Year after year, Victoria’s Rifflandia Music Festival has served as the exclamation point at the end of the Pacific Northwest summer festival season. Although students had returned to school a couple weeks earlier, and the leaves had already started to turn, Rifflandia’s mid-September timeslot slides in just ahead of the fall equinox, allowing festival-goers to wring out the last precious drops of seasonal indulgence.
Now in its ninth year, festival organizers Atomique Productions have seen massive growth since Rifflandia’s humble inception in 2008, where they ran seven stages around downtown Victoria and drew about 1,500 daily attendees. Inspired by festivals such as Austin, Texas’ South By Southwest (SXSW), the idea of using a city’s downtown core as the backdrop for a multi-venue, multi-genre festival has proven to be a highly successful model, with wristband-wearers hopping from venue to venue each year to customize their experience.
It wasn’t until the fourth iteration of Rifflandia in 2011 that the festival evolved into the behemoth that we know today, thanks to the addition of Royal Athletic Park (RAP) as the flagship outdoor venue. The park features two stages, and serves as the exclusive venue for daytime and early evening performances, before unleashing the raucous crowd to filter into the bountiful downtown night stages.
Festival capacity was bolstered a few years later with the introduction of another major outdoor venue, Phillips Backyard – the converted parking lot/loading dock area of local microbrewery Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. – which has proven to be the festival’s most popular nightspot, even spawning its own three-night festival earlier in the summer – the Phillips Backyard Weekender – which has run each July since 2013.
This year, Rifflandians experienced a new wrinkle to the Phillips experience, announced by Atomique just a week ahead of the festival opening. Surprise! For the first time, the festival would feature a new “Super Venue,” dubbed Electric Avenue, combining the Phillips Backyard with adjacent venues ANIÁN Yard and Capital Iron. This was accomplished by completely blocking off two city blocks (both Pembroke and Discovery Streets between Government and Store), and fashioning a hip street festival vibe complete with decorative lighting and multiple options for food and adult beverages. The combined stages created the largest, most powerful night venue Rifflandia has ever produced, with a capacity of up to 6,500. Thanks in part to this change, Rifflandia 2016 drew upwards of 12,000 people each day – the biggest Riff crowds to date.
Night one on Thursday evening kicked off in style, with bands, DJs and rappers stepping to the stage at seven of the weekend’s downtown night stages, including the Victoria Event Centre, Lucky Bar, Wolf/Sheep, the Copper Owl and Studio CMCT at the Mint.
Down at Electric Avenue, both Phillips Backyard and ANIÁN were in full swing, with the Capital Iron stage set to open Friday and Saturday to showcase a plethora of electronic acts. Early highlights from Thursday night included performances by local hip hop group Illvis Freshly at Phillips, along with Do250 #RoadtoRiff contest winner Caleb Hart, who brought some mad Caribbean island flavour to ANIÁN.
As the evening wore on, Vancouver’s Lovecoast and Swedish trio Baskery earned themselves some new fans at ANIÁN, while over at Phillips one half of The Beatnuts, Psycho Les (Junkyard JuJu apparently ran into a travel SNAFU), performed an underwhelming solo set with an assist from local turntablist DJ Murge. It goes without saying that things just weren’t the same without JuJu.
But it was all good in the neighbourhood when it came time for the evening headliners De La Soul to hit the Phillips stage. Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo have appeared in Victoria many times (including a main stage show at Rifflandia 2011), but their shtick never gets old. As expected, there was a lot of hand-waving, pitting one side of the crowd against the other in an informal noise-making competition, and a demographic poll to see who actually knew who De La were. “Where my 33 to 44-year-olds?” asked Dave. The trio kept things bouncing throughout, although they lost a bit of traction when they took time to promote their new album and showcased some of the new songs. This is a festival – we’re here for the classics! That said, it was a strong opening to the festival.
Grey skies and scattered showers proved nowhere near enough to dampen spirits on day two. Following Thursday night’s official opening at several of the festival’s night stages, on Friday it was time to throw open the gates at Royal Athletic Park. This all-ages venue is really the beating heart of Rifflandia, featuring both the festival main stage and the secondary Rifftop Tent, and drawing a diverse crowd that includes families with young children, teenagers, retirees, and everyone else in between. The park featured plenty of dining options, with a variety of local food trucks to choose from, as well as beverages including Phillips beer and Merridale Cider, along with Mike’s Hard Root Beer (including free samples!) and other mixed beverages. There’s also Kidlandia, a play-place for youngsters, and a collection of vendors selling everything from art to jewelry to clothing to haircuts – really, everything you need and a bunch of stuff you don’t, but bought anyway.
Fans who arrived early on Friday were treated to stellar performances from local live beat guru and master of the midi controller Grossbuster, Colombian electro tropical band Bomba Estéreo (who also performed later in the evening at Phillips Backyard), and charming Keswick, Ontario indie rockers The Elwins.
Ithaca, New York band X Ambassadors proved they are much more than one-hit commercial wonders, wowing the crowd with superb musicianship, including some sexy saxophone work from soulful lead singer Sam Harris. While some folks may have come to this show with a bit of trepidation about the band’s legitimacy (did they actually write the song “Renegades” specifically to promote the Jeep Renegade?), their quality performance seemingly put those fears to rest.
Closing out the park lineup for Friday, headliners Michael Franti & Spearhead delivered a ray of virtual sunshine with their upbeat performance. Franti engaged with concertgoers quite literally, bringing one lucky fan on stage early on and then immersing himself with the masses as he moved to a satellite stage in the centre of the crowd for several songs. He waxed poetic about the state of the world, assuring us that everything was all good, but also suggesting (through an improvised tune) that if Donald Trump becomes president, he just might move to “C-A-N-A-D-A”.
Following the park performances on Friday, the options for night stages expanded even further, which resulted in a lot of festival-goers hustling around downtown and making last-minute decisions about how to divide up their time. For our part, Rocktographers fanned out for maximum coverage, checking out hip hop duo Pigeon Hole at Phillips Backyard, progressive rock outfit We Are the City at Sugar Nightclub, upstart rapper Hermit at Wood Hall, and hard rockers Malahat at ANIÁN Yard.
For a change of pace, we also decided to take a break from the music and check out Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club, which was the new site for this year’s Lafflandia, featuring a lineup of local up-and-coming stand-up comics who earned their chance to perform after winning a multi-week pre-festival “Yuk Off” contest.
We closed out the evening by stopping by Capital Iron for part of the set from 90s nostalgia act Prozzäk, before sliding over to Phillips for trap/hip hop instrumental trio Keys N Krates, who made their return to Rifflandia following an astoundingly popular debut at the Rifftop Tent in 2014. Finally, we closed out the evening at Sugar Nightclub for a late-night set from local favourite Vince Vaccaro.
Rifflandians awoke Saturday morning to some ugly looking weather. A storm had blown in overnight, with hard rain continuing on through the morning, but by the time the gates opened at RAP for day three of the festival, the threat of ongoing rain seemed to be relenting.
Saturday’s early bird crowd enjoyed performances from local folk trio Fox Glove and Vancouver blues rock band No Sinner, who really kicked things into gear with powerhouse lead singer Colleen Rennison’s voice booming across the park. By the time the Kootenays electronic folk duo Moontricks finished their set under the Rifftop Tent, the clouds had disappeared almost completely and we were in for another sunny September day.
Vancouver indie darlings The Zolas and local modern rock quartet Band of Rascals delivered energetic afternoon performances, but it was breakthrough indietronica luminary Coleman Hell who delivered the afternoon’s most raved about set. After making his Rifflandia debut last year at an over-stuffed ANIÁN Yard, the Thunder Bay native hit the main stage at RAP clad in a sequined technicolor dream-jacket and absolutely slayed, theatrically bouncing around the stage and at one point asking the audience if they wanted to get “weird” before smashing a what appeared to be a really nice ukulele into smithereens. Suffice to say, things got weird in an amazing way.
Rounding out the remainder of the park’s supporting lineup were emerging Edmonton electronic brother-sister duo Tennyson, English rockers Band of Skulls, who made their highly anticipated return to Rifflandia following a riotous 2012 debut at the festival, and a redeeming second Rifflandia 2016 performance from Queens hip hop duo The Beatnuts, this time with both Psycho Les and Junkyard JuJu working in tandem to deliver a much more dynamic show.
Festival headliners Jurassic 5 lived up to their billing, electrifying the capacity crowd with a full slate of classic J5 tunes, including “Freedom,” “Concrete Schoolyard,” and “Jurass Finish First”. The performance featured the LA-based alternative hip hop group’s full lineup, with MCs Chali 2na, Akil, Zaakir (AKA Soup), and Marc 7, who are known for their signature tightknit vocal harmonies that “make four MCs sound like one”, per the lyrics from their song “Improvise.” Backed up by two world class turntablists, Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark, the group delivered the high point performance of the festival.
As crowds dispersed from the park and out into the night stages, there were again plenty of options to choose from. After missing Montreal indie pop band Groenland at Sugar Friday night, we took the opportunity to catch their second appearance of the festival at Alix Goolden Hall. The group’s mellow vibes and lead singer Sabrina Halde’s captivating voice were a perfect chill moment following the park’s high intensity lineup. Eschewing Electric Avenue for the first time in 2016, we decided to stay in the vicinity of Alix Goolden Hall, and wandered over to the intimate Metro Theatre to catch a set from Vancouver trio The Katherines. Comprised of sisters Kate and Lauren Kurdyak and long-time friend Kaitlyn Hansen-Boucher (and backed by a full band), these gorgeous twentysomethings appeared to be having a bit of an identity crisis. While they employed some exquisite harmonies and showed strong musicianship later in the set, they were hampered by their choice of appearance and the limited depth of their lyrics. At times it felt like a trio of earls hostesses had decided to form a girl group so they could sing songs about going “Downtown”. It was a bit of a hot mess, emphasis on the hot.
Meanwhile, we were getting FOMO-inducing messages from other members of Team Rocktog about the fantastic things we were missing at Victoria Event Centre. This relatively small venue proved to be a Saturday night hotspot, featuring compelling performances from a trio of Vancouver acts – singer/songwriter Kaylee Johnston, freak pop band Fake Shark, and garage rockers JPNSGRLS. The latter group in particular made some strong impressions, and we’re hoping they might be considered for a grander performance at RAP for Rifflandia 2017.
We also had reports that Electric Avenue was once again drawing large swaths of humanity to catch performances including local 80s-inspired synthpop producer Miami Nights 1984, Nanaimo jazz-rock-reggae outfit Dope Soda, and Canadian hip hop icon Classified. Also of note was a late night show at Studio CMCT at the Mint from Vancouver-based folk rock duo The Wild Romantics. The group is known for their palpably passionate performances, and by all accounts, this show was more of the same.
After a rocking weekend all around downtown Victoria, Rifflandia 2016 wrapped up on Sunday with an eclectic collection of artists at Royal Athletic Park. Although it was nowhere near the population density we experienced with the capacity crowd for Saturday’s stacked lineup, a healthy throng of festival-goers managed to rally from three nights of partying to see things through to the finish line.
The early afternoon sunshine was a boon for a trio of Victoria acts – folk group Fallbrigade, nine-piece soul band Chance Lovett & The Broken Hearted, and crowd favourites Astrocolor. Alternatively known as Weird Party, the group unveiled a revamped electronic jazz fusion sound during their Rifftop Tent set, centred around new addition DJ Neil Cooke-Dallin of the group Righteous Rainbows of Togetherness.
Chicago folk rock veterans Fruit Bats brought their ramshackle brand of alt country to the main stage, while Toronto-based former art rock quartet The Darcys (downgraded to a duo by founding members Jason Couse and Wes Marskell at the end of 2014) showcased their reinvented danceable alt pop sound, earning consensus positive reviews from the crowd.
Renowned West Coast spoken word artist Shane Koyczan and his backing band The Short Story Long were moved from the Rifftop Tent to the main stage in a lineup shuffle resulting from the absence of Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires (who were sadly forced to withdraw from the festival due to some ongoing health concerns for Bradley). While we have no doubt that Koyczan is a talented writer and poet, the somewhat muted performance seemed a bit out of place on a main stage music festival, and while we are OK with something completely different (see Reggie Watts’ off-the-wall main stage show in 2012), we have to question the choice of Koyczan in this spot.
Over the weekend there was a lot of speculation as to which artist would replace the vacancy left by Charles Bradley. Familiar names like the Funk Hunters, 54-40 and USS were whispered in some circles, while we scoured the Saturday schedule to see what potential acts could make a second appearance on Sunday afternoon – JPNSGRLS maybe? We wish. In the end, it was 80s Detroit techno pioneers Aux 88 who were a late addition to the Rifftop Tent lineup, following their performance at Sugar the night before. If you like bass music and robot voices, maybe this was your jam.
Stalwart Metchosin rocker Jesse Roper was upgraded into Bradley’s penultimate main stage timeslot and delivered his usual high energy performance in the midst of a surprise downpour. The rain then subsided as quickly as it arrived, while fans flocked to the tent to check out a time-travelling performance form Oakland underground hip hop icon Del the Funky Homosapien, featuring Hieroglyphics alum Domino on the decks.
Celebrated Sub Pop indie rockers Wolf Parade, recently reunited after a 5-year hiatus, then closed out the festival in fine fashion. The group had performed a couple secret shows on Vancouver Island back in May under the pseudonym Del Scorcho, but they were back in a big way to perform for the masses on Sunday.
All in all, Rifflandia 2016 did not disappoint, and we look forward to what Atomique has in store for the 10th anniversary in 2017.
Illvis Freshly – Photo by Kirsten James
Baskery – Photo by Tyson Elder
Beatnuts – Photo by Kirsten James