Featuring stages at Hawrelak Park and spanning the bustling Jasper and Whyte Avenue areas, Edmonton’s Purple City Music Festival brought their goal of showcasing the “newest sounds from the global underground” to life from Aug. 26 to 28.
With an impressively diverse lineup and genre showcases ranging from indie-rock to hip-hop to folk — and despite the Backstreet Boys playing at one of the continent’s most state-of-the-art arenas in Rogers Place a couple blocks over — midsize venues all over Edmonton’s downtown core were packed in anticipation of 4-hour showcases of the nation’s quirkiest new acts on the festival’s opening night.
With the festival’s mission statement in mind, it makes sense that one of its key venues was The Starlite Room. Home to Friday night’s headliner, the vintage brick building has a placard on its exterior like one you’d see at a historical monument – but this one toasts to the welcoming of the full spectrum of musical styles and people.
The venue itself is adorned with posters of past shows on the walls – older posters featuring Nirvana and Green Day, advertised for a mere six dollars apiece, stood out. Another sticker read “Damn, it feels good to be an angster.” With a couple spiky mohawks and studded denim jackets dotting the crowd, it was also the first time that attendees got to experience the Purple City visuals projected behind the acts, featuring dancing crowds and childhood TV shows that shifted through psychedelia and the uncanny valley. It looked like something you’d make on DALL-E Mini.
The night kicked off with local country-tinged garage-rock band Dead Friends, who bounded onstage and kicked off the festival with a nonchalant “Purple City, hey? What a shindig.” With gloomy vocals and bright instrumentation, it brought to mind the excitingly paradoxical vibe of a stoic Western action hero in an action-packed gunfight. Frontman Jesse Ladd threw his entire guitar into the crowd at the end of the set, but it somehow wasn’t close to the most outlandish rockstar antics the Starlite Room would see that night.
Festival organizer Ryan Rathjen’s band Verttigo appeared next for their debut performance, adding a couple more genre influences to the rock-oriented proceedings as aspects of dream-pop creeped into the instrumentation and the lead vocalist showcased some truly soulful belted notes.
The crowd began to get increasingly animated – and sweaty – as bigger names took to the stage, with Vancouver’s darkwave outfit ACTORS bringing their combination of driving rock and synth-bass, coordinated overhead handclaps and robotic dance moves straight out of the 80s to the stage. Pointing out his dad in the crowd and bonding with a festivalgoer over their respective choices of metal merchandise, frontman Jason Corbett instructed the crowd to buy drinks to commemorate his Slayer shirt before continuing to fire up the venue with his deep-voiced gravitas.
For all the night’s festivities, nobody could have truly been prepared for headliner A Place To Bury Strangers. Walking on stage with little more than a knowing smirk to the drummer, the band immediately launched into an earth-shattering sonic wall of noise rock, set mostly in darkness with glimpses of light periodically illuminating the band members thrashing around. The mosh pit opened up and concert-goers scrambled for earplugs as frontman Oliver Ackermann tossed his guitar spinning to the ceiling and even held it out to the crowd to strum a couple distorted notes.
A couple blocks over, a hip-hop and R&B showcase was going on at Rocky Mountain Icehouse. A restaurant and bar adorned with skiing and mountainside memorabilia, it housed a younger crowd full of sweatshirt-clad teens taking in some local talent. Soulful singer Aliza breezed through some alt-R&B and trap-pop and rapper Selassie Drah dropped some spaced-out musings, but the highlight was Ntwali, who opened with an a cappella verse before leaving the stage and walking through the crowd as he demonstrated some impressively speedy flows full of uplifting messages over a variety of funk and soul flips.
Things began much earlier on the festival’s second day, with an 8-hour series of bands kicking off in the early afternoon at Hawrelak Park. Featuring a main stage and a picnic-themed electronic booth where DJs traded off sets, the food trucks and crafty vendors were set up along the sidelines as the gray clouds periodically threatened light rain. Still, attendees were able to set up a couple games of cornhole along the sidelines.
Under a covered area, highlights of the show’s early hours included Good Information, a funk and jazz instrumental jam band that delivered some Nile Rodgers-esque syncopated guitar riffs and a lot of fun with a loop pedal, as well as the pleasant haze of pop-rock singer Motorbike James, who immediately instructed the crowd to consume any mushrooms they had handy. His arrival also heralded a pink monster mascot who walked around and danced for the remainder of the night.
As the afternoon went on, the crowd had the biggest response for Mitch Davis, a local legend formerly known as rapper Mitchmatic who has since relocated to Montreal. Branching out musically in recent years, he came with a saxophone strapped to his side as he offered a couple of solos breaking up some summery blues and R&B tones. Playing nearly every instrument on stage by the set’s conclusion, he saved a couple of his older rap tunes for last.
Despite the crowds dissipating as temperatures went down and bigger names went up, those who stuck it out to the end were rewarded with a set from Basement Revolver, who began by apologizing to the crowd for their Ontarian heritage before showcasing their invigorating blend of trancelike, sweet lead vocals and a squealing, distorted heavier guitar mix while lyrically focusing on topics like mental health.
Headliner !!! (Chk, Chk, Chk) finally took the stage at the end of the show, as old-school 3D glasses were handed out to everyone in attendance for, seemingly, no discernable reason other than aesthetic purposes. That kind of eccentric energy was reflected in the dance-punk veterans’ set, with frontman Nic Offer’s trademark short shorts and jerky dance moves livening up some disco-inspired beats as the crowd matched his energy to keep warm.
As the crowds migrated back to the downtown core for the late-night shows, a couple of the 3D glasses could be spotted in the sea of people at each venue. The Rocky Mountain Icehouse switched music gears to some more folk and Americana-inspired programming, with both Elliot Thomas and Nadine Kellman entrancing attendees with some poetic lyrics. Thomas spoke about some philosophical experiences all over the world that inspired his tracks and introduced a song about mending a damaged relationship with a deadpan “it’s not a breakup song, it’s a stay-kup song,” while Kellman interspersed some gospel organ into her tunes while repping Terra Lightfoot on her shirt.
The biggest names appeared at the Freemasons’ Hall, a Purple City exclusive venue that converted the city’s meeting-place of the legendary and mysterious fraternal organization into another indie-rock party. With Gothic-looking chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, there wasn’t as much as you’d expect to look at, but the building still had an eerie air of the weight of history that added to the bands on stage.
The sound technician’s shirt for the evening read “Angry Music for Happy People.” It seemed to be a common theme for the night’s acts, as female-fronted rock took over for an evening. Gone Cosmic’s Abbie Thurgood might have been the weekend’s most captivating lead vocalist, engaging in a lot of crowd banter and surprising anyone who walked in with her Pat Benatar-style cannonball of a voice.
The Twitter page for the local “heavy pop” band Wares advertised their set as “a short presentation on girlboss feminism,” as frontwoman Cassia Hardy jumped on the amplifiers and her bandmates echoed her with virtuosic synth solos and crunchy chords. The most surprising crunch of the night came from the closing set from Toronto grunge band Dilly Dally, however, in Enda Monks’ distinctively crackly vocal tone built perfectly for her musical style. The band’s breakneck tempos continued into the early hours of the morning.
There’s a lot of talk these days about genre labels going the way of the dinosaur, but spending two days at Purple City Music Festival couldn’t have made that any clearer. Despite a couple of invasions from acts south of the border, it showed that Canada’s musical underground is as weird and experimental as ever.