Brandon Flowers
Brandon Flowers at WayHome Music & Arts Festival 

On July 24, 25 and 26, history was made in an old campground north of Barrie, Ontario.

Summer came fully to the region, with soaring temperatures, blazing sun and clear skies (for the ENTIRE WEEKEND). It was a weekend the likes of which can barely be recalled for many, many years of unsatisfying short Ontario summers and more recently, the almost season-less, norm-less drift that covers much of spring and summer making weddings iffy, event planners crazy, and camping a real gamble.

With this weather came the long awaited WayHome Music and Arts Fest, bringing headliners Neil Young + The Promise of the Real, Sam Smith, Kendrick Lamar, Hozier, Alt-J, Modest Mouse (who performed to wide acclaim) along with personal highlights Bassnectar, Brandon Flowers (The Killers) St. Vincent, Run the Jewels, Viet Cong and an eclectic mix of 60 other bands (including a surprise fill in from Broken Social Scene on Saturday). Four busy music stages were spread across a sprawling, grassy, comfortable compound where festival goers could, in between all of this live music, shop at the Etsy artists marketplace, sample from many local and regional food trucks offering traditional food truck fare and international offerings (and lots of poutine, which seems to be the new staple for on the go festival food) wander into unexpected and delightful art installations throughout the site, or catch a siesta in the iconic barn that was truly the VIP area jewel in the festival’s flower crown (immediately raising the bar for VIP ticket offerings industry wide, and especially locally).

35,000 attendees found a home away from home as 80% settled into camp for the duration (free with festival passes) setting up friendly impromptu neighborhoods that added to the experience of the festival, where schedules ran like clockwork, staff were friendly and low key despite working in extreme heat, and the positive vibe promised by festival organizers was created through the active participation of all who came together in ways that truly surprised in our era of staring at and through screens.

The musical offerings were varied enough to allow for tailored experiences, and the state-of-the-art video screens and audio set up of the stages delivered flexibility that meant one could enter the fray and get up close and personal, or sit way back on the grass any enjoy many hours of entertainment from a position of comfort. The collective we hasn’t napped and relaxed publicly like this since we were babes in arms, and was it ever good for the soul.

Friday night’s show stopping headline 3-hour set from Neil Young + The Promise of the Real featured some commendable camera work/direction that created a very impressive concert experience for all in view of the screens. The late in the set focus on the brilliant half moon of that night will never be forgotten. Young’s three hour set afforded a good balance of classics (“Heart of Gold” and “Helpless” brought people running from all over like something from a Zombie film) and rock jammers as well as a solid focus on his latest record The Monsanto Years, a combination which lent some pitch perfect 60’s style activism and storytelling to the inaugural event. No nostalgia act, nor the curmudgeon the click bait media would have you believe, Young at 69 years sings exactly as he always has and is a relentless musical force to be reckoned with, going toe to toe with his much younger bandmates (led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson, and who are not to be missed on their current tour) through track after track almost without interruption. You really haven’t festivaled until you’ve watched four different men with guitars jam to some living flowers, seen oats scattered over security guards by farmer women (one of whom looked a lot like Daryl Hannah) and been schooled by Neil Young himself, implausibly tireless after all these years and all this hopeless decline of our earth (wearing a rock type T-Shirt that touts, simply that he’s a fan of “EARTH”) with his stunningly simple words to live by “Don’t Be Denied” a song with a signature 3-note screechy guitar riff that sounds like the cry of the artist himself. Oh friend of mine.

From the Elder Statesman to the up and coming: Calgary’s Viet Cong held sway on the intimate (and favourite of many) WayAway stage which was nestled into a forest canopy and possessed its own Dive Bar. With a self-titled debut record released in 2015 to the eager reception of post-punk fans who stoically crave and seek out authenticity, in the realm of the overproduced music industry, Viet Cong delivered including “March of Progress” and extended “Death”. The four members played cohesive and seamless numbers to an eager group of fans who knew all the words, and a couple of great mascots including a Knight right out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that tried to steal the show with its fabulousity (suffice to say we followed it around for a few days but lost its trail on Sunday. Perhaps he was too hungover).

Somewhere in the middle of these two poles, profile-wise (and both on the main stage on Sunday) St. Vincent and Brandon Flowers each (in their respective sets) defied the extreme heat in gorgeous rock and roll black (Annie Clarke did this in what looked like a latex cut-out suit that assuredly raised the temperatures even higher in her devoted fans). Neither of these two artists are capable of taking a bad picture or visibly waning like mere mortals, as the galleries we’ve already posted attest. But more to the point, both of these final day art-rockers owned their time slots making us wish for a lot more of them (headliners next year?)

St. Vincent rocked out with a green Fender that reminded everyone -eyes over here- and gave a special shout out to the freaks and queers as she worked through a solid set which included “Cheerleader” and “Krokodil”and overcame some background technical difficulties (likely owing to the extreme heat and sun of the day).

While it may have been a little harsh of the person overheard saying that Flowers should fire the rest of the Killers and just carry on with the band he brought to WayHome, the swift and spirited response of the (young/male & female) fans who sang along to every word of the newest solo album (The Desired Effect) as well as the adulation for The Killers tracks included, made Flowers a true highlight of a very solid and crowded program and a perfect Sunday evening show. The Killers have made many stops to Toronto (and area) over the past decade and long time fans were rewarded with a rendition of the ultra-rare acoustic alt-country version of “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” as well as the always effective anthems “Mr. Brightside” and “Read My Mind”. With just an hour set, Flowers covered a lot of ground with abundant energy and accessibility which even made time for a cover song chosen by the crowd (the weird “Simply Irresistible” by Robert Palmer). PS, I love you, person with the balloon that might have been meant to resemble our boy from a little town called Las Vegas.

The late night music was too loud for some who could feel the bass in their tents, and if we get another real summer like this than more public tenting would be appreciated across the mostly exposed grassy site, and a shuttle from the outer regions of general admission camping would be a nice touch (perhaps even necessary) but these are small tweaks that are minor compared to the huge list of things everyone involved with this festival did well. It’s not often that experienced festival goers are surprised and their expectations exceeded, especially when factoring significant costs and travel invested. Yet, music fans came out from the area and far beyond; friends were made for an afternoon or for the next chapter of life; a large scale music festival (the first of its kind attempted in 20 years in the region) was shown to be a success; and a precedent has been set. High tech / digital and low tech /analogue real experiences were created, the grass was ample, soft, and best walked barefoot, and stressed out Toronto residents were heard to speak in unusually glowing terms about the event on King Street the next day to one another, with not a single complaint but the heat (of course) which has to be some kind of miracle in a city known for its love of complaining. Within hours of the gates’ closing, social media followers were notified we should save the date for 2016 WayHome Music & Arts Festival: July 22, 23 & 24. And so we shall.

By Step On Magazine Editors

View our 2015 WayHome Music & Arts Festival Galleries Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

More WayHome Preview coverage here, here and here.