Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the first WayHome festival out at Burl’s Creek in Oro-Medonte, Ontario. A three-day festival produced by Republic Live, WayHome was a four-stage festival with lots of music, art, and attendees. I’ll start by recapping the first day; in the coming days, I’ll look at day three (I missed day two because of a prior commitment).

For me, the festival opened with a set by Lowell at the WayBright stage. As someone who’s written about her music a few times (See: I Killed Sara V EP; We Loved Her Dearly LP), she was one of the few acts I had specifically set out to see. And playing the first set at a three-day festival is a tough slot: people were still arriving and making their way around, not to mention trying to stay out of the sweltering heat.

Lowell at WayHome (Photo: M. Milner)

Lowell at WayHome (Photo: M. Milner)

In a short, 45-minute set, Lowell and her band played most of her debut record, including cuts like “Words Were the Wars,” “Cloud 69” and “Palm Trees.” It started a little slowly, but Lowell worked the crowd. At one point she announced a “beer break” and started spraying foam at the crowd.

Things especially kicked into gear when she introduced some new material, saying “You’ve never heard this one before, unless you’re in the front row every night.” I didn’t catch the song’s name, although I assume it was the just-announced single “Ride.” Whatever it was, it was a loud electro-tinged rocker that got the crowd moving. From there, it was into a spirited version of “I Love You Money.” Lowell closed with a killer version of “The Bells,” where she jumped down from the stage and worked the crowd before vanishing behind a riser. I had no way of knowing, but she’d be one of the only people on the large stages who actually engaged the crowd like that.

A few minutes later, after most everyone had left, I saw her creep back out on stage to collect some stuff; the remaining people gave her another round of applause.

The Huaraches at WayHome, 2015

The Huaraches at WayHome, 2015 (Photo: M. Milner)

Next up was The Hauraches, a surf/punk band from Kingston, Ontario, who played the WayAway stage at about quarter after two. This stage, only a few feet off the ground and set among a little semi-circle of trees, was by far the most intimate setting of the event and, frankly, where some of the best sets happened. The Huaraches were no exception.

Their lead guitarist introduced their set by saying that in tribute to Kanye West performing at the Pan Am Games an hour south in Toronto, “we’re going to do a surf-rock cover of Yeezus tonight.” They didn’t, but they blasted the crowd with about 45-minutes of high-energy instrumental rock. The band bounced around, traded off guitar solos, and had two dancers dressed as luchadores off on either side.

They joked around a bit on stage, introducing one song with “This is new, they’re all new to you, but this is newer to us,” and another by saying “this is a love song, its called Camel Meat.” But mostly, they tore it up. It was impressive stuff and they’re definitely worth checking out if they’re playing near you.

A little later, at the covered WayBold stage, I caught Montreal act Saxsyndrum. Normally, they’re a duo: Nick Schofield on percussion and David Switchenko on saxophone. For this set, vocalist Alex Bergeron (Year of Glad) and violinist Patrick Cruvellier (Smokes) both sat in.

Saxsyndrum and Friends, WayHome 2015

Saxsyndrum and Friends, WayHome 2015

With a lineup like that and going in blind, I sort of found them to have an early Weather Report-like vibe: dancy but moody, swirling blasts of distorted vocals – not exactly, singing, more of a wordless vocalizing, and violin which added a spacy, almost ambient texture at time, plus regular bursts of sax over a stready rhythm. It was interesting stuff; the more I think about it, the more I wish I had a tape of their set to listen back to and try and unravel.

By dinnertime on Friday, I’d caught three acts and tried to hide from the sun out by the WayBold stage. With no act I was planning to see for a few, it was a good time to check out the art installations all around the site. One was a big floating piece made out of foil, described by the artist as an “organ.” Another was a hanging sign reading “One Night Only,” which was supposed to remind viewers this too shall pass away.

In the late afternoon, I caught The Decemberists at the main stage. I’ve written them off as twee more than once, but keep finding myself coming back to their music with every new record. It’s probably got something to do with Colin Meloy’s songwriting: it’s pointed, often a bit too on the nose and kind of high-flautin’. But as I sat in the shade an watched their set, I was impressed. I liked them a lot more than I thought I would.

Right now, they’re touring with seven people and a setup that includes up to three people playing guitar at once, a Hammond Organ and backing vocalists. At times, they reminded me of the Grateful Dead in the Donna and Keith days: folksy songwriting, lively performances and a nice mix of driving rock and low-key tunes: “Down By the Water,” “16 Military Wives,” plus some newer stuff. Meloy’s playing was nice, but he was also engaging with the crowd; at one point, after some of the crowd was singing along, he stopped and said “No, only I can sing, now we have to start over,” with a big grin on his face.

But I think the highlight was a driving version of “The Rake’s Song,” off their 2009 record The Hazards of Love. With some of the band doubling on percussion, Meloy led the band through the dark and moody song, where the narrator systematically murders his children. The band played well, but it was almost spooky seeing how the song got the crowd going; by the end, it seemed like hundreds of people were clapping and singing along to such a dark tune. But that’s part of Meloy’s strength: he can write a menacing tune, but does it in such a way it’s hard not to get swept up in it all.

My night wrapped up with Neil Young (see my take on his set here), but before his set, I swung back to the WayAway stage to catch Viet Cong, the loud post-punk, post-hardcore, post-whatever you want to call it band out of Calgary. It was a loud, loud, loud set and easily a highlight of the whole festival.

Viet Cong at WayHome

Viet Cong at WayHome 2015

Live, it seems they’re out to blast away at the listeners, the PA peaking and straining to handle the energy of their live set. More than once, I could feel the soles of my shoes vibrating, their music slowing to a drone as Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace just laid sonic waste, a crashing and blasting rhythm section behind the droned-out twin guitar attack of Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen.

I think my favourite part of their set came near the end, when they slowed the beat down to a dirge, maybe even slower than that. It was a slow and steady bass riff, fading into a drone against a wall of guitar feedback. It kept going and going, must’ve been minutes. At one point, I’m sure I saw one of the guitarists flip Flegel the bird and him reply with a laugh. Then, without any warning, the band kicked into overdrive and the crowd started slamming into each other. It was like a flip had been switched. The way they played their audience in those few minutes was great, a perfect mix of showmanship and rock.

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Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.