Features | Festivals

Gaga Weekend 2009

By Calum Marsh | 26 June 2009

It’s Thursday evening, the beginning of the first night of the 2nd annual Gaga Weekend music festival, and I’ve actively decided to skip my only class of the school-week in order to make it to the kick-off concert on time. If it seems somehow negligent or academically irresponsible to disregard my studies for the sake of punctuality, consider that my festival-going companion and I, strolling in just a few brief minutes after doors, were two of the last attendees admitted before the club reached its official capacity. My roommate Greg, opting to remain at home for a further store-bought beer before heading out to follow, found himself relegated to the unfortunate position of line-up exile, where he remained, smuggled bottle of PBR in hand, for a further forty-five minutes. And so my show companion and I felt fortunate to be among the prompt masses granted access to what was now a legitimate sold-out hotspot, and I welcomed the relief of having my scholarly absence (somewhat) justified. Such things have a way of working out.

Though “sold out” isn’t entirely accurate. The courteous folks responsible for the Gaga Weekend’s organization and promotion saw fit to make their opening ceremonies a kind of musical loss-leader, enticing (and presumably winning) hearts and minds by appealing to a sense of thrift and frugality—and frugality, given the speed with which Thursday’s showcase reached legal capacity, is apparently universal among concert-going hipsters city-wide. Still, there was an uncomfortable but pervading sense that the lack of advanced ticketing or door cover spoke to a contradiction peaking out from beneath the entire festival’s veneer of winsome glee, a contradiction everybody seemed to acknowledge but few had the nerve, myself included, to speak aloud: Gaga Weekend is Ottawa’s only all-local music festival, functioning as an annual scene-defining banner under which a city-wide community of garage- and punk-rock bands can fly. As an ostensibly “underground,” grassroots, DIY-positive event—continuing to eschew (for the most part) traditional music venues, national or international touring headliners, and any kind of corporate sponsorship—the festival’s format seems largely at odds with its overwhelming success.

This isn’t a knock, mind. The interest and enthusiasm with which this music scene’s been met isn’t just unexpected, it’s unprecedented, and you can hardly fault those facilitating the festival for continuing to operate as though business were usual. And so for an exhausting weekend, Gaga’s music-loving legions populate not nightclubs or music halls but dive pubs, driveways, and, for one memorable evening, in somebody’s basement. Like: this is fucking punk rock, huh? And it’s fun.

Thursday’s crowded showcase took place at the Atomic Rooster, a slightly upscale pub named for a defunct British prog-rock outfit. The AR posits itself as a sort of bohemian gastro-pub, its wall-hung local art suitably abstract and hardwood floors dutifully varnished, and yet it’s failed to earn a reputation for itself in the city as anything more than a brightly-lit dive. The bad rap comes courtesy of an image projected by the AR’s most dedicated clientele, a group of overweight, working-class alcoholics, receding hairlines, and flannel shirts. They tuck their jeans into the hem of their socks. Many eye passing skirts and leggings with the sigh of tired resignation. Whatever their careers or interests, these men seem to exist without taking up space—they occupy bar stools and consume hard liquor but they interact with nobody, not even one another, and few have the energy to start a game a darts.

Rock N Roll Pizza Party, the Gaga-related weekly DJ night touting garage rock and free vegan slices, moved out of one dive bar and into the Atomic Rooster a few weeks prior to the festival launch, and you can tell the pub’s regulars haven’t taken kindly to a perceived intrusion of their dank second home. When Ian Manhire, Gaga Weekend organizer and lead singer of a couple of the bands playing weekend-long, greeted the frothy-mouthed crowd as he and his band the Sedatives hit the stage for the first set of the night, he eyed the frumpy drunks bar-side and declared an ultimatum: “If you don’t know what ‘Gaga’ means, leave now so somebody who does can come in.” I saw no disgruntled regulars scuttling toward the door, even as Manhire and company burst into the first assault of their set; it was clear that a line had been drawn.

Manhire’s Sedatives have established a reputation for themselves as one of the most assured and developed punk rock bands in the city, and for good reason: within the confines of a community plagued by the transience of the bands that constitute it, many dissolving as suddenly as they came together and even those with histories still seemingly finding their feet, Sedatives apply themselves professionally and so deliver on their early promise. There’s no shortage of talent in the Ottawa garage pool, its most active proponents swimming from one new project to another with consistently satisfying results, but with the Sedatives one gets the impression that they’re witnessing something decidedly less…ephemeral. These guys actually have a full-length record released on vinyl distributed, promoted, and sold by their own homemade label. They steadily play solid shows at legitimate clubs with touring acts from across the continent. Remember that this scene’s approximate nexus is the basement or the pub; it’s not every day that one of the more talented outfits pulls together and emerges from Ottawa’s underbelly with a staid image and product.

Manhire brought his middle-aged uncle along to provide a brief bagpipe intro to accompany the band’s opening number, and if the gesture was extravagant it was only fittingly so: Gaga means basement and garage rock gone pseudo-mainstream, appealing to bigger numbers than ever and operating on a (relatively) large scale. Just consider 30 local bands playing four gigs over three days to hundreds of enthusiastic Ottawans for less than $16 CAD total (not including bar tabs). Throwing a bagpipe-playing relative into the mix at this point could hardly have surprised anyone present—it’s just one more minor oddity in a weekend that barely made sense to begin with.

The Rooster was as full as it was ever going to get, the odds of finding a spot on the dance floor close enough to the stage that I might actually see a performing musician with my own two eyes was only getting slimmer, and so at some point during the Mother’s Children’s set I resigned to give in to comfort and sit somewhere in the back of the pub. Thus I have little to report about how the Mother’s Children looked or acted while performing, though I can certainly vouch for their sound—“rousing,” if I had to choose just one buzzy word, their power pop both emphatic and engaging. The Mother’s Children are playing in support of their debut 7” record, which happens to have been released on Manhire’s Going Gaga Records, and the band itself, like most of the bands I saw during the festival, is an amalgam of musicians from entirely different projects. Take for instance the Mother’s Children’s Davey Quesnelle, who, beyond piloting the CMG-approved Male Nurse project, has been an active members of dozens of popular (if occasionally fleeting) local bands, including four performing over the course of the Gaga Weekend. And so while the Mother’s Children were certainly a highlight of the festival, a disappointing performance wouldn’t have been much of a loss. A lot of the Gaga performances felt like further iterations of one festival-spanning theme, and any variance in quality couldn’t sully the force of the total familial package.

If Gaga Weekend weren’t already underground enough, Friday evening’s showcase was scheduled to take place literally underground, in the basement of one performer’s centretown house. Under the (correct) assumption that a house show was less likely to fill up before midnight than a free show at a centrally located pub, my roommate and I walked over a few hours later than we had to the AR the night before, backpacks amply stocked with more store-bought beer. We arrived to find the night’s entertainment already underway. The house had room to spare, but the basement, where we found a few dozen punctual chumps already packed shoulder to shoulder, was decidedly less inviting. Gaga’s more tech-savvy volunteers had devised a makeshift solution: the upstairs living room had been outfitted with a live television feed of a basement handicam, one which, for all its unfocused drifting, managed to stand in for the live experience reasonably well. And so we caught the Holy Cobras only second-hand, as house-show simulacra, but the intensity of their no-wave swagger was as evident on the tube as it would have been in the flesh—and given that leading man Danny Druff sported a rain coat that didn’t look quite dry, being sequestered in the safety of the family room was probably for the best.

The masses had swelled to the point where even higher floors offered few reprieves from crowding, so we opted to tough to it out on the front lines for the more straightforward stylings of the Savage Crimes. The Crimes’ drummer, Matt Cosgrove, serves percussion duties in more bands in the Ottawa garage scene than probably anybody else performing that weekend, so everybody got used to seeing the dude’s face. Not a problem, mind you: Cosgrove’s more than competent, and his shows, no matter what he’s accompanying, rarely fail to deliver. If his stints with others occasionally seem tangential, as so many paradigms of “bands” do around here, the Savage Crimes feel like the serious project from which his others might digress. Their particular brand of heavy garage rock went over smashingly with an increasingly rambunctious (and, I suspect, increasingly intoxicated) crowd of basement-dwellers, some of the band’s more enthusiastic fans taking the closeness of quarters as personal invitation to join in as backup singers (which worked surprisingly well). As the night wore on, my beer began to take its toll and my attention began to wander to some of the more party-like activities going on in and around the household, the socializing having at this point expanded and migrated onto the spacious porch and backyard (and, later, most of a city block), but I managed to catch a brief glimpse of the Beach Blankets’ lively, party-ready set, which sounded entertaining if a little unkempt. The guests multiplied as the hours passed, and soon it was time to squeeze out of a potential fire-hazard and find our way home—we had more than enough Gaga to look forward to the following afternoon.

And, Christ, did we ever have our fill of Gaga. Saturday’s day-long show extravaganza was set to kick-off around noon, which given the lateness of the previous night and the intensity of the hangover of the current morning was simply not feasible. So my sleepy crew of concert-goers spent the early afternoon eating bacon and eggs at some kind of nearby diner oasis before wandering, very slowly, over to the next hotspot. Happened this day to be a recording studio and “jam spot” which resembled an abandoned auto-mechanic’s garage. Guests were invited to enjoy a sunny vegan barbecue in and around the ex-autobody’s spacious driveway, where band merchandise was strewn across parked cars for display and distinctive little pockets of niche-teens huddled together in disparate corners like high school cliques in lunch hour, though the overwhelming feeling was one of unification rather than alienation. I’ve been to enough concerts to know that this kind of cross-market appeal is practically unheard of, so clearly Manhire’s tapped into something special. Mohawks with no ironic appeal and hipsters, here we were, together, enjoying the Gaga offerings.

Saturday certainly offered the most varied bill of the weekend, oscillating between 50s girl group garage (the Felines, the Joliettes), indie rock (the Balconies), instrumental stoner-rock (the Band Whose Name Is A Symbol), and whatever-the-fuck-else (Fucked Corpse). We spent the majority of the afternoon wandering in and out of cramped recording studio rooms, a few of which were employed as make-shift mini-venues, and the barbecue proper, and as such we caught most sets in bits and pieces. The Balconies threw an energetic and winsome show of radio-friendly pop jams, but the experience was sour: the band and its crowd occupied a space too small to comfortably contain it, and at this point in the afternoon it felt like there were more photographers present snapping photos than there were regular concert-goers trying to enjoy the show in earnest. Consider that six (!) separate professional photographers crowded the front row during the Balconies’ brief set in a room that held no more than twenty people total. And if that still sounds reasonable, consider that not only were the photographers in constant elbowing competition with one another for the best compositional angle, they were each outfitted with their own high-powered flash bulbs. For most of the set I felt like I was watching the band through the blinding glare of a strobe light; it was just too much. If there’s a line, the Balconies’ paparazzi crew snapped each other crossing it.

Better as a total experience was the anticipated set by local favorites the White Wires, whose bouncy garage jams were set against a mercifully larger warehouse-style mini-venue. The White Wires are fronted, once again, by festival organizer Ian Manhire, and the legions of attendees rallying around the White Wires during this set seemed proof that people just couldn’t thank him enough for putting this weekend together. More than any other show I saw that weekend, the White Wires got people moving. The whole crowd swayed in a swagger caught somewhere between a punk mosh and a pop shuffle, which makes sense considering how easily the White Wires cross those lines aesthetically; we were all here to bow before Manhire and accept his gifts humbly. The significance of what he’s done with Gaga Weekend can’t be measured in tickets sold or money earned or even bourbon consumed because it transcends all that. I felt good going Gaga, seeing remote cultural factions and cliques unified by their mutual love of local music, hearing the abundance of talent being cultivated city-wide. It was, I thought watching the White Wires shred, kind of a profound experience. And then I kept drinking.