Loud music. Drinking. The sexual abuse of root vegetables. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Ottawa Explosion. It sprang forth from the unexpected demise of the Gag Weekend in 2011. Ian Manhire, White Wires frontman and Gaga Records supremo, had found himself otherwise occupied with marriag, among other things, but on a couple of months notice other local musicians and rock scenesters whipped up a three-day affair showcasing rock, punk and garage acts both local and from as far as away as Denton, Tex.
This year, with a little more space to plan, rockers Luke Nuclear (Million Dollar Marxists, White Wires, Boyhood) and Emmanuel Sayer (Buried Inside, Crusades, Sedatives) not only added two more days of music but threw in a comedy night headlined by Todd Glass (after Bobcat Goldthwait was forced to cancel) as well. Indeed, with more bands and more venues even the most indefatigable fest-goer would have to settle for seeing only half the bands.
The first night of actual music was a bit of a last-minute affair: Hotly tipped Sacred Bones recording artists the Men and their tourmates, recent Sub Pop signees Metz, were passing through the area, and since the space in the courtyard of the SAW Art Gallery had already been rented, it was simplicity itself to put them on a bill, with local hardcore combo Pregnancy Scares opening things up.
The real festival, however, began with a performance from Voicemail at the SAW Gallery on Thursday. The festival was blessed with good outdoor weather, and a several dozen people had already arrayed themselves along the courtyard’s landscaped areas by the time the band was ready to crank things up.
Originally billed as Gary Voicemail and The Touchtones, the quartet is something of a local supergroup, with members from Mother’s Children and Sweet Janes backing the aforementioned Ian Manhire and performed a tight set of high-energy power-pop. Also on hand that evening: Nervous duo the Nymphets, who sound a bit like the Television Personalities attempting to be the Four Skins; Quebecois garage rockers Le Kid et Les Marinellis and thunderous bass-and-drums duo Big Dick (not to be confused with the Little Richard tribute band that sent confused e-mails to the festival inquiring as to why they were listed as playing). The early show ended with more Marshall Crenshaw style 1970's powerpop from local luminaries the Mother’s Children (as at the previous Ottawa Explosion, several performers played in more than one band).
With that done, it was time to take a 10-minute walk to Babylon for the late show. One-man sci-fi rocker Robots! Everywhere! had already warmed up the crowd, and local band Dead Weights was working its way through a gravelly-sung set inspired by Hot Water Music and Leatherface (something of a theme for that night’s bands). Crusades certainly carried the Leatherface torch most adeptly. Los Cruces, New Mexico’s Low Culture took a break from Frankie Stubbs worship and banged out some energetic lo-fi powerpop. Headliners Iron Chic have already made a name for themselves with their own emphatic punk rock, and had a wedge of punk fans surging forward to sing along with frontman Jay Lubrano on every song, with one enterprising member of Dead Weights surfing over the crowd to get within microphone range.
Iron Chic reprised their performance at the SAW Gallery courtyard the next day, sandwiched between slightly spooky local pop-punkers the Creeps and Vancouver baseball fanatics the Isotopes (whose rock stances are even wider than the Ramones) on one side, and bellowing roots rockers Sam Coffey & The Iron Lungs and lady punkers the Johnnies on the other. After a scorching set of some Reigning Sound-like sounds from the Shakey Aches, Montreal’s Rome Romeo wrapped things up at the gallery. Despite their name, there’s no Wipers influence, just a muscular 1980s indie-rock style with several keyboards and guitars working in tandem.
The fest-goer then had the option of popping in to the hostel next door, which was hosting local heavy rockers Alaskan, grinders Biipiigwan, Glorious Moonrockets and And What Army, along with Montreal’s Dark Circles, or heading off to Mavericks and DeKcuf for a more garage and punk-oriented bill featuring a lot of out-of-towners.
At Cafe DeKcuf, Low Culture were playing their second set of the festival, filling in for Philadelphia’s Adult, who had been stopped at the border by customs due to past misdeeds.
That done, it was time to head downstairs to Mavericks to see the Male Nurse Band was starting things off. Beguan as a solo effort by Davey Quesnelle, a local performer with an outsized number of other projects (he performed in something like six other shows this Explosion), the band has been filled out with other locals and punched up considerable into a frenetic show. With his 25-minute set done, it was back upstairs to Cafe DeKcuf. Repeating the process several times during the night meant getting to see muscular yet plaintive local rockers Camp Radio, New York’s Crow Bait and another festival highlight, Columbus, Ohio’s Nervosas, who sound just as jittery (and indebted to Talking Heads) as their name might suggest.
Downstairs at Mavericks, Sudbury Buzzcocks aficionados Statues gave their last show to a packed house of frenzied fans. Locals the Steve Adamyk Band (featuring much the same lineup as the Male Nurse Band, as it happens) followed them, and New York’s Night Birds ripped through a late night set that combined the West Coast Punk sounds of Black Flag with the punk surf of the Gears.
Getting out of bed on Saturday was probably difficult for a lot of Explosion-goers, made all the harder by the choice between catching the afternoon slate of shows at the House of Targ - a rehearsal space that has made previous festival appearances as “Yogi’s Meatlocker”, which boasted a solid slate of several Montreal bands as well as local faves the Holy Cobras and a second show from Night Birds, or Club SAW.
Once again the shady trees and convenient seating seemed appealing to those who had been marching up and downstairs the night before. The music was super too, with Baltimore’s Hollywood making a great impression with their hairy beerbelly rock and Toronto’s bedroom-pop masters First Base sounding just as excellent as they had at Ritual for the last Gaga Weekend two years ago.
Dog Day have visited town several times in various permutations. The husband and wife team of Seth Smith and Nancy Urich have stripped down to drums and guitar for their Eric’s Trip-styled sound, and do a great job projecting that 1990's indie-rock vibe.
Iowa City’s Lipstick Homicide were another super festival surprise. One would be forgiven for thinking that guitarist Kate Kane and bassist Rachel Feldmann were in their mid-teens (they’re both on the short side) but they put out a mighty riot grrl sound, buttressed by drummer Luke Ferguson.
The Visitors finished the night off with their patented “explorer-core”; if they sounded quite a bit like the Creeps’ pop-punk, they share a guitarist.
As day turned to night, some went off to nearby Vertigo Records to catch an in store by Philadelphia’s Dry Feet and Halifax’s excellent Cold Warps; others went off to catch a bite to eat, then make the decision between Babylon, with a five-band slate of heavy local acts and the Mean Jeans headlined stay at Mavericks and Cafe DeKcuf. Many people plumped for the extra stair-climbing.
Festival mainstays Uranium Comeback, Ottawa’s ultimate sideproject band, usually plays once a year. This time, joked frontman Johnyy O, they departed from the same setlist they’d played for the past four years and added in a new song: “Four years for two minutes!”
Upstairs at Cafe DeKcuf, youthful indie rockers Grime Kings played some heartfelt indie rock. Sporting “no drinks allowed” ink Xs on their hands, the band still seems to be in the process of deciding what they sound like, but are a pretty capable trio for a bunch of teenagers.
Dagger Eyes have no such decisions to make, have honed their Wire-loving minimalist brutalism to a fine bludgeoning point.
Philadelphia’s Eeries held forth upstairs with some energetic rock, long on the harmonies.
Strange Attractors feature the entirety of the now-defunct Statues, plus an extra guitarist from Ultra-Violet Ray, and ape the sounds of 1977 punk right down to the British accents. The Mavericks crowd decided to ape early hardcore crowds instead, eschewing the pogoing for the moshing and crowdsurfing.
The harmonizing continued upstairs at Cafe DeKcuf with Dreamdate, who were quite as dreamy as they sounded, with splendid female harmonies.
Vancouver’s Needles//Pins feature a few Ottawa expats, and their friends were in the crowds to heckle them and splash water on them as they raged through a hot punk set.
At Cafe DeKcuf, Spencey Dude and The Doodles proved quite as goofy as their name suggested: Raucous, a bit folky, with frontman Spencer’s yawp having quite an effect.
West Coast gunk punks Mean Jeans finished the night off with such a ferocious set that one of the show promoters was inspired to jump on stage and propose to his girlfriend. The couple then crowdsurfed away.
Unfortunately a late start meant they only had thirty minutes before the bar closed. This was stretched out a bit since the promoter was off discussing their future together with his girlfriend, but soon enough things came to an end - well, except for the house party afterward.
The festival’s final day was a relatively sedate affair, and mostly an excuse to get full use out of the tent rental in the SAW Gallery’s courtyard. Four local bands of recent vintage and a Montreal duo performed.
Average Times kicked things off with some rock’n’roll, all played by folks from other Ottawa bands that had already played other sets at the festival.
New Swears come from a local crew of mischief makers, the guys spilling beer and engaging in horseplay at the front of many other rock’n’roll shows around town, and veterans of combos such as the Girlfriends, the Polymorphines and Rat Tales. They played some greasy, messed up rock’n’roll and took the stage in clothes that were one the verge - possible past it - of falling to bits.
Art-rockers Roberta Bondar played some rhythm-heavy, electronic drum abetted indie rock, demonstrating once again why they’re on of the city’s most talked-about combos. Montreal’s Solids proved to be a fuzz-loving duo who sounded like a two-man Dinosaur Jr.
Party Knives brought the show to the end with a raucous set. Barking frontman Owen stripped down to his shorts and inexplicably waved a beet around while balancing on one of the band’s two drum sets.
With the festival over, there was a last call for any bands that might want to play (no takers) and an appeal to hang out and drink the last of the beer, which was accepted.