New Brunswick is a curious place and New Brunswick Day weekend is inevitably something of a celebration of that fact, whether it’s intentional or not. We pack a lot into that one weekend. With most communities having their own events, festivals need to work hard to differentiate themselves. Now in its second year, Area 506 proved it could hold its own, at least against the other music festivals…
There’s no arguing that Area 506 has improved significantly over its first year. This year saw increased seating (in an otherwise paved lot), free water from ANBL, local craft beer, tons of vendors, and loads of food trucks (including numerous places to buy donairs, and the requisite zero available napkins for the full donair experience).
More importantly, there was the festival line-up. Making excellent use of their Canada 150 Stage, they promoted some east coast talents, like David In The Dark, Stephen Lewis and Tampa, to name just a few. Most importantly, we got to see local names likes David Myles, The Hypochondriacs, Grand Theft Bus, Jessica Rhaye, Les Hay Babies, and Matt Mays grace the main stage alongside acts like Stars and Tegan & Sara.
With no less than three music festivals that happened in Southern New Brunswick that weekend, it’s getting to be a matter of divide and conquer. With Area 506, Sappyfest and a curiously wrestling-themed Messtival, you’d probably imagine little overlap. Perfectly fair. But what happens when the WWE bring their Live SummerSlam Heatwave Tour to Harbour Station?
“Wrestling makes all the difference in Saint John. You can put that on my tombstone,” said Area 506 organizer Ray Gracewood.
Suddenly there are three festivals (with a handful of overlapping bands), and two wrestling-themed events. That’s when you need to know your audience. Music, wrestling and proximity. Pick two, and try to guess which choice New Brunswickers made.
Saturday was Area 506’s big night: the main headliners. It was also a little light on the turnout. The Hypochondriacs put on a great show, as they have been all year during their steady march to stardom. Stars made their third appearance in Saint John in two decades—there is a definite change in scenery between playing at Callahan’s to the main stage on Long Wharf. Torquil gave a performance that went to 11 on the energy scale, though perhaps he delved too deeply in his ode to Gord Downie. There’s no such thing as too much Gord Downie, but we prefer it when Gord does it himself.
Tegan and Sara were expected to be the main event, the big name, the showstoppers. But in comparison to Stars’ high-energy delivery, it felt more like a wind down to the evening. Thanks for coming out, here’s a little sleepy-time music to leave you with. Maybe it was that they had just flown in from Chicago’s massive Lollapalooza festival. Maybe touring constantly with your twin sibling is mentally and physically exhausting, and after years of that you start hating the look of your own face. Long-time fans may have expected their performance of broodily singing lines from their middle school diaries while occasionally tapping a drum pad with their eyes closed, but for someone more familiar with So Jealous (2004) than Love You To Death (2017), it came as a low-energy letdown.
Sunday night was a different story. Perhaps it was the fact that the WWE had pulled up stakes and made their way out of town, or maybe it was Saint John’s way of expressing how much they love and support local music. The crowds doubled in size and struggled to pack themselves inside the tent.
We can’t get enough of future New Brunswick legends Tampa, and Les Hay Babies. Grand Theft Bus continued to be a draw for crowds, as they have been for seventeen(!) years, now appearing in their current jazz odyssey period. Bahamas and The Strumbellas broke out the hits, but it was Matt Mays who stole the show and proved he just keeps getting better. Despite being from Dartmouth, there was a clear home advantage for Mays who has been touring the Maritimes for the last fifteen years (or longer if you count The Guthries). That was the act that hit the mark, with the crowd coming together and singing along with every song.
This was the year that Area 506 came into their own as a proper festival. It had the crowds, the vendors, the cargotecture village, the infrastructure and the draw for big names. It’s not their fault if said names are ready for a nap, or the WWE happen to be in town. We can’t wait to see what they do next year.