Keloha brings music from afar and local crowds in the thousands

By Jennifer Smith – Kelowna Capital News


Awolnation’s Aaron Bruno shows off a few of the mosquito bites he picked up courtesy of the Calgary Stampede the night before he arrived for his Kelowna show; looking out at the lake from the outdoor green room at the Keloha Festival he said he thought the area was beautiful. (Jennifer Smith)

Dressed to the nines and ready to rock a beach party with their signature blockbuster guitar riffs, The Joy Formidable proved foreboding enthusiasm for their art knows no bounds on the first full day of Keloha.


Among bikini-clad bodies, and even the odd fan stripped to the skivvies, the latest homegrown Okanagan festival’s impeccably timed heat proved no match for front-woman Ritzy Bryan who pulled on a pair of crystal-studded, thick black stockings before hitting the stage.

The Joy Formidable“It’s this or knee pads and a helmet,” she joked. “If I don’t wear them, I’m all torn up by the time we’re through the set.”

An hour later, she was smashing her way around the stage, breaking guitars—though on purpose. Feel-good performer Michael Bernard Fitzgerald hit a spot of bad luck the next day snapping string after string for a long pause in his lakeside performance, one of the few rough notes in an otherwise near flawless inaugural event.


All in all, some 12,000 people came through the gates for the three-day indie-themed festival featuring acts like Awolnation, Cold War Kids, Tokyo Police Club, The Sheepdogs and The Joy Formidable, originally from northern Wales.


“When you grow up somewhere that’s isolated, you throw yourself into things, things that pass the time, hobbies,” said Bryan, explaining how music became a way of life for the group, though they come from a place that’s never produced an internationally touring band.


Joking about the damage they’ve done to their bodies along the way, the Formidable professed an absolute dedication to travel and admitted there’s seldom a time when they’re not writing new material, even on the road.


“It’s not about finding inspiration when you’re off road. You find plenty of inspiration all the time. You should document it then and there,” said bass player Rhydian Dafydd.


Five years in, they rarely take a touring break and say they’ve shown no signs of stopping, lyrically, musically or in their desire to tour.


Awolnation’s frontman Aaron Bruno, by contrast, proved a little more circumspect. Now in his third signed band, though the first to experience success, Bruno said he sees this lifestyle as a temporary means to an end.


“I’ll always be writing music, but no, this isn’t forever,” he said.


He figures the only way to survive some of the excruciating long flights needed to tour on a large scale  is by popping a Xanax and he’s none too partial to the mosquito bites left to him by this summer’s festival circuit.


But Bruno knows how to rally.


Famed for his electronic rock and California surf persona, he actually grew up engulfed in team sports, captaining teams at a young age as he had grown quicker than most in primary school. The residual competitive edge has served him well in the cut-throat music world.


“My father raised me to be a leader and never to follow the pack,” he said.


A somewhat slight man for one of athletic beginnings, Bruno now sports a tale of heroic artistic endurance.  Before developing Awolnation’s space-aged sound, he was signed to record deals for the bands Under the Influence of Giants and Hometown Hero. The resulting debt to banks for record sales that never materialized left him economically stymied and bereft of enough confidence to figure Awolnation might even hear radio play.


“I just felt I needed to write something that was my own and came from here,” he said, pointing to his chest.


Now traversing the globe with tracks picked up by television shows like Sons of Anarchy and The Good Wife, not to mention artists like Macy Gray covering his work, life is less stressful. He misses the ocean, good waves and his friends, but says there will be time to make music and relax in California when the jig or the gig is up.


Knobby-kneed with a chipped front tooth that reminds one of Mick Jagger’s emerald, Bruno certainly cultivated the air of a star as he swooped in from Calgary to headline an event centered around independent musicians making a name for themselves.


The local favourite in the final headliners, Vancouver’s Dan Mangan, is one who took the long road to the top, funding his own independent releases for five years before he was picked up by a small company in Vancouver, then by ABC/Warner in Australia.


Today he says he’s having major success in Germany, largely thanks to the record company he works with in Europe, and owes a good deal to radio play on the CBC’s stations.


Asked for advice he would give to independent artists trying to make it in the new music scene he said:


“Rather than trying to make something that’s palatable for the world, make something that’s honest and you care about…


“Surround yourself with inspiring people; always be writing; buy a van; tour a lot; play hundreds of shows; hire a publicist and learn how to do everything yourself so that when, finally, other people want to do it for you, you know if they’re doing a good job.”


Keloha was put together by Wet Ape Productions and is the second full festival the homegrown company has produced in Kelowna. Its signature event is the Centre of Gravity and the company’s founder, Scott Emslie, has also secured several top DJs including Tiesto and DeadMau5 to play in the city.


Kelowna RCMP issued a statement Monday morning saying the festivities went off without a hitch.


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