Nova Scotia’s new music festival lays bare the best the Eastern province has to offer
Cai Trefor
12:35 30th November 2017

All good things start in Wrexham, right? Well probably not, but in this case they did. When Gigwise was on a panel last year at FOCUS Wales – held in the underrated North Wales town - we met the Canadian delegation, and my interest in Nova Scotian bands scored me an invitation to take part in a showcase festival attended by 7000 members of the general public and 1100 industry professionals.

Spread over four days, its line-up is focused solely on bands from Nova Scotia, so I arrive itching to gain a deeper appreciation for the province’s music scene: many of the best up-and-comers, and some old favourites, are playing in venues across the town of Truro, the hub of Nova Scotia and an hour from the vibrant student city of Halifax.

Everything I know about this town is taken from acclaimed mockumentary series Trailer Park Boys and the internet is light on what it might actually be like there. This leaves little in the way of pre-emptive judgements as one of my only reference points is fictional; but I like not knowing. Immersing yourself in a showcase of the best bands of a relatively unknown scene alongside attendees ranging from managers to festival bookers, labels, and ordinary music fans is like opting to take a holiday in a nature reserve as opposed to Benidorm – which is how I like it. It’s an opportunity to unpick the nuances and secrets of what this hub of musical talent can offer to the world.

But first up – because it’s Canada – is a trip to a maple farm named Sugar Moon. It’s a good start and is intended to break the ice with the other delegates and Canadian industry. The open fire, local brew, running streams, bright moon, and distant bark of farm dogs help induce a communal calm. I use it as an opportunity to think about the ancient land and ponder indigenous Mi'kmaq artist Alan Syliboy’s poem ‘Signal Fire’. It helps me enjoy this moment of solitude around the back of the house whilst everyone else is mopping up the last bits of maple syrup on their bacon greased plate. I look forward to seeing Syliboy later in the festival.

Back to the pretty town of Truro, farm life is put to the back of my mind. I like Truro instantly. It has everything you need: pub, book shop, an amazing park, a dreamy disused railway track. The wood-panelled houses are more reminiscent of Sweden, and the vibrant autumn shades of the trees are a punchy red and yellow. I also like that the Mayor is here to welcome us. I’ve never met a mayor before; not least one who encourages us all to make a racket in his town: “Turn it up!” he cries at the end of a long, sentimental speech about how good the festival is for the morale of his town.

He means it too. It’s like NSMW have been given the keys to all of the town’s venues by the mayor, who’s told them ‘put on who you want, stay open as long as you want, and have some great times’. Seemingly, NSMW encourages loose yet respectful behaviour at every turn and that outshines the corporate element running through it – it doesn’t forget that it’s a festival as well as a very serious opportunity for the acts involved but, essentially, no one rests here. Gigs go all night, room parties even longer. Then the more minor stuff helps it feel homely for a muso. The lobby of the very 70s Holiday Inn - the hub of the festival where lots of bands stay and play live - is pretty special. Kitted out with pinball, arcade machines, unlimited coffee, and with the bars heaving it’s not somewhere you need to skip past quickly. Even the lifts here are decorated with gig posters, some even made out of baloney.

This freewheelin’ atmosphere, however, isn’t confined to the festival. Evidently, the liberal angle of the mayor’s speech is fairly indicative of the feel of the town in general. Weed isn’t legal here yet but it might as well be; and it’s got a decent spread of venues and pubs. Even on Sunday’s there’s a karaoke bar open all night with bargain bucket beer prices. The metropolis of Halifax feels redundant, especially when the crème de la crème of its music industry are draped around the town for the week.

But of course this week is far different. Anyone who’s anyone in the city’s scene is on their way here – and so my digging through the province’s live roster begins.

THURSDAY

My first introduction to the Nova Scotia music scene begins with one of the biggest names in the (local) business. “You just have to see Wintersleep,” the organiser tells me. “They’ve been around 10 years. It’s sold out and you’ll love it.” Sure enough, they are absolutely incredible live. They’re the Interpol of Canada, and have deservedly the supported Pearl Jam, and Broken Social Scene. This gig – by their standards – is low-key so it’s a privilege to witness them this close up in the Legion. It’s a venue that normally serves up wings and fish and chips, but tonight this local hang-out for the elderly is ripped from its roots as Wintersleep’s introspective yet anthemic rock sound brings a contemporary air to the place. The lights flicker, the rig is amped and we transcend, thanks largely to their guitarist who would likely impress Johnny Marr.

The set ebbs and flows, working as one continuous piece with barely any stops between songs. Their best material is from their latest album; the My Morning Jacket-esque ‘Amerika’, timeless love song ‘More Than’ and ‘Santa Fe’, which somehow combines Ryan Adams, Super Furry Animals and Interpol . All have bewitching melodies, myriad kaleidoscopic effects, dynamic backing vocals and a tight, uncomplicated rhythm section that serves the songs’ dynamics brilliantly. Outstanding stuff.

Leaving the Legion with not so much a new musical discovery but a new-to-me discovery in the bag, a shuttle with the Nova Scotia Music week logo slapped across the side carts me back to the hotel venue – and the energy here is high.

In fact, the amount of coffee drunk coupled with most people’s insatiable appetite for booze is a driving force of the atmosphere in NSMW. There’s a nocturnal energy you’d expect from a much bigger festival, suggesting that NSMW is still in its formative stages. Keeping up with the hustle and bustle are the Wintersleep guys, who have found their way here after the set. They’re all hanging around casting their eye over the emerging talent, probably wondering who’ll be playing the big shows ten years from now.

One guy with a good shot at a long career is Dave Sampson - who doubles as a great chauffeur. It's very common for musicians to take part in extra-curricular duties in Nova Scotia he told me when he picked me up from the airport. Like many people I meet this weekend, he’s a volunteer and also in a band. During our conversation the night before the show he’s told me he’s penned a tune that Snoop Dogg guested on when he was down filming with Trailer Park Boys.

Tonight, though, I discover he’s not doing hip-hop; he’s doing alt-rock. To his right on the Hammond organ is the spitting image of Bill Hicks: 80s spectacles and a nearly-mullet, playing with so much flair that Solange would be envious of Sampson for having him. To his left, Steve Vai, solo man. It's the dynamic of these three that makes Sampson’s sound so captivating - a modern Americana not dissimilar to Hiss Golden Messenger thanks to the hook-laden songwriting; ‘Trouble’ is particularly good. Bed beckons.

FRIDAY

My day in Truro is spent idly wandering, bowling and reading, so it’s a late start but a good one. Daniel Walker, who has named his band Owen Meany's Batting Stance, is playing an intimate show in the Nook and Cranny. An anthropology student, he has a bookish jumper, long hair, a wiry figure and oversized spectacles; a very distinctive, outgoing presence with hints of Daniel Johnston. He’s got a lot of potential as a songwriter, and is reminiscent of Okkervil River's Will Sheff and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle in style. His short tales between songs - a popular trait among singer-songwriters here – don’t throw me off guard, as some do, but heighten my interest in his writing. It’s a brief set in a busy bar, but you definitely feel the potential and the momentum is with him. “You’re the best!” screams Our Lady Peace’s manager, sat across from him, and the whole pub clearly agrees.

As with the previous day there’s a good spread of bigger names and up-and-comers so it’s off to the Marigold Centre - a space dedicated to live music year round - to see Ben Caplan. There’s a buzz in the lobby on the way in and above the noise I hear my name called. I turn and a man I don’t recognise leaps up from his merch stand and hands me a finished copy of his album. “I think you’ll like it,” he says, “I’m an anglophile; the Kinks are my favourite band,” His name is Tyler Messick. “Ahh I’ve heard about you. You tech for Win Butler in Arcade Fire,” I reply. He acknowledges, and we talk about pedals for a while. It turns out the best Compressor - the Diamond Compressor - that Johnny Marr told me is the secret to all his success is made in Nova Scotia.

I settle down the front for Ben Caplan with the founder of FOCUS Wales, Neal Thompson, beside me. Neal is sceptical at first, but I know he’ll be blown away. One thing I’ve always enjoyed in a stage show is good collaboration; Pete and Carl, Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld. Tonight the chemistry between Ben Caplan and his partner Taryn Kawaja is palpable. Kawaja harmonises and plays violin over Ben’s Tom Waits husk and together they distill the essence of heartbreak, love, and excitement.

A technically remarkable vocalist, he nails the scales of ‘Under Control’ with conviction, but the show’s potency is largely down to his masterful stagecraft - with over a thousand shows under his belt before he’s even 30, Caplan knows how to hold an audience in the palm. Often pigeonholed as a singer songwriter – a category that can imply a narrow repetoir - Caplan’s synthesis of genre makes him a far more intriguing force. The Welsh festival owner approves.

Back at the Inn, and back on course to find new musical talent, I discover a new band called The Brood, pitched to me by their manager at a speed meeting. The Halifax group have taken a surprise slot because someone bailed. Such is the short notice they’re missing their drummer, but being music school students they’re incredibly adept to playing everything. The lead singer and songwriter takes the drums and sings, with much of the same flair as Anderson .Paak.

The Brood are like a Canadian Primus; an exciting musical force that takes complex jazz and post-punk and make it accessible to the masses. With standout cut ‘Chicken, Cheese & Beer’ they’ve a real chance of striking a chord with the UK’s student population. The local Halifax scene is impressed with them too. Thomas Stajcer, a Townes Van Zandt-esque country singer - and producer/ engineer at the New Scotland Year Studios - tells me: “They’re the most talented new band in Halifax right now.” Considering how into it everyone is, even sans proper drummer, he’s probably right. And Stajcer knows his stuff; he’s a good producer and has a hand in a lot of emerging artists records.

SATURDAY

No trip to Truro is compete without a visit to the park. I go half expecting it to be a disappointment, but get there and discover one of the most incredible bits of nature close to a town I’ve been to anywhere in the world. Waterfalls, tall trees, squirrels and remote, barely-trodden tracts. It turns out to be a great way to get in the mood for an all-dayer.

The Legion is host to the Groundswell Music showcase for the afternoon. First up is The Town Heroes (the baloney advertisers). They’ve been going a few years, and have won awards but, judging by their latest recordings, seem to have shifted into an even stronger gear this year. The venue have done a good job of blocking any outside light and we feel slapped right back into the middle of the night. Strobes flicker as dirty bass riffs and angular guitars deliver visceral punches to the gut. Vocally, their sweetly melodic style juxtaposes the grit; it goes well with the pizza and slabs of cheese they’ve laid out on the table. Even early doors, beer drinking is very much encouraged; Like A Motorcycle have clocked that, too, arriving beers in hands and creating musical havoc. They originally started out an all-girl band before hiring #hotdave (they introduced him to the band like that on social media) and unleashing their blisteringly loud gritty-garage punk sound that’s aimed straight at the hip. Adrenaline levels are flying as feedback, power chords and thrash-y drums combine with commanding vocals. They are very much in their element in small venues like this one but they’d also make a great arena band with the sheer energy to wake thousands from phone-fiddling comas.  Ears still ringing I duck out, hail the shuttle and head over to something far more distinctly north American: blues‘n’ribs at a venue next door to a Taco Bell called Belly Up.

Owned by the same people as the Nook and Cranny, it’s an entirely different beast, trading in cordial Margaritas as opposed to fresh lime and huge truck driver portions rather than elegantly-crafted dishes. There’s even a casino inside.

The stage in this dream of a venue is what Hard Rock Café London should be like: shambolic and adrenalized. I arrive in time for the headliner, Joe Murphy and The Water Street Blues Band. Murphy is a phenomenal harmonica player and soulful singer - he may have been around for donkey’s years but he’s still got it. Despite drawing virtually no-one under 30 - terrifying in terms of keeping the blues alive for future generations - everyone lets go and rediscovers their youth.

“There used to be music six nights a week when I first moved to the area,” Shirley Collins, who is putting on this showcase and opened the stage with her band earlier in the afternoon, tells me. “But now it’s far less….” It’s disappointing to hear and evidence of the shifting taste of younger generations, but I’m encouraged by the youthful band members Joe Murphy has on stage. He has players at his level of musicianship who’ve barely left university. Dave Sampson’s Hammond Bill Hicks is there rocking out, and Curtis Matheson - a headline act in his own right – attacks his strat with a Buddy Holly-esque flair. Together this pan-generational ensemble fly the flag for a sound that’s been integral to this region for years, and keep the crowd jiving with such vigour that the word of mouth alone must surely keep blues a healthy Nova Scotia sideline for another few decades.

On a completely different musical plane - and from an entirely different cultural upbringing - are Alan Syliboy and The Thundermakers, formed of two mates who bonded over a lot of hazy nights together. Syliboy plays the drum at the front of the stage as his co-founder leads with affecting, silky acoustic guitar chords and lyrics that are intimately connected to indigenous values and the power of the land. His son adds a contemporary spin to the 60s sound with an array of effect pedals and a shoegaze-y taste.

Hotly-tipped Devarrow is up next. The singer’s stood solo on stage, fully invested in the moment, singing a Fleet Foxes-style folk tune before the band join him, emphasising his clever use of dynamics and affecting arrangements. There might only be 200 people completely gripped by his presence tonight but it’s not hard to see him making the leap to stages ten times this size soon - especially when he has song as catchy and original as ‘Little Road’ up his sleeve.

Back at the Inn, and the neo-psychedelic Walrus are playing a raucous, unrelenting show with hints of Jesus and Mary Chain and The Beatles, a pleasing change of pace from the night’s earlier, more focused shows. Dotting their dreamy 60’s psych rock are huge colourful hooks that get the whole venue bouncing and set the tone for the final band of the weekend: the mighty Matt Steele And The Corvette Sunset.

The Elvis-esque swagger that Steele puts into his balls-out rock’n’roll is quite something. Crowd favourite ‘I Wanna Get High’ is a standout, the Weezer look-alike out in the middle of the crowd getting loose with everyone and, wryly, he follows it with a song about needing rehab. They benefit from having the same lead player as Dave Sampson - it’s common among bands in the Halifax scene for musicians to play across multiple groups. It seems egalitarian and not overly territorial, like some places. And it’s the closeness of the scene that starts to unravel on the final day.

SUNDAY - Gospel Brunch, awards, and bathtubs.

Sunday starts with Gospel Brunch. R Kelly is awkwardly sung. I’m not too sure about it. The pancakes and fried chicken are incredible, though. Maybe it’s the hangover.

Later on, at the award show, Walrus win alternative track of the year, Like A Motorcycle get a nod, Port Cities (who weren’t at the festival) clean up and lots of other people carry away tall glass trophies that ultimately help them further their career.

It’s after the awards that things pick up. I’m invited to karaoke with Like a Motorcycle. It’s Sunday and ridiculous o’clock yet the locals are loving it. There’s a slightly edgy atmosphere and a bouncer stands on the venue floor like a boxing referee in case something’s about to kick off. Nothing does, but a conversation about gun control threatens to spill over. The three dollar beer goes down swimmingly.

After the show we head out to the rooms and stars of the festival are gathering in one of the honeymoon suites. Dave Sampson, Quake Matthews - who just won an award - and a renowned fiddle player have called for a tub session, albeit without any running water. It's 3am by this point and aorund 50 people are gathered in this eclectic jam that veers between hip-hop and crooner ballads. It's a satisfying way to see the weekend out as the raw passion for music appears to last long into the night and well after the stages have close. It's a moment that truly brings to life how tight-knit this community of musicians is. Nova Scotia's scene is bubbling nicely, and NSMW is evidently a vital driving force. Look no further than here than this festival for the best this beautiful yet modest, friendly part of Canada has to offer.