London, Ontario is not a music desert — far from it — but despite what goes on there it doesn’t get the same attention for its music scene that nearby Kitchener/Waterloo, Guelph, or Hamilton do.
That a festival like Grickle Grass, which is as committed to its family-friendly mandate as it is to booking great bands, can exist in London for the past seven years is a testament to the great work its organizers are doing and proof that something nice can last in London longer than your typical 20-year-old’s tour through Western University.
Key to Grickle’s success and appeal is its location: the annual fest takes place at London’s Children’s Museum, a three-storey public school originally built in 1916, before being converted to its current use in 1982. Wander through its halls today and it’s not hard to imagine how it looked as a school, but in place of desks and chairs, each room is outfitted with a different exhibit: there’s a cave, a tiny (meta?) classroom, a tree house, a space-themed mission control, and a child-sized streetscape, complete with McDonalds and Valu-mart.
The fest is split into two halves: during the day, its focus is on children and families, hosting workshops on making buttons, masks, comic strips, gardening and cooking. Some of the musicians booked for the evening performances get involved too, as Lido Pimienta did this year by hosting a dance party.
The cooking demos were run by long-time Grickle partners Growing Chefs, who are similarly committed to engaging London’s youths. To their credit, they’re not assembling hot dogs or mac and cheese either — that evening Growing Chefs were serving delicious eats from their Beet Cafe, including the blueberry mole tacos which were playfully creative with flavour in all the right ways.
At night, the fest’s unwavering commitment to investing in youths manifests in their musical lineup, which features a healthy amount of emerging talent, like Fredericton’s Motherhood and Union Suit, as well as local outfit West Nile.
Set times were strategically scattered so that as soon as one band finished in one room, concert-goers could continue exploring the museum and leisurely make their way to another performance. It was unclear how intentional the pairings of musicians to their respective themed-rooms were, as the spaces overwhelmingly influenced and informed my understanding of each set. Sometimes the pairing seemed too good to be true.
Halfway through watching Property’s set safely through the plexiglass of the mock mission control, as images of launching spaceships looped on monitors and the ambient celestial groans from Property’s rig formed into a low rumble, someone in the adjacent room triggered a count-down sequence, syncing impeccably well with the performance.
Photo: Lido Pimienta
While Property kept things weightless, Lido Pimienta’s set in the same space later on that night felt much more grounded, with the focus of her set falling on her intensity and excellent vocal performance.
The unique spaces available in the museum didn’t just inform how audiences could interpret the music they were hearing, they likely informed the musicians’ own choices as well, if B.A. Johnston’s set was any indication. In between removing his many sweatshirts and pouring people’s own beer in their mouths, Canada’s own Slurms Mckenzie brought the party out in front of the tiny McDonalds, singing a song he’d written that same day about having a deep-fryer in his bedroom.
While most artists had to share spaces, DJ outfit Empyrean lucked out with the tree room all to themselves. Passers-by would wander in, and be treated to a great mix of R&B (including Kaytranada’s flip of Janet Jackson’s “If” to Tatyana Ali’s “Daydreamin’”) as they climbed up into the treehouse, took a quick rest inside the tree’s pillow-filled truck, or started their own dance party on the open floor.
As fun as those rooms were, the night’s strongest and weirdest performances happened in the two main rooms that had no theme at all. There’s a majesty to Londoners You’ll Never Get To Heaven, whose music exhibits such a balance of beauty and decay, much like the footage of decrepit palatial estates that was projected behind them.
YNGTH were followed by Hull, Quebec’s carnivalesque Fet.Nat, who staged soulful battles with their cardboard signs, weaponized saxophone skronking, tight, danceable rhythms, weird samples and insane vocals. Going into the festival they were one of the most highly anticipated bands, and they did not disappoint.
Locals WHOOP-Szo’s epic rock engulfed the atrium, at no expense to the band’s bold and complex songwriting.
With songs like “Candy”, Weaves’ Morgan Waters’ big dumb rock riffs matched WHOOP-Szo’s own guitar sound in terms of scale, but the band used that size to more playful ends, building a playground for Jasmyn Burke’s vocals to go coo coo in. By the time they closed out their set and the festival with “Motorcycle” the room had erupted into a mix of moshing and dancing that only Weaves could command.
A more cynical person would suggest that Grickle Grass’s nostalgia tour of the London Children’s Museum’s themed rooms is perfect for a generation constantly documenting their lives and looking for ways to spice up their Instagram feeds, but the festival’s deliberate use of the space also feels like it could be a comment on the ways in which a room can shape a listener’s understanding of the music they hear.
With a backbone of weird and exciting established acts, Grickle Grass thoughtfully invests in the future of their city in a multitude of meaningful ways. As much as I’m looking forward to doing this again next year, I’m a little more curious to see what London looks like in 10-15 years, when those kids who grew up learning to cook, garden, dance, and make buttons and comics at the DIY music festival held inside an old school start their own bands, scenes, and festivals.