Victoria’s first iteration of Rifflandia in four years had one of the most unique lineups of the festival’s 14 year history, mixing local talent with some rising Canadian stars and a handful of legacy acts to cater to a diverse audience. With headliners like Charli XCX, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals and Cypress Hill, the festivities spanning the downtown core drew fans of all ages.
A majority of the artists made reference to the natural beauty of their surroundings at some point during their set, and festival closer Lorde clearly knew that a late-summer music festival on the picturesque West Coast might have been one of the best possible ways to experience her latest album, Solar Power – a project with central themes of indulging in the healing powers of nature and the summer season itself.
Nodding to the project’s mixed reception, Lorde delivered an extended speech before playing the highly vulnerable single “Liability” where she spoke about the magic of the dying embers of summer and noted that Victoria residents might understand better than most what the album is about. Gesturing to her newly blonde hair, she expanded to a larger conversation about the importance of stepping outside of comfort zones – after all, most of the initial confusion simply came from receiving bright beachside anthems after a four-year wait from a singer known for her poetic depictions of sadness.
“Sometimes it feels good to do the thing that feels most incongruous to you,” she said. “That’s how exciting shit happens.”
With an impressive stage set-up consisting of a giant staircase atop a rotating wheel, it often figured into the show’s choreography, as Lorde and her musicians performed her traditionally jerky dance moves in sync. The crowd’s singalongs to her earlier work like “Ribs,” “Buzzcut Season,” and, of course, “Royals” were easily the loudest of the weekend, while the light shows and rising tempos of a couple late-set hits like “Green Light” and “Supercut” built up to a final confetti cannon and a sunflower thrown at the headliner by an audience member ending up perched on the mic stand for the festival closer, “Team.”
The lyrics of the last song audiences heard felt oddly appropriate for a weekend where a sense of community and camaraderie were strongly felt, a large-scale outdoor festival where it truly seemed like everyone, for once, was simply there to hear some great music. Here are some of the highlights from the rest of the four-day festival.
Before heading over to the main event at Royal Athletic Park, Thursday night served as an introduction to the Electric Avenue venue, spanning a couple city blocks among some warehouses and grain silos in the brewery district – all lit up by purple neon lights. Of course, it also meant there was local craft beer anywhere you looked.
With six separate stages, including a Burning Man-esque dome housing electronic acts, a comedy club set up in a coffee shop, and the ARC Stage highlighting BC-born artists, Montreal dance-pop singer Rêve set the tone early on the main stage as soon as her DJ came out in a mask that made him look like a half-butterfly, half-Xenomorph. With a cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” some energetic dance moves and some party-starting pulsating beats, her songs likely remained in people’s heads the rest of the weekend.
While soulful acts like Nicky Mackenzie and Nimkish brought a calmer vibe to the ARC Stage and DJs like ROUSZ and Tor complemented the trippy visuals on the roof of the Dome well, the best smaller-scale set came from Shawnee Kish, a two-spirit Indigenous artist who commanded an audience with just her powerful voice and an acoustic guitar, brought people on stage to sing with her, and led a call-and-response cover of “Proud Mary.”
Closing the night on the main stage was Dillon Francis, who took audiences back about a decade to when his brand of long build-ups and exuberant dance drops was all the rage. Mixing in a couple meme-worthy jams to fire up the crowd like “Party Rock Anthem” and “Dancing Queen,” the energy was surprisingly high for Thursday night.
The first of two lengthy days featuring both venues, the morning started on a somber note with the announcement that revolutionary Russian punk disruptors Pussy Riot had dropped out of the festival for unknown reasons. Still, a video message sent in by Nadya Tolokonnikova, wearing her famous balaclava, drew applause as she encouraged festival-goers to realize their collective power and unite against injustice, drawing reference to the war in Ukraine and the fight for women’s reproductive rights.
The spiked outfits and general punk atmosphere of many attendees were not wasted, however, as an easy highlight of the entire festival was the evening set from legendary riot grrrl originators Bikini Kill. Lead vocalist Kathleen Hanna, dressed like she should be working in a retro diner and bringing her infectiously bubbly energy to the stage, bounded onstage and said “I came here in my horse and buggy… because I’m a fucking pioneeeeeer.”
Seeing the band switch instruments live – one of the members did everything but sing – was incredible to witness, and the band fired up the first mosh-pit of the weekend with some politically-charged lyrics and squealing guitar tones.
After acclaimed local artist Art D’ecco appeared in a mullet and an all-white suit to introduce the park festivities with some driving pop-rock tunes, it was a day full of iconic legacy acts. Cat Power brought a captivating and chilled-out set as she ran through some of her jazzier material while sipping tea from a mug, while Montreal rap-rock band Bran Van 3000 played their late-90s hits including, of course, “Drinking in LA.”
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals brought his bluesy folk-rock and world music influences to the mainstage to close out the Park, but it felt like half of the audience was already migrating to the other side of downtown in anticipation of DJ Diesel – the electronic alias of NBA icon Shaquille O’Neal.
Some of the Friday night highlights at Electric Avenue included Toronto rapper Lex Leosis, who effortlessly shifted between modern sounds and an older boom-bap vibe when lyrical prowess and wordplay dominated, and Serena Sun, who brought some well-written and somber bedroom pop tunes to the ARC stage, but there wasn’t a bigger crowd crush than the thousands of people cramming into the smaller venue to catch a tiny glimpse of the seven-foot superstar.
Shaq’s set felt entirely surreal, as he dropped grimy, bass-heavy tunes and mistakenly called out to Vancouver repeatedly while intense visuals of duelling gladiators and a massive gorilla monster played on the screen behind him.
The festival’s most intense day spanned eleven hours, and featured its most diverse lineup of acts. With some shorter sets at the beginning of the day, things moved rapidly from the weekend’s heaviest act in local metal outfit Start With The Cobra to the electronic smooth jazz and loop pedal wizardry of Lappelectro and the country-pop of Boy Golden in the space of an hour and a half. The first act to draw a huge crowd was Ruby Waters, fresh off of her first Juno nomination and bringing her distinctively raspy vocals and provocative lyricism to some pop-rock soundscapes.
While the genres of the early afternoon were diverse, a couple acts in the middle of the lineup brought out some cultural diversity. DJ Shub brought his War Club live experience to the stage, showcasing his refreshing blend of Indigenous and electronic music styles while dancers adorned in elaborate traditional costumes drew the eye and guest vocalists appeared to speak out against the powers that be.
As soon as they wrapped up, UK Afro-funk group Ibibio Sound Machine showcased their Nigerian roots, vocalist Eno Williams singing in the Ibibio language of her parents while mixing in talk box solos, 80s synths and African instruments.
Just like Bikini Kill felt like they were beamed in via time machine from another era entirely, West Coast rap group Cypress Hill’s old-school flows and laid-back sound stood out from the pack – despite missing a key member in Sen Dog, the classically nasal and charismatic voice of B-Real handily held down the fort and filled in for his missing partner’s parts while the puffs of smoke rose up from the audience. The scratching techniques from DJ Lord were impressive enough on their own. “It’s positive energy with aggressive music,” said B-Real. “I know it’s different, but that’s the way it is.”
The Park programming ended with a headlining set from alt-pop royalty Charli XCX, who brought her high-choreographed Crash Tour and all of the accompanying visuals to the main stage. Evoking some accidental Renaissance art with some of the poses she and her dancers threw themselves into, Charli’s hyperpop edge was so encompassing that even some senior citizens got up on people’s shoulders during “1999.” She also dedicated the fan favourite “Vroom Vroom” to its producer, the late SOPHIE, on what would have been her birthday, while hits like “I Love It” and “Boom Clap” received huge crowd response.
The crowd migrated over to Electric Avenue just in time to catch another pair of legends on the main stage, as former Jurassic 5 member Chali 2na brought his distinctive baritone and dizzying flows alongside his longtime DJ, Cut Chemist. 2na was a true MC in the original sense of the word, and seemed genuinely emotional about the big crowd, bringing his goofy on-stage persona out and acting like he was physically bowled over by cheers.
While most stuck around for The Funk Hunters, a very different rapper in Kimmortal was closing the ARC Stage. Sitting on the edge of the stage during some of their most intense and serious tracks, the AOC-approved Vancouver-based artist was one of the most visibly passionate artists of the weekend, but simultaneously was clearly having a great time, scrunching their face up while delivering some rapid-fire bars.
As a key component of the accompanying Rifflandia Magazine predicted with a segment about festival love stories, romance was in the air during the festival’s final day: there were multiple weddings going on while the artists took to the stage.
To fit in with the exhausted crowds after three days of shows, Sunday’s energy was a lot more subdued, mostly made up of vibe-heavy and lower-key pop-adjacent acts like Jessia, Moontricks and Luca Fogale. For that reason, despite having little strength to dance along, some of the more involved acts stood out. The anthemic melodies of Hamilton pop-rock outfit Ellevator, as well as Toronto producer Ikky, who spent his entire set creatively mashing up hits from all genres that everyone in the crowd could sing along to, dominated their early-afternoon sets.
As the sun got lower in the sky, people in the park started to take notice of the smaller RiffTop stage as soon as Canada’s Drag Race winner Priyanka shouted “I’m a legend! I’m an icon!” into the mic at the beginning of her set. With some confidence-boosting anthems and some impressive dance moves, she acknowledged a drag queen playing a music festival as “making history” while repeatedly connecting with some kids in the audience by name. “They say kids shouldn’t see drag queens,” she said. “They should learn more from us, they’d be better people.”
Before a final party from Vancouver meme-rapper bbno$, the king of chill alt-pop in Lauv took the main stage, the crowd swaying in a daze to a parade of his biggest streaming hits like “I Like Me Better” and “Paris in the Rain.”
Bbno$’s ridiculousness started early, tossing a wide variety of inflatables into the audience and beginning with a couple bars of his biggest hit “Lalala” before RickRolling the audience. Promising a Vancouver Island-themed cookbook to whoever “went the hardest,” bbno$ spent time listing some recipes, dodging an entourage of people on stage with cameras pointed at him, and getting into fake fights with his DJ.
The social media titan cracked a couple jokes about the superiority of Victoria to his hometown of Vancouver and longtime collaborator Yung Gravy being absent due to spending some quality time with TikTok star Addison Rae’s mom – inviting a fan up on stage to fill in for his parts. It was a perfect final release of energy before Lorde closed the festival with her emotional anthems.
Returning with some big names and some choice indie darlings after a 4-year hiatus, Rifflandia provided the kind of experience that should have made anyone there start looking forward to its next iteration already.