Reviews

Pemberton Music Festival @ Pemberton Valley – July 16th 2016

Check out our Top 50 Photos From Pemberton Music Festival 2016

Under the awe-inspiring presence of Mount Currie, with fireworks alight and Eddie Vedder’s voice still resonating through our souls, we closed yet another chapter in Pemberton Music Festival history on Sunday evening. It was a weekend filled with throwback performances, completely unpredictable weather, and (of course) plenty of chicken-fighting campers. Let’s quickly break down the good and not-so-good aspects to the festival before getting to the meat and potatoes: the music.

The Good:

1) Huka: The organizers stepped up their “responsibility” game this year after receiving an unbelievable amount of bad press for the atrocious state the grounds were left in after Pemby 2015. Panoramic photos showing tents, camping equipment, and whatever was deemed useless by irresponsible campers was left behind for the volunteers and workers to clean up. This year, right from day one, the Pemberton app and signboards were consistently reinforcing reminders of responsible camping as well as respecting the Lil’wat Nation. Whether those requests were adhered to is debatable but Huka definitely improved in this area since last year.

2) The weather: Despite moments of rain – sometimes heavy, heavy rain – the forecast actually called for even worse weather! There was plenty of sun to soak up over the weekend and the temperate weather kept heatstroke/exhaustion to a minimum.

3) The campgrounds: With new regulations over camp plot size and a bit more organization from camp marshals, the campgrounds (well, the north at least) didn’t totally disintegrate into anarchy like last year. There were clear pathways and borders to easily navigate the grounds, and the general mood of the campers seemed far less resentful.

 

The Not-So-Good:

1) Shuttles: Pemberton seems to be growing too big for it’s britches. With no Squamish Valley Music Festival this summer to split the hoards of eager music fans, Pemberton saw an increase in attendance without an appropriate increase in transport. This lead to many people waiting hours for transport from their cars to the grounds on Wednesday evening (and a twitter battle between disgruntled guests and the official PMF twitter account) and an unpleasant wait each evening after the music ended for people staying in Whistler. Ultimately there are elements out of the control of Huka (e.g. predicting the number of people per car or the one-hour turnaround time for each shuttle from Pemberton to Whistler) HOWEVER as the festival increases in popularity, this problem is only going to get worse.

2) The Corporate Takeover: I can understand that festivals are HUGE money-pits and that the corporate dollars are a necessary evil for things like this to exist but can we not find a less intrusive/wasteful way of going about it? How many plastic Frisbees/rain coats/kitschy handfuls of crap will spend the next millennia taking up space in landfills just to get a few thousand people to drink Molson?

3) The Decrease In Diversity: Perhaps this is the changing face of music and I am just a dinosaur but what happened to anything outside of the “normal” spectrum of popular music? Dan Deacon, Foxygen, and Metz were some of the stand out “abnormal” acts of the last few years but this year seemed far too safe. If you weren’t a DJ, held nostalgic value, or were a veteran Pemberton performer then getting billed was unlikely. Blame the Canadian dollar if you must but one can hope that next year will feature a bit more experimentation in the lineup.

 

The Music:

In an attempt to expose myself to as much live music as possible, I was in constant motion around the festival ground. Over four days, I was able to see 42 different acts but for the sake of brevity, I will be mentioning the 6 most noteworthy of each day. Skip to the end if you’re looking for the Pearl Jam review (it’s a biggie) or peruse the full list of non-stop music to get your fix.

 

Day 1:

Wolf Parade:

Kicking off the festival on Thursday afternoon was Canadian indie rockers Wolf Parade. The band has been on hiatus for the past few years so it was exciting to see them on the bill this year. With Spencer Krug’s extremely distinct vocals, those in the festival crowd hearing them for the first time may have been somewhat put off. Judging by the tepid response in the audience, that may have been true. For those fans intending to catch the band’s revival, Wolf Parade definitely hasn’t lost a beat after their break.

Wolf Parade © Scott Hemenway

Wolf Parade © Scott Hemenway

Arkells:

Where Wolf Parade falters with a new audience, the Arkells flourish. To a music festival, the Arkells are the equivalency of pizza. This is not a diminutive statement; I love pizza. Everyone loves pizza. Everyone loves Arkells. They are approachable, earnest, and Canadian. Hell, they even played a song ABOUT hooking up at a music festival they deemed the “Pemberton mating call”.

Snoop Dogg © Scott Hemenway

Snoop Dogg © Scott Hemenway

Snoop Dogg:

No more Snoop, no more. Two years in a row he has played Pemberton just to let down his nostalgia-fueled fans. Snoop Dogg has a breadth of quality material that you might hear if you go to a dedicated Snoop-only concert. At a music festival what you get is a watered down, backtracked amalgam of Snoop hits and misses from over the years. I’m not saying he should put on some sort of gangster façade for the crowd and only play the old stuff but if he’s really looking to crowd-please, is playing his features on Katy Perry and David Guetta tracks really the way to go about it?

Cypress Hill:

The California rappers surpassed any expectations I had going into their set. With B-Real’s nasally vocals echoing through the Pemberton mountainside, Cypress Hill had the crowd singing along to every lyric of “Insane In The Brain”. The group’s energy was remarkable and infected the crowd from back to front.

Cypress Hill © Scott Hemenway

Cypress Hill © Scott Hemenway

Bassnectar:

Another repeat of last year but certainly not unwelcome. Bassnectar seems to be constantly developing his skills as a DJ and producer while staying true to what his fans desire: heavy, groovy, glitchy dubstep. Bass Camp was on fire that evening with hundreds of lasers, metallic mannequins adorning the ceiling, and an endless sea of nearly-naked people dancing; it was like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film with bros getting the top billing.

Purity Ring:

Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring closed off the first day of music with a beautifully ethereal set. Even in stillness on stage, the group held a commanding presence. With Megan James’ vocals balancing the instrumentals of Corin Roddick, the group worked their way through their (relatively) small catalogue of music for the crowd of a few hundred. The highlight of their set came during “Bellispeak” which was clearly a crowd favourite, leading to an awestruck audience melting into the music before heading to sleep.

Honourable mentions:

Thievery Corp: Down-tempo godliness with a bassist that could probably sub in for System of a Down in his part time.

Rae Sremmurd: “I don’t want to like this but I can’t stop moving my feet” – some audience member

White Denim: Their whole set was one big jam with the drummer stealing the show with some excellent syncopation.

 

Day 2:

Joey Badass:

Kicking off Day 2 was New York rapper Joey Badass. Starting a set late and ending it early certainly is not usually the best way to impress a crowd but somehow there were no complaints to be heard. Focusing heavily on his mixtape 1999 and most recent album B4.DA.$$ [Before Da Money], the crowd seemed to be filled with some pretty dedicated fans. Since the last time I saw Joey, he has come along as a performer; his vocals, breath control, and annunciation all seem to have become stronger in the past few years.

Hudson Mohawke:

Trap influencer and genre-bender Hudson Mohawke took over Bass Camp in early afternoon to play one of the more varied and entertaining sets of the weekend. Running through some of his solo work as well as tracks made with his group TNGHT, Mohawke showed off his DJ prowess for the audience. A clear favourite was any injection of hardstyle into his set, which immediately set off a frenzy in the crowd. Mohawke seemed to present as one of the more humble artists to grace the bass camp stage, with plenty of thanks to give out and no braggadocio or over-hyping of the crowd to be seen.

The Internet:

It pains me to say that this was my biggest disappoint of the festival. I have been hooked on The Internet for the last two years and could not wait to see them in person. Unfortunately, Syd the Kid’s vocals were off for much of the performance and she was too heavily relying on the backup track. The Internet (band) was tight, riffing off of one another and having a great time, but Syd seemed to be constantly attempting to communicate with the soundbooth. Perhaps there were some technical errors happening behind the scenes that we were unaware of. She did make mention of “waking up really early” for the performance and that the booking was last minute. Valid excuses, maybe, but still left a bad impression.

Method Man & Redman © Scott Hemenway

Method Man & Redman © Scott Hemenway

Redman & Method Man:

Continuing the throwback theme was Redman & Method Man. These are two guys with such amazing chemistry both on and off the mic that seeing them live seemed like a couple of buddies hanging out, shooting the shit, and – oh yeah – rapping for 10,000 people. Of course the set was littered with generic rap platitudes and was a little hokey but it’s Red & Meth: what’d you expect? Childhood dreams came true when a few thousand people and I got to scream out “Sawed off shotgun, hand on the pump! Sippin’ on a forty, smokin’ on a blunt!” in unison during “Da Rockwilder”.

Mickey Blue:

Canadian R&B singer Mickey Blue was faced with a difficult challenge as he battled the Red & Meth timeslot, however, there was no trepidation to be seen in the performers eyes. Running through his new EP A Man In Love and even flexing his vocals with a bit of Marvin Gaye a cappella, Mickey owned the stage. With a bit more material to work with, and the right level of exposure, I could see some big moves happening for this guy in the near future.

J. Cole:

J. Cole is, without a doubt, a great performer and showman. If he hadn’t headlined two years running and had dropped a new album in between, then I would have put this performance up there in the top 5. But he did and he doesn’t. So instead, for return festival-goers, what we received was a re-run of last year. Forest Hills song, old song, monologue. Repeat. Forest Hills song, old song, monologue. It was good, it was just not new. What I will say is that Cole seems to have some of the most dedicated fans – a.k.a. self-appointed backup rappers – that I’ve seen since Eminiem’s performance at Squamish Valley Music Festival. It was like I was standing amongst the world’s largest choir during his set. There’s no question about commitment on J. Cole’s end as well; three-quarters of the way through his set, the artist starting losing much of his voice.

J. Cole © Scott Hemenway

J. Cole © Scott Hemenway

Honourable Mentions:

Braids: Their style was very reminiscent of Hundred Waters; electronic percussion and spacey vocals.

Miguel: His vocals are amazing and no one can honestly say they weren’t moving their hips when “Adorn” came on.

Miguel © Scott Hemenway

Miguel © Scott Hemenway

FKA Twigs: A haunting performance that was only stifled by the worst rainstorm of the weekend. With choreographed dance throughout and more costumes than a Cirque Du Soleil performance, this was a set that deserved a much bigger audience. Curse you unpredictable mountain weather!

Kaskade: Prog-house royalty Kaskade collected all the soaking wet attendees under the Bass Camp bandshell and delivered a pretty impressive set. Taking a moment to address the audience, he proclaimed his next song to be about love; isn’t that what every house song is about?

DIIV: A little bit of shoe-gaze to cap off the evening was definitely not the most popular show but well received by the few attendees.

 

Day 3:

Jon Bellion:

This was my first exposure to the New York singer/rapper Jon Bellion and what a pleasant surprise. The energy emitted by both him and his band was immediately radiated back from the crowd. Breaking down his biggest hit “Jim Morrison” into a 10-minute jam wherein he walked through each member of his band – all of whom are incredible musicians in their own right – was a great touch and certainly won me over. The music is radio-friendly and approachable – albeit not the most distinct – but the live act is where his forte lies.

Børns  © Scott Hemenway

Børns © Scott Hemenway

BØRNS:

Michigan singer BØRNS may have been my favourite new act of the festival. I had heard his name mentioned here and there but never dedicated much time to his music. After what I saw on Saturday, that will no doubt change. His falsetto tunes and confident swagger around the stage held the audience captive for the entirety of his set. The zenith of his performance came during an Arcade Fire-cum-David Bowie cover, wherein he pulled off both Win Butler and Bowie’s vocals with ease and grace. If you haven’t given BØRNS a listen, do it now!

Mastodon:

For those looking for reprieve from the perpetual EDM/rap/pop-cycle of Pemberton, Mastodon offered one of the few (heavy) escapes. The prog-metal group took the Mount Currie stage to an audience of a few hundred dedicated fans to perform much of their most popular material from Leviathan as well as peppering in plenty of more recent hits. Brann Dailor’s drum/vocal combination was awesome to see in person as that level of synchronization has always struck me incredibly difficult, particularly for a metal drummer.

Mastadon © Scott Hemenway

Mastadon © Scott Hemenway

The Killers:

Headlining day 3 was Las Vegas’ own The Killers. Coming out to “Mr. Brightside” (a half-hour late, I should add) the bands relevancy does not seem to have waned much. It was almost surprising to hear song after song and think “Oh yeah, they had this hit as well!”. They are very much pop music gods and for good reason: raw talent. Brandon Flower’s vocals were amazing and his presence indomitable. Where it fell short was not in individual member’s ability but in their cohesion as a whole. The entire thing felt kind of like a façade, as if The Killers are a business and not a band. Regardless of this reviewer’s perception, it was a great performance and warmly received by the crowd.

Die Antwoord:

Unsurprisingly, Die Antwoord takes the top spot for most shocking act of the weekend. Ninja’s naked antics, dancers clad in costumes far too similar to Klansman outfits not to draw comparison, and Yolandi’s banshee shrieks were exactly to be expected from the South African rap/”Zef” group. For anyone not prepared for Die Antwoord, I could only imagine the speed at which their jaws dropped.

Girl Talk:

Girl Talk closed the evening with a fun but ultimately tired mash-up set. Girl Talk has the recipe for the perfect frat party: take every hit rock/pop/rap song of the last thirty years and put them in a blender. His production is great, his mixing it good, but the mash-up craze has long since run its course. That being said, bringing 30 people on stage to dance is a great touch and did solidify the “house party” feel.

Honourable mentions:

Wintersleep © Scott Hemenway

Wintersleep © Scott Hemenway

Wintersleep: Their drummer alone takes top prize for intensity.

Billy Idol: It is always tough to see rock stars age, probably because the rock star life can accelerate the process ten-fold. Billy Idol on the other hand, seems to be oozing sexiness the same as he did in his heyday.

Ice Cube: Cube put on the show that Snoop should have done. It was all hits, no misses, and he had a crowd of white, privileged Vancouverites yelling “fuck the police”. I don’t think anyone really took him seriously when he said the cops were backstage telling him what he could and could not say but sometimes it’s fun just to play along, you know?

Day 4:

Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals:

Anderson .Paak has spent the last year cementing himself as one of the best live acts around. His drumming, dancing, singing, and full-band ensemble were all on point during his hour-long set. Playing through much of Malibu on drums while rapping/singing gave the album a much more “rock music” feel than I was expecting. Undeniably one of the most entertain acts of the weekend, his only downfall would have been some cracking in his vocals likely due to how full-bore he was committing to the performance: that’s something I would never fault him on!

Vince Staples © Scott Hemenway

Vince Staples © Scott Hemenway

Vince Staples:

Vince Staples had a tough act to follow being immediately scheduled after Anderson .Paak and on the headliners stage but seemed to hold his own. He was also a last minute billing after Mac Miller fell ill and cancelled much of his tour. I have seen Vince in the past: his cool demeanor onstage and clever banter with the crowd generally goes over well but in a more intimate setting. With the Pemberton Stage and crowd to fill, he was forced to fill a lot of area with song and dance. As both he and the crowd warmed up, a balance was found and by the end of his set – rain pouring down – Staples had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.

Tyler, The Creator:

Talk about dedicated fans. At the drop of a hat – or song – Tyler has the ability to get fans jumping/screaming/getting naked. The OFWGKTA member put on a classic Wolf Gang show complete with moshing audience members, sometimes witty but mostly crass onstage banter, and more expletives than a Martin Scorsese film. What you see is what you get with Tyler and for die-hard fans, that’s next to godliness.

Bauuer:

Bauuer’s audience at Bass Camp was perhaps the most insane of the entire festival. I saw more mosh pits and elbows thrown there than at Mastodon. As his hit “Roll Up The Grass” dropped, one far too eager fan was seen pouring a beer over his own head as he crowd surfed in an inflatable rubber boat. You could also bet that any slight hint at dropping a hardstyle remix would induce a mania in the crowd that would shock anyone unfamiliar with the heart attack-inducing genre.

Noel Gallaghers High Flying Birds © Scott Hemenway

Noel Gallaghers High Flying Birds © Scott Hemenway

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds:

Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher was the penultimate rock act leading up to Pearl Jam. Playing a mix of Oasis songs and material from his side project (High Flying Birds), Gallagher placated the audience with his Brit-rock panache. Ultimately though, if he didn’t prelude the High Flying Birds with his namesake, it would be tough to say they deserve the main stage recognition.

Honourable mentions:

Halsey: Incredible vocals and the sexiest act of the entire festival.

DJ Snake: Turn down for what? How about generic DJ sets.

 

The Main Event: Pearl Jam

There are few times in my concert going career that I have walked away thinking my life had just been changed. The first was seeing Broken Social Scene in 2004 on Toronto Island. The most recent was Arcade Fire at Squamish Music Festival a couple of years back. Pearl Jam is now on that selective list.

It is very difficult to articulate just how impressive it was to see Pearl Jam come out and execute 25-year-old songs with intensity and authenticity as if they were being performed for the very first time.

Starting off with “Release” and continuing through a few somber songs, Eddie Vedder and company let the crowd ease into what would be an exhilarating two and a half hours of music. After warming up, it was all systems go as the band picked up steam and threw non-stop hit at the crowd: “Once”, “Do the Evolution”, “Corduroy”, “Even Flow”, “Jeremy”, “Alive”. Every song executed with incredible vocals, instrumentals, and energy.

But the reason this was, undeniably, the greatest performance of the festival came from how genuine and gracious the band seemed. Eddie Vedder’s first speaking break was to address the Lil’wat Nation and territory, being responsible of leaving the land as we found it, thanking the Pemberton township, and announcing that they had donated $100,000 of their earnings to local arts funding. All in one brief speaking segment.

The cynic in me spent a long time debating whether or not this was all part of the act, to woo the audience. But it genuinely seemed to come from a place of good intent. It didn’t stop after the first speech either. He took the time to acknowledge recently deceased punk-pioneer Alan Vega (before cover Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”), singing Happy Birthday to [bandmate] Stone Gossard, and wishing a Pearl Jam team member a happy anniversary on stage. Eddie Vedder is the man. Full stop.

The band deserves a tremendous amount of credit as well: from the tight and crisp drumming of Matt Cameron, the heavy basslines of Jeff Ament, and screeching solos from Mike McCready. There really was very little to criticize about the performance and for good reason: these guys have been writing and performing this music for close to three decades.

One of the many highlights of the evening came during a cover of “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. The skies were clear, the audience gleeful, and Pearl Jam was making one of the greatest songs of all time their own.

As the concert closed, and Vedder gave many thanks and gifts to the crowd – throwing tambourines and his personal bottle of wine to a member of the audience – I left with a sense of fulfillment not felt at any show that weekend and seldom in my life. Thank you Pearl Jam, sincerely.

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