Festival Review: Up + Downtown 2015 in Edmonton, AB

Considering the length of the drive, we made pretty good time and got into Edmonton early Thursday evening. After sorting out our accommodations, half our gang sought shut-eye while the rest of us headed to the Empress Ale House for a little hey-how-are-ya. Friday was a bit of running around, highlighted by a surprise invitation from the venerable CJSR to spend a couple of hours on-air. Then it was time to get down to what was planned as a very busy weekend. As stated in the Stylus festival preview, we had our collective sights on kicking it off with a punk show presented by Solidarity Rock at Brixx.

Friday: Vibes delivered a completely serviceable hardcore set: fast and heavy riffs, macho-motional vocals, and a frontman with a beautifully horrible haircut imploring all in the room to think for themselves rather than accept whatever propaganda they encounter on the daily. I enjoyed it, but didn’t really pick up much to distinguish Vibes from other bands who work in their idiom.

The two Cuban bands came on next, starting with Adictox. They blasted through a hard and fast set that started to get people moving in front of the stage. That set things up pretty well for Arrabio, who also delivered in full. Both of the Cuban bands appeared (both here and back in Winnipeg a few nights prior) very well prepared and played extremely well. Lots of slam dancing ensued, and even a little crowd surfing in spite of the low ceiling at this basement venue. At the end of the set, I turned around and noticed somebody informing Edmonton punk Eric Budd that his buzzed dome was leaking profusely – the poor guy had no idea how much blood was down his cheeks and shirt.

D.O.A. rolled up to close things, and it only furthered the general truth that old punks are the best punks. The band banged out a nearly hour-long set largely comprised of Hardcore ’81 and delivered with all the swagger one ought to expect from a band of their stature. It’s hard to know what to say about such a well-established band, but of the many times I’ve seen them this certainly ranked as one of the best shows.

Saturday: First show on the docket was an afternooner at Cask & Barrel featuring acoustic sets from Mike McDonald and Joe ‘Shithead’ Keithley. I’ve been familiar with both songwriters for many moons and was keen to see the show. The venue was pretty cramped, though. Buddy at the door said we could try pushing our way in to find a seat but the only ones available were straddling the line between indoors and out. Great for keeping cool in August-like conditions, not so much for seeing the performers. I got the sense a lot of those around us had just shown up for some afternoon pints, as only a small pocket of the room interrupted its chatter to watch the musicians. I’ll freely admit to only keeping one eye and ear on them too. It was a good nostalgia trip, but not a show about which I will be telling any stories.

After a couple of other brief stops (Boualouang for a proper meal, Sherlock Holmes for a quick gulp) we headed back to catch some evening music. Again, the show atop our collective list was at Brixx. We walked in thinking it had started early with some ambient guitar music, but it turned to be Pyramid//Indigo, added late to the bill.

Next it was time to head upstairs to the Starlite Room for the end of Slates‘ set. By the time I got in, there were only a couple of songs left but they came off great in the best-sounding room I heard during the festival. Bumped into the Adictox guys, they introduced me to the aforementioned pal from Vancouver and I got distracted enough to forget about getting back downstairs!

Rushing down, I could tell Jessica Moss had begun and had the sparsely filled room in her pocket. Not wanting to interrupt anyone’s trance, I quietly sidled up to the bar and joined everyone in collective awe. Less than ten minutes later it was over. I found out afterward that Moss had walked onstage, announced she would use her 45-minute slot to play a single 24-minute piece, and launched right into it.

Finally came the act I was probably most excited about at the festival: Jerusalem in My Heart. Dreamy, noisy, droney, captivating—and the accompanying video projection, something that typically leaves me cold at music shows, actually had impact. It was only when he finished that I realized noise had been bleeding in from upstairs the whole time, and I would have as easily believed someone who told me we had been standing there five minutes as five hours.

Snapping back to the real world, I wandered outside for a gasper and heard the seductive beats of The Wet Secrets from just across the parking lot at the Freemasons’ Hall. In my estimation they have become one of the most reliably fun live acts in the land and as luck would have it, they still had half a set to go. Our entire crew eventually wandered that way, and our night ended as so many in Edmonton do: with local yokels dragging the visitors off to a donair place.

Sunday: Things got off to a bit of a late start, as we landed at the Rocky Mountain IceHouse to the final few bars of Mancub’s set. Looking around the room, Stylus mate Victoria King commented that it felt like being at a punk show in an Earls. The comment was completely on target, but hey – it’s better than being at Earls without a punk show!

The Allovers were up next, and came off like a band separated at birth from Winnipeg’s beloved The Unbelievable Bargains—which is a sincere compliment. Selections such as “Kitty Cat” and “Dog Team” were heavy on the cutesy, while the likes of “Beaver Lumber” and “Happy Pop” played on Edmonton nostalgia. The band lives across two cities, but are chipping away at a full-length album. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that, as these fellers were fun.

It was clear, though, that many in attendance were really there to see Ought. I’d listened to their most recent album a couple of times and had an idea what was coming, but they eclipsed my expectations by a fair margin. A jaded old fart might say Ought sounds like a tribute to The Fall, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and they happen to do a really good job of what they do. I happily walked out with a couple of tapes in my pocket.
Thanks kindly to: festival organizers for welcoming a pack of weirdos from afar, Jorge in Dundurn for being awake, Chad at CJSR for inviting us to mumble about Winnipeg music, Cliff and Catherine for putting up with us all weekend, Maya and Becky for helping us laugh at the keg hero.


Daniel Emberg (@echosfeychild)