One year ago, on September 3rd, I was ankle deep in mud at Fort Calgary which was in a state of full blown panic. I found myself asked to leave the premises, trudging to a Phil and Sebastian’s drinking coffee so strong it made me shake, and would end up waiting there for 3 hours only to find out that X-Fest 2015 had been officially cancelled. I remember it being dark and rainy, I was in the worst mood to begin with and this just did me in. It rained for the entire weekend, and was one of the worst September long weekends I’ve ever had. I wasn’t going back to school, I had a day job that I didn’t like, I was isolated, lonely, and lost. It’s still easy to slip into those feelings again, and I always tend to feel the same around Labour Day, I suppose because it officially marks the end of summer. However, a year passed, and I learned more and more about myself and the world around me. If you’re reading this and thinking, “wow, he’s getting pretty sappy on a music festival post,” I’ll cut to the chase. I considered “reviewing” X-Fest, but that’s not really my style. I hardly feel like I’m in a place to criticize or praise a performance, and I just wasn’t inspired to write the same stuff you’ve probably already read about these bands. How many more websites do you need to tell you that Twenty One Pilots are great, or that Halsey is one of the best acts in pop music right now? That is probably all true, but I don’t need to tell you that. My experience at X-Fest was more personal, and I got opportunities that not everyone else got, and I was incredibly grateful for it. With that being said, I’d rather write about my unique experience than just recap what everyone else saw. The photographer I was and even the person I was a year ago was not the person who stood in the photo pit at X-Fest 2016. Not even close.
When I got approval for X-Fest, I almost passed out. Not to sound like a 13 year old fanboy, but I just get really excited about these things (nothing wrong with that, I don't think!) As it turned out, I bought a 70-200mm Sigma from a fellow photographer the day before the festival. I was eyeing it for a while but didn’t really want to just buy it new (I’m cheap and poor), so it worked out perfectly. I had a rough start last year’s X-Fest - I tried to rent lenses but couldn’t, and then when I got it sorted, it got cancelled, so I was already off to a better start this year.
Saturday was the first day of X-Fest. It got off to a bit of a stressful start as my always unorganized self couldn’t find one of my SD cards, so I just brought my laptop incase I shot so much that I needed to dump my files onto my hard drive. I got down to Fort Calgary around 12:30, my photo pass was there, but I was supposed to be working with the Arkells on the first day. My working/all access pass wasn’t there, so I ended up annoying the hell out of the box office by checking back every hour. The first act I photographed was Zella Day. She was over 30 minutes late as their bus got a flat tire right after they crossed the Canadian border after driving from Bumbershoot in Seattle on Friday. She crouched down and told everyone this and even had a conversation with some people on the barrier as they finished soundcheck; she seemed really sweet. The next act I photographed was Banners, who delivered a dreamy and chill set, talking between each song and even referencing Cool Runnings.
After Banners, I went backstage to meet up with Max and Mike from Arkells. We just caught up and I followed them to do a Facebook Live interview, as well as to go on air with X9.29 for a few minutes. I missed Wintersleep’s set because I was just taking candids for Arkells, but it was a lot of fun. I really enjoy doing fly on the wall kind of stuff. Not to mention watching these guys interact with their fans is a truly humbling experience. We split up after they were done press, and I photographed Jake Bugg. I tried a few different things as I knew he was going to be pretty easy to photograph, and I got some close up’s that I like.
After Jake Bugg, I went to have beer with some other photographers, and then I headed backstage as Arkells were warming up. Max and I shared a Red Bull and I was ready to go. I stayed on stage for their first song, “A Little Rain,” and got some cool shots as Max jumped into the crowd. Then I bolted down to the photo pit for “Come To Light” and “Michigan Left.” I shot with my 24-120 which was perfect because Max was really interacting with the crowd, so I think I got some pretty cool looking shots. For the rest of the set, I just floated around backstage - if you were there, you probably saw me - the blonde dude wearing the floral shirt that the band teased me about stealing it from Max (I didn't obviously, I just really like floral as well!) The setup was really nice, and I could utilize both stage left and right effectively. It’s important that I’m there but not in the way and standing in the middle of the stage and ruining the show or something, I just do as I’m told and try to stay as out of the way as I can. Arkells interact so much with the crowd that it’s really great to get shots of them from on stage and capture that interaction. I also got some photos of Tim that I’ve wanted to get for a while. After their set, I was just hanging out as they did their load out, I said my goodbyes and it was another show come and gone.
After Arkells was Vance Joy, who was considerably more fun to photograph than the last 2 times. The first time I shot him was at Stampede, and the lighting was pretty basic, and the second was at the Jubilee where I didn’t really have a long enough lens. This time the lighting was a lot better, and I got some shots I was pretty happy with. After him was the Lumineers and it was getting really cold. The Lumineers were really chill, and I really enjoyed their set. I wasn’t super into them before but I call myself a fan after their performance at X-Fest. One of my favourite things about their set is that they had a B-stage set up, so I got a cool shot of them and the Calgary Tower in the background. It’s not every day that you get a photo like that at a concert. I left the grounds about 3/4 of the way through their set as I was cold and knew I would be back in 12 hours anyways.
On Sunday, I went down to Fort Calgary with my best friend, Manni. We missed The Royal Foundry, so the first act I photographed was Darcys. After them was Wildlife, who were really good. After Wildlife was Hannah Georgas, who delivered a mellow and laid-back set. After her set, Atlas Genius took the stage. I had been wanting to see them since their debut album came out, and they were one of my favourite acts on the bill when I first heard the X-Fest announcement. They did not disappoint, tearing through a short but killer set. I was surprised they didn’t play “Refugees,” one of my favourites off of their latest album Inanimate Objects, but nonetheless, when they closed their set with “Trojans,” I was a happy camper. Following Atlas Genius was the New Zealand natives The Naked and Famous, who were well received by the crowd and seemed to genuinely be enjoying themselves.
After The Naked and Famous were July Talk, who are one of my favourite Canadian bands at the moment. They started five minutes early, so I literally had to sprint in order to catch the first song. I’ve never been to a show, let alone a festival, where an act starts early. Their set is always interesting and there’s never a dull moment. I’m convinced it’s impossible to take a bad photo of them. After I finished shooting the first three songs, I used the wristband that gave me all access to shoot and watch the rest of their set from side stage, which was an awesome experience.
After July Talk was Halsey, and no photographers were allowed access into the pit due to “safety.” She had an elaborate set with pyro and such, but I was disappointed nonetheless. I didn’t get many great shots of her as I was shooting from the crowd, but she was amazing and she sounded great. X-Fest marked the final show of the Badlands era, which was a cool thing to be part of. The first time I saw her, she opened for Imagine Dragons and only had her “Room 93” EP out, so to watch her grow from that and be almost headlining a festival a little over a year later is inspiring.
Closing off the night was none other than Twenty One Pilots. Does everyone know how much I love Twenty One Pilots? Let’s just say I cried the first time I photographed them. Photographing their set again was surreal, and even more challenging. I’m happier with my shots given that I had the right equipment this time, and I was happy with their set up. The first time I photographed them, they basically had masks on for the first three songs so I could hardly see their faces, but this time, after “Heavydirtysoul,” you could, which made for some nice photos. After I finished shooting their first three, I decided to try my luck and go side stage. I got up no problem and no questions asked and shot some photos and video during “Message Man.” It was such an intense experience that I barely remember it. Because they’re one of the biggest bands in music right now, it was weird that I, someone of no particular importance, was within 5 feet of this band that seems so unattainable. They’re two of the nicest guys, but fame is such a strange concept that two normal people who are totally approachable are out of reach due to their vast popularity. Even from a photographer’s point of view, they are getting so hard to get approval for - one of the only reasons I photographed them on the Blurryface Tour is because I went through Echosmith, their opener.
I soon snapped out of my daze when someone from the crew literally grabbed me and yelled at me that I had to leave and almost literally picked me up and threw me off the stage. Pro tip: walk into things like you own it, and when you’re questioned, be apologetic and act like you didn’t know. I was glad I did that, and it was fun while it lasted. The rest of the night was pure magic. There’s just something about seeing those two guys play with the passion they have, and the genuine gratitude that they emulate. They even had a technical glitch during “Ride” which made the set seem even more sincere, as Twenty One Pilots shows are now a well oiled machine. This was my fourth time seeing Twenty One Pilots, and it just keeps getting better and better. I will never be able to describe how alive I feel when I hear “Trees” live, let alone under the dark night sky. It truly sent shivers up and down my spine. And as the band said “We’re Twenty One Pilots and so are you,” I knew the night was drawing to a close, and it was a wrap on an incredible weekend. Before I left, I made sure to say hi to some friends that I met through Twenty One Pilots at their Seattle show last year, and then it was time to call it a night.
My weekend at X-Fest was overall one of the best weekends I’ve had in a while, and just a surreal experience. I am by no means bragging, but sometimes my life seems to becoming more filled with pinch me moments. If you told me last year that Twenty One Pilots would be headlining, and I’d be able to watch side stage for a minute, I would have said you were a liar. I am so grateful to have had all the opportunities I had this weekend and I would like to extend my thanks to all the staff, security, artists, volunteers, fellow photographers, and everyone who was there for making this a truly memorable experience - although I know it was a memorable experience for more than just me. Until next year, my friends - I’m already looking forward to it.