With the West­ward Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, MRG Con­certs in­tends to build a buzz around the lo­cal scene

The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - BY MIKE USINGER


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.”


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).

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