “to see before we die” list.

Best Shows of Rifflandia 2013  –  Runner Up: Death From Above 1979

There were quite a lot of excellent sets to choose from, and settling on an award for runner-up was no easy task. In the end though, it would be absolutely impossible to deny the sheer awesomeness of Death From Above 1979’s Saturday headlining set. They relentlessly pummeled the audience with sharp bass-guitar riffs and bombastic drums.  Though their defining work was released almost a decade ago, the songs were performed with the sort of urgency that could have fooled a casual observer into believing that they were fresh from the studio.  Let’s hope that this reunion leads to more studio albums, because this band is, bluntly put, too fucking excellent to be a one-album-wonder.

Best Set of Rifflandia 2013: Big Boi

Absolutely no contest here: Big Boi tore down Royal Athletic Park’s non-existent roof. I’m a big fan of his recent solo albums, and honestly would have been fine to just hear cuts from that duo of excellent LPs. Seeing as he was touring solo, without Andre 3000, I wasn’t sure if we would hear any OutKast material. In fact, I was fairly certain that we wouldn’t. Imagine my surprise and delight then, when after absolutely slaying some of his solo tracks like “Shutterbug”, “In The A”, and “Thom Pettie”, that unmistakable beat from “Bombs Over Baghdad” exploded from the speakers, and the crowd went absolutely belligerent. I exchanged looks of glee with those around me, everyone seemingly as surprised as I was to see him dipping into OutKast’s catalogue. He kept it going, playing hits back-to-back-to-back, next delighting the audience with “So Fresh, So Clean”, “ATLiens”, “The Way You Move” and “Ms. Jackson”, to name only a few. The crowd was so pumped up for these timeless hip-hop classics that I’m sure there must have been some people in Victoria’s inner harbour, miles away, wondering why the entire city seemed to be shouting: “ain’t nobody dope as me, I’m just so fresh, so clean (so fresh n so clean, clean!)

He delivered most of his incredibly technical rapping from the comfort of a massive golden throne on center stage, too cool to even bother standing while he blew our minds. This made it even more exciting when he occasionally arose to work either side of the crowd, hundreds of hands rising to the sky and rocking with the beat upon his arrival at the front of the stage. The happiness that I felt throughout the entirety of Big Boi’s legendary set was something completely indefinable. Complete strangers were hugging each other and tearing up at the chance to hear one of the most accomplished musicians of the last thirty years share his art with us. By the time those unmistakable six notes of the bass drum and one on the snare erupted, signalling the start of his solo hit “Daddy Fat Sax”, the crowd was primed and ready to ramp the energy up to another level altogether. The entire park was jumping in unison, no one minding that it had begun to rain again, as Big Boi commanded full attention. “With my ears to the street and my eyes to the sky / I’m on another planet my nigga and you just fly” he confidently spat into the mic, and no one in attendance could dare to doubt him in the slightest. My expectations for Big Boi’s set were unreasonably high to begin with, but Antwon Andre Patton (the only one) completely blew them out of the water effortlessly: a true living legend. Big Boi’s Sunday afternoon set was, among some pretty stiff competition, easily my highlight of Riffandia 2013.

That’s all for this year folks, I hope you enjoyed the award ceremony. I want to end by offering my sincere gratitude and appreciation for the people that make festivals like this a possibility.  To the organizers and schedulers of Rifflandia: your vision is inspiring. You’ve put Vancouver Island on the music festival enthusiasts’ map, and have made this event a truly one-of-a-kind experience.  To the artists themselves: thank you for bringing the energy and embracing this small festival for all its kitschy appeal and small-town charm. To the various workers and volunteers doing the grunt work: thank you endlessly for making the festival run as smoothly as possible.  To my sister and her boyfriend: thanks for letting me crash in your guest-room and eat your food.  And finally, to the festival attendees, the live music enthusiast: thank you for making all of this possible.  Without the continued support of people like you, these sorts of magical weekends would be only a fantasy. Live music provides a wonderful service to society, a necessary one even, and none of it would be possible without the passion of fans worldwide.  It was a wonderful four days, Rifflandia. I’ll see you next year.

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