Big Winter Classic: Festival Review
**EMERGENCY ALERT: A tornado has been spotted in your area. Seek shelter immediately**
It was a whirlwind start to one hell of a weekend, laying on my back in a motel bathroom frantically refreshing government weather reports and radars. Christ. I had no plans of dying in Florida. The tornado touched down fifteen blocks away, tipping over an SUV in a church parking lot before receding back to the heavens. One had to wonder what sort of sinful behavior prompted an act of God to target someone’s Buick, but I counted my blessings knowing I clearly wasn’t the worst person in South Florida that day. Three hours later with the warnings in the rearview, I caught an uber to the airport and boarded a plane to Calgary, Alberta, Canada; right on time for the first ever Big Winter Classic.
Featuring 40+ bands from all over Canada and the Pacific Northwest, the Big Winter Classic promised an action-packed weekend with four stages between two next-door-neighbor venues. The event was a who’s-who of local talent, both musically and otherwise, and by the time I dropped off my bags the Big Winter Classic was already in full-swing.
No tornado warnings here, although after a few tall dark and handsome pints courtesy of Alberta’s local breweries, the room was certainly spinning. With a strong scene starting to gain international traction, the Big Winter Classic had a distinctly warm feeling. Perhaps it was the weather, unseasonably well above freezing, or perhaps it was the dearth of local friendlies and community organizers. Everybody was somebody. “Oh you’re in a band?” “Oh you organize the Market Collective?” “Oh you’re with the Folk Fest?” “Oh you own a shop in Inglewood?” It was impossible to run in to a regular attendee, not because the Big Winter Classic was an ‘inside’ event, but rather the make-up of the audience spoke to the strength and interconnectedness of Calgary’s arts community. Amidst all the hand-shaking and card-collecting, the music took center stage.
As someone who has spent years writing about international bands and attending international festivals, the opportunity to hear some of my home town’s local talent all jam-packed into a few quick-and-fast nights couldn’t be rivaled. The Calgary musical community has always been strong; hosting the Junos, the massive construction of the $168 million dollar National Music Center, and 2016 being declared as ‘the year of music’, it’s easy to see why the city is quickly gaining international buzz.
All of this in the middle of one of the worst recessions in the history of the province. Politics was never far off the radar for concert goers, most of whom found work in the service industry as highly-paid alcohol delivery vessels. With crashing oil prices and record job losses, pockets under normal circumstances might’ve been sewn shut. But not for the Big Winter Classic. Kegs were rolled in every few moments and the good vibes continued to crash like cymbals.
Gender politics are the main focus of local band, The Shiverettes, who have been dismantling the patriarchy one set a time. “I’m sick of watching dudes on stage playing their fucking dick guitars” mused lead singer Hayley Muir in our recent interview. Only a few months removed from creating Canada’s first multi-disciplinary feminist music festival, The Shiverettes were one of the emotional highlights of the Big Winter Classic.
On the subject of emotional, Calgary/LA-based multi-instrumental genius Distance Bullock was another highlight, playing a truly captivating solo set. Bullock is a genuine and kind individual, which is one of the common threads that ties together the local scene. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone is a God damned sweetheart. In the cold winter months, warmth goes a long way.
Local legends 36?, Windigo and Lab Coast were on deck, as bands seamlessly transitioned from stage to stage. The organization was impeccable, which came as no surprise considering the dearth of talent at hand. Stage Manager BJ Downie was all laughs at Last Best, and festival curator Sebastian Buzzalino took a break from snapping incredible pics and shook hands all weekend. There was a bit of friendly fire in the form of beer spills, but the only shred of hostility could be found in post-punk shreds and lyrical licks.
Of course, the decibel police showed up a number of times, which is usually the marker of a good time. And a good time it was. The Big Winter Classic went off without a hitch, and further served to establish Calgary’s growing music cred. It’s the first festival of many this year, a real whirlwind of a weekend..
and yes, it was a classic.
Here’s a couple more tunes from some of my favorite sets. Show these folks some love.