Wavelength’s ambitious Toronto Island festival had been enticing me all summer. What was the point of carting all that gear and all those music fanatics over to Hanlan’s Point, when they would all have been overwhelmed by summer music festivals already by the end of August?
As the festival program indicated, there are many music fests filling up empty fields and mountain valleys these days, but they don’t capture what Wavelength terms “Our Toronto.” What do they mean you ask?
Day 1: I Hope You Brought Enough for Everyone: Kurt Marble; Doldrums; Holy Fuck
The weekend started out tentatively. The campers were beginning to set up in the balmy weather on Friday afternoon, but by the time the music began at 6 o’clock, the crowd hadn’t really owned the space between the European style front lawn of a camping plot, the stage, and the beach. An equilibrium of debauchery had yet to be reached.
Not to undercut by the momentum of the occasion, Maylee Todd took the stage to MC. I love everything the electronic performance artist does, so it was no surprise to me that she turned out to be the perfect host for the weekend’s festivities. She broke through to the weekday slaves and used some smirk-inducing, smutty jokes to get the crowd to loosen up, just in time for Kurt Marble to take the stage.
Marble and his group were sensational, dusting off poppy structures and laconic slacker vibes, showing them to shine like new. The guitars are fatter and the drums have more flat crack to them than a lot of other garage stuff floating in the sewers these days. “My banter is not on point today,” said Kurt, a few songs in; but that was no indication of how triumphantly the four piece opened the weekend up for anyone with ears. And in the end, Kurt pointed to me, and declared me the one he loved the most, which is all a man standing without a beer at a music festival can ask.
The Dirty Frigs kept the grungy, pop rock vibe going, serenading all those — including Kurt Marble — donning their swimsuit to hit up the beach, or those more strategically minded individuals playing giant jenga. They played “Swampy,” their killer crawl of a rocker that always impresses wherever it’s played, and many smiles passed through the crowd in response. Bri Salmena took the stage away and never get it back, stringing out extraordinary vocals, as always. One of Toronto’s very best rock acts did not disappoint, transforming the sunny afternoon into a swampy Mississippi mud pit for the duration of their set.
If there’s music to make you feel you’re getting fucked up in a field for a weekend, it’s Doldrums. The group’s trance styles and ride cymbal of penitent adulation discombobulated all in attendance. These guys have a massive sound; though there were mere hundreds in attendance at Wavelength, when both the lead singer and the drummer joined forces on vocals, you could close your eyes, and daydream of being at the Royal Albert Hall. Not bad for field music!
The sounds of stellar Doldrums single “Loops” were only just dying out when the main event, the star spectacle of the night was quickly upon us. Holy Fuck is mind bending bliss. The opener for the evening sounded just like John Lennon’s dream of recording the sound of a thousand monks chanting down an echoing valley.
They played an assortment of material, including a few I’d not heard before, and the night had a crisp Krautrock direction I had not anticipated. Then again, this band never delivers what I expect, even after all these years. The group is sinister: it’s a hex, a scene, the dirge of youth. It sounded like Friday night.
By evening’s end, a gorgeous harvest moon had swung low over the beach, its sinew of orange beams having transformed us all into strange musical apparitions, caught in the dance and a swill of Steamwhistle pilsner.
Day 2: In Which Our Hero Recounts Missed Opportunities
I missed out on Saturday’s festivities due to Blue Jays fever. It’s a bad case, one which I may never truly recover from. But, by talking to my fellow campers, I learned a bit about what I’d missed out on:
The folks I spoke to also commented on what a treat the festival was. I’ll admit that when I first walked in on the Friday night, I was a little taken aback. Festivals with camping to me always meant cattle herds rushing between tents and stages, product placements soaking the grass as much as stale domestic beer and vomit. But the more wholesome vibe of Wavelength was enjoyed by all, and access to the beach for the whole weekend was something alt0gether new for most of the festival circuit veterans I spoke with.
Day Three: Mainland Calling — Don’t Pick Up the Phone: Pierre Kwenders; Loscil; Absolutely Free and Petrina NG; The Weather Station; Do Make Say Think
I headed over to Hanlan’s for the evening, knowing I had a long one ahead of me. The scene was an entirely different one from two days before. Tents were dismantled and piled haphazardly in various stacks. People stood or sat or hula hooped wherever felt natural in front of the stage. They owned the night by now, and the day for that matter as well.
Pierre Kwenders was a joyous surprise. The Polaris long list nominee delivered melodic francophone tunes that had all the campers dancing. Ghostly, smooth hip hop beats accompanied Pierre’s echoing vocals perfectly. “Kuna Na Goma” was a real pleasure to see performed, as the maestro moves to his music with unique style and enthusiasm, The Montreal artist left the stage to resounding applause, and he did the only natural thing in that situation: he went for a dip on the beach. Not often you see such a lighthearted transition from stage to lake; that’s what we call the essence of chill.
And that was just the start of what I’ll call ‘The Mellowing.’ The final three hours of festival programming were as calming as the evening light shimmering on the water.
Loscil provided grand, atmospheric concoctions, that instantly transported me from the lake waters to the BC salty shores which the ambient master of sound calls home.
Absolutely Free & Petrina NG took the mood to the trees, filling the art installation grove with even more groove. Ambient loops had been playing through speakers in this locale all weekend long, but now they were joined by a healthy dose of synths and a camouflaged drum kit. The campers squeezed in to soak it up. Beach swimmers could be seen in the background as one long piece drove on and on, and the rocking beat’s crescendo left everyone satisfied.
I’d heard a lot about Tamara Lindeman’s band, The Weather Station, and the six piece outfit did not disappoint. The songs stacked guitar, popping drum beats, and melodic bass lines to tell stories of the road, the heart, and the plains. Good stuff for a festival.
You hear it around, those singer songwriter sound waves, that country fried pop style; but when it’s done right, it’s so damned fun. Tamara’s sweet voice curled like beach fire smoke above the dusk light, twisting through the songs from her newest release, Loyalty, as well as two songs actually written on Toronto Island. A stellar set indeed.
By the time Do Make Say Think was ready to come up, the excitement was fluttering in the air as thickly as the mosquitoes. The post-rock veterans were easily the kings of the weekend, and the crowd that formed around the stage were eager to see the royalty. How they got all of that gear over to the island in time for Sunday is beyond me.
The plan was to “get uplifted” according to bassist Charles Spearin, and the crowd certainly obliged. Fan favourites were in abundance — I especially appreciated the Other Truths material on display — as the Do Make onslaught wore on into the waning night. But nothing could top guitarist Justin Small playing, waving, and smiling for his young daughter. Joy like that is how you close out a festival. Uplifted? Indeed.
And so it goes. The party was over on a terrific Sunday night, and the ride back on the ferry was one of easy enthusiasm. The music I saw was easily some of the best curated at a festival I can remember. Nothing was filler, all of it was weird and wonderful. The atmosphere was intimate, like a spa weekend for you and a couple hundred friends. All of it helped answer that question, what is Wavelength’s version of “Our Toronto?” It’s most certainly a place of play and musical experimentation, where the wilderness enters into the music and makes a place for itself to stay.
So far, Camp Wavelength is a unique one-off: the only urban camping music festival experience in Toronto. I hope it doesn’t stay that way for long. A weekend like this is one definitely worth repeating.