Festival Review: Halifax Pop Explosion 2014 (including Tokyo Police Club, Ghostface Killah, BADBADNOTGOOD, + more)

Halifax; a small city nestled on the coast of Nova Scotia with a fantastic secret…The Halifax Pop Explosion (HPX). Well maybe it’s not so secret. Starting in 1993, briefly stopping in 2000 and returning again in 2001, Halifax Pop Explosion, (yes it’s a comically dark play on the Halifax Explosion), is an East Coast Music Festival you do not want to miss out on.

A brief summary of HPX: 200 bands, 4 days, tons of fun and, very little sleep. This year’s HPX did not disappoint with a crazy good line up, tons of free day time shows and one hell of a closing party. Although the weather throughout the festival was rainy and dreary (c’mon this IS the Maritimes) it did not dampen the crowd’s spirits (again, it’s the Maritimes), drawing a crowd of over 30 000 music lovers, combining the best of the local Halifax scene such as Weirdo Click and Ryan Hemsworth, national headliners Lights and White Horse and international names Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Danny Brown. Included in the music packed four days are numerous independent art and pop-culture events ranging from comedy to zine fairs.

With a lot to take in within a short amount of time, planning and scheduling is key, plus finding the best and quickest route between venues, and at times although gut wrenching, deciding between two headliner bands. With bands and acts ranging from electronic and hip hop to punk and jazz, etc. there is something for everyone and an act to meet whatever music mood you may be in that day.

The beauty about the HPX is the opportunity to discover new bands to fall in love with and gives you more music to plug into your ear holes. It gives you a chance to check out the local scene and surrounding areas. With this in mind, I set out Tuesday kicking off 2014’s Pop Explosion seeing Austra, with openers Vogue Dots, Astral Swans, and Petra Glynt. Hosted in Reflections Cabaret my only grievance with the show was the venue did not suit the music. Inappropriate venues aside, the music itself was what we were all there for. The Vogue Dots started the evening with their brooding and elegant blend of layered samples and drum beats. Followed by Astral Swans’ one man performance and the powerful voice of the addictively energetic act Petra Glynt the line-up was the perfect mixture of shoulder swaying rock and shoe gaze pop. As the night continued, the crowd and excitement grew for headlining act Austra. Hitting the stage around 1:00 am Austra emerged to an excited crowd eagerly waiting to dance away the remainder of the night to their dark electro-pop. Although the music seemed out of place within the small space of Reflections, the size and crowded dance floor created opportune moments for the band to get close and personal with their fans.

As always, lead vocalist Kate Stelmanis is on point. Her strong and powerful voice propelled through the smoke filled venue and surrounded the crowd. Austra’s sound is practiced and tight, and executed with precision. The highlight of the show was the end, when the reconstruction of their song “Lose It” built up gradually piece by piece. As the song gained momentum, the crowd’s followed suit leading to a full floor dance party for closing song “The Beat and the Pulse” giving HPX a proper end to opening night.

On Wednesday I made my way through the wind and the rain to check out Tokyo Police Club. Knowing the majority of my HPX time would be spent at the hip hop and electro/synth pop shows, I needed catchy and cheeky pop rock to change up my week a bit. Kicking off their set with Argentina, the excited and crowded room shouted out the lyrics and busted out their best dance moves. The mood was energetic, happy and addictive. The band’s ability to have fun while performing and keeping the mood light and carefree is the best part of their shows. Performing crowd favourites “Nature of the Experiment” and “Frankenstein” balanced with material from their latest release Forcefield and ending the night with “Your English is Good.” Seeing Tokyo Police Club is never a disappointment, as this was their third HPX appearance it’s become a bit of a ritual and they are yet to put on a bad show.

Thursday was the day that broke my heart…well not really, but the choice was tough. Thursday I was forced to decide between the Raekwon and Ghostface Killah show and Against Me. As much as I love Against Me, I could not pass up the chance to see two members of Wu Tang Clan and BADBADNOTGOOD play together…and it was so worth it. First off, if you have not listened to Toronto’s jazz hip-hop trio go now. Seriously, you will fall in love. The classically trained trio know how to entertain a crowd, pulling people in and keeping their attention, waiting for what is about to come next. The jazzy hip-hop inspired music is fabulous live and irresistible to dance to, and the talent is evident when the guys BADBADNOTGOOD hit the stage, blending freestyle jamming into their already incredible repertoire.

Scheduled to start at 9, Raekwon’s absence was not unnoticed, and the crowd grew antsy as time ticked on. However, the wait was well worth it, even if the show didn’t continue until 10:30…an hour and a half after the scheduled time. Just as the crowd was growing restless and accompanied by not so pleasant boos (was that really necessary?) as chants of “Wu Tang” began to surface from the crowd. The delay was worth the wait, rain and cold, as not only Raekwon graced the stage with Ghostface Killah in toe, performing all of the old gems from Wu Tang Clans early days commencing in 1992. I was fortunate enough to be standing amongst dedicated Wu Tang Clan fans spitting out every lyric as fast and precise as the hip hop legends themselves.

The performance was full of surprises, one of the best being for “Protect Ya Neck,” the point in the concert where Raekwon demanded some audience participation to fill in for Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastards verses. As Ghost pointed out it was admirable to come up on a stage in front of a crowd, he issued a warning saying they’d better not fuck it up…and fuck it up they did not. The three destroyed it, particularly the guy filling in for Ol’Dirty’s bit going a capella after the beat stopped. Ending the show in a high energy jam with BADBADNOTGOOD (Ghostface is a main collaborator on their album dropping February 17 2015) it was one of the best moments of the Pop Explosion and made me have zero regrets for missing Against Me. Though I am disappointed I missed Laura Jane Grace crowd surfing over a sold out crowd that eve (and everyone who went said it was an amazing set) I cannot say I regret seeing live performances from two hip hop legends.

One thing Halifax knows how to do is party and it was fitting that HPX end this year with none other than Danny Brown. Playing to a sold out crowd on closing night it was the perfect way to end a wonderful action packed 4 days of music. The enthusiasm throughout the crowd was impressive, using a hype DJ to fuel the crowds’ excitement until his entrance, Danny Brown stepped onto the stage and the crowd transformed into a dance mosh pit. Yes, dance mosh pit. Danny Brown’s presence is large, his personality encompassing the entire stage. As one of contemporary hip hops most interesting and strongest performers, he hypnotizes an audience while bouncing around the stage launching his lyrics at lighting speed as the crowd tried their best to keep up. His strong solo presence and catchy beats made his show one of the best of HPX.

There was a lot to see and a lot to do, honourable mentions go out to the fantastic (and FREE) shows that occurred during the four days which featured Kestrals, Mounties, and Old and Weird. Despite the relentless rain, lack of sleep, choosing between headliners, HPX 2014 was a fantastic time. It is one of Halifax’s best events of the year which continues to expand with each installment. If you are ever out on the East Coast in October, put this on your to do list.

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Review by Jenn Carson |

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