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Sappyfest 2011, Day 1:

The Night Of The Shark

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I arrived in Sackville around 5:30pm; The highway was full of cars, and we spot a few familiar faces along the way and one back window sign proclaiming 'Sappy-Dappy-Doo!'). With just enough time to head to the local liquor shop and to direct a few fellow passengers to a vacant lot to set up a tent, and ditch my belongings at my hosts house.

Upon entry, the tent is still rather empty. I suppose I was a bit of a keener this year, arriving basically as the first chord is struck at this year's festival. The Woodshed Orchestra open the festivities. It is the perfect soundtrack to all the welcoming that is going on. Volunteers beam from behind merch and tables, the budding crowd carry souvenir Sappy mugs and saunter about hugging each other.

Daniel Romano waltzing straight out of Midnight Cowboy and into the crowds heart
  • Daniel Romano waltzing straight out of Midnight Cowboy and into the crowd's heart

Daniel Romano and company take the stage and lull a few extra listeners into the tent. The giddiness is thick in the air, and it is quickly smoothed over by calming slide guitar and honey-sweet vocal harmonies. Julie Doiron guests as a back up vocalist to add depth to the already rich country tunes. The band is almost completely still and entirely stoic, with the exeption of a gentle sway in each members hips. As Minotaurs take the stage, I realize I must succumb to my hunger and grab a bite to eat just outside the tent.

Everyone seems to be of two camps at this point: those that know the Arcade Fire are about to take the stage and are loosing their minds, pointing fingers at the room on Bridge Street where Win Butler is apparently mowing on some french fries, and those who know and are trying to play it cool. It was supposed to be all hush-hush in Halifax, but know the shark's been let out of the bag. These are strewn about behind the tent:

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Owen Pallet & Les Mouches play a short, terse set of Final Fantasy/Pallet songs, with the exception of a stellar cover of Caribou's 'Odessa'. As if people weren't wound up enough for the next set, Pallet's high-strung string work only adds to the tension. The crowd is mostly motionless and responds to each song with uproarious applause.

Next comes an epic sound check: a multitude of guitars, drums, accordion, organs, strings, bells and whistles. The quasi-mysterious 'Shark Attack!' could be no other than indie-behemoth Arcade Fire. I manage to grab a spot near the front of the massive crowd and overhear a conversation something like this:

Woman 1: "But how do you know it's going to be this Arcade band?"
Woman 2: "Just trust me."
Woman 1: "Are they like, a hip band?"
Woman 2: "What do you mean hip?"
Woman 1: "Like do hippies like them? Are they jazzy kind of rock and roll?"

In hearing this exchange, the magnitude of what is about to happen really sets in. There are people here who know exactly what's happening and think it's the greatest thing in the world. However, there are also people who are about to witness one of the biggest bands on the planet without knowing it. The term gets thrown around often enough, but minds are legitimately about to be blown.

Shark Attack! playing their first show.
  • Shark Attack! playing their first show.

Their set is incredibly loud and incredibly powerful. The band seem ecstatic to play and sweat through a 45-minute set of songs from all their records, including a particularly moving version of 'No Cars Go'. Win Butler quips between songs: "Hey, we're Shark Attack, this is our first show." The crowd is in total uproar: pumping fists, belting out 'oohs' and 'ahhhs', crowd surfing. It feels like exactly what it is: the magnitude of a stadium show packed into a tent on Bridge Street in Sackville, New Brunswick. I can't claim to be well versed in the history of Sackville, but I feel like it's safe to say that no band quite so big has graced this town before. And for free, practically. Sappyfest gets it right once again. As the set winds down the joke continues: "Thanks so much, U2 is up next" says Butler.

Now the road diverges and I opt (as I promised you) to check out Long Weekends and Marine Dreams in the basement of the Royal Canadian Legion. Long Weekends, all clad in blue, blend perfectly with the three different varieties of teal on the wall. They hammer through a set of solid, yearning pop songs. It might be the last show still ringing in my ears, but front man Noel MacDonald's reverb-soaked vocal jitters sound a little like the Shark Attack! vocals. He admits to being rather drunk and the other two members nod in agreement and grin. They play hard and tight and if anything, they seem more lively and engaging than usual. As I head to the washroom, I am pleased to find a serious dance circle happening in the back of the venue. Moments like that suggest to me that, like the by-laws in Sackville, it seems regular show rules and etiquette don't apply at Sappyfest. Everyone looks, sounds and acts a little more free.

Noel of Long Weekends (apparently, I was as drunk as he was).
  • Noel of Long Weekends (apparently, I was as drunk as he was).

Marine Dreams, filling in last minute for Ghostkeeper, hold the crowd and slowly anchor themselves. The set feels shambolic, but in the best possible way. Each player is clearly talented and their chops patch up the loose parts, giving the set a feeling of spontaneity; the band was as surprised as the crowd at how great everything sounded. Shotgun Jimmie sat in on drums and with each song grew more and more confident and playful, grinning from ear to ear.

After some Frisbee outside of Struts Gallery and more hugging and more smoking and more indulging, I head home to rest up for tomorrow.

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