Jessie Lanza - Supercrawl

Arkells and Jessy Lanza offer two different visions for Hamilton as a music city at Supercrawl

Artists are more willing than ever to display their Hamilton pride... but what does Hamilton pride mean?

- Sep 15, 2014

This year's sixth Supercrawl was bigger than ever. The Hamilton, Ontario street festival had already been developing a reputation as a legitimate destination for Canadian music and art, but last year's high point of 100,000 people was nearly surpassed by this year's first night.

Much of the credit is undoubtedly due to Friday headliners Arkells. Not only did the hometown heroes attract as big a crowd as the festival's other big draw, Spoon, they also sponsored and curated their own stage, full of Steeltown talent both legendary (Teenage Head, who basically paved the way for Canadian indie rock to come) and up-and-coming (UNCHARTED alumni/DIY scene organizers WTCHS).

That's a big statement for Hamilton as a supportive music city with its own hardscrabble "work-in-progress" character, distinct from the much bigger scene in nearby Toronto, which is something Arkells have been repping hard as they outgrow the local stages they were reared on. Between them and the bands they booked, Arkells, and by extension Supercrawl, seemed to be staking out the city's identity as the New Jersey to Toronto's New York - the somewhat grimy industrial town that rocks harder and more passionately because it's had to work for everything it's got. A classic underdog rock and roll story.

But as bands celebrated Hamilton Rock City pride on the Arkells stage, a newer Hamilton talent was heralding a different type of music just a few blocks, some galleries, and countless food trucks away on another. Jessy Lanza, the buzzy electronic R&B singer and producer whose debut album Pull My Hair Back will compete next Monday for the Polaris Music Prize against artists like Drake and Arcade Fire, played an afternoon set that felt laid-back, but spoke volumes to her hometown influence.

Hamilton, I love you. You're kind of gross sometimes, but I love you anyway."

Jessy Lanza
As she alternated between keyboards, knobs and laptops, cooly setting triggers without losing the smoothness in her vocals, a crowd full of in-the-know underground electronic music fans crowded the stage, but shared space with excitedly dancing teenagers and, umm, local colour, who gyrated wildly with shopping carts and too-small t-shirts. In fact, it looked a lot like her brilliant Hamilton-starring video for "Kathy Lee," which personifies the city's gritty charm in Jed Lifeson, the locally famous "dancing guy."

Jessy Lanza: Kathy Lee (Hyperdub 2013)

"Hamilton, I love you," said Lanza, soaking up the crowd's warmth. "You're kind of gross sometimes, but I love you anyway."

Lanza is the Canadian representative on boundary-pushing electronic U.K. label Hyperdub, which celebrated its tenth anniversary, the travelling Hyperdub 10 tour, on the same stage for the rest of the night. As innovative producers like Ikonika, DJ Spinn and label boss Kode9 took turns on the decks, the distinctly British-tinged sound pushing clubs around the world took over this free outdoor stage in Hamilton, Ontario. And it skipped Toronto!

"It's not like electronic music has not ever existed in Hamilton," Lanza told us in an interview last year. "I think it's just rock music comes to the forefront of people’s minds when they think of what kind of music, and what people are proud of coming out of Hamilton as well."

Ikonika: Beach Mode Keep It Simple feat Jessy Lanza (Hyperdub 2013)

That may be true, but in a lot of ways Hamilton seems built for a thriving electronic scene. A lot of what makes it a great rock city could also make it a great dance city. For starters, the city's industrial character leaves it littered with vacant factories and warehouses (potential venues?), and the cheap rent and thriving gallery scene on James Street make it perfect for artists. In a lot of ways, it has a similar character to Detroit, Manchester or other pioneering electronic music cities in their heydays - no wonder Kode9 and DJ Spinn's tribute to the late Chicago footwork pioneer DJ Rashad felt so in-place on Colbourne Street.

And Hamilton has a few luminaries of its own, including Caribou (now based in London, England, but he reps his Hamilton suburb Dundas, Ontario at every turn, and features Lanza on his upcoming album Our Love) and Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan, who hopped from his nearby James Street bar The Brain to fill in for the absent Four Tet.

Who knows if the Hyperdub 10 celebration at Hamilton Supercrawl will end up being like the Sex Pistols' legendary sparsely-attended but massively influential gig in Manchester. It might be a stretch to say the next Jessy Lanza, Caribou or Four Tet was there in the audience... but maybe.

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