It’s been a full decade since North America’s entire eastern seaboard was plunged into a multi-day blackout (which I remain convinced was a massive anti-terrorism fire drill). I spent that weekend camping out at an ill-fated mod rock festival called Wilderbeat. Here’s what I wrote in the aftermath:
Amidst the blackout chaos, low attendance and some devious local politicking working against them, organizers of the Wilderbeat mod/garage/psych festival definitely learned about bad luck the hard way.
The Brit-pop kids of Toronto’s Blow Up scene are generally too precious by half, so asking them to rough it in the wilderness for three days to hear bands they’ve barely heard of was a dicey proposition from the start. But throw in one of the biggest power outages in North America’s history and it made for a lot of no-show campers. Probably more damaging to the fest though was its location — the Country Camping grounds in Port Burwell. Calling itself “Ontario’s #1 party campsite,” the operators of the site apparently had a change of heart about that claim over the weekend. Citing a combination of blackouts, police warnings, noise complaints and some new local by-laws that had been passed, the DJs and bands set to perform during the late-night portions of the weekend were all forbidden to play.
All of which made for a fittingly fractured climax with the performance of California rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre. See, despite everything Wilderbeat was up against, the bands that were scheduled to perform during the day Saturday dutifully came, played and did their job.
The Candidates have shown vast improvement over the last year or so. The Gruesomes were still a dose of entertaining nostalgia. And The High Dials potent set was more proof that they’re poised for bigger and better things. Despite the campsite security guards trying to enforce a “skinny-dipping only after dark ” policy in the campground pool and a DJ roster met with total indifference, the bands played. That is, until they got to the headliners BJM. Fronted by the always enigmatic Anton Newcombe, BJM set themselves up on the main stage at just about midnight on Saturday night. Things looked promising… and then before a note was even played, the plug was pulled.
All the power to the stage — the lights, everything — was gone. This, of course, cued up a spectacular rant from Newcombe. Standing at the side of the stage, he railed against the campground owners, calling them “hippie fuckers” and accusing them of trying to rip off the people. Somewhere in this tirade were also rants about the devil being at work here and a tantrum where Anton galloped through the pool/lounge area of the grounds while other BJM members took solace kicking a nearby inflatable palm tree.
In short, it was a total bummer scene. With angry folks milling about and clearly no BJM performance forthcoming, it was time to retire to our campsite deep in the nearby woods to salvage out of the evening what partying we could. It seemed like a lame way to end the weekend, but then around 2 a.m. a couple of well-informed stumble-drunks rushed into our site with exciting news.
“BJM are playing again!”
“They’ve got some crazy set-up at the movie area. They’re going on soon!”
See, deep in the heart of the campsite, the Wilderbeat folks had set up a giant outdoor whitescreen and had been running reels of classic mod movies. BJM, being industrious sorts, took over the movie area; they were going to perform after all. Just that instant of anticipation, the realization of what was about to happen, was an adrenalized buzz. BJM were subverting the system. And fuck everyone, they were going to play.
When we got to the movie area BJM were all set up. The entire band was crammed onto two pieces of plywood to signify the “stage.” A crude PA system had been set up and best of all, with no proper mic stand available, Anton’s vocal mic was set-up, bound via someone’s ratty bandana, to a wooden tiki-torch. And then they started to play. I’m not even sure what they started out with — I think it was “Servo.”
But in the almost total darkness, with the sound crackling through the jury-rigged sound system, the hundred or so people who were still awake and aware of the show started howling. Wild, out of control and drunkenly swaying, this crowd was ready. What seemed like a massive letdown was about to turn into one of the most transcendental concerts BJM will ever play. Another song in and the crowd was lurching, right up on the edges of the plywood. The tiki-mic completely collapsed and Anton enlisted Robbie from The High Dials to hold the microphone for him.
Robbie’s job was simple, hold the mic for Anton to sing into while he played guitar. It just added another layer of chaos to the whole performance. And then, like a walking, unkempt buzzkill, the campground security showed up. Brazenly sauntering onto the stage and threatening Anton to stop, the music was temporarily halted. Somewhere during exchange, Newcombe told off the guard, yelled at one of the band members for being out of tune and was the beneficiary of the following chant from the crowd: “Angry mob! Angry mob! Angry mob!”
Security got the message and left.
Someone shouted “Just play!” and the band ripped into the song “Who.” Frenzied from all the drama, the savages in the audience brayed in a united, primitive chant. “Who!” then guitars, “Who!” guitars “Who!”
It was magical. Then the plug was pulled.
The security folks had found and cut the power to the movie area. The show was over. What could have been something incredible had been crushed underfoot. But everything wasn’t a total loss. For those few fleeting moments, rock ‘n’ roll had succeeded. And even though the first ever Wilderbeat Festival ended up being a near-complete fiasco, those few brilliant moments of howling at the moon will never be taken away from us.