Since its inception in 2012, Arboretum Festival has increasingly become a seminal part of Ottawa’s cultural identity. Its organizers – primarily Rolf Klausener and Stefanie Power – are sharpened blades, cutting through all the music and food industry bullshit to bring us something real and something to call our own. I have had the pleasure of being at each and every Arboretum thus far, and watching it grow has been a wonder to witness.
However, this growth and development doesn’t come without hard work and dedication. At many points I’m sure there were times where the organizers wanted to jump ship, because that would be the easy thing to do. But creative people are a little crazy. Sometimes it can feel like you’re standing still on the train tracks, waiting for the train to come and run you over. But the reward for creating and maintaining something such as Arboretum is unparalleled. The importance it has had for the arts in our city cannot be understated.
I was out of town for the first few days of the festival this year, and was only able to make it onto Albert Island late in the afternoon Saturday when the music had started. There were a series of crucially important panels earlier in the day that I had to miss for logistical reasons, which I regret not being able to attend. We will post all the videos of these panels as soon as they are made available, as they help demystify much of the issues surrounding the unceded First Nation’s territory (upon which lied the new location of Arboretum Festival this year on Albert Island) and how it relates to communities in Ottawa/Gatineau. The precursor to these conversations were meetings that were held months back:
We had a chance to meet with a council member at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, we spoke with activists from the Free The Falls movement, others from the Algonquin community, had ongoing discussions with Windmill, and concerned members of our community. […]
One thing we did see was a common need amongst all parties for awareness and harmony for all people, not only here in the Outaouais, but globally. Instead of cancelling the festival, we decided to move forward and facilitate public discussions, offering people a chance to come to the land, ask their own questions, and learn from those willing to share. The chance to connect is what made all the difference for us, and we hope it will for you as well. – Team ARB
As the final day of Arboretum 2015 got rolling on the music portion, I entered the beautifully decorated grounds only to see many smiling faces in this little paradise. The sounds of Montreal’s Saxsyndrum (Art Not Love Recs) were coming from the main stage, which was perfectly erected between the two warehouse buildings on Albert Island.
This experimental drum duo, to the best of my knowledge, was originally from Ottawa and has since relocated to Montreal. The band started with Nick Schofield on percussion and David Switchenko on tenor sax, but have since expanded to a full band, giving them a fuller and more radiant sound. Saxsyndrum’s music is in a class of its own, as their instrumental layering and obscure song structures captivated the growing audience in front of the stage.
The digital and electronic elements of their music is tempered by the incredibly talented instrumentation, creating a sonic blend that is electrifying to listeners. A highlight of the set was seeing A.P. Bergman of Montreal’s soundscape specialists Year of Glad provide powerful and enchanting vocal parts, with such ferocity that his veins barely made it through in tact.
Regrettably, I missed the great new band New Fries open things up at the Alley stage in Hull, only to catch their last frenetic song in exchange for finding sustenance for the rest of the night at Subway. To get an idea of their live show, read the review I wrote about their Sappyfest performance a few weeks ago (new the bottom of the review).
New Fries set the dial to “weird” perfectly for the next band to play the Alley stage – Hull’s Fet.Nat. This band is one of the region’s most imaginative, bizarrely creative acts. Their music is laden with groove and funky undertones, yet strewn with disjointed arrangements, irregular time signatures, socially derisive vocal diversions by singer JFno, and otherworldly instrumental experimentations. Alongside JFno reside some incredibly talented musicians – Linsey Wellman on saxophones, Pierre-Luc Clément on guitar, and Last Ex/Timber Timbre’s Olivier Fairfield on drums and synth. Their latest album, 2014’s Poule Mange Poule, was one of our favourites of the year.
Their set started off with an impromptu choir containing around ten people of all ages. This was a new experience for all of us, and only added to the chaotic nature of their music when performed live. They brought up Phillipe Charbonneau (Hilotrons, Scattered Clouds) to be the choral conductor, and he did an excellent job. JFno got the audience involved and closer to the stage, and even teased the people up on the balcony at Gainsbourg Pub as they watched on. Many people that were just there to have a drink and were unfamiliar with the bands looked pretty confused, wondering what all the commotion was about. But Fet.Nat played their obscure sounds and the vibe loosened up as people got into it.
The children in the choir were a little apprehensive at first, but then embraced the fun on stage as they screamed, and particularly seemed to enjoy making exotic bird sounds at one point in the set. JFno even lifted up his shirt half way through the performance, probably because there was a bachelorette party of some sort happening nearby. I don’t know. All in all, Fet.Nat did what they do best – push boundaries while delivering entertainment that you won’t find anywhere else.
Next up was Weights & Measures. They are a three-piece instrumental math rock band formed in the late 90’s in Ottawa, and rarely play shows anymore. I was unfamiliar with these guys before the Arboretum announcement, probably because I wasn’t in Ottawa back then. Their drummer is Jeremy Gara, and he also the drummer for a little band you may have heard of called Arcade Fire. With his primary commitments in Arcade Fire aside at the moment, he seemed happy to be back home to play with his old band. Gara, along with his bandmates Kevin Jagernauth and Samir Khan, completely took over Hull with their performance. Although it was about a 15 minute walk from the main festival area, the Alley Stage in Hull actually drew a significant crowd of people.
I can’t overstate how impressive Weights & Measures were live. Even after 11 years apart, their riveting guitar riffs, thunderous percussion, and penetrating bass lines blended together as the crowd watched in awe. Everyone that was there now understands this band was so well respected, as they made their complex and intricate arrangements seem easy. Their songs were explosive, robust, and at times hypnotizing. Many times throughout the set it seemed like a song was ending, and everyone cheered, only to find out that the song was not over and vice versa. Hopefully Weights & Measures will continue to play more shows, as their music remains timeless and can blow away just about anyone that appreciates music.
As I headed back to the Main Stage on Albert Island, Austra‘s performance had just begun. She was the final artist on the main stage, signalling the final set of the regular Arboretum program. She has become a synth-pop staple in Canadian indie music, delivering song after song of catchy and energetic compositions. I like to think of Austra and her band as Canada’s CHVCHES – even those who don’t appreciate pop music can get on board with how good their songs are.
As usual, Katie Stelmanis’ enthralling vocals took centre stage. Even with thumping beats and bone-shaking synth, Stelmanis’ classically-trained vocal chords were the most impressive instrument on stage. Her voice carried over over the Ottawa river, bounced off the Gatineau Hills, and ran wild through the Ottawa Valley. They played some new tracks that I failed to hear the names of, which could be an indication of a new LP sometime in the future. With everyone returning from the Alley Stage, the crowd was filling up in the main stage area and many started dancing – a bodily reaction that is almost inevitable when listening to Austra’s music. After playing some crowd pleasers such as “Lose It” and my personal favourite “Beat and the Pulse,” Austra bid the crowd adieu, but not before letting us all know that the Arboretum performance was her favourite Ottawa show yet. I think we’re onto something here.
The night capped off with a bizarrely intense set from Toronto’s Phédre in the warehouse. I really enjoyed their set, but found their music very difficult to describe. However, I highly recommend them to those with open minds, as their music and videos really push boundaries. DJs Matt Tamblyn and Zattar finished off the night by doing what they does best – they just keep the sweaty party going. All in all, this year’s Arboretum offered so many new things for the community, and not only provided great music for us to experience, but also challenge us to think, engage, and acknowledge the mountainous issues our region’s aboriginal communities face.