Southwoods, Iceberg Ferg, and Jean Michel Blais @ Pretty Good Not Bad Festival 6/19/2016

Sunday, day three of PGNB festival, and I am still ruminating over the Laurel Halo set of Friday.  No doubt it will linger in my mind for weeks to come.  Has it only been three days?  I’ve ingested so many quality performances in such a short timespan, and feel almost like a different person because of it.

Tonight’s headliner comes to us from yet another niche pocket of music – the contemporary piano world. Jean Michel Blais of Montreal and his classical compositions will grace Victoria’s quintessential Atrium building along with locals Southwoods, and Iceberg Ferg.  I couldn’t be more curious for how the contrasting styles of each act will color the night, and also venue; the seven stories of undulating open-concept glass and post pine-beetle vamped wood, of which being contained in is like occupying a droplet of immaculately clean forest.

When I arrive I see the coloration part, has in part, already been taken care of.  Fastened to a grove of potted trees at the far opposite end of the stage space are pastel bulbs of light, inventions of local interactive art/tech company Limbic Media, that pulse and change color in reaction to sound. The stage area has also been rigged with subtle and unique décor of lights submerged in shallows pools directly behind the performers.  Their illumination is dispatched by the water, and basks the softly-lit glass elevator shafts in organic shimmers.  Voila.  The science of ambience.

Southwoods are first up.  I’ve only listened to their stuff via the interweb until now and am quite pleased when, after a few minutes, the opening loops of guitar distortion begin amalgamating into something far more thick-skinned and heavier then I’ve heard on recordings.  Adding to this, a synthesis of glitch and grit, landing their euphonies somewhere in a choppy conflux of ambient electronic meets noisey-noise.  Single moments have elements evocative of both Four Tet and My Bloody Valentine, a cool sound indeed that seems to always be on the brink of rupturing into something fierce but never quite goes there. The result of this containment is a frog-in-water effect of tension creeping up slowly until you are totally immersed and unsure of how you got there.

The middle act for the evening is Iceberg Ferg, bestowing us with tunes from this year’s full-length release, Valley of the Purple Prince. In an age when musical complexity and fitting as many pedals onto a stage as possible seems to be in vogue, it is refreshing to see and hear a performer that has not embraced the times.  I sometimes forget how perfectly potent simple singing paired with an acoustic instrument can be.  Not to say these songs are elementary in any way, but they are so satisfying in their very foundations, as opposed to being oversaturated in frills and frill-focused for frill’s sake, there is just no need to overdo a good thing. Ferg is a songwriting natural, whose elements of old-timey blues, raw rhythmic fingerpicking, and unimpeachable falsetto transport a crowd to a rugged yet cozy landscape of Canadian-postcard nostalgia.

And now, for the last performer of the night, (also the unofficial PGNB closing-ceremonies) Jean Michel Blais. After a powerful opener which leaves the crowd spellbound, Blais takes a thoughtful moment to impart a chunk of wisdom on sound performance, and maybe life too, sharing his experience in recording his latest album in an urban apartment with a window open to Montreal’s vibrant hustle and bustle.  Background noise, the sound of everyday life happening all around us, permeating, influencing everything in one way or another, cannot really be separated from reality if we wish to keep that reality authentic.  So too in performance is a space and audience intrinsically part of what is happening on stage. “You (the audience, this space) are all part of it (the performance), so don’t hold back.”  Despite his approval for audience improvisation as we feel called, it still does feel a bit out of place to utter a “hell YEAH!” even though these are, in a sense, my sentiments.  Instead I close my eyes and fall into gorgeous realms of supercharged piano reflection. And when my eyes do open, I am sucked in by Blais’ face reflecting in the veneer of his instrument.  The spell of watching a person so infatuated with their creation is all consuming.  Smooth, sweeping melodies and intricate upper hand inflections move like watercolor on paper. Though injected with much fluidity and motion, Blais’ music also has the effect of bringing the mind and heart to a place of haiku-stillness, and there we linger.  That seed in my chest responsible for beautiful things bursts and I wish to phone every person in my life I’ve ever hurt to apologize, to tell my mom I love her, to plant a garden, hold hands with everybody, and dissolve into the sea forever, etc etc.  It was that good.

Throughout the evening, Limbic’s glowing jellyfish forest adds visual confirmation to what my ears already suspected: that there couldn’t have been three more juxtaposed acts splitting a bill. But it all fits.  Each performance an altered re-imagining of what this space is capable of embracing, and the Atrium does seem to coat everything in a unifying layer of something else, which may be, dare I say, class.

With that, another amazing night of music meets environmental enhancement ends, and we are now left to take home this experience and ration it for all the weeks and months in Victoria during which it is not Pretty-Good-Not-Bad Festival.  I am so very impressed with the thoughtfulness, organization, and imagination that went into this festival and want to extend my sincerest thank yous to the organizers.  Stay eclectic everybody.

You can stay up to date with the festival and other Pretty Good Not Bad curated events by following their facebook page and checking out