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Monday, September 22, 2008

LOLA Fest 2008 – Notes from a Festival

It was great to be a Londoner this past weekend as the latest version of the London Ontario Live Arts (LOLA) Festival once again captured the hearts and minds of an entire city. Now in its third incarnation the (roughly) seventy two hour festival celebrating ‘everything’ arts was by all indications a huge success.

For the uninitiated LOLA is a festival dedicated to shining a light on artists from all disciplines. It was founded three years ago by Andrew Francis, who endeavoured to spread awareness about London's cultural scene. The festival now attracts artists and performers from all over the globe highlighting some of the most creative minds and works Canada has to offer.

Of course it was the music that had me captivated and this year’s lineup was a stellar one. I arrived at Victoria Park (LOLA central) early Friday evening to find the place transformed in a sea of red tents, blinking monitors and a wonderfully adorned bandshell stage. (But more on that later.) The music portion had started earlier in the afternoon. (Officially, it started the evening before at Call the Office with a kickoff from Jokers of the Scene and Thunderheist.) But that night, Waterloo’s Bocce had the smallish crowd moving early with their fun brand of electronic music. Next up was the Drift, (pictured) an instrumental four piece from San Francisco whose cool jazzy demeanour and dub infused sound was a perfect counterpart as dusk settled on the park.

Victoria Park is considered the hub of the festival but other locations feature equally terrific fare. LOLA’s visual artists have major work exhibited on sites around downtown London, including billboards, projections on buildings and smaller advertising spaces. My personal favourites were a huge billboard on York St. with a Minor Threat Family Tree (pictured) splashed across its expanse. The other was the artwork of Taylor McKimens at the Victoria Park bandshell. The detailed work functioned as the backdrop on the stage for all of the musical performances. Cartoony, colourful and completely perfect it featured an oozing cassette/car radio, garden hose and an unidentified pile of pink goo (replete with flies) shrouding the rear projection screen. The piece accentuated the music and lights very well and fit in with the LOLA aesthetic completely. My six year old nephew remarked happily that “…it must have been painted by children.” Testimony, I suppose to the reach and freeform bravery of the artwork.

Back at the park, Toronto’s Do Make Say Think (pictured) capped the evening off with their entirely unique brand of post rock. Mostly instrumental, the band used traditional instruments and electronic sounds mixed with terrific visuals displayed on the large screen behind them. The sound was near perfect at the band shell with a dynamic range that covered the spectrum of gentle string plucking to epic squalls of sound. The evening concluded down the street at Call the Office with Woodhands and We are Wolves.

Regretfully on Saturday I missed show openers Muskox, but friends indicated their set was inspired. I know I was certainly impressed with the three inch cd’s the band was selling at the Grooves Records tent. There remains something to be said about a band still pushing the limits on digital packaging, the music equally compelling.

I arrived at the park as Feuermusik (pictured) from Toronto were taking the stage. The avant garde jazz duo (Saturday a full ensemble) was perfect for an afternoon of music in the park. The experimental band was an absolute delight to watch. Accomplished and very full sounding, the drummer’s plastic and metal oil can buckets took a fair beating and was a most unusual highlight.

Toronto musician Sandro Perri (pictured) was up next and for me at least was one of the show’s true highlights. I missed Sandro’s appearance at last year’s festival and his encore appearance was a welcome announcement. Perri’s brand of music covers a lot of territory, from post rock to gentle folk. Again most suited to the perfect environs of the park his set was inspired. He handled guitar and kick drum percussion duties admirably. He is a truly talented musician. His song Family Tree was played to perfection and was a real treat for me. (It was one of my favourite songs of last year.) I first became familiar with him through his electronic persona Polmo Polpo and now love all of his recorded output. I spoke with Sandro briefly afterwards and found him to be warm and gracious. He is definitely a Canadian musical treasure.

Next on the bill was Toronto's Laura Barrett (pictured) . I was vaguely familiar with her music and expected her to be playing a piano of some sort. With nary a regular piano in sight Barrett picked up a kalimba (a pint-sized African thumb piano) and with accompaniment from various Hylozoists proceeded to play some of the most endearing and beautiful music of the day. Of course Barrett’s on stage banter was equally engaging eliciting lots of laughter and smiles from the crowd. She also had more children dancing than any other performer that day. She has a new cd out tomorrow that I would definitely recommend. (Festival goers were lucky to get it a couple days early.)

The previously mentioned Hylozoists followed Laura Barrett with their full set. I must say, if you have never witnessed this band, led by vibes player Paul Aucoin you are truly missing something. Their music, mostly instrumental, is like a poppier, more playful version of Chicago’s post rocker’s Tortoise. Their early promise to play several new songs met with audience approval. One point of trivia - The Hylozoists have the unique distinction of now being the only band to play all three versions of LOLAFest.

As the sun began to set, Off the International Radar took the stage. This band played a passionate set that ranged from experimental sounds to rhythms informed by the Kraut rock sounds of CAN. The drummer’s choice to wear a Stephen Harper t-shirt the only political reference I witnessed all weekend.

Montreal’s Plants and Animals followed with a spirited set that really got the audience going. Their sound although self proclaimed as “post-classic-rock” or “folk-prog” was very well received and the band was clearly having a lot of fun. With energy to spare hirsute vocalist Warren Spicer even got into the true LOLA spirit with a pair of bright red pants. (Definitely a more inspired fashion statement than the Stephen Harper shirt, don’t you think?) They played the majority of their Polaris Prize nominated Parc Avenue. The Montreal trio a true hit with the crowd.

Lastly, Toronto outfit Holy Fuck would close this portion of music at Victoria Park. Playing to a crowd that in best estimates was between 7000 and 8000 people, the bands distinctive ‘punky’ electronic blend was a huge crowd pleaser. (The band performed a club date last year as part of LOLA 2007, so this was a step up for the Toronto quartet.) Group front men, Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt played some seriously feverish beats and synthesizer variants that were incredibly compelling to watch. (The 35 mm film playback head was pure genius.) Their enthusiastic drummer furiously provided an “organic” counterpoint to their technical output. It was an exciting way to end a perfect day of creative music, and left us all feeling gloriously spent.

So nine new cd’s later, some great free coffee and a plethora of the most amazing music I have heard this year; LOLA you’ve done it again and I can not say enough good things about you! So much great feeling, unbelievable creativity and incredible music and art in the city; people just soaking it in and loving it all. A more perfect farewell to summer I can not imagine. A huge thank you to the many organizers and army of volunteers at LOLAFest 2008, I am grateful for your efforts and your achievement this year is a grand one. Special thanks to CHRW (Radio Western)for the terrific live broadcasts as well. LOLA you’re not only getting bigger, you’re getting better. I for one can not wait for what lies ahead for LOLAFest 2009.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a cute final photo!

Wow Sean, LOLA sounds like it was pretty incredible, and thank you so much for walking us through it. I could swear that I was there, grinning at Laura Bennett, grooving to Hylozoists, and air drumming along with Holy Fuck.

Isn't Laura Bennett great? She is so engaging and playful. Love her!

LOLA sounds like an incredible weekend, I should be jealous, but I am just so happy that you were able to enjoy it.

aaron said...

Hi Sean, and thanks for your great review of the festival! LOLA was certainly an amazing time, and we had a blast playing. Just to clarify, our drummer Henry's Stephen Harper shirt does not say "Support" on it anywhere, and we most certainly do not support Harper and his cuts to funding for the arts. Henry's choice of wearing this shirt is for this reason exactly, to spark conversation and bring this issue to the forefront. It's a dangerous game, as many people took offense and were bewildered by why somebody would wear such a shirt. But consequences be damned, that is how Henry chooses to prod people into thinking, and we love him for it.
Thanks again,
Aaron Dawson
Off The International Radar

Sean Wraight said...

Hello Aaron,

Thank YOU so much for the clarification. I suspected the shirt was a statement as such but I must tell you the group around me seemed surprised by the action. I suppose had if it become a flaming t-shirt midway through the show, the intent would have been slightly more apparent.

In all seriousness though I am grateful for your clarification. Your appearance last Saturday was terrific and I hope you will be able to make through the city again for a longer show.

All of the artists who performed really do deserve a huge thank you for participating in LOLA. It really was a special event.

So thank you.


Sean Wraight said...

What a very nice comment Barb thank you. It really was a special weekend. In fact I was incredibly saddened when it ended. It really is an original artistic event that I feel fortunate to have in my own backyard.

It's gonna be a loooonnnggggg winter my friend.