By Andréa Rojas
On a sweltering August afternoon, four bands with Alberta roots and five of the most prolific acts in alternative music of the last two decades, despite being emblazoned with the most ambiguous letter of the English alphabet, created a musical experience that was distinctly Calgary.
Conceived of as early as 2006 by the founders of local alternative radio station X92.9, X-FEST was originally orchestrated as an answer to major artists’ frequent habit of passing up Calgary tour dates in favour of Edmonton.
In a May interview, David Johnston of festival organizer Union Events explained that X-FEST’s diverse lineup of both local and more major acts falling within the “alternative” genre was intended to reflect the on-air rotation of X92.9 itself.
This year’s X-FEST also marked its inception. For 12 hours, the historical site Fort Calgary morphed into a hazy wasteland of ostentatious tattoos, Daisy Dukes and secondhand hash smoke. Although my lungs and sense of good taste may disagree, I survived– and liked it.
The packed lineup kicked off with two Calgary artists, and rightly so. Black Phoenix Orchestra and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald drew in the early afternoon to a steadily increasing crowd, followed by 2011 Polaris Prize nominees The Rural Alberta Advantage (who, contrary to what their name might imply, are primarily based out of Toronto) and perhaps the most cherished token of Calgary’s independent music scene: The Dudes.
Ever since I coerced a bouncer into giving me frontman Dan Vacon’s discarded guitar pick at a show as a teenager, I’ve had a lot of room in my dress for these Alberta boys. Although key solos on favorite “Dropkick Queen of the Weekend” and “Pretty Lies” were, rather disappointingly, transposed down to allow for an easier performance, the quality of Vacon’s vocals more than compensated for this. The ensemble’s rigidly rehearsed lyrics were coaxed into relaxation by Vacon’s poetic interjections, through which he offered up grandfatherly relationship advice (“Ladies, find yourselves a hard-drinking rock ‘n’ roll man”) and existentialist musings (“Ain’t life grand? When’s it gonna end?”). The former dive-bar slumdwellers have hit mainstream success (translation: have opened for Finger Eleven and are now the proud owners of a Wikipedia page), but their X-FEST performance proved they’re still ragamuffin rabble-rousers, just with fancier sound equipment and a couple more kick-drum punches.
Next up was ’90s novelty rap troupe House of Pain, who left festivalgoer Evan Body particularly enthused.
“I jumped around to ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain while in a [literal] house of pain. I now have bragging rights,” said Body on enjoying the group’s 1992 hit while being pressed upon from all sides by an aggressive mosh pit.
Fans then time-traveled forward to the 2010s with California indie rock act AWOLNATION, followed by punk-rock legends Social Distortion. Intense crowd-surfing meant that youthful and grizzled punks alike were continually tossed over metal barriers towards the stage. Those not being fondled from below by complete strangers watched the action on a huge video screen to the left of the stage, right above a . . . wrestling ring? Yes, I was somewhat confused as well, but many of my beer-swilling male counterparts seemed to enjoy this vaguely homo-erotic display of heterosexual dominance.
In a more wholesome fashion, post-grunge era shoegaze rockers Weezer launched the crowd into nostalgia with the opening track “Memories” from their 2010 album Hurley. Weezer quickly followed up with crowd-pleaser and 1994 Blue Album nugget “My Name is Jonas.” New twists on original solos and a seemingly improvised monologue by frontman Rivers Cuomo at the beginning of “Undone (The Sweater Song)” added flavour. By the time I had pushed my way to stage front and centre, Cuomo had commenced the opening riff of gushy beach jam “Island in the Sun,” which segwayed into stoner anthem “We Are All on Drugs.” A second encore brought out all four members onstage for a combined percussive effort at the end of disgruntled-teen gem “Pork and Beans.” Eargasms ensued.
The nutritious and delicious strawberry jams of Weezer were to be placed in stark contrast with the cock-rock apex of alternative metal that was final act Jane’s Addiction. A black curtain fell to reveal two female acrobatic artists in lingerie dangling at either side of the stage with two stage-size images of naked women behind them. Was this exploitative? I couldn’t decide. This and periodic yells of “motherfucker” by lead singer Perry Farrell proved to be the yin to the yang of the power-pop licks delivered by “the Weez.”
All misogynistic undertones aside, Farrell’s proclamations of candy-coated rebellion (“We’re not good because we’re good, we’re good because we’re baaad”) may have induced an eye-roll or two, but you have to applaud them for at least attempting to be incorrigible– although coming from a skinny dude in a neatly-tied neckerchief, this was more cute than edgy. Regardless, I was fascinated by it, in a weird way.
At most, I would call X-FEST a monumental development to propel Calgary towards musical-metropolis status, and an enjoyable day at the very least. Mind you, at times, I was only able to achieve the latter by telling myself that the drunken, slovenly mayhem around me was a mere caricature of actual humanity. Logistical failures, such as the lack of a suitable amount of Porta-Potties, were exacerbated by the festival’s “no re-entry” policy, turning 13,000 people into a restless flock of (quite literally) caged animals that resorted to urinating in corners and on fences. The lack of availability of anything other than food and drink upwards of $6 an item didn’t help either. Additionally, the pro-Calgary stance that X-FEST professed to take was somehow lost in the blatant polarization of the lineup, with smaller Canadian acts taking the morning and early afternoon and the American performers lighting up the night. Yes, X-FEST was Calgary– but only until 3 p.m. Does X92.9 see Calgary musicians as musical place-holders until the big guys show up?
That being said, it is applaudable that Union Events and X92.9 would even give up half of the bill to Alberta musicians, and moreover, at least understandable that they would choose to place major acts as headliners– tickets still needed to be sold to people who aren’t local indie rock fans. But even one Alberta act as a headliner in future years would not only help bolster local music, but be extremely telling as to X-FEST’s real priorities and purpose.
Devan Forster is the bass guitarist for Black Phoenix Orchestra, whose opening performance at X-FEST, along with $25,000 and regular rotation on X92.9, was awarded to them for being a winner of this year’s Xposure contest. Forster had his own views on the bi-polar bill.
“It’s kind of up to Alberta bands to get the point where they could be headlining a show. I don’t think we should expect for things to be given to us . . . we were just happy to be there.”
Despite all this, this journalist is now the happy owner of two Weezer shirts, a persistent sunburn and a rad day of memories. It may have a lot of kinks to work out, but I’ll be back next year. Xs and Os to you, X-FEST, until I find a rock ‘n’ roll man who drinks harder than you.