Monday, July 21, 2008

Festival Round-Up: Rogers Picnic, Toronto

At a festival about indie, sub-culture music, it may seem odd to find twenty-something hipsters holding Nokia phones, in a tent decorated with the Nokia logo, sending text messages to a large screen be-deckled with the Rogers logo beside the main stage. But then again, maybe it isn't so odd. Guests of Toronto's 2008 Rogers Picnic seemed right at home with the blend of youth culture, mass communication, and cross-branding. The messages ranged from marriage proposals to requests for cocaine.

Inside the Nokia tent not even globe-trotting favorite Team Canada's Beastie Boys remixes or Let's Go To War's electro-funk could provide more than an atmospheric backbeat to the main stage performances. A loyal crowd bobbed rhythmically around "phone stations" where guests texted their most profound feelings onto the screen ahead. I need a beer, read one. Larry, I'm pregnant, read another. Unlike the energetic thousands standing on the field before them, the DJ tent crew was largely and strangely immobile until later in the evening when a "surprise guest" stepped up to the turntables. Half of the electro-funk duo Chromeo, who had been a favorite on the mainstage earlier in the day, delivered the surprise (as in surprise, he's back!) in an inspired, funky set which instantly threw an uninhibited crowd onto the dance floor (surprise number two).

The tented folks had good reason to be sedate. Frequent bursts of rain and a thick, low-hanging fog turned grassy Old Fort York into a thick, muddy mess. Not everyone's spirit was dampened, however. Organizers estimate five to ten thousand people attended this year's event. ZeroFootprint, a local alternative energy provider, offset the carbon emissions from the entire event through a tree-planting project in British Columbia. They also ensured that all the food stalls and small collection of vendors were locally-run and owned.

Cat Power and Vampire Weekend delivered the most popular - if somewhat relaxed - sets, eliciting a massive wave of cheers, beach-ball lobbing, soulful swaying, and a slew of text messages asking who the hell these people were. Power, in particular, with her ethereal voice full of soul, and a tight, bluesy-rock band to back her up, held the crowd’s full attention but never really brought the electric enthusiasm of the audience onto the stage.

The VIP area, also a beer garden, held more wiggle room and a little less mud. Thirty-somethings done with art-school cool and well into urban-bohemian chic funneled $7 beer and networked awkwardly. A mudslide was proposed and dismissed. The best place to be, it seemed, was in the thick of things with the real fans.

Published in Big Shot Magazine, August 2008