Blackberry Wood Were Wonderfully Uncool at Music Waste | Exclaim!

When you look around at any Vancouver music venue, you’re almost guaranteed to see the usual Carhartt work pants and Doc Martens. As Blackberry Wood climbed onto the Green Auto stage, I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. To the left, a marching bass drum decked out in gold stars and swirl designs; to the right, black-and-white-striped pants with frills upon frills, top hats and shakos (marching band hats with plumes coming out the top).

In my state of borderline heat exhaustion, I wondered to myself: had I been magically transported out of Music Waste and dropped into a high school marching band rehearsal? I guess I wasn’t alone in my confusion, as I heard the words “soundtrack to a fever dream” emerge from the conversation of the group standing behind me.

As if the high school flashbacks weren’t already intense enough, Blackberry Wood vocalist and guitarist Kris Mitchell launched into a monologue on how the Music Waste festival first came to be — think history class, but the lecture is paired with jumpy guitar accompaniment.

Music Waste is now an entirely volunteer-run festival, and was founded by Mitchell and a few other musicians in protest of the overly exclusive annual Music West Festival. Although it was originally intended to be a small, one-night event at the long-gone Station Street Arts Centre, it got more people’s attention than anticipated — as years went on, hundreds of bands started applying to perform, and the organizers sought out new venues. This year, the festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than with one of the original creators returning to perform?

For this show, the band had two saxophones, a marching bass drum, vocals, guitar and electronic effects. They’ve tried out other instrumental arrangements and have had many musicians cycle in and out of the group since it was formed in 2006, which keeps things fresh — not that they were ever at risk of losing people’s interest.

Blackberry Wood play around with genres, but seem to lean most heavily into klezmer, jazz and ragtime. After Mitchell’s opening monologue, they launched into “The Strong Man,” a track from their 2012 album Strong Man vs. Russian Bears. Apparently the song used to be played in a major key, but at a rehearsal the band experimented with playing it in a minor key and has been doing it that way ever since — like a lot of their music, the song is big and boisterous, but with a slightly sinister quality about it.

The show started slow, with people still meandering back in from their smoke breaks and looking a bit put off by the explosion of tulle and stripes that took the stage while they were gone. But the band held up signs — reminiscent of silent movie visuals — with instructions to their audience to “Go Wild” and “Party More.” And that they did. Vancouver is plagued with judgmental people and a disdain for having fun, so it’s a commendable feat getting this many people kicking their feet in unison, dropping low to the ground while carefully balancing one or two drinks in their hands. Even the most hesitant audience members eventually gave into, at the very least, a slight shuffle — it would’ve been more embarrassing to not be dancing.

Blackberry Wood’s circus/marching band/vaudeville aesthetic could fall flat without performers bringing the energy to match it. Fortunately, they’ve cracked the code for putting on a good show: to get an audience engaged, you have to create a bit and commit to it. Their stage banter was full of wails, screams and over the top sound effects, as they never once dropped character. Even their merch (panties with Blackberry Wood branding across the backside) was a bit outlandish, but after all the other shenanigans witnessed during this performance, no one seemed fazed by it.

And with one last outrageous chord, we then returned to the dullness of the real world — but our bedazzled underwear, sore knees and newfound appreciation for woodwind instruments will help us hold onto the magic that was Blackberry Wood.

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