The little festival that could may be all grown up, but Amnesia Rockfest remains the laid back, gritty punkpocalypse it always was.
The community ball diamond, cement bleachers and tiny beer shack I remember from my first Rockfest four years ago are long gone and organizers have finally figured out how to tend to the toilet needs of thousands of beer guzzling rockers with mega munchies — particularly on days like Saturday when Cypress Hill took to the stage and the entire grounds erupted in a plume of pot smoke.
The improvements have been slow but steady — expanded campgrounds with timely shuttle service; more food options inside and outside the festival grounds; water stations; no more controversial pay-to-play rules for local acts; a fire ban; better communication and buy-in from the town’s 900-plus residents; an RFID wristband system to replace tickets and reduce line-ups and the hiring of seasoned production and logistics crews with big festivals already under their belts.
Fortunately, what hasn’t changed is the vibe.
It remains an event like no other. Some 200,000 — up from 160,000 last year according to media reports — tattooed, mohawked and costume-clad revellers sporting some of the most delightfully jaw dropping, offensive T-shirts I’ve ever seen take over a small town just an hour northeast of Ottawa. (Quoting said T-shirts, though tempting, would be unfit for publication.)
And instead of chasing them away with pitchforks, the townspeople welcome them and invite them to camp out on their lawns — for a fee, of course. Police and security guards are present but not in your face and have little interest in busting people for public drinking or marijuana possession. In four years, I personally have never seen a fight or an act of blatant vandalism.
Inside the festival, pretty ladies sell Jagermeister shots from atop coolers strewn about the grounds, while beer and Jagerbomb runners meander through the crowds, thus taking the pressure off beer lines which are never more than a few minutes long.
F-words and C-words are tossed about indiscriminately and everywhere people are doing dumb things like setting discarded pizza plates on fire or getting strangers to sign their body in permanent marker.
And nobody cares. In this special place, such acts of relatively harmless debauchery are celebrated.
By Day 2, a sour odour permeates the air as the sun beats down on the beer-soaked, litter-covered grounds. Garbage and a few poopy potties are simply inevitable, yet this is sadly what has become the crux of many media reports, usually by writers who seldom leave the cordoned off media/VIP areas and, arguably, aren’t experiencing the festival in all its guts and glory.
My chief complaint about Rockfest 2014: loud, lengthy sound checks within earshot of the main stage act. Seriously guys?
In any case, this festival is simply not for the faint of heart or those with virgin ears. It is, of course, for die hard punk, metal, ska and hard rock lovers and the 9th annual event which wrapped up during the wee hours Sunday morning did not disappoint.
With some 150 bands playing on five stages over two days, it’s impossible to see everything. Everybody’s got their favorites but here’s my Rockfest 2014 Top 10:
10. Rockfest Past Revisits: In between acts, organizers flashed images of fans and bands from Rockfests past on the big screen. A nice touch for return attendees like my crew that enjoyed reminiscing about the past. (Offspring was sooo awesome last year!) Can’t wait to see what footage those drones flying over the main stage picked up. (I can only assume that’s what they were doing!)
9. Joan Jett: You’ll notice very quickly that Rockfest is a bit of a cockfest. Indeed the bands are dominated by men so Joan Jett and the Blackhearts offered a much needed injection of estrogen. She’ll always hold a special place in my heart, having inspired my love of rock at an early age. According to my parents, the very first song lyrics I picked up on my own were “I wuv wok an woll.” The song Saturday night didn’t disappoint.
8. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes: This punk cover band, that includes members of NOFX and Lagwagon — both of which were also playing Rockfest — is simply a hoot. The act featured self-deprecating humour combined with sing along favourites like Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive and the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B. A nice touch was a well timed helicopter fly by at the end of a slightly less cheesy version of the R. Kelly song I believe I can fly.
7. The Townspeople: The townspeople were even more awesome than usual this year. Sure, both the city and intrepid entrepreneurs cashed in: $30 to park on the street and anywhere from $100-$250 a tent for a patch of lawn, but it seemed like everybody was enjoying the weekend. Special thanks to Sylvie and Sylvain who cut us a good deal for their lawn just blocks from the festival grounds. They also let us freshen up with their garden hose, charge up our cell phones and they brought us coffee and water. (These little things count big time when squatting at an outdoor festival!)
6. Cypress Hill: The classic California hip hop band offered a welcome break to the metal and punk. Hits from the bong and Insane in the brain sure took me back to Grade 9. Between the afternoon heat and the pot — inescapable even if you weren’t smoking it yourself — the end of the show marked the perfect time for a siesta.
5. Weezer: “Bonjour, nous sommes Weezer,” frontman Rivers Cuomo says after wrapping up the crowd pleasing hit Hash Pipe. This was my second Weezer show and the band was as good as ever. They played all their classics, starting with My name is Jonas and ending with Buddy Holly and an extra long drum solo featuring everybody in the band. The band also performed a fine version of Blur’s Song 2.
4. People Watching: If you like people watching, there’s probably no better place to do it than at Rockfest. And you never know who you might see. A friend snapped a pic of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong — or a guy who looks an awful lot like him — playing an acoustic set on the street outside the festival. Rancid wasn’t even part of the line-up this year. Always inspiring are the wheelchair-bound crowd surfers and my partner spotted Talli Osborne, the Toronto woman born with no arms or legs who inspired the NOFX song She’s Nubs.
3. Cock Sparrer: Whoda thunk the last band on the last night with the chuckle-inducing name would be such a brilliant way to end the festival. This classic U.K. punk band formed in 1972 was a do not miss if you still had the energy. As these old rockers belted out the song What’s it like to be old, I can tell you this 35-year-old was still in the mosh pit feeling pretty damn good. Can’t say the same for my feet the next day.
2. Anti-Flag: Opening the day Saturday, this political punk band from Pittsburgh could have easily been a headliner. Pontificating from his pulpit on the main stage about bigotry, the lead singer could really get this hung over crowd going. “If someone falls, you pick them up,” says the frontman before the crowd launches into a circle mosh pit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about punks since my youth body surfing at Porter Hall, it’s that while they may terrify mum and dad, they are a gentlemanly bunch when you’re down.
1. Fishbone: It was impossible to stand still when Fishbone took the stage Friday with their blend of ska, soul, funk and punk. The high energy set featured an awesome horn section including saxophone, trumpet and trombone along with many colourful and crude lyrics the crowd was encouraged to repeat. “Weed, beer, pussy, pot. We smoke we f— we drinks a lot!” Like so many bands, Fishbone looked like they too were having a blast and even took a moment to take photos of the crowd.
A l’année prochaine Montebello. Merci!
Tobi Cohen has worked as a journalist for more than a decade at Postmedia News, the Canadian Press and the Ottawa Sun. Born and raised in Ottawa, she loves this city and spends far too much time frequenting its many bars, restaurants and music festivals.