With the Westward Music Festival, MRG Concerts intends to build a buzz around the local scene
MRG TAKES ORGANIC APPROACH
Asked for his favourite moment as an independent live-music promoter in Vancouver, MRG Concerts president Matt Gibbons first lists some of his company’s most famously epic shows. Think stadium-sized superstar Prince giving fans something truly special by playing multiple nights at the MRG– owned Vogue Theatre instead of Rogers Arena.
But, tellingly, his peak concert experience was a night when the reaction of the audience left Gibbons feeling moved beyond words.
“One that really resonates with me—and this is going to make me sound a little bit shallow, but it’s the truth—is when we were doing Joanna Newsom at the Vogue,” Gibbons says in a phone interview. “This was just after we had bought the Vogue. Joanna Newsom is a very talented artist, but not my particular cup of tea. At the end of the show, I was standing in the lobby, and the number of people who came out with their shirts soaked—they were crying because they were moved so much by the performance—was when I knew. I knew that we could be part of creating these memories for people.”
For nearly a decade, Gibbons has been doing just that with MRG Concerts, a group that runs live-music rooms across the country, including the Vogue, Biltmore Cabaret, and Yale Saloon in Vancouver. It’s challenging to commit to live music in a city this expensive, but the promoter says that nights like the Prince and Newsom shows are a big reason he loves what he does for a living.
And the power of such moments goes a long way to explaining why MRG is about to embark on its most ambitious venture yet. From September 14 to 17 the group will launch the first
edition of the Westward Music Festival, a multiday blowout featuring a mix of heavy-hitting imports and top-flight Vancouver talent.
Out-of-towners headed to the West Coast include rapper Vince Staples, blues stalwarts Gov’t Mule, electro-aboriginal trailblazers A Tribe Called Red, and alt-pop chanteuses Bishop Briggs and Hannah Georgas. Local acts tapped for Westward include Dear Rouge, Youngblood, Gang Signs, and Little Destroyer. Shows over the five days will take place at various venues across the city, including the Vogue and the Biltmore, as well as the Fox Cabaret and the Imperial.
Gibbons calls the Westward Music Festival an idea that took a while to go from abstract goal to realized event.
“It’s been in conversation in the company for a couple of years,” he says. “I think we decided a year ago that it was time to put it into motion. There was no one real aha moment—it was more like, ‘We’re doing a lot of shows now in Vancouver, so what can we do to group a bunch of them together?’ It was a natural progression for us.”
It’s not lost upon Gibbons that multiday festivals in Vancouver have proven difficult to sustain over the years. The ’90s saw the rise and eventual collapse of Music West, an ambitious undertaking that mixed international headliners and local talent with panels and workshops. More recently, marquee events like the Squamish Valley Music Festival and Pemberton Music Festival were cancelled by their promoters after multiyear runs.
Gibbons says that MRG has thought hard about what kind of event they want Westward to be.
“I think what’s been a bit of a problem with festivals in the past couple of years,” he opines, “is that you’ve had this massive growth during a gold-rush era where a lot of lineups look very similar. It’s sort of top-down: ‘We’re going to put all these massive acts on-stage and people will show up.’ But if you do that, all you’re sort of doing is putting on a whole bunch of headlining artists who happen to be playing near each other. It’s not about the festival itself
and what that experience is.”
Westward, on the other hand, is aimed at those who love seeing shows in intimate venues. It’s also, Gibbons argues, a festival that hopes to give back to everyone who supports live music in this city, which explains the heavy local component.
“It was important for us to work with the Fox and the Imperial to show that this was also something for the music venues,” he says. “Ideally, we’ll get to a point where every music venue in the city is full for Westward. That’s how we create a music city. We have to all support each other—that’s a simple thing that we all learned from our parents. Help others, and hopefully they will reciprocate.”
The dream is that the first Westward will build a buzz around the city, and music fans will want to be part of things moving forward. If that sounds like wishful thinking, you’ve clearly never been on the kind of high where seeing a great show one night makes you want to go out and do it all over again the next.
“Westward is something that we plan on doing for a very long time,” Gibbons says. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like [in the future], but we hope that the people of Vancouver and City of Vancouver want to support it. And that we can use some of the unique spaces around Vancouver, whether it’s a Malkin Bowl or a David Lam Park.”
Asking him to pick potential highlights from the inaugural edition’s lineup is probably unfair, but that doesn’t stop him from doing just that, with the caveat that the special moments won’t stop there. In the best possible world, there will be tears—but of the same kind that Joanna Newsom provoked.
“I think Vince Staples is a generational artist, so that’s pretty cool,” Gibbons says. “A Tribe Called Red obviously is something amazing that we’re very proud to call Canadian. Dear Rouge will be cool, especially since they are playing a smaller venue for them. Youngblood and Little Destroyer are such a part of the Vancouver music scene, so seeing them on a bigger stage in the festival is going to be fantastic. All I know is that I’m going to be running around trying to see them all.”
The Westward Music Festival takes place at various venues from next Thursday to Sunday (September 14 to 17). For a full festival schedule, go to
TOPS prefers to work with no stylistic limitations
Even though TOPS doesn’t put 2
things in black-and-white, there are enough hints on the band’s recently released third album, Sugar at the Gate, to suggest that somewhere along the line a relationship went slowly south. Consider, for example, the “Further” lines “Used to think that I was in the right/now I know I’m wrong/you don’t know what you want.”
Reached at home in Montreal, TOPS singer Jane Penny willingly admits that the ending of a longrunning union with guitarist David Carriere indeed coloured parts of the record. Along with drummer Riley Fleck, Carriere and Penny left Montreal and set up in a Los Angeles home for a full year, writing and recording and hanging out. Over that period two bandmates slowly drifted apart.
“David and I have known each other since we were about 12, and we started dating when we were about 20 or 21,” Penny reveals. “We kind of ended things just after we left Los Angeles—we knew that we wanted some space, which I guess is always the first step to breaking up. It was one of those situations where it was such a long-term relationship that we both understood that it had run its course.
“It wasn’t exactly the most dramatic thing,” she continues. “The record was completely finished months before we actually broke up. But I think, looking back, when we wrote things like ‘Further’ we sort of talked about that feeling where you realize you’re in a situation that’s not working for you.”
Despite that backdrop, Sugar at the Gate comes across as anything but tortured. As on past outings— Tender Opposites (2012) and Picture You Staring (2014)—the band traffics in an enchantingly laconic brand of art pop. Atmosphere-heavy standouts like “Topless” and “Further” are every bit as potent as the best moments of Portishead, Massive Attack, and the xx, while lighter moments such as “I Just Wanna Make You Real” and “Cloudy Skies” find the airy sweet spot between Keren Ann and Camera Obscura. Gorgeous little touches abound, from Penny’s ’60s-frenchpop delivery on “Marigold & Gray” to the Goo-smeared guitar heroics on “Dayglow Bimbo”.
Penny describes the band’s time in Los Angeles as both liberating and productive. Fleck—who is American—found an old home that was once a brothel, and then set up a recording studio on-site. That gave the three the ability to indulge themselves.
“Because we do everything ourselves, and always kind of have, there’s never limitations,” Penny says. “Like with ‘Dayglow’, David wrote this guitar line and we were all like, ‘That’s really sick—it sounds like a Sonic Youth song or My Bloody Valentine.’ Then, with ‘I Just Wanna Make You Real’, we were like, ‘This has more of a jazzy element, so let’s put a flute solo at the end.’ What’s cool is none of us ever think the record would be better if someone like a producer said, ‘You can’t have those two songs on there.’ Each song is an opportunity to do all kinds of different things.”
That anything-goes spirit has made TOPS a major player on Montreal’s ever-fertile alt-pop scene, the group having close ties to a movement that’s given up the likes of Grimes and Braids. Penny is happy to report that her breakup with Carriere has in a weird way made them closer as friends. As their commitment to each other has changed, their devotion to TOPS is now stronger than ever.
“I guess one reason TOPS has consistently been something that everybody has wanted to put a lot of energy into is that we all really feel this responsibility and commitment to this idea of pop songwriting,” she says. “We all love a great, really effective pop song. But sometimes that approach can lead to really conventional or confining music. We like the fact that TOPS is a rock band and that we’re a bit weird. Something like ‘Dayglow Bimbo’ is a pop song at the core, but around it there’s always room to innovate and be experimental.”
> MIKE USINGER
TOPS plays the Imperial on Tuesday (September 12).
Live-music promoter Matt Gibbons (left) of MRG Concerts touts the strong local component of the Westward Music Festival, which features Vancouver acts such as Youngblood (right).