Kelp 20: The Acorn, Jim Bryson, Hilotrons & More

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Photo by Ming Wu

It makes all the sense in the world for an Ottawa concert to begin at the pulpit of a late 19th century Anglican church and culminate with a fight in the depths of the Dominion Tavern.

Ottawa-based independent record label KELP celebrated its 20th anniversary on May 31st with a brimming sold out concert at St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Sandy Hill.  Eleven bands and individual artists from across the label’s roster performed, including the Hilotrons, Jim Bryson, Andy Swan, and The Acorn.

As a newcomer to the live music scene in Ottawa, I was mostly excited to see so many local performers in one night. By the time things got nasty at the Dom however, the collaborative spirit of KELP 20 had proved to be much more than just another show to see on a Saturday night.

Miche Jetté of moody Flecton Big Sky kicked off the evening, building the intimacy with an initially meek audience. Dropping an obligatory mention of beards and razors, Jetté’s confessional lyrics set the tone by announcing, “I’m in the house of the Lord but I’m dripping with sin.” Stray murmurs on the sacrilege of rock concerts in churches from the guy with his dirty feet splayed on the pew beside me made for a timely segue into Jetté’s “The Devil Is On My Trail.”

Local singer-songwriter Andy Swan ushered in a growing audience with odes to Jesus and starfucking. Banditas followed, rumbling in with a raunchy set of punk, and an assailing cry of “fuck all you warlords” on their crowd-favourite single “Tubular Balls.” By the time Chris Page performed a punchy set of alt-folk, the halls of St. Alban’s were resonating with a solid roster that spoke to both KELP’s small-town Maritime-influenced character, and the filthy DIY attitude that roots the label firmly in Ottawa.

Jonas Bonnetta of Toronto’s Evening Hymns made impressive use of improvised beatboxing by a young man known only as Ian. Looping samples captured right there during his performance, Bonnetta gracefully improvised against technical difficulties and retained the emotional delicacy of his album Spectral Dusk.

Jim Bryson playing at St. Alban's Church in Ottawa. Photo: Ming Wu
Jim Bryson playing at St. Alban’s Church in Ottawa. Photo: Ming Wu

More dancing and imbibing was wrought upon the church by Andrew Vincent, while Jim Bryson successfully hypnotized a particularly gleeful dancer in a red shirt into childlike abandon. Bryson’s country roots were referenced with an homage to Stittsville and a political retaliation against old people (within the same breath), but the energy was quickly recaptured by Ottawa favourites The Acorn, who kicked off their set with a new song.

In the most stunning moment of the KELP 20 concert, The Acorn’s “Darcy” hovered over a hushed audience with angelic harmonics in a poetic reflection of the concert’s venue. Building to climax in the characteristic slow rise similarly heard in related Ottawa outfit Silkken Laumann, The Acorn transitioned into a feisty set by the Recoilers. With the interruption of a midnight curfew, the KELP congregation proceeded to march to the Dominion Tavern.

The Acorn playing at St. Alban's Church in Ottawa. Photo: Ming Wu
The Acorn playing at St. Alban’s Church in Ottawa. Photo: Ming Wu

At Ottawa’s mangiest watering hole, the psychosynth garage-funk of the Hilotrons couldn’t be more fitting. “Too many people being nothing,” moaned Mike Dubue over the slur of booze, startled regulars and sullen bartenders.

With enough sobriety to reflect on the transition from St. Alban’s to the Dom, I saw how KELP embodies the kind of DIY ideology that Ottawa has built from bare bones, and that certainly deserves celebration. It was inspiring to see the openhearted intersection of venues, people, and genre influences from garage pandemonium to rhythms of funk, and a heroic dose of synth.  KELP’s 20th anniversary demands an immense appreciation for the individuals who have dedicated their lives to building the musical community and identity of our city, despite the ready-made indulgence of nearby Montréal and Toronto.

By the time Rhume took the stage, whiskey had become the main act, the night blurred into anchors under strangers’ eyes, the dance floor was possessed, and whoever that guy with the mic was had doused himself with whatever booze was at hand. Overall a great night for KELP Records, with many more to come!

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