Halifax Pop Explosion is a music festival much like many others—spread across a bunch of venues (20), with tons of bands (200), taking over a city for almost a week (five days). We’re no stranger to this variation, and certainly, neither are you—it can be overwhelming and exhausting, but also, if done right, totally enriching and inspiring (/uber earnestness). The musical highlights are undoubtedly the focus and primary takeaway, but every time we attend this kind of festival, we can’t help but also think on how the host city plays into the overall experience.
From the bars, to the beers, to the walkability of the place, to crowd enthusiasm and undeniable community (and, of course, the festival lineup), Halifax stands out. There’s a reason we’ve made the trip east for this one for years, and a reason we pretty regularly tout Halifax as one of our favourite Canadian music cities—many reasons, in fact.
The music community’s dedication is seen in its ongoing battle to save the Khyber (and in setting up a new, if not much smaller, space in the North End, where Weird Canada held a HPX gathering to talk about issues exactly such as venue accessibility and arts initiatives and funding in Canada). You feel it when you squeeze yourself into CKDU’s tiny lobby for sets from Old and Weird and Soft Spot. And you’re encouraged to take it all in when the furthest distance between venues is a 10-15 minute walk—many of those walks very likely up Citadel Hill—and a scenic one at that. The way Halifax Pop is ultimately structured around supporting its own local scene—while bringing international heavyweights such as Danny Brown, Against Me!, and Zeds Dead in for the week too—is obvious, and infectious.
The city itself provides the perfect experiential backdrop for it all. Our only real diss on the week would pretty much be the absolutely miserable constant rain, but whaaaatever, we’re just babies, and this isn’t the Weather Pop Explosion—so here, with a mind to the city and community at large, are just some of the musical and non-musical aspects that we looked back at and remembered most fondly in our post-Halifax haze this year.
See you next year, HPX.
A late flight into Halifax on night one meant the only choice was between two Toronto bands we’ve seen plenty on home turf. Still, the Flatliners won out, and made it really worth it—the kids went off, but took a turn when over-zealous venue security started turfing tame crowdsurfers by the collar. Had they never hosted a punk show before? Eventually an announcement was made on mic that any stage divers would be removed, which is exactly what happened to a member of Single Mothers, causing Flatliners singer Chris Cresswell to leave the stage, guitar still slung over his torso, and ask that security chill out and let him back in. Despite obvious frustration, the crowd remained perfectly east-coast respectful and the band finished the night in good spirits, thanking the venue and the festival like the nice gentlemen they are.
Halifax has always had a number of delicious breweries making delicious beers that we’re happy to grab by the growler full everytime we stop in (thanks for all the headaches, Propeller’s still-amazing IPA), and it’s only growing still: Stillwell, modeled after Toronto’s Bar Volo, serves up a ton of regional beer, and the relatively new North Brewing Company (formally Bridge) even has a special few for its neighbour, the legendary North End mainstay Gus’ Pub, called Gus’ 65 Meter ale, named for the distance between the two.
Gus’ Pub / Ace Burger
Speaking of “Halifax’s #1 Live Music Venue, Gourmet Burger Pit and Tiny Casino,” Gus’ remains one of the best places to spend your Halifax time, not only during the festival, but as the ongoing hub for the North End’s close-knit musical community. There were few nights during HPX that we didn’t end our trek at North and Agricola, pouring pitchers of Gus’ Gold into those trademark tiny pint glasses, running into everyone, wishing Ace Burger was still open. The addition of Ace, initially part of a pop-up from the Brooklyn Warehouse people but now a permanent fixture in the pub, adds a lingering smell of friend onions on your clothes but it’s worth it. Bring cash and be willing to line up for the locally sourced, made-fresh menu. And try the Deluxe.
We’ve been fans of Kuato’s pummeling post-rock since they released their debut album The Great Upheaval via east coast label Acadian Embassy this summer, and Gus’ Pub on the second night of Halifax Pop was the perfect place to experience their grand, pretty, Acadian-Explusion inspired instrumentals for the first time. Even in their quiet moments it was clear the crowd was rapt—the perfect accompanying light show dramatics helped the mood, no doubt—and in that moment we felt peak, perfect Halifax.
It’s no secret that we love Crosss in these parts, and watching them hypnotize a Friday-ready festival crowd was a simple, pure highlight. The city was dark and dreary pretty much all week so it was easy to get into that drone groove, but of course these dudes pull out some head-turning technical shit right when you need it. Only downside is that we will never be able to unhear singer Andy March’s Colin Meloy tinge, something uttered by a nameless first-Crosss-timer in the crowd.
Halifax donair is absolutely a 100 per cent home run throwaway Halifax highlight because everybody knows this and everybody claims this. You can’t fight the truth. But on this particular trip to Halifax, we were introduced to a donair panzerroti, a DEEP FRIED donair panzerotti, from the unassuming Randy’s Pizza on Agricola, and absent of any ironic, shameless, gluttonous ambition for eating the worst foods possible, it was absolutely one of the best things we’ve ever eaten. It is the food of dreams. It will change your life. Thank you, Randy’s.
Halifax is a community that is consistently, creatively, prolific, even if it remains largely self-sufficient. One of its biggest current stars and proponents is Rich Aucoin, a born-and-raised Haligonian who goes out of his way to keep a normal life in the city amidst a grueling tour schedule; a lifer who can’t walk a block without running into someone he knows. As both a city resident and a fixture in the scene, Aucoin is engaged, knowledgeable, and somehow, superhumanly, not at all cynical, something that’s evident if you spend even five minutes with him, nevermind the six hours he spent taking us to some of his favourite spots in the city (sidenote: keep an eye out for that special). His live show, too, remains a treat: at Reflections, the floor felt near caving in, and when word of bottles coming off the walls at the bar came in on stage, it only made us rage harder. A gem.
Previous kraut-pop favourites of ours Moon continued to be just that at this year’s festival (go figure), and though they played an afternoon show during the one day it didn’t rain at—yep, Gus’—coffee-sipping and Ace Burgers were matched only by beer orders, and the relentless, calculated tension in the music was still as effectively balanced with the brighter rhythmic punches and flute. We wouldn’t be surprised if, next year, they show the same kind of draw as Montreal’s Freelove Fenner did this year—which certainly isn’t to say Moon don’t already have a ton of well-earned support. Whatever’s next from Moon will be worth watching for.
Having not seen a hometown show by long-time Halifax heroes Cousins in a few years, a jam-packed and amped Reflections show near the end of the festival was a big fat deal sealer. Aaron Mangle has always been prolific, and within the history of his shapeshifting band, his terrific songwriting has been criminally underrated, so hearing the hooks that strongly defined recent album The Halls of Wickwire soar and stick throughout the big room felt triumphant (not to mention this duo is the best iteration of this band yet). Cousins might be the very staple Halifax deserves—small but mighty, smart, and, by no fluke, intrinsic and essential, and we will love and listen to and go see them forever and ever.