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Take Me to Church: a Torontonian's look at an Irish music festival
Toronto Standard's Evan Ottoni visits Ireland's Electric Picnic and finds that there's a lot in common between those from Toronto and the Emerald Isle.

“So you’re popping your EP cherry? That’s grand!” 

Similar reactions greet me every time the Canadian flag adorning our campsite draws attention from from jovial strangers. I come to realize that foreigners like myself make up about 0.1 per cent of the festival’s attendance. It is my first time at Electric Picnic in Stradbally, a hotly anticipated holiday for the nation’s music geeks. I couldn’t have picked a better introduction to the island’s modern music culture.

Roughly equivalent in price to any three day camping ticket I’ve purchased in Canada or the US, Electric Picnic clearly takes more care in devoting revenue to the creation of an impressively immersive ambiance.  The expansive art installations that dot the festival grounds are paired with an endless array of stages that vary in size from back-of-a-truck, to pirate ship, to the aerial-shot-worthy.

These ubiquitous visual and musical diversions make any pre-planed routes futile, as attendees acquiesce to the enveloping environment and ingested chemicals. Amidst all the flair, I notice the absence of corporate swag peddlers that typify North American festivals.

I came here to see two acts, both with strong roots in Toronto. The first is Nightbox, a four-piece band who grew up not far from here in Wicklow, Ireland before moving to Canada in 2010. Now in the midst of their latest UK and Irish tour, Nightbox are about as “Toronto” as a band gets. Based out of Kensington Market, their first EP was produced by Death from Above 1979’s Sebastien Grainger and MSTRKFT’s Al–P. Short of a collaboration with Rush, there’s little these boys haven’t done to cement themselves in the Big Smoke’s music scene.

Nightbox comprise a small portion of what has become a sizeable diaspora of Irish youth in Canada. An examination of the nation’s recent history leaves no mystery as to why. The period of 2008-2012 saw a credit crisis give way to recession, complete with a ballooning unemployment rate that mercifully crested somewhere around 15%.

Sufficiently disenchanted with their nation’s governance, Irish youth began coming in droves to Canada. In 2011, 5,200 new temporary workers arrived from Ireland. In 2013, that number had increased to 6,693. Starting January 2014, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney increased the allotment to 10,000, with the expressed hope to “give them a more realistic choice of staying here as permanent residents”.

I met Luke Reilly, Connor Wynne, and David Curley back in 2010 when they were living in Toronto on temporary work permits. Years later, the three would join with drummer Rob Summons to form Otherkin, the second act that’s piqued my interest.

For bassist Curley, the time he spent in Toronto was formative as a musician. “Coming from a country where playing an instrument is a near necessity, we were delighted to be surrounded by people with a similar passion.” The boys quickly became regulars at venues such as the Horseshoe and Wrongbar to take in what the city had to offer. “Leaving Toronto, we just knew we had to start a band.”

At Electric Picnic, individuals who don’t have some acquaintance living in Canada are scarce. Many have plans to emigrate in the near future. Increasingly, those coming to Toronto are creatives attracted to the culture in liberal, English speaking communities.

At times, I am confused as to why anyone devoted to music or the arts would leave a country that offers all on display at Electric Picnic. In spite of the allure of the headlining mega-acts, the local talent on display can keep any music geek busy for the duration of the festival: from the filthy neo-grunge of Girl Band to the ska inspired DJ Kormac, complete with 10 piece big band. Hozier took to the main stage this year in advance of the release of his debut self-titled album.

Express this appreciation to a local and their reaction leaves you wondering if you unknowingly slipped into another language. This is the only real shame I find in the culture I witness at Electric Picnic: many here are slow to acknowledge how fantastic their music scene really is.

After speaking with countless locals, a common theme emerges: in a country that has long struggled in maintaining the divisions between church and state, the economic situation is not the only source of disillusionment. The tradition of Catholic conservatism only serves to alienate those who have grown up in the age of information.”

Like Ireland, Toronto is place that wallows in self-deprecation. Progressive individuals are perpetually dissatisfied with their municipal and federal representation. We suffer from an existential paranoia, anxious about how we are perceived in other more “established” metropolises. Coming here, I can see how Ireland and Toronto can both stand to see a bit more in themselves.

Nightbox play the Little Big Tent at midday. This is their second time performing at Electric Picnic, and their first set of shows since the departure of their DJ.

Singer Jacob Bitove and Bassist Andrew Keyes fill the gap fantastically with midi controllers in order to maintain their rhythmic, driving sound, while guitarist James is now blissfully free to shred. After the show, Keyes asks me what I think of the new sound, but judging from his smile and the crowd’s response, I don’t think he needs to ask.

Otherkin’s set is their first at Electric Picnic.“The invitation was an honour in itself,” Curley says. “Being our main goal for the summer there’s not much more I could say.” Otherkin are definitely a testament to the guitar driven sound of the island. “We’ve definitely gone down a grunge route with our recent songs, but I don’t think that we’re just a throwback,” singer Rilley explains. “We like to incorporate elements of the music that we grew up listening to and hammer it into a new shape.”

At the end of the day genre definitions only serve those with tilted noses. What matters is that word has spread, and by set’s end the small intro-level tent Otherkin has been assigned is hardly sufficient in corralling the droves of the faithful.

Hozier draws the biggest crowd of the weekend, and his performance of the single “Take me to Church” leaves no mystery as to why. In a country that legalized divorce in the mid 90’s, where public debate over same sex marriage rages on, the chorus “I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife” leaves nothing to the imagination.  This is the new Ireland, where a galvanized political youth now confronts the papal tradition that for so long has shaped the country’s social trajectory, acknowledging the way things are and the way they ought to be.

As an outsider, it is a humbling exhibition that challenges my conceptions of what role political ideology can play in the age of frivolous, hedonistic music festival culture. It is a spirit I find all too rare back home.

When I turn to tell my Irish companions of the impression Hozier has left, I am greeted with satisfied smiles. They are pleased I get the picture.

Image courtesy of Electric Picnic and Gregory Nolan.
Evan Ottoni is a contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.

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