Westward Music Festival bares its soul on night three at the Vogue

Vince Staples, Charlotte Day Wilson, Busty and the Bass, and Ralph at the Vogue Theatre, 9/16/17

Photo by Quinn Middleton sept 16/2017

Soul was the sound of the night on the third evening of Westward Music Festival at the Vogue Theatre. But with four artists – headliner Vince Staples, Charlotte Day Wilson, Busty and the Bass, and Ralph – came four variations of soul that, with the exception of Wilson and Ralph, differed vastly.

If Toronto’s Ralph looked familiar to anyone in the audience, it was because the electronic R&B/pop singer (born Raffa Weyman) had performed as part of the PNE Summer Concerts Series two weeks earlier. With drums, buckets of bass-slaps, and backtracked vocals, dance beats, and atmospherics, she opened the night with the snappy “Busy Man”, new song “Bedroom Eyes”, synth-disco jam “Tease”, and more. The crowd also marked out particularly hard for a cover of “Young Hearts Run Free” from the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet.

I didn’t know who Busty and the Bass were before seeing them at the Vogue, and I felt alone. There were more BatB sweaters in the crowd than any other piece of merch at that point. And Vince Staples headlined that show. Boasting two keyboards, drums, bass, guitar, two trumpets, a saxophone, and a trombone, the Montreal nontet lit up the crowd with bombastic, brass-driven, smooth voiced R&B and hip hop. Whether the band were bouncing or chilling the pace with a song like “Common Ground”, they kept the vibes positive throughout their set.

Charlotte Day Wilson, another Toronto artist, has been gaining serious momentum over the past year from The Fader, Pitchfork, Pigeons and Planes, and many more. I first heard of her when I saw her at Levitation Vancouver two summers ago. Since then, I’ve been hooked on her lone EP CDW. I was curious to see how she’d progressed as a live performer.

Unfortunately, Wilson was tasked with following BatB’s crowd-rousing set with her electronic R&B/pop that was more downbeat than Ralph’s. Wilson held her own but suffered less from her timeslot than she did from the hollering ham-fisted dorks who repeatedly called out to her as “Orange Shirt Girl” and who wooed for no reason while trying to keep one of their drunken brethren on his feet. I was impressed they were able to crush their double Pilsners with their knuckles dragging on the floor though.

Wilson also faced a consistently chatty crowd. It didn’t help that her vocal mix was low compared to her drummer and keyboard player. She did gain some much-deserved applause at some points as she switched between bass, guitar, and even sax, all in stark contrast to her solo console-centric set at Levitation.

The theatre flooded with orange light revealing a blank screen that spanned the entire stage.  As the place also filled with fake smoke, Vince Staples appeared completely shrouded in shadow. He remained in shadows since the moment he opened his set with dark-stepping track “Party People”. The visual field remained orange and smoky as his silhouette loped around stage, lingered and dangle its limbs and rolled its head back during vocal backtracks, and darted from one side of the stage to the other while spitting “Birds & Bees”, “Big Time”, and several more. The theatre went pitch black but cleared like the sky at the first spare brooding notes of “Rain Come Down”. The lights switched to red and white beams, but they quickly reverted to the surreal incandescent display that looked like a scene from Blade Runner 2049. Intermittently now though, fish swam and cars zoom around winding highways on the formerly blank screen.

Staples continued another long string of heated raps backed by beats that pulled from classic techno and house, which themselves pulled from classic soul, funk, and disco. After “Love Can Be”, “SAMO”, “735”, “War Ready”, “Lift Me Up”, “Jump off the Roof”, and more, Staples entered the sundowning of his set. From “Yeah Right”, he flowed into “Homage” then back into “Yeah Right” and then into “Big Fish” before finishing with “Norf Norf”.

Vince Staples owned the Vogue Theatre with arguably the most anticipated set of the entire weekend. But A Tribe Called Red’s festival-closing set at Venue Nightclub the following evening stood to challenge Staples as the true highlight of the inaugural Westward Music Festival based on spirit alone. Did the 2017 Polaris shortlist nominees pull it off? I’ll just tell you this: It was damned close.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu