By Connor Simpson
A weekend in Halifax is a rite of passage for students in maritime universities. It’s the biggest metropolis in the surrounding area, a wonderful student city, and, importantly, it has more bars per capita than any other city in North America (real talk - Google it). Every year in late October bopping hipsters and aging jam rock fans gather in the HRM to celebrate some of the best music in North America at the Halifax Pop Explosion. At nineteen years young, the festival has evolved since its early days. Old school east coast scene stalwarts still whisper about Eric’s Trip at the Marquee (or whatever it was called then) or Thrush Hermit’s epic performances at the Seahorse. A ton of bands have ventured east of Montreal for the festival, actually performing “across Canada” when most bands stop in Quebec and call it a day. Hell, even a member of the Wu-Tang Clan performed a few years ago. The weekend is always fuelled by liquor, pizza, burritos, and liquor. It’s an endurance test, and the city always rises to the occasion. The best parts of Halifax are always on display. At no point is Halifax more fun than Pop Explosion weekend.
The actual musical aspect of the weekend is usually secondary for me. I don’t particularly enjoy live music. The music I listen to is regularly produced using an 808 drum machine and has enough bass to blow the windows out of your mom’s Civic, but the organizers peeked my interest by booking two of the only bands I actually listen to. Critical bias warning: I really, really like Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up. One of the other headliners, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, I also really, really like, but we couldn’t see them. They played on Wednesday — diligent students that we are, we could only afford to escape on Thursday evening.
Titus played their biggest show of the weekend on Thursday night. We got into town late and met up with people for drinks before the show. One drink led to another and eventually Titus was shelved in favor of seeing the Red Bull Threestyle show at the Palace. Local DJ and friend of the paper Nick Bike was competing! We got there just in time to see DJ IV, a standard bearer of the Halifax DJ community, start his set off with an unfortunate series of technical difficulties. The starting lines to Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’” blasted over the speakers over, and over, until he was finally able to time them perfectly and the tech equipment started to work for him. IV’s set was decent, but he’s spent most of his career working in the shadow of another DJ from the HRM, the DJ we came to see: Skratch Bastid.
To his credit, Skratch played the best set I’ve seen him play in years. He garnered so much critical acclaim beyond Atlantic Canada in the past few years, but whenever he came to Charlottetown he always played his B set. It was nice to see him on his A game for once, and it showed. The place was wild. People went ballistic for Jay Z and Kanye’s “N****s in Paris.” Other people thought it was really cool when he played a Skrillex song, but I honestly don’t understand dubstep and it seemed out of place with the hip-hop and house remixes that made up the rest of his set. We left the Palace sweaty and spent. We all took showers (separately) when we got back to our friend’s house.
We started Friday without a plan. There weren’t any standout shows, at least on our books. Quickly though, word got back to us that Titus Andronicus were going to perform a secret show at Tribecca that night around 8. Redemption was close. The bitterness of missing them the night before was starting to fade, until we got to the venue and it was at capacity. I cursed, loudly. Tentative plans to go to another show — I think there was something people wanted to see at Gus’s — were thrown around, but I was persistant. Our group for that night split in two. The guy at the door was polite, despite my initial outburst, and eventually two people left so Garrett and I could get in.
Tribecca is actually a pretty poor venue. Its two-floor set up is great for DJs and dance nights, but if a band is playing they’re on the second floor. It’s long and narrow like Baba’s, but the air is a bit better because the back opens up the bottom floor. The bathrooms are right by the dance floor, though, and they smell like they haven’t been cleaned in years. The bar requires you to get drunk enough to enjoy the band and not let the constant smell of piss ruin it for you. Titus Andronicus played to a packed house, and despite the poor sight lines I was blown away. The surprise performance ended up being the last show the band played together with the full original line-up. After the band flew back to Brooklyn, Amy Andronicus announced she was leaving the band to focus on her other musical projects.
Saturday was a mess. We predrank, a lot, in anticipation of seeing Fucked Up. More than we should have, for sure, but the weekend is a celebration as much as anything, and we were celebrating the final night of an amazing weekend. Sue me; I’m 22. The venue was packed. We went early to avoid getting left outside. Our press passes could only get us so far once they hit max fire code capacity. From the first notes of “Let Her Rest,” the soaring lead track off David Comes to Life, the crowd pulsed and surged to the whims of the maestro on stage, Damien Abraham, the band’s charismatic frontman. Holding the microphone over the pit like strings dangling from a puppeteer’s hands, we were his. He left the stage and went around the bar, singing the whole time. The pit hardly noticed.
Once Fucked Up finished, we went to try and get into the Seahorse for some lady singer who I can’t recall right now. I was still hungover from seeing Fucked Up, who have claimed the mantle of my favorite live band ever. The bar was full, and the line-up was packed. Instead, we got a table at the Economy Shoe Shop and settled in for a bite to eat and to take a minute to catch our breath. Everyone was tired from the weekend. Partying is hard. We took our time, and when we left the restaurant we decided to take one last crack at getting into the Seahorse. Miraculously, there wasn’t a line at all, and Plants and Animals were playing a surprise show to close out the festival. Crammed into the Seahorse with what seemed like 500 other people, we weaved our way through the patrons until we found friends who had a decent view of the bar so we could watch the skinny indie rockers play out the festival with their jam-band inspired indie rock. I’ve always said they remind me of a poor man’s Wilco, which is more of a compliment than it sounds like.
Waking up the next morning was like an exercise in testing my mortality. After a weekend of couches and pizza and burritos and heavy drinking, everything hurt. The drive home was especially long, and most of our travelling hobos were quiet, still reeling from a weekend that would go down in history. The physical memories were foggy, but the hangover from the feelings of euphoria of seeing amazing music with your best friends is what lasts. I’ve been back to Halifax since, hoping I might have as much fun the second time around, but there’s nothing that compares to a Pop Explosion weekend. It’s the best weekend of every year.