From Skrillex rolling into Fort York, to a rave under a bridge, to the first annual Sound in Motion, “festival season” vibrated through the city this weekend. And it’s not over yet.
Earlier this month, I turned down the chance to cover the Digital Dreams Festival at Ontario Place, and, because I heard it was soooo good, I’ve been meaning to make it up to myself—for curiosity’s sake, you know? As far as I’ve read/heard, Digital Dreams was the unofficial kick-off to our city’s seasonal love affair with electronic dance music and their festivals—the first of eight such big festivals, actually. It’s all part of a current musical moment that The Grid’s own Stuart Berman calls “the return of the return of EDM.” Mega-concert conglomerate Live Nation now has an Electronic Nation branch of operations. There was that Rolling Stone “Dance Madness” cover story that made fanboys prematurely ejaculate. This weekend alone, Toronto saw an infiltration of international talent tasked with making the people move. There was Edgefest up at Downsview Park on Saturday, and weekend-long Drop Festival, a mélange of circus, art, and music that circulated from the Opera House to the El Mocambo and beyond. But there was even more to see and do, all happening on this major weekend of ignition for EDM, which made for conflicting interests and tough choices, despite common agendas.
And so, on Friday night, my choice was to jump aboard the Full Flex Express Tour at Fort York with headlining wunder-kid Skrillex. I was indifferent about the whole thing, but my friend Carol offered up free tickets, and I remembered this one article I had read in The Village Voice about the ridiculousness surrounding his secret shows in Manhattan, and, so, well, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Inspired by 1970’s Festival Express tour that went along a similar route and featured Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and The Band, The Full Flex Express Tour is Skrillex’s way of trying to re-define the art of EDM performance and touring (with a little bit of that nostalg-ugh factor), featuring supporting acts like Diplo, The Pretty Lights, and 514 homegirl Grimes.
The scene itself is scary: half-naked everybody all dirty and grimy and nasty in a way that you could only be after drinking and stumbling around in dusty Fort York from 4 p.m. to way past sundown. At $7 for a mixed drink, I decide to lower myself to beer. Same price. (Oh, that’s reasonable.) Everyone around me sways in the non-existent wind. I’m stone cold sober, not that it matters—except, like, it really does. Who comes to a Skrillex show? People who make you sob that “this is why we can’t have nice things.” They’re playing Marley in between sets. A guy comes up to me and points to his “Drop Bass, Not Bombs” shirt. “Spread the love,” he says. “And, uh, do you have any weed?”
At 9:30 p.m., a countdown starts. Moving closer to the stage, I realize it’s not the stage, just the sound booth. It’s multi-level with a rooftop patio. It must be ultra-VVVIP because there are like only 15 people dancing on it. Oh shit, what was that? Hats off to the lighting tech, because the lasers are brilliant. The lights and lasers go so hard that one big bulb explodes unexpectedly during the set, promoting the young DJ to scream, “Holy shit, did you see that?!” (And the whole time, I keep thinking about that Weeknd song, “High For This.”) The Skrillex stage makes him look a bit like a Pokemon character or a Power Ranger, which I think is one of his running jokes or something. It also looks like The Guv’s Chroma room set-up. Shit is getting crazy, and I spot one couple going a littttle too deep, if you know what I mean.
Skrillex is actually playing that “Love Like This” remix (“What’s your zodiac sign?”) without interruption, making me wonder if we’ve actually made any sort of full EDM crossover. “EDM” is like popular music in its most transparent form, and, more often than not, it’s a pastiche of other styles and songs. Even this Skrillex excursion isn’t like a DJ set in the glossiest club; it’s more like, I don’t know, a Britney Spears show, high on production values and smoke and mirrors—literally. There are people with shit-eating, dumbstruck grins on their faces watching him in awe, worshiping the man. It could just be the drugs, sure, still…it’s the most in-your-face experience, but one that you’re at odds with enjoying because you want to watch that huge robot get higher, or you don’t want to miss him change a track. The same reaction could have easily been elicited from, say, a Beyoncé show. (And wait, didn’t Diplo produce a song for the high priestess of everything and then, like, hate that he did so?) Later that night, DJ HugsNotDrugs threw an “unofficial” after-party for the show under the adjacent Strachan bridge. It was free, it was all-ages; there was no bar. It was in a gutter, for crying out loud, with a DJ set-up spilling out from a car trunk onto a flimsy table. And it was a little bit of that realness I’d been craving all night, so we danced all night, or until before the cops showed up for a second time.
On Saturday afternoon, down at Sugar Beach, the new Sound in Motion festival took flight for the first time. The crowd was older, and controlled; no one seemed to be feeling the need to binge drink. Presented by StudioFeed, a non-profit arts collective comprised of members of the city’s local music “ecosystem,” SiM is an independent, also not-for-profit endeavor that aims to make its festival about the music and its producers/promoters/consumers; the crew is intent on building an EDM community in Toronto that isn’t based on a passing chart fad.
“Our mandate is to strengthen the local music ecosystem,” said StudioFeed director John Alexiou in Friday’s final release, praising the independent artists, labels, promoters, organizations, and shops that came together to bring Sound in Motion to life. “Creating infrastructure that properly highlights the quality and soul of our independent music community is our ultimate goal.” The festival attracted a healthy dose of variety in both talent and experience, including short film showcase, technology exhibits like the new touchscreen Emulator DJ equipment, and panel discussions. Saturday night saw the festival move from beach to Sterling Road for an old-school rave like the Promise boys champion. In fact, the duo’s Promise Cherry Beach Sundays acted as SiM’s daylong after-party. The festival could very well be the singular great hope Toronto’s EDM community has for something consistent once this summer of love is over.
THREE FESTIVAL STOPS TO PENCIL IN
July 21: Identity Festival
Echo Beach, $40
The deal: Dubbed “North America’s first traveling electronic music festival,” Identity will hit fifteen amphitheatres throughout July and August featuring some of the genre’s most prolific and celebrated (Euro-famous) artists of the ‘00s.
The draw: I once saw a Robyn concert at Echo Beach and it was perfect, mostly because it wasn’t Downsview Park or Sound Academy. Look for Sweden’s Eric Prydz (2004’s “Call On Me”)—also the only EDM artist granted permission to sample Pink Floyd on “Proper Education”—who hasn’t toured since 2007 because of his fear of flying. With his new album, out last May, comes a bumping new stage show. Joining him will be legendary Paul van Dyk, whose show should give Skrillex a run for his money. Also: French nu-disco prodigy Madeon will make an appearance fresh off much-hyped headlining sets at Ultra and Coachella.
August 4-5: VELD Music Festival
Downsview Park, starting at $69.50
The deal: Touted as the country’s biggest EDM festival, INK Entertainment, the group behind CUBE and This Is London, flexes its serious promoter muscles. Rain or shine, the all-ages festival has a two-day line-up of—fine, I’ll say it— heavyweights, spread across two stages.
The draw: Thousands will flock north to see provincial music ambassador Deadmau5 do his thing. Look for my favourites Steve Aoki and Tommy Trash (who also did the best Aoki mix ever, btw). Locals Manzone & Strong are sure to bring the Comfort Zone vibe into daylight, and Gareth Emery will give you shelter with a solid set.
July 29: Sheroes: Virtual Season
Day: 2–9 p.m., 214 Augusta Ave. (backlot of El Gordo Foods), Free. Night: 9 p.m.–1 a.m., Cecil Street Community Center (58 Cecil St.), $8 advance, $10 at the door
The deal: Virtual Season isn’t exactly about EDM, which is why I think you should go. “In the vein of the Ancient Greek theatre festivals or the Latin American Saint Days” (as they put it), it’s homegrown, and not marionette’d by corporations. Plus, if you did the EDM thing every weekend this summer, your ass would be flat broke. This new day-to-night, blink-and-its-gone, all-ages festival is being co-spearheaded by Sheroes mother hen reeraw as a celebration of her 2012 programming, in collaboration with artist-run Whippersnapper Gallery. If you don’t remember Sheroes, it’s a monthly jam at the Beaver celebrating a different member of the “League of Legendary Ladies.”
The draw: Take your pick. There’s everything from dub poetry to performance art, with Columbian wonder woman Lido Pimienta and local neosoul redux-ers Bizzarh. By night, things get 19+ with performances by Kids on TV, tunes by Cherry Bomb–er Cozmic Cat, and a vogue session courtesy of House of Monroe. Plus: a nail art bar, a .GIF art show of past Sheroes exhibitions on loop, and probably anything else your summer heart desires. It’ll be five breaths of fresh air. Promise.