This weekend marked the inaugural Skookum Festival, taking place right in the middle of Stanley Park. Something like 50,000 people were reported to have crossed through the gates to see dozens of bands — from local to international — play over the three days.
I kicked off the weekend with the raucous 'stoke folk' of Shred Kelly, who opened Friday evening's main stage. They brought the energy with songs from their new album like "Don't Ever Look Back" and "Archipelago", the contrasting voices of Sage McBride and Tim Newton ringing through the field. The set grew in intensity before the incredible combo of "Tornado Alley" and "Cabin Fever", Tim's deft fingers a blur across his banjo. They drew a great crowd, despite the sudden downpour mid-set, and were the perfect opener as they finished off with "Sing to the Night", a sentiment that would be apt for the rest of the evening.
Almost as soon as they were done, the rain eased up (in fact it only really sprinkled infrequently for the rest of the night) and I caught a little bit of Julian Taylor, who I only found out during the set was from the band Staggered Crossing (remember them?). The few songs I caught had a bluesy and funky rock vibe, a great fit for the overcast afternoon.
Next up was Little Destroyer, a band I've been wanting to see for a while, but just never had the chance. And it was worth the wait, as they started off with "Rattlesnakes", their alt-pop blasting through the growing crowd. Singer Allie Sheldan had an abundance of energy, dancing and stalking around the stage with a strong presence, as they tore through a collection of raw (and occasionally raunchy) songs.
I ducked out a few songs before the end of their set to head over to catch Dear Rouge on the nearby stage, walking up as "Modern Shakedown" rocked the field. Having seen the band play in all different sizes of venue, Danielle and Drew McTaggart seemed completely at home on the big stage, as they towered over everyone on the big screens flanking the stage.
The band tore through songs from their recent album Phases, like the gritty "Live Through The Night" as well as some older ones, such as "Black to Gold" which say Danielle don a golden robe and pull out a smoke flare, waving it around for dramatic effect. They capped off the set with "Boys & Blondes", building to a culminating in an explosive ending, which included Danielle leaping into the crowd to surf over the packed field.
After bopping to a bit of Chromeo while waiting in line for a food truck (a loooong line, as I'm sure you've heard), I shoved some mac & cheese into my face and ran over for Matt Mays, getting to the Forest stage as he aptly started off with "Tall Trees", dedicating the song to Stanley Park. He rocked new songs like "Ola Volo", written for the Vancouver artist, and "Faint of Heart", as well as old favourites like "City of Lakes", for which he invited Kendel Carson onstage to shred on the fiddle, even getting into a musical "showdown" with guitarist Adam Baldwin.
It was near the end of the set when I had to make the hardest decision of the weekend: to stay put, or head over to the main stage for Arkells. But the choice was made easy for me as the opening notes of "Terminal Romance" rang out, and I knew there was no way I could leave. Mays came up to the barrier separating the crowd, perched atop and leaning on fans in the front row for support as he poured his heart out, people singing along to the devastatingly heartbreaking tune. From there, he brought Carson back, as well as Dustin Bentall, for the perennial jam "On The Hood" and capped it off with "Cocaine Cowgirl".
Mays -- and the entire band -- always put on an incredible live performance, just so much raw talent and passion onstage, and in the not-quite rain, in the middle of Stanley Park, it was an unforgettable set and possibly my favourite of the weekend.
As soon as he was done, though, I made a beeline over to the Mountain stage for Arkells, arriving just to hear the tail end of "Knocking at the Door" before they burst in to "Private School" (which were the first two songs, making me feel better about my decision to stay at Mays).
They tempted fate by playing "A Little Rain" (which did hold off until some light showers closer to the end of the set) and had people singing along to favourites like "Never Thought That This Would Happen" and "11:11". Even from the back of the crowd, everyone was captivated by frontman Max Kerman (the big screens did help) and the rainbow fringe on his jacket, as he danced around the stage, almost never standing still for the hour+ that they played.
Before the explosive "People's Champ" Max invited out a friend who worked in the DTES of Vancouver helping those less fortunate, giving him an actual People's Champ medallion. And frequently throughout the set they were clear how grateful they were not just to be playing music, but to be doing it in a setting like this, in the middle of Stanley Park, in front of thousands of people. It's very clear that the entire band, but Max especially, absolutely love what they do, and want to spread that love as much as possible.
They wound down the set with more singing (or yelling) along to songs like the now-classic "Oh, The Boss Is Coming" and "Leather Jacket" before coming back out for the encore. First, a cover of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" where Max spotted someone wearing a Whitney t-shirt, and Springsteened him onstage to dance (and, luckily, the guy had moves). And finally, they ended the night with "My Heart's Always Yours" for one last outpouring of love for the festival, the fans, and just everyone involved in the weekend.
Saturday started with The Zolas "footlining" the day (Zach's joke, not mine), starting everything off with a brand new song. They got the crowd pumped for the rest of the day with a bit of a singalong to "Ancient Mars" and the fiery "Molotov Girls", before wrapping it up with their… let’s say "ode" to the current state of some things in Vancouver, with "Bombs Away".
Said the Whale kept the energy going, immediately launching into "Mother" and "Camilo (The Magician)" also garnering a big singalong. Tyler sang directly to his son (after taking a moment to find him in the crowd) for "I Could Smoke" and Ben sang his heart out during "Step Into The Darkness". They also played three new songs, one of which Tyler introduced about listening to women and included some incredible vocals on his part; another was (possibly) called "UnAmerican", a hard hitting song with a ridiculously catchy chorus, which I have no doubt will be their next huge hit. Those two, as well as a third new song from Ben had me incredibly excited for the new album.
The theme of Vancouver bands continued with The Matinée, appropriately hitting the stage at 3:45 in the afternoon, their roots-rock under the trees at the Forest stage. The band was as strong live as they ever were, lead singer Matt Layzell and his captivating stage presence, with highlights including "Fireworks", culminating in an explosive climax and "Sweetwater" had the crowd singing and clapping along. After the soft and beautiful "Show Me", they ended off the set with "Young & Lazy", the nostalgic rager segueing into Petty's "American Girl", before Matt Layzell hopped off the stage, over the barricade, and got right into the crowd, asking everyone to crouch and sing along campfire-style to finish off the song.
At that point in the day, there wasn't anyone I was really interested in seeing, but I ended up running into a few separate friends and chatting while first XAmbassadors played in the background, and then Milky Chance after them. While I'm not personally a fan of either, they both had solid live shows, and clearly had strong fan bases. Even at the back of the field I could hear people sing along to "Unsteady" by the XAmbassadors.
The next act I was looking forward to seeing was St. Vincent, the first time that weekend seeing someone on the Skyline stage (the biggest there, overlooking downtown Vancouver). They came out, all lined up in a row at the front of the stage, clad in peach-tones clothes or bodysuits, kicking off with the infectiously catchy "Sugarboy" from the new album, before "Los Angeles" and the title track, Masseduction, for an absolutely killer opening to the set. Before that day I only had a passing familiarity with St. Vincent, but from those three songs alone I was a full-fledged fan.
It was about at that point where the skies -- which had been overcast for the better portion of the day -- opened for an absolute downpour, soaking anyone not in raingear or a free, branded poncho (specifically, the idiot who thought "oh, it's not supposed to rain today, I'll just wear my hoodie, I'll be fine.") But I digress…
Even with the rain, the majority of the crowd remained enthralled, as she continued with songs like the frenetic "Pills" and "Fast Slow Disco" as Annie Clark shredded on her own custom-designed guitars. They came to a close with the Clark coming out right o the edge of the stage for "New York", singing of the "only motherfucker in the city who can handle me".
I had heard a lot of chatter about how amazing St. Vincent is, especially live, and the set absolutely lived up to all that.
I wasn't sure what was going to be able to follow that, but I wandered over to the Mountain stage for a bit of Stereophonics, their catchy brit-pop a nice bridge from St. Vincent to the next place I was going, the last band of the day on the Forest stage for the day, another Vancouver mainstay Hey Ocean!. They opened with the jangly pop song "Amsterdam" and went through crowd favourites like "If I Were A Ship" and "Big Blue Wave", which popped the crowd big with lots of singing along. Their voices harmonized together beautifully, and while Ashleigh Ball took point on most songs, they did trade off, David Beckingham on "Can't Let Go" and "Jolene" featuring Dave Vertesi's deep, smooth voice.
Near the end of the set they brought out a horn section to accompany them on a few songs, including the sassy "Change", and "A Song About California", which I tried to listen to for as long as possible while slowly making my way over to the Mountain stage.
And almost as soon as I walked over to that stage, the crowd let out a roar as the four members of Metric appeared, immediately launching into a new song from their upcoming album. The next hour and change was filled with teases to new stuff, like the latest single "Now or Never" and the crunchy "Dark Saturday". As someone who was not super into their previous album, Pagans in Vegas, the new stuff had me very excited for what’s to come.
Alongside the new stuff, they hit some older songs, like "Combat Baby", "Gold Guns Girls" which say Jimmy Shaw absolutely tearing it up on guitar, and one of my favourites, "Black Sheep" (shout out to The Clash at Demonhead).
It had actually been a long time since I last saw them perform, and I almost forgot what a force they can be live, especially Emily Haines. She hardly stood still throughout the set, dancing and jumping as her powerful voice filled the jam packed field. Right up until the end of the show, as they hammered through "Help, I'm Alive" for the perfect ending to night two.
I say 'ending', because to be honest, at that point I was getting tired (and still a little damp from the earlier downpour) so I decided to call it a night, letting the ethereal voice of Florence & The Machine serenade me as I walked the seawall to catch the bus and get ready for day three.
I got there a bit later in the afternoon on Sunday, starting things off with a few songs from Belle Game, with perfect timing as I walked up to the stage right as they started playing "River", Andrea's powerful voice blasting through the rain. Their alt-pop was the perfect soundtrack for the drizzly Sunday afternoon, with songs like "Yuh" and my favourite off their new album, "Spirit". I slipped away as they ended with "I Want Nothing" to head over to the next stage where Yukon Blonde had just started. In contrast to Belle Game's dreamy soundscapes, Yukon Blonde brought the 80s-synthy-tinged dance party with "Summer in July" and "Emotional Blackmail" from the new album. They also broke down into a psychedelic jam in the middle of "Radio" before ending off with the impeccable harmonies of "I Wanna Be Your Man"
Following them on the Mountain stage was one of the acts I was most looking forward to, the joint forces of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland as Whitehorse. The duo started off with "Baby What's Wrong", their voices playing off each other perfectly, and their amazing chemistry on display (as you would expect). Doucet’s amazing guitar talent was on display for "Devil’s Got A Gun", and McClelland’s crisp voice rang out on the heartbreaking "Broken". Their songs ranged from the beautiful "Emerald Isle" to the raw "Downtown", to the vitriolic (and ever-increasingly-relevant) "Boys Like You". To close the set, they broke out a cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s "Ohio" for a strong ending to another one of my favourite sets of the weekend.
Mother Mother was playing the Skyline stage next, the giant field in front of them absolutely packed with people, all the way up the small hill. I arrived to hear the beating of "Oh My Heart" go into "Let’s Fall In Love" as they played a series of hits, reminding you how prolific they’ve become. The weird and quirky "The Stand" was a highlight, and they previewed a new song called "Get Up". I was just about to leave to catch the next act, but the opening strains of "Hayloft" made me stick around, the volatile song being one of my favourites of theirs, and let "Bit By Bit" transition me over to the next stage.
The next stage being Bahamas, as the sounds of Mother Mother merged into "Show Me", and it was immediately clear that Afie's smooth and effortless charm onstage had a large majority of the crowd swooning. And as if to prove the point, the rain let up and for the briefest of moments, the clouds parted for a bit of sunshine. He worked through songs like
"Opening Act (The Shooby Dooby Song)" from the new album, and the sultry "Caught Me Thinkin'", as well as the pseudo-R&B jam "Bad Boys Need Love Too". As he jammed extended solos during "Your Sweet Touch", and a few other songs, and finished off with "No Expectations", it was clear that early-evening on the last day was the perfect time to put on Bahamas.
After them I caught a couple songs from Canadian icon Buffy Sainte-Marie, including the powerful "We Are Circling", and then the last few songs from Father John Misty. His smooth voice crooned out some heartfelt songs; and while I enjoyed what I heard, I feel like I still don't quite "get" Father John Misty, as it seems like a lot of people I know are incredibly head-over-heels for him.
Finally, capping off the entire weekend was The Killers. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I was going to stay to see them at first – especially since I hadn't really been following them since Hot Fuss. But testimony from a couple separate people convinced me to stay, and it was definitely the right call.
The band burst on stage with a shower of confetti, Brandon Flowers strutting across the stage in a sparking suit coat, proclaiming he was "The Man". From there they played a show worthy of their hometown Las Vegas; flashy set pieces, a huge projection screen behind them, and lights & lasers illuminating the stage. They got to "Somebody Told Me" right out of the gate, and played hit after hit, with highlights including "Run For Cover" and, well, literally every song they played off Hot Fuss.
Partway through the set they brought a guy onstage to play drums on "For Reasons Unknown" and he didn't miss a beat (if the random person I overheard while leaving is to be believed, it's a regular feature of their shows to pull up an audience member to play that song).
After a giant crowd chant about souls and soldiers to "All These Things That I've Done", they finished the main set with "When We Were Young", but were aiming for those last few people who still had their voices when they came back out for the encore. Starting off by asking the crowd if they were "Human" or Dancers, they then finished off with he song everyone was waiting to hear. They started if off as a slower, chilled out version letting the entire crowd sing, but then bursting into the more familiar "Mr. Brightside" as every last vocal chord left in Stanley Park strained itself raw.
While I don't know if the set will convince me to follow The Killers again, it was a pretty overwhelming show, especially since I had such a fondness for Hot Fuss, yet had never seen them live before.
Overall, it was a pretty great weekend musically, but as I'm sure you've heard by now there were a few logistic nightmares. Lineups for food and toilets stretched through the grounds, taking up to an hour at peak times (after waiting half an hour for a food truck the first night, I didn't even bother with them the next two days, electing to have ice cream for dinner, drink from a refillable water bottle, and smuggle in granola bars). For a festival that marketed itself as much on the food than the music, I really hope they rectify that for next year, or at least allow outside food in.
BUT, those issues aside, I packed in as much music as I could, actively watching at least 18 bands, and hearing at least few more from a distance. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how it evolves next year.