By Matty Hume, February 1 2018 —
Despite Big Winter Classic’s primary emphasis on a myriad of live music, the festival also serves as a great opportunity for local breweries to promote their craft — pun very intended. For the festival’s last three years, the beer has served as a foil to the chilly temperature, allowing for another celebration of unmistakable Canadiana at the festival. The flannel and Blundstones in the crowd are just as likely to belong to a brewmaster as a bass player. Beer, the festival’s one true beverage, keeps the crowds warm and provides much of the infrastructure that has allowed for the steady expansion that the festival has undergone in its last three years.
Last year, the collaborative spirit of Calgary’s brewing community reached its peak for Big. Small-batch cask brews — roughly 70 pints worth of beer — were made by breweries with specific bands in mind, often taking an established beer in their lineup and twisting the recipe to suit whatever band would be playing at the time that the beer would be served. For example, during Napoleon Skywalker’s set last year, the good people at Grizzly Paw added a significant amount of hops to their Evolution IPA to create about 30 exclusive litres of the Hops of Fury IPA. This year, however, these tiny collaborations took a backseat to the overall sponsorship opportunities several local breweries were able to afford.
Last Best Brewing & Distilling has acted as a fulcrum for Big since its reboot three years ago, providing two stages and a room that serves as the merchandise store. This year was no different. Since opening in 2014, Last Best has been a leader in Alberta’s beer boom and their penchant for heavier, full flavours match the typically nippy January weather handedly. Their Show Pony Ale, Tokyo Drift IPA and Dirty Bird Black Lager — all staples and excellent gateways into Calgary’s dense micro-brewing community — were in many hands all weekend. Of particular note was their collaboration with Jasper Brewing Co., a tart sour that lingered with a sharp, citrusy bite.
Wildrose Brewery increased its prominence since last year, occupying almost half the taps at Broken City, pushing out Victoria’s Phillips Brewing as the venue’s primary sponsor. Inside Big Winter Classic’s newest venue, The Gerry Thomas Gallery, was the Wildrose Stage, which had the dubious honour of hosting the festival’s final show. Generally, their beer veers towards lighter bodies and fruitier flavours. They dominate the warmer months when patios are clear of snow. Luckily, the recent temperate uptick made for a palatable atmosphere for their Ponderosa Gose, Electric Avenue Lager and Velvet Fog Wheat Ale.
Few things rank as quintessentially Canadian as a pint of beer. Wobbly-pops. That sweet, sweet wheat-juice. It’s in our blood, a few nights a week. And, since Albertan breweries have sprouted at an unprecedented degree since 2014, attempting to keep up year-round can be exhausting — mentally, physically and fiscally. Events like Big play a crucial role in spotlighting what has become a pillar of our culture. Some rock required.
There’s nothing like a good ol’ music festival to distract you from, well, all of your homework. From Jan. 18–21, Big Winter Classic offered over 70 bands at four downtown venues. Crowds came for the music and stayed for one hell of a party.
Thursday had shows at Dickens Pub, Broken City and the Gerry Thomas Gallery, which housed art from a plethora of local creators making for a venue that was equal parts vibing and sophisticated. The Dickens lineup was a stoner-rocker’s dream, opening with Siksika Nation legends Iron Tusk and closing with the Pabst-drenched stylings of Portland’s Red Fang.
Friday kept up the momentum and sped past it in a frenzy. Local-favourite femme-punks The Shiverettes (centre-top) wasted no time in delivering head-banging jams like a shot of adrenaline for the crowd at the Gallery. Melted Mirror kept energies high and bodies moving with a synth-pop set straight out of 1983. Across the street at Last Best, Toronto punks METZ shook all of 11th Ave. to the core with a high-octane, brain-melting audio equivalent of a strobe light — my ears are, truthfully, still ringing at press time three days later. It fucking ruled.
Jay Som closed out Friday’s Gallery stage with a masterful set of gorgeous, emotive bedroom pop while Guantanamo Baywatch moshed into the night at Broken City with cowabunga surf shreds, turning a Calgary winter into an alternate version of Jaws where the shark just wanted to party.
Saturday was a special day for a lucky few. Through word of mouth across Friday’s shows, about 40 festival-goers procured ‘Golden Tickets’ to a secret show and party bus (centre-middle). After doling out free tallboys from Citizen Brewery, wordsmith Odder Otter delivered a one-artist set with a drum kit and mic as the bus made its way to the Citizen Brewery, where Danny Vacon of The Dudes fameplayed a solo set. The secret show was a perfect primer, as headliners like B. Rich, Jung People and local heavyweight supergroup Betaboys closed down the night.
Sunday was the cherry on top, if the cherry was a whole new, unbelievably good dessert. Ontario’s Partner taught everyone at Last Best the true meaning of friendship and rock ‘n’ roll with their post-classic-rock nonchalance, riddled with wit and riffs that would make your dad trade in his April Wine records.
Closing out the festival was Montreal’s electro-punk deities Duchess Says (far-left/far-right) — Canada’s paramount live music experience. Duchess Annie-Claude and co. delivered blistering moog punk straight into your soul in between pouring beer into the crowd’s mouths, pulling fans onstage and handing out snow sleds for crowd-surfing. You didn’t just watch Duchess Says — you were part of the show. It was the perfect end to a festival that has grown into a local staple. See you there next year.
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