Feature by Jacqueline Howell, Photography by Dave MacIntyre and Jacqueline Howell
Who says summer is over? Not everyone runs on schedules based on the school year. Some of us follow the beat of music, searching for chances out-of-official season to hit beaches and enjoy the unique experience of outdoor music festivals for an extra hour, a day, or a few weeks. Some tireless souls even find a way to juggle both things.
In Toronto, RBC Echo Beach famously rolls that dice for a few weeks into late summer, the outdoor concert venue sitting adjacent to the Budweiser Stage and the water’s edge of Lake Ontario. Here, visitors from spring to fall get to feel the night breezes and an amped-up lake effect rarely found elsewhere in the city, where sounds bounce off high rises and music fans walk gamely through a street and off-road map that only locals and event-goers know, the shortcut of a lifetime of trips to or through Exhibition Place, and the streetcar crawl vs. walk internal debate of recent years’ traffic snarls, all of it worth the teenage nostalgia accomplished only by wandering around in the dark on the last fumes of a beer buzz in your home town.
Matty Fest sprung from Chef Matty Matheson’s parties in the Toronto basement of his iconic restaurant Parts and Labour.
A festival that is equal parts food and music (and Matty) this year’s Fest featured The Wu-Tang Clan’s 25th Anniversary, Descendents, Gogol Bordello, Danny Brown, and Toronto’s own METZ, as well as a roster of food offerings from Toronto’s varied restaurant world (and beyond). The line up has grown over the years, and in the city’s declining corporate festival scene, stands out this year as remarkably astute. Each of these artists is completely different, cutting across geographic boundaries, eras and genres, but somehow the effect is a cohesive whole. The cohesion today comes from quality of performers, execution of the event (details big and small) and keeping it as simple as possible. We are back to grassroots, and we need to rebuild in the model of Matty Fest (and recently suspended TURF and Field Trip as well.) Each of today’s artists are here to kill, and the crowds at the main stage lack the usual churn of other festivals. People in this crowd are here to stay and want to see it all, with their kids on their shoulders and their last days of summer, for the nights have already grown cold.
Matty Matheson takes the second stage for remarks late in the afternoon, before the big acts begin their sets. He is a shambolic delight, and among the ramble which gives us a chance to rest in some shade for a time, you should know that “this whole festival is brought to you by the brokenness inside of you” and his caveat: “I’m not a stand up com-goddamn-edian.” No, he’s a magician. Matty Fest 2019 quickly becomes a historic day and a fest to look forward to in future years.
Danny Brown shows what one man and his own urgent sounds can do, in the beating sun (all while, he says, working against the abundance of barbequed ribs “too much good food….they expect me to rap?!”) Brown’s laughter is infectious and one of a kind. He laughs “AHEE HEE HEE HEE…” and is the greatest sound. The mix tape phenomenon who emerged in 2010 still has all the fire he is famous for, BBQ notwithstanding.
Gogol Bordello entered the music world with something so strange and firmly outsider-ish, but was quickly embraced by the world with their musicality, spirit, raw energy, and intimate folky-ness that only seems apparent years after seeing them the first time (then, in a steaming, over-packed club). It is only now that we hear the fully realized phenomenon that they are the closest thing to The Clash we post-punk kids will ever know, and they are stunning. They come out today performing at notch “11” and never turn down the momentum, from “Start Wearing Purple” to “Alcohol” which feels like a gorgeous dirge for ones own spirit, to the only line I write down as if it was my own: “Letting my inner saboteur run loose!” In this set up, the outer edge of stage left turns out to be the only route in and out of backstage, and to see these colourful creatures pass by us to and from stage while everyone else is unaware of them becomes a highlight. You might not expect singer and dynamo Eugene Hilz to touch you gently on the back passing through the crowd politely, but he does, and so my night is made.
No well-rounded true festival bill is complete without at least one true punk legend. Descendents have it all, honed since 1977 California. We hear their influence down the years, in a range of sounds of almost any subsequent band who claimed the word punk. Their songs are short, furious, and angsty. Timeless. Headliners Wu-Tang Clan have the entire site flocking to the main stage as the night grows dark and cool. They start the show with three Wu-Tang related film trailers: now that’s a move. Their video, light show and eclectic soundbites create the biggest spectacle of the night, as the headliner is supposed to do. Most of the original members are in attendance, along with the son of the much missed Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and people hop fences from VIP to get into the mix as they oughtta do.
We sampled food from around the site which seemed to be a big draw with healthy lines everywhere and a great mellow accompaniment to a family friendly day of music in the perfect breezes of September by our too-often underutilized waterfront. Our favourites were a jambon sandwich from The Swan and an unbelievably satisfying crispy fried chicken sandwich from Five Point Hot Chicken which serves traditional Nashville hot chicken, beautifully spiced and seasoned (834 Bloor Street West). The Fest prioritized minimal packaging, less waste, and aimed to sell out of all food, rather than be stuck with unsellable food. Leftovers were planned as donations.
A popular choice was the boxed pizza from Maker seen carried across the site in boxes, an ideal option for sharing with families or groups. Matty Bucks made the day a fun, immersive and “CNE” like experience, as we had a budget to spend on food (having already stocked up on bucks) and so made sure we used our budget and ate, something sometimes forgotten in the journalist’s rush from photo pit to pit and between stages.
After a recent trip away that was a logistical mess from an event attendee perspective, Toronto’s norms seem refreshing and almost nurturing. After all, if you are going to splurge on painful big stadium prices for cold tall cans of beer, said can better be swimming in ice water in the Canadian fashion, and sold by ample vendors scattered across the site accepting both hard currency and plastic. Furthermore, this should all be accomplished without wasting time away from the music in long lines. The sellers at Echo Beach are efficient and yet friendly. They kindly point out the water refilling station behind you, for later (which are manned, a luxury).
Echo Beach is a wondrous site for smaller festivals, with its cozy layout and clear paths that make the visitor feel welcome and reduce disorientation. Not to sound like a bore, but you forget about niceties like clear and useful permanent or temporary signage (in a semi-unfamiliar place you might visit once a year) until you visit another place and find yourself wandering a foreign golf course, feeling like a written off stray golf ball in pursuit of a restroom (or the supposed to be clearly marked spot you’ll need later to find your friends when the wifi inevitably fails.) Time is money. Time is now set times, we all run on them like we are crew, once we learn the hard way after missing too many acts due to time mismanagement in best forgotten festivals prior. Time is precious in the fleeting hours of September summer, with threatening gray clouds today of a kind that have blown out past festivals at this fully outdoor venue, and here at Matty Fest every single one of us knows it. We look to the clouds like demi-gods ourselves, one baleful glance each, and they move aside, scattering a few drops at intervals but obeying our collective deep need for one more day like this, for once.
We are now in a world of at least three generations of families born after Rock and Roll, and the young families of Toronto who breathe music have their children used to the flow of such days already. It’s a new and beautiful era for music festivals. Where my era’s children had only the Santa Claus Parade or Firecracker day down at Kew Beach or historic forts as places to sit on their dad’s shoulders, today’s babies have the air traffic controller headsets in candy colours, the correct rock t-shirts and the roll-with-it ability that we strived for against our parents’ suburbias and normal dinner times as burgeoning punks and post-punks, once. Now, families define themselves, vacations are as varied as places on the map, and kids under 12 can attend festivals for free (whereas many rock gigs were and still are 19+ in Toronto.) It’s great to see. It’s great to know about, and you gotta get there next time you see a poster.
With thanks to Live Nation and Matty Fest.