Only two years in, Canada’s WayHome Music & Arts Festival is technically in its infancy. Yet, the three-day bash — located about 90 minutes north of Toronto, Ontario, at the 92-acre Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte — has had a distinct advantage: years of experience from a partnership between local vets Republic Live and Bonnaroo co-founders AC Entertainment and, more importantly, the capability to look at myriad other long-established festivals and borrow their most successful elements, or at least draw inspiration from them.
Mirroring Coachella, there’s immersive lighting production on each stage and installation art gleaned from the desert fest’s metal-meets-nature aesthetic. The campgrounds and on-site accommodations — particularly the tree-shaded artists’ alcove — look almost exactly like Bonnaroo’s. Trippy projections are cast across encircling trees, much like Levitation. Local food vendors dish out all sorts of delicious cuisine (mmmm poutine!) similar to ACL Fest. And giant flags — in fact, the very same flags used at Glastonbury one month earlier — line the walkways. All of these features effectively culminate into a best-of fest.
And then there are the lineups. Last year’s roster topped by Neil Young, Kendrick Lamar, and Sam Smith drew 35,000 people, and this year’s — arguably one of the strongest of the season — tapped headliners LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, and The Killers, with attendance rising to 40,000. Other fest vets on the bill included FKA twigs, Savages, Major Lazer, Haim, M83, Ray LaMontagne, Chvrches, Metric, Gary Clark Jr. and Chet Faker, plus an impressive number of Canadian acts like Arkells, Dilly Dally, Black Mountain, Stars, BadBadNotGood, and White Lung, to name a few.
Booking so many talented Canucks is mightily admirable. It reveals the fest’s interest in bolstering its country’s grassroots scene, not to mention a commitment to fostering a sense of community. Even more so, commonality between all peoples who traveled to WayHome was established by the fest’s overt code of ethics. It wasn’t quite on par with Bonnaroo’s clear-cut list of commandments, the Bonnaroovian Code, but a utopian aim still shone through.
“Welcome Home,” read a sign above the main gates, reminding all those entering to leave their egos at the door and treat one another as family. And for the most part, the idea seemed to work. I arrived at my campsite with next to no resources and was immediately greeted by Canadian neighbors with smiles and friendly hellos, cold water, and a shaded spot to sit. They continued to offer me anything and everything throughout the weekend, even if I didn’t always need it, and I witnessed countless acts of no-strings-attached fellowship among others each day.
The same sort of optimism was offered to artists — even if people were clueless about a band’s music, you could see them making an effort to enjoy, often giving themselves over to it. The Roo peeps down in Tennessee would be proud of Canada’s capacity to radiate positivity.
Honestly, I have zero complaints, but of course, a festival should always strive to innovate and improve. Though some part of me hopes it will stay small-ish, what will really make WayHome stand out in years to come will be its ability to grow a fiercely loyal core fanbase — those that will purchase tickets for the experience, no matter who’s on the lineup. It’s the sort of thing that will ultimately be achieved by good, old-fashioned word of mouth. So listen up, future WayHomies: Canada ain’t that far, it’s goddamn beautiful, and the people are nice as hell — come find your way home with the rest of us next year.
Click ahead to see the top 10 sets of the fest, plus our exclusive photo gallery.
Metric is one of those bands that always works hard to deliver a memorable show. Frontwoman Emily Haines is inevitably the centerpiece — she looked jaw-droppingly radiant with her sheer green cape floating around her on “Cascades”, a synthy gem from their most recent full-length, Pagans in Vegas. But guitarist James Shaw and bassist Joshua Winstead visibly made equal efforts by throwing their whole bodies into every riff and solo.
They looked and sounded sharpest when reviving tunes more than a decade old like set opener “IOU” and heavy-hitter “Dead Disco”, which included an Easter egg for the old-school fans in the form of a short “Succexy” coda. What a treat to witness Metric breathing new life into old material without falling back on more obvious old faves like “Combat Baby”.
09. Bishop Briggs
British-born, Los Angeles-based singer Bishop Briggs didn’t necessarily pull off the breakout set I’d surmised she might have in terms of crowd — 1:15 p.m. on Sunday during a three-day camping fest is a little early for most people. But the powerhouse punch of her performance despite that proved that she’s only a stone’s throw away.
Her backing beat conjured up some hip-hop and popular EDM-infuenced beats, but her greatest strength is her voice. At just 24 years old, her range on key cuts like “Hi-Lo [Hollow]” and chart-topping hit “River” already rivals Adele’s. But, like Lorde when she was first starting out, Briggs is somewhat limited in the dance moves department, though that’s not to say her bubbly bounding wasn’t charming. My two cents: If she can incorporate some solid choreography into her shows, she’ll be unstoppable.
“This is our last show for this album (for awhile),” mused Chvrches vocalist Lauren Mayberry near the end of the Scottish trio’s Friday evening set. “We’re probably going to take a big nap and watch Netflix … you’re lucky we turned up because we’ve been spending all our (free) time watching Stranger Things and playing Pokémon.”
Given how strongly those two trends have taken hold lately, I can’t help but suspect that she was joking somewhat in earnest, but the group’s performance painted a different picture: From the kickoff of “Never Ending Circles” to the galvanic closer “The Mother We Share”, the group appeared imbued with momentous energy to mirror their ardently dancing-and-singing audience. Mayberry in particular attacked with ferocity, frequently finishing off prettily sung lyrics with a snarl, bounding about and head-banging center stage, and often leaping off monitors with mic chord and hair trailing behind her. She’s always been a charmer — this time she took time to comically comment on her favorite totems and kick a giant beach ball like it was “the world cup or some shit .” But, especially as she was so deer-in-the-headlights green toward the beginning of the band’s touring career, it was badass to see her slipping so easily into full-on beast mode.
07. Marian Hill
“I love you Marian!” shouted one eager fan as Philadelphia duo Marian Hill took the stage Friday night. The shout was directed at vocalist Samantha Gongol, whose name obviously isn’t Marian (the moniker is a reference to the musical The Music Man). Nevertheless, she took it in stride, smiling easily as she and master beatmaker Jeremy Lloyd laid into “Down”, the opening track off their just-released debut album, ACT ONE.
From there, the duo, occasionally accompanied by their pal Steve Davit on saxophone and bass, pulled off one of the breakout sets of the festival. At first, the audience was tiny, but no matter — Lloyd banged on and bounced off his MPC and keys with the aggression of a hardcore rocker, and Gongol moved and sung with the cool confidence of a siren. She easily drew in more and more people with the seductive, hip-hop-influenced sounds of tunes like “One Time”, “Wasted”, and a groovy cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”. As LCD Soundsystem finished at the nearby main stage, Marian Hill’s small gaggle became a throbbing throng, which — during the second half of the set — offered deafening ovations.
“I got it/ I got it,” crooned Gongol at the close of the outfit’s final song by the same name. Yes. Yes you do.
Second only to Arcade Fire, there was no greater outpouring of Canadian love than during Arkells’ Saturday night set. During catchy-as-hell cuts like “Michigan Left” and “11:11”, the audience reaction reached fervor almost equal to a religious congregation — an obvious parallel given the band’s various references to religion in both lyrics and overarching gospel influence. But you don’t need to adhere to a certain faith to get down with Arkells.
Frontman Max Kerman is a constantly moving, singing preacher, but he’s unafraid to cuss: “Can you say, ‘Punch in and punch out’ like you fucking mean it?” he goaded on “Oh, the Boss Is Coming!” — as much a reference to Bruce Springsteen’s obvious influence as it was to any higher power). The rest of the quintet easily matched his energy; it’s always satisfying to see a rock band that doesn’t heap all the expectation of performing solely on the frontman. A special collaboration for a “special occasion” with Toronto’s Northern Soul Horns made this set one of the weekend’s most intensely explosive.
05. LCD Soundsystem
You’d think that after already seeing LCD Soundsystem three times this year (both weekends of Coachella plus Bonnaroo), I’d be sick of ‘em. NOPE. Not even a little bit. True, they’ve stuck to the same basic set list, but each show was special in the context of its fest. At Coachella, it was tribute paid to Bowie (“Heroes”) and Prince (“Controversy”). At Bonnaroo, it was the sheer enormity of their main stage show up against practically zero conflicts. And on Friday at WayHome, it was … well, that certain WayHominess.
“Man, you guys are great,” gushed frontman James Murphy after finishing the opening hat trick of “Us v Them”, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”, and “I Can Change”. Same to you, LCD — I’ll never get tired of boogying down with tens of thousands of strangers as we all bond over losing our shit to now-certified classics “Dance Yrself Clean” and “All My Friends”.
“I’m starting to like you,” purred Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth to a modest-sized audience after storming through the first few loud-as-fuck tracks of the British quartet’s Saturday night set. The feeling was clearly mutual — the mosh pit was absolutely bonkers throughout the show, even though it was clear that only a handful in attendance knew the songs, so reminiscent of post-punk propers Siouxsie and the Banshees, especially in Beth’s scathing tone.
But where there was a lack of singing, the four Brits always compensated with rapid-fire injections of feelings: rage (“Husbands”, “Hit Me”, “Fuckers”, all of which saw Beth launching herself into the audience), intense love (“Adore”), and even cathartic sorrow (a haunting cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”, dedicated to recently deceased Alan Vega). As euphoria-high Arcade Fire fans streamed away from the main stage, Savages sucked them in, chewed them up, and spit ‘em out as new converts.
03. FKA twigs
FKA twigs is an artist in every sense of the word: singer, songwriter, dancer, choreographer, visionary. Her Saturday late-night set at WayHome encompassed all of those descriptions and more with a perfectly calculated piece of performance art.
Adopting the look of a witch doctor with long, white dreadlocks and feathered nasal septum, twigs took the stage alone with “Water Me”, clutching a large crystal while stalking, bending, and twirling with liquid-steel fluidity. For “Pendulum” and “Figure 8/Video Girl”, she was joined by a red-robed male dancer who occasionally intertwined with her, then several other capable contortionists who helped divide the set into four acts. New songs “Wound Up” (only a possible title at this point) and “Yes Yes Yes” were as spellbinding as older stunners like “Numbers” and “Two Weeks”. During each, twigs drew massive rounds of cheers with burst after burst of unimaginably complicated choreography. As they should at a good fest, fans received more than just live music; they got a mind-altering experience.
02. Ray LaMontagne
I don’t know why I was expecting a predominately quiet and pretty set from Ray LaMontagne on Sunday night. He did, after all, just release an album (his sixth, Ouroboros) produced by My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, a man who’s known to take his indie folk with a splash of epic rawk.
To boot, James was good enough to let LaMontagne borrow his band (all the MMJ boys minus Jim) for this jaunt. The result: 90 minutes of fantastically loud, superbly intricate jams that covered the entirety of Ouroboros, plus a few older favorites (“Lavender”, “Smashing”, Drive-In Movies”, “Airwaves”, and “All the Wild Horses”). With guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster ripping solos aplenty while drummer Patrick Hallahan and bassist Tom Blankenship forged an impenetrable pillar of rhythm, those latter tunes felt like re-worked bonus tracks to the former live album experience.
Busting out the entire thing was a risk — people want to hear the “hits,” especially at a fest. But what ensued was a truly unforgettable, psyched-out homage to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon complimented by a circular backdrop screen that mesmerized with the phases of an eclipsing moon while LaMontagne captivated with his loud-whisper-to-burly-bark vocal range. And, though anyone near stage might’ve noted a continually dwindling crowd, it’s not as if people weren’t watching; there were hundreds farther back spread out across the field (where it actually sounded a bit better), huddled in clumps with the lovers and friends while they soaked up a nearly perfect festival set.
01. Arcade Fire
Before I even arrived at WayHome, I knew Arcade Fire’s Saturday night headline set was gonna go off. How could it not given that they were the fest’s most mammoth Canadian artist? Besides that, the palpable pre-show anticipation hanging over the fest’s largest audience by far prophesied a chain reaction of emotional bubbles bursting — for better or worse (but mostly for better) — throughout the next two hours.
Frontman Win Butler confirmed as much when he strode onstage and deliberately smashed the runtime clock, immediately instilling the show with an air of fuck-it that made opening choice “Ready to Start” that much more apt. After that initial jolt, they brought down the mood quickly with Win leading the nine-piece live band through the piano-driven back-to-back of “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (continued)”. But, like they do, the group pulled a Moses and parted those waters of intensely beautiful gloom to reveal Régine Chassagne streamer-dancing her way through “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Moutains)”, and once again, every audience member with a soul was beaming uncontrollably.
The rest of the set comprised precisely what I’d expect from an Arcade Fire show, and that’s no slight. With unmatched professionalism and genuine gusto, the band unloaded hit after hit: the best disco- and Haitian-influenced gems off Reflektor (that 2013 album’s title track, “Afterlife”, and “Here Comes the Nighttime”, complete with confetti blast), some of the most memorable indie rock anthems of the past decade or so (“Normal Person”, “Keep the Car Running”, with a Win-solo intro of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, and “No Cars Go”), and of course the all-in sing-along of “Wake Up” followed by fireworks to round it out. Unfortunately, there was no Bowie tribute second line in the crowd like at Panorama; instead, they kept it locally relevant by using the spotlight as a platform to preach progressiveness in the Canadian music scene: “I just wanna say that when we were first starting as band in Montreal, almost every band I knew was on a grant,” said Win. The Canadian government doesn’t just need to give money to bands like us; they need to give it to smaller bands … because this is really fucking hard. So please consider it — it’s worth it.”
Using their fame and power for the greater good — another reason why, on top of a phenomenal live show, Arcade Fire is still literally one of the biggest and best rock bands in the world.
Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Wayhome 2016.
Photographer: David Brendan Hall