I'd never been to S.C.E.N.E..
I say that with some trepidation, as it makes me look rather hopelessly detached from several things I consider very important. I've edited Punknews.org for over a decade, I do live in Niagara, and I do make an effort above and beyond the layperson to promote Niagara. As such, my continued and regular attendance of S.C.E.N.E., the St. Catharines Event For New Music Entertainment, should be a given.
Yet in its 16-year history I had yet to participate.
I have my reasons, mind you. When the Niagara independent music scene really started to get its act together I was away at university. I was not on hand to experience the rise of the Bedlam Society community and the shows they promoted. I was a few years too old for Alexisonfire when they broke and viewed them more than a bit of the misplaced disdain I leveled at much of the youth-oriented post-hardcore of the era. However, that covers maybe a five- or six-year span of S.C.E.N.E. history; for the rest I have no excuse. I'm a lazy sod, it seems.
I explained as much to Timur from local label IndoorShoes as we stood outside the L3 nightclub a few weeks ago. Kevin Seconds had just wrapped up his set and we were waiting for Dave Hause to take the stage. Point blank I asked Timur who I should see at S.C.E.N.E., because outside of the bands with an international presence like Cancer Bats, Silverstein, This Is Hell and the Flatliners, I didn't know what was going on in my own backyard.
Two weeks later, Tim's list in hand I found myself sitting in one of my favourite brewpubs, the Merchant Ale House, waiting for the first band of the day. The Merch was cool and quiet, and the crowd small. It was a nice contrast from the controlled chaos of the Market Square, where attendees were lining up for wristbands and perusing band merch tables.
My S.C.E.N.E. experience began with a pint of Old Time Hockey Ale in my hand and a performance from a band with the most unfortunate (or brilliant) name imaginable. Pkew Pkew Pkew (gunshots) is a five-piece from Toronto. They launched into a set of poppy punk songs packed with more "whoa"s, handclaps and silly hooks then most other bands would dare. Tunes like "Stop Calling Us, Chief" and "Demille Bop" were infectious, free-form and irreverent. After fretting about having to dodge local metalcore bands all day the band set me at ease. I was excited and ready to go.
From the Merch I headed up St. Paul Street and around the corner, seeking out the young St. Catharines garage rock act Elk. I found them down an alley playing behind a bar I had never heard of on a patio packed with hometown fans. The song concluded and the band announced that the next would be their final, performing a tune from their recent 7" Balm Beach.
On the clock, I turned a corner to find myself downstairs at the L3 nightclub, where Buffalo's Rust Belt Lights were announcing that the next song would be their last (this became a pattern all afternoon). The band played valiantly but the crowd wasn't feeding the energy back as you'd expect. The early afternoon of a festival that runs all night is a bit of a tough spot. Rust Belt Lights struck me as a band that relies heavily on speed and energy to engage the crowd, and I suspect in the proper time and place I'd enjoy them much more.
Down the street, Cavaliers were playing to a sizable crowd in Patrick Sheehan's Irish pub. Of course as I stepped foot in the lobby they announced their last song. The group had been recommended to me by a member of the Punknews community and I can certainly see the appeal. They performed a blend of alt-country and indie folk with vocals shared gently between guitarists Britton Allison and Michel Verrier. Drummer Reed Neagle gleefully played the contrast, throwing a huge amount of propulsion behind the chorus of "Echoes", from their new EP. With a beaming smile he gave the song a dynamic that would be sorely missed otherwise.
Finally caught up with the fest's schedule I decided to scratch an itch, heading to the Red Hot Chili Pepper to watch the Schomberg Fair. I'm a sucker for gruff swamp blues played with reckless abandon, and the Toronto three-piece certainly gave it their all. While the frontman tortured a banjo, their bassist unleashed an astonishingly low and deep baritone. I can't imagine what it all sounded like from the street. In another time and place I'd be absolutely taken with a band like this, but quite frankly I think the Chili Pepper is one of the most awkward and dislikable venues in St. Catharines. The sparse and mostly disinterested crowd didn't help either.
I'd have to catch Schomberg some other time. Heading out the door I turned towards one of the festival's main outdoor stages where This Is Hell was tearing through their set.
The lot between the Barracuda Pretty dance club and the downtown parking garage was fenced to create one of S.C.E.N.E.'s main stages. I'll freely admit that Long Island hardcore doesn't quite register for me, and while I'm sure This Is Hell were on their game, to my untrained ears their set all ran together. Calls for a circle pit mostly fizzled, giving room for a handful of interpretive dance fanatics to perform bizarrely choreographed pit-fu. As I stood there in the late afternoon sun watching grown men fight invisible ninjas, I began to wonder if my S.C.E.N.E. high points were behind me.
Following chalk arrows on the sidewalk I made my way to Rise Above, a vegan bakery and catering company run by Kyle Paton, formerly of Lemuria. Kyle's shop had been open for little more than a week and has been inundated with curious foodies ever since. As I sampled some much needed and quite delicious fare, Kyle candidly discussed his exit from Lemuria and his transition from touring in a van to working baker's hours. It was an important moment in my day, the intersection of my Punknews life and my Niagara life sanctified with a vegan burrito.
I was back at Barracuda early for Black Lungs. The side project of Alexisonfire's Wade MacNeil seems to have come into its own with their recent 7" on Deranged. While I've warmed to Alexis over the years, I'm far more at home with blazing old-school punk songs like "Valley of the Dolls" and "Stay out of Parkdale" than I am post-hardcore. MacNeil was performing to a hometown crowd, feeding off the enthusiasm of the biggest single gathering of S.C.E.N.E. patrons I had yet witnessed. His set moved at a brisk pace and was rife with fun banter. MacNeil may not have held the headlining spot but he was clearly the heart and soul of this community.
Toronto four-piece Bathurst impressed as they played the cramped lobby of the City Lights restaurant. The band channeled Kid Dynamite as they ripped through a set of melodic punk tunes. Of any of the young up-and-coming bands I watched that day, it was Bathurst that had the most potential to make serious waves among the Punknews community.
The Flatliners performed a set of crowd-pleasers on the Market Square main stage, splitting their set between the accomplished, mature punk of Cavalcade and tunes from their past life as a ska band. St. Catharines is close enough to home for the band and they rewarded the fans with a little more older material than I suspect they would south of the border. This was the Flats' last major show before a break for songwriting and it was clear that they were enjoying themselves.
Back at the Merch where I started my day I took in a set from Guelph street punk act the Decay. The four-piece didn't have a huge draw but regardless put on a charging set that highlighted the greatly improved songwriting from their split with Wayfarer. With nary a moment to spare, the Decay wrapped their set and I took off for Barracuda and the apex of the day: Cancer Bats.
The metal/hardcore hybrid drew a massive, intense and devoted crowd. While a random T-shirt survey of the kids in the wristband lines foreshadowed it, I was not prepared for how big a draw Cancer Bats were. The audience was absolutely electric as the band took the stage. Liam Cormier, draped in a Flatliners shirt two sizes too big, wasted little time diving into a set of songs from 2006's Birthing the Giant. The band played chronologically, with the title track of Hail Destroyer and the Beastie Boys cover from Bears, Mayors, Scraps & Bones driving the already seething crowd into a frenzy.
As the crowd surged I was pushed further and further from the stage. Something odd happened midway though the selections from Hail Destroyer. From where I ended up I could swear Cormier's mic had cut out. I expected the band to pause between songs while the issue was addressed but the show went on. The crowd continued to churn and the band continued to blast through song after song. Fans continued to scream every word to every track on cue. Had they simply drown out Cormier's own howls? Had I gone selectively deaf to the precise register into which his vocals fall? Had I stepped into an odd audio sinkhole? Had I lost my mind? I have no explanation, and every fan I surveyed noticed nothing of the sort. I was at a loss. It was surreal.
There were other bands to see after Cancer Bats, but walking out from their set I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I wandered inside Barracuda where Welland pop punk act the Snips were in the midst of a song, but my first S.C.E.N.E. was mentally complete. My plan to charge through sets from Northern Primative, Saint Alvia and Young Rival to cap the day didn't materialize, but I have no regrets.
My S.C.E.N.E. was about reconnecting locally, and with that goal it was a rousing success. I can't wait until next year.