Everyone has a reference point for what a music festival should be like. In the minds of certain generations, SARSStock was a pitch to Woodstock; for others, NXNE is, due mostly to its name, expected to be like SXSW, which many will assure you is simply not a fair comparison. A concert is noticed for its lineup, but ultimately remembered, and persists, for its atmosphere.
How can one festival separate itself from most others and from its audience’s expectations? Could it aim towards some other summer standard? Something more personal? Hard to say, but putting a body of water between you and the city seems like a good place to start.
Last Saturday, the Toronto Island ferry docks were swamped with families and weekenders, people waiting in droves to board the Centre Island ferry to go picnic, cycle, and purchase overpriced Pizza Pizza slices. But a smaller portion of the ferry travellers stood awaiting the Hanlan’s Point ship, destined for a different celebration: the ALL CAPS festival. “The island can be pretty laid back,” said Ryan McLaren, an organizer of the Toronto music series Wavelength. “I think a lot of that comes from the feeling that Toronto just feels like a high-stress place. Once you get on the ferry, it begins to become a very different kind of experience.”
McLaren, along with the folks at Artscape and the Whippersnapper Gallery, have a lot invested in the island’s oft-overlooked gifts of beauty, since last weekend they hosted another edition of their ALL CAPS festival at Gibraltar Point. “The festival grew over a number of years,” explained McLaren. “ALL CAPS was a monthly all ages music series. I did one outdoors show at Dufferin Grove Park, and of all the things I did, it was definitely the most successful. It had this really great, positive vibe, which as you know isn’t always that easy to create. I met Lisa from Artscape and we decided to try it here on the Island instead.”
Wavelength events are known for putting a spotlight on Canadian acts, and this year’s ALL CAPS was no different; the lineup included nerd-leaning rapper More or Les, Eric’s Trip alum Julie Doiron, party jam incarnate Rich Aucoin, avant-funk Muskox, teenage hip-hop-rock siblings Dog Bus, and well-hyped acts Evening Hymns, the Wooden Sky, and DD/MM/YYYY. The buzz about the bands combined with the island mystique proved to be a (flattering) disaster for McLaren, who was forced to turn away floods of patrons who had travelled across the water when his festival sold out within minutes of starting.
“Get closer and sweat on us so we can jump in the lake after and feel refreshed,” said Daniel Woodhead during a performance. Woodhead, a member of festival starter Moon King and generally familiar face to city showgoers, felt that playing outside of the city is key to the festival’s success. “I think it’s super important for bands to play on the island. Once you do it, you’re just like, ‘Hey, this is absolutely the most relaxed time I’ve ever had. We’re sitting on the beach right now and just played a show.’ When can you ever do that? It’s important that we keep the island a place you can be away from the city while still being downtown”
The Artscape studios were open for visitation. Guests could peek in on a variety of creators, working in all sorts of mediums. Some artists prepared installations in what was once the island’s grade school: Eva Kolcze set up a television in a book-clogged closet that played still-flickering footage of the infamous Gibraltar lighthouse, making it seem even more haunted than usual. Kathleen Brown and David Ip were, instead, working on “PeepSqueak,” in which guests were invited to tell stories about the island based on a randomly picked word. Kathleen shared one of her favourites, spoken by a strong-voiced, long-time islander. A bold diatribe about “good spots to do that” triggered by the suggestive word combo “dancing, kiss, fuck.” David Ip supplied guitar murmurs over the recordings. Once done, Kathleen will share them on her SoundCloud.
Singer Jennifer Castle carried out a performance art piece with Yuula Benivolski. They invited the audience to the beach and greeted them with a mound of wilting flora, a burning silhouette, and two girls draped in sheets who made their way to the water while a dreary rendition of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'” played over the waves. A sombre image, indeed, though it was hard for the audience to bite their tongues when a jet ski whizzed by.
Of course, there were songs by the shore. Evening Hymns sang to an audience planted in the sand, the breeze in the trees singing along with their melodies. Several times throughout their set, singer Jonas Bonnetta couldn’t help but be distracted by striking scenes in the distance, from the glowing moon to a ship that reminded him of the one from The Goonies. “Tonight’s very different, feels very special,” said Bonnetta. “We’ve only played two shows all summer and both have been island shows. We played Wolf Island Festival last weekend in Kingston, and this. We play so many shows in rock clubs. That’s not where I write my music or think about my music being heard. That moon…I mean Bon Jovi couldn’t buy atmosphere like that.”
This isn’t the first ALL CAPS festival, and not the first on the Island, but this year there was a simple, substantial change-up and, if you ask anyone with sand in their toes and paint in their hair, it was a game-changer. “From the beginning I pushed to get camping,” said McLaren. “This year they went for it.” After the Saturday acts wrapped up, attendees who weren’t camping rushed off to catch the last city-bound ferries. The overnight campers prepared to kick back, since their tents were set up during the day (except Bonnetta, who said he was an “expert” at setting up tents in the dark). Campers then tackled the first of many night swims, another round of beers, and conversations with old and new friends. Two girls with a bike-powered ice cream cart began selling various flavours of homemade popsicles that were served on small, cleaned sticks of dogwood, lit by a moon so perfectly bright, one barely needed a flashlight. Near midnight, some surprises set up shop. Things unbeknownst even to McLaren.
City meanderers may know of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a gypsy music gang who are known to pop up at parties and festivals around town. It seems an area disconnected from the mainland is no exception. People got a real second wind when the Orkestra brought out incense and three vats of paint. Shirts were promptly removed and replaced with layers of red and white acrylic. The parade of the painted and players walked across the street into a grotto the campers had no idea existed: the “ship graveyard,” a waterside venue crafted out of stray vessels and infinite creativity. The band sang while half-naked folks danced and fireworks shot into the air. It wasn’t until sunrise that bonfires on the shore, moonlight swimming, and the Orkestra-accompanied sing-a-longs came to an end.
The next day’s music started up after a few more hours of beach lounging. Dog Bus, a rap-rock team composed of teenage siblings ranging in age from 13 to 19, stuck to subject matters they knew best, such as ice cream and hopscotch. A fan favourite, the Wooden Sky, played in the shipwreck grotto. Fireworks shot off into the air, at first spooking lead singer Gavin Gardiner, who eventually came around to the fact they were awesome. Some drops of rain came down, so DD/MM/YYYY’s set had to move indoors, but that doesn’t mean they used indoor voices. Rich Aucoin’s video introduction warned that there was no guarantee a festival like this would ever happen again. That may sound like a sobering way to begin a party set, but in Aucoin’s case it was a good reason for him and the audience to give it their all.
The ALL CAPS experience wasn’t based on many common expectations about what a music festival should be. In fact—between taking a bus there, eating from a mess hall, the surrounding foliage, bonfires, and instant friendships—it really felt like summer camp.
“The parties where you make new friends are the best,” said McLaren. “If you can inspire euphoria in an audience, you win. As an event organizer, that is the goal.”
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.