Once a year for the last four years, the Shifty Bits Cult has latched onto downtown Fredericton and used this willing host for their annual Circus music festival. The music collective’s terrifying dreams become a reality, through different themes, and this year they’ve been dreaming of Dante. “Through me you go amongst the lost people.”
I was sort of terrified to go back to Shifty Bits. My last Shifty experience left me bruised, tattooed and with bad sniffles. Looking back on it I can barely remember, it was like Fredericton put tranqs in the water for the weekend. Or, essentially, I was tranquilizing myself. This year I was determined to be a responsible, pantsuited attendee. Maybe everyone felt like that? Maybe I’m especially delusional. Latter, yes.
I should have picked up on the clues. The strange stillness, impending sense of doom. On my way to a show, a man I passed on the sidewalk, who wasn’t in a state to know know what town he was in, let alone what Circus’ may be happening, after sizing me up screams after me; “Have you ever done K, seen God, seen a white rabbit or been late for school!?”
I had entered hell.
Empowering myself with a small (so small!) amount of gin I enter the belly of the beast; the Capital Complex. The Circus hasn’t always been here, but since their second year they’ve taken it over. That year, it was a giant teepee, this year it’s more underworldly. Papier mache hands line the deck, reaching skyward, painted red, pink, lamenting. Pointing up, up, up to the Circus’ cornea-burning red sign perched atop the Capital, large rope lighting shouting INF4RNO. A sheet sign hanging off the Wilser’s Room deck begs “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Nice touch.
Still filled with a stupid hope I go exploring in the caves of the Capital. Wilser’s stage looks as though it’s been TP’d, dripping with white streamers and lined with jagged hell-rocks. The red lighting makes Keith Hallet & the World’s Fair look sort of romantic rather than ghoulish. I’m going to have one beer, I think.
I had drank, way way too much. Shifty Bits Circus has always been an event fueled by boozin’. I found myself running away from my kind host into the Fredericton night and up and over hills. “From there we came outside and saw the stars.” I danced on a stranger’s lawn and ran down the middle of main street, gleefully skipping on the yellow line. I paid for it in spades the next morning; but, I told myself, everyone’s hungover. (??)
By the time I had the motor function to force myself into shorts and t-shirt (where the hell was my pantsuit??) I flung myself over to Gallery Connexion where it was literally hot as hell. Little You, Little Me were absolutely SOAKED. The crowd was too, we were positively wet, and the whole joint smelled like my high school boyfriend’s bedroom. Somehow Little You, Little Me kept deftly swinging their instruments through the viscous air to make their big sounds, the whole thing turning into a therapeutic punk sauna. I smelled like rum.
The thing that always charmed me about the Complex is the sheer attention deficitness of it. The Cult uses this to their advantage, not giving you a moment’s rest, ping-ponging between Wilser’s Room and the truly hellish basement Capital. No natural light, no stars, only hot brick and jagged rocks lining the stage, the Capital is where the damned go.
I am shaking in my reeboks to be seeing Vulva Culture (what a NAME!). Their blending breathy harmonies and beachy echos almost make me forget that I’ve come to eternal damnation. Is it possible for beautiful sounds to be punishment? Is this all part of our torture? My hungover heart aches. One particular bouncer looks just like Lucifer. Let’s not forget where we are.
Before you can say “no, please, don’t, I beg you” it is time to run up the jungle gym stairs to Wilser’s to see Technical Kidman. “The wish to hear such baseness is degrading.” Now, I KNOW that’s not what Dante meant but JEEZE Technical Kidman is shakingly good. The three summon something truly evil that rises up in the centre of their instruments and demands we SWAY. My kind host is literally clutching his heart, and I feel as though if I let my knees go I would be held up by their swirling, dark electro. We are degrading ourselves. It’s sick.
Afterwards when I chat with the very charming and very french Mathieu from TK, I can hear my kind host sort of panting behind me, chomping at the bit to fawn over him. He is not alone, people are worshiping him! I step aside and Mathieu is surrounded by skinny Shifties asking for his blessing.
The Cult is an exclusive group, one that succeeds because of their exclusivity. This, once a year, is when they let us in, let us know, whisper secrets, whisper behind our backs. It is easy to resent them, but I like the way they do. They don’t take the term Circus lightly, they are true showmen. Other festivals lack theme, lack tradition.
It’s not the last day, but Saturday feels like it. There’s an odd desperation in the air, Sunday creeping around the corner. Towanda shrieks and swears downstairs, also displaying their penchant for showmanship with warpainted faces and touches of leopard print. They look like bad girls gone bad, like they’ve never flirted with propriety.
“We wanted to be the female band that we never got to see in the Maritimes.” Rosie Gripton, guitar and vox, explains. While I was chatting with them after their set, a stream of random men come over to talk to them. The three of them are so powerful and confident, while I mumble noncommittally asking the men to leave, the three of them straight up loudly tell them to go away. Damn, girls. They are so the band I wished I could have seen, the girls I wish I could be.
After talking to them I catch the Young Satan in Love smoker’s carnival, the cigarette-filled, parking lot show is awash with the concept band’s showmanship. What would an Inferno be without a young Satan? Perfect timing, dying for a smoke. People are bitching about the new no smoking on patios law, but a friend points out that it extends the landscape of the bar. “We have all this room now”
The after party proves to be bonkers. A hip-hop show is exactly what everyone needed, absolutely fueling us. Also fueling us is many bottles of white wine. I find myself yelling at one of the fire eaters, the strong man who bent rebar into a pretzel. Not yelling angrily; I can never control my volume around wine. My dear editor begs me to go to sleep, I fear that Inferno has actually made me forget how.
Sunday is a very, very typical Sunday. Rainy, grey, ashamed. I sleepily go to the show in Shift Works space, and will myself to be like the art there. Still. It’s shocking that it’s coming a close, and the very spooky Crosss send us on our way.
My souvenirs from Shifty Bits Circus: Inf4rno include a raspy voice, bruised legs, Catholic guilt and an order to leave town. The Circus is growing, and though I burned my hands this year I still haven’t learned what hot means. I know we all anxiously await the next hell they’ll put us through.