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Rifflandia: big names, big aspirations, big festival feel

Music festival returns after three year hiatus

- Words by John Atkinson

After a three-year hiatus, Rifflandia Festival, launched in 2008, is back, bigger and better than ever.

Headliners—including Lorde, Charli XCX and Cypress Hill, backed up by LAUV, Bikini Kill and Pussy Riot—will make it a year to remember, as will an appearance from NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal in his guise as DJ Diesel.

The 12th edition of the festival takes place from September 15 to 18.

“If ever there was a year when people were curious about Rifflandia, this is the year to see it; this will be a very special year,” said founder Nick Blasko. “We started this festival in 2008, fulfilling a dream and a hypothesis that Victoria could host, even for a small city, a significant international music festival in a localized setting.”

He added, “I grew up in and around music and went to my first concert when I was seven or eight years old. I used to watch Much Music’s coverage of Glastonbury on TV and think, ‘oh wow, look at this’—because In North America we didn’t really have a robust festival culture until the late 1990s. The European festival culture fascinated and intrigued me. And Glastonbury, to almost everyone, is still really top of the food chain. I’ve only been once, but I loved every second of it.”

Blasko says this is a big year for Rifflandia and it presents some of the biggest artists it has ever booked.

“We keep trying to push the ceiling that I think Victoria potentially sets for itself. We’ve always just thought that we need to blow through that and do big things here that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

In addition to those “massive artists” like Lorde, Charlie XCX and Cypress Hill, there are big, successful, breaking Canadian artists, right down to small developing local artists, he says. “Then there are groundbreaking, iconic, genre-defining groups like Bikini Kill and Pussy Riot. It really is a very special selection of artists that we’ve assembled. There was a lot of excitement when we released the lineup and told people we were coming back. Our audience has shifted a lot; we have people that were coming to our festival a decade ago and they have families and kids now. They’re still coming and bringing their families too.”

Royal Athletic Park (RAP), the principal grass-based venue with two main stages, was secured in 2011, giving Rifflandia more of a Glastonbury or a Woodstock vibe, while the festival’s Electric Avenue is a unique lineup of six stages in the city’s arts and innovation district.

“We have this hybrid model featuring the traditional grass field festival site with everything you would expect—food vendors, artisans and alcohol—and we also have this nighttime setting that happens around town. For the festival, our mantra is also to support local whenever we can.

“RAP really is that quintessential grass field; there’s all your friends, big stages, big sound and lighting—that unique festival feel. It’s a small but manageable setting—7,500 capacity—but we have artists who are typically playing to much bigger crowds. So we punch above our weight in the talent department. And if you want to see an artist in an intimate environment, seeing them at Rifflandia is very special.

“At nighttime Electric Avenue has also really evolved into a feast for the ears and eyes. We started using more and more of the space around the arts and innovation district in the north end, and between Store Street, Pembroke and Discovery, we’ve got quite the scene going on. In essence, we’re running two different festival sites; day into mid-evening at RAP and evenings from 7:00 to midnight on Electric Avenue.”

Woven into the music mix, as in several prior iterations, will be comedy—featuring a secret comedy club at RAP.

“I’m just excited it all came together this year and we can run the comedy at night,” said Blasko. “And there will be a secret comedy stage at the park, too, under the bleachers in one of the locker rooms. I’ve always wanted comedy as a component—and we haven’t done it every year. It goes hand in hand with our mission and I think it’s something we can grow in the future. Dan, who has been booking and coordinating it all this year, has done a wonderful job. I think it will be fun.”

Blasko, whose team normally works on Rifflandia year-round, also spends part of his career/year as an artists’ manager and has travelled the globe being inspired by an eclectic array of festivals and exceptional programming which “makes the difference.”

“There are no guarantees in this world, but we hope the festival is around for many more years. Our plan was to always keep raising the calibre of artists performing and have people turn around and say, ‘Wow! This is happening in my backyard? There’s no way I can miss this.’ We’ve helped shift the culture and we want to keep doing that.”

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