SKOOKUM Festival’s First Year Out: A Day with FLORENCE & THE MACHINE, ST VINCENT, WAR ON DRUGS and more (Photos and Top 11 List and More)

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Under wet and dreary skies, the inaugural SKOOKUM Festival kicked off in Vancouver, British Columbia’s forested Stanley Park this past weekend and we were there.

Created by the same folks behind the now-defunct Squamish Music Festival, SKOOKUM was designed to cater to an affluent, mixed-demographic, likes-to-sleep-in-their-own-beds-at-night urban crowd (*raises hand on the bed thing*), and we gotta say, looked intriguing for its blend of music, art and food, plus off-site “After Dark” extensions into the city (dinners, clubbing, art events and so forth).

The line-up wasn’t geared to those of us here in BSR land – is there a festival on this green earth that the Killers haven’t headlined in the last five minutes? – but had some strong points of interest: great local acts too numerous to mention, fierce women and Indigenous performers. Plus, Saturday offered the only chance to see The War on Drugs on this leg of their “A Deeper Understanding” tour. So, count us in!

Here are our just a few of our many thoughts of Saturday’s visit to SKOOKUM…because on Backstagerider, our Top 10 lists go right to 11.

11. The Lowlights: Sorry to start on a low, but we’ll head to the highs, we promise. So, what sucked? Wouldn’t be a festival if we didn’t say “the toilets” but come onnnnn, SKOOKUM, your bog sitch was ridiculous and I’ve been to 7 years worth of festivals in the U.K. Loos were nearly overflowing by 7pm and we literally saw people paying money to swap places in the queues. There weren’t nearly enough and in the space they had set aside for the Port-o-Potties, they could have fit double the amount. And, sidenote relating to things that are a bit crap, the X-Ambassadors. Sorry if you like them, everyone who doesn’t read this blog, but they’re like if Maroon 5 were… beige.

10. Anyway, on to the good stuff. The Art on site was great. From watching Victoria artist Drew Young live-painting a mural to taking in Billion Jelly Bloom’s jellyfish parade to enjoying the massive lit balloon arches in the night sky, the art at SKOOKUM brought a brightness to the grey skies.

9.  The Food. This is nets out as a neutral. Skookum boasted an impressive list of high-falutin’ fancy food for a festival – cool foodtrucks (we enjoyed our okra Seoul fries from Disco Cheetah) and snazzy restos (Bao Bei, Hawksworth, Kissa Tanto) etc. However, the queues for food were massive and the features were a little odd. (We want to eat something substantial, godsdammit.) And it was hard finding gluten-free or dairy-free stuff among the grilled cheese, mac n’ cheese, ramen noodle stuff, too. We waited nearly an HOUR for our food even around 5ish, and long before the mad meal rush. Next year? Double or triple the choices and mix in some quick and easy favourites like dogs, burgers, fries alongside the picky tapas.

8. Cleanliness/Sustainability: HOORAY for a new festival in town, especially one so close to our downtown homes, but we were a tad worried about the impact on the Stanley Park site itself. So we were pleased to see how clean the event actually seemed to be as the fest wore on. SKOOKUM also offered bike valets, a car ride-share program, cleaning crews were out in force, decent recycling, single-use plastic bottles were banned, and all food dishes and cutlery were compostable. Good stuff.

7. The Layout and Location. We’ve got to hand it to ’em. BSR has been to many a music festival – from Belgium to Spain to Iceland to Austin to Montreal and even in Denmark in July – and SKOOKUM had a nice layout, look and feel. With two large stages and two smaller ones, you could easily and quickly get between the sets and there weren’t any terrible clashes, which is the bane of any festival-goer’s existence (at least, for anyone who is actually there to hear the music, which is like, 1.7% of festival attendees these days). Much of this good vibe was down to the fest’s small size. With a capacity capped at 20,000 per day, we’d like to see SKOOKUM stay manageable and keep our park fresh, even if it gets super popular.

6. Everyone loves a banjo solo. Disproving the Steve Martin joke that “There are big differences between a banjo and a guitar – the banjo has a round pot and projects the sound outward…and the guitar can get you laid”, Vancouver’s The Matinée got everyone hetted up at the Forest stage, bringing their friendly, folky, rootsy, rocky sound to kick off our smiles of the day. You should check them out if you like good music, and beards.

5. Was that Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” being covered by and NAILED, hardcore-stylee, by Mexican classical guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela on the Virgin Mobile Skyline Stage? Why yes, yes it was. Nothing like gently headbanging your way through a Saturday. Great guitar chops from this killer (ex-)couple.

4. Basically we just want to get into convertible and drive across a desert with The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding playing on the stereo. But we’ll stand in a sodden field in a rainforest at dusk with drunken 50 year-olds happily hopping around, young girls lecturing their friends who have never heard of Adam Granduciel & Co. on which albums to listen to, a dude wearing two hats perched on the shoulders of his mates grinning with his arms thrown wide to the skies, and a purple dragon, instead. The power of The War on Drugs is usually better experienced inside the walls of a venue where you can grab hold and hug the thrum and chug of this band’s warm, comforting music, but there’s no denying that a summer of festival gigging has made WoD big enough for the wide open spaces.

3. Held in X̱wáýx̱way, the Squamish name for Stanley Park, on land of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-waututh peoples, SKOOKUM itself featured a selection of indigenous artists on its bill. One was the fierce and ridiculously awesome Haisla hip-hop group, Snotty Nose Rez Kids – and we were super excited to finally get a chance to see them live. Bolstered by breakdancers (one in a traditional carved mask), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Snuneymuxw singer Salia Joseph (on songs like “M.I.N.A.Y.”) and Dene/Cree DJ Kookum, you can see why Northern B.C. duo Young D and Yung Trybze and crew were nominated for a Polaris Music Prize this year. They weave stories of stereotypes and struggle, connection to the land and family, politics and power, righteousness and rawness. Go see or hear them. They’re important.

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2. Oh, Annie Clark, is there nothing you can’t do?  Even when the skies rip open and the clouds unleash their torrents onto us and the ground below, St. Vincent still managed to own the stage. From “Future Boy” to “Los Ageless” to “Masseduction” and beyond, and through all her primary and secondary-coloured guitar changes and remarkable screen backdrops, she just shredded. From her knee-highs, to nude body stockings, to her faceless band, to the beat up, blue-haired screen Annies, she’s just always… ridiculously cool. No, there is nothing Annie Clark can’t do.

1. The eagles soared, chipmunks scurried, trash pandas peered out from rubbish bins and all the animals of Stanley Park gathered reverently for SKOOKUM’s final act. Or rather, 15-20,000 people scrambled over from Metric (“and I’m breeeeeeeeeeathing underwaterrrrrrrrrrr”) so they could see Thee Headliner Florence & The Machine. And lo, came Flo, all witchy wonder and backlit breezy gown, reminding us that there’s a reason she’s top of the bill. Epic of voice and spinny like a top, Florence Welch descended barefooted on stage and launched theatrically into “June” channeling her best Kate Bush before whirling like a dervish, dancing stage side to stage side, or throwing out her hands to the crowd. Smiling, thanking us, softly chatting, then broadly belting out the likes of “Only if For A Night”, “Dog Days Are Over” “Cosmic Love” and “Shake It Out” she bent her voice and body in ways that made a city swoon. Thanks for the feels, Florence, and see you next year, SKOOKUM, it was a slice. Just save the rains, bring more food and loos, and we’ll be good. \m/

With thanks to Vince Litster

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