Exploring The Roots of Supercrawl, Hamilton’s Best Music Festival

We went deep into Hamilton's biggest independent festival to see what organizers, performers, and fans thought of the event.

by Andrew Baulcomb
Sep 16 2014, 4:59pm

Back in 2009, on a cold and drizzly night in October, a few thousand locals braved the elements to take part in the inaugural Supercrawl festival along James Street North in Hamilton, Ontario. My friends and I were among those dedicated few, sopping wet and freezing cold, yet enormously proud of the blossoming music and arts scene in our hometown. I think of that night often. How we huddled under umbrellas in a parking lot at the corner of James Street North and Wilson Street, secretly passing around cans of warm beer while taking in the musical and cultural spectacle that was Hamilton’s first Supercrawl.

Last weekend, more than 130,000 people streamed into downtown Hamilton for the sixth-annual edition of the free street festival — an enormous four-day event that attracted some of the top musicians in the city, as well as numerous big names from across Canada and beyond. Performers at the 2014 festival include the likes of Spoon, Kevin Drew, How to Dress Well, Operators, Shout Out Out Out Out, Hamilton Leithauser, Charles Bradley and A Tribe Called Red, along with some of the best talent from the Hamilton area, including Jessy Lanza, Jeremy Greenspan, Harlan Pepper, Canadian Winter, Terra Lightfoot, Lee Reed, WTCHS, The Dirty Nil, Dead Tired and Friday night headliners Arkells.

The rapid expansion and overwhelming popularity of the festival has caught many by surprise, but its success has been no happy accident. For those on hand during that rain-soaked test-run in 2009, Supercrawl represented the idea that Hamilton was on the cusp of something big — that the city’s musicians, artists and entrepreneurs were leading the charge into a prosperous new era, long before the condo developers and opportunists turned their gaze downtown.

Dead Tired by Fehn Foss

After the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008 and the steel industry began to implode, Hamilton — like many industrial communities scattered along the Rust Belt — desperately needed a way to reinvent itself. Beginning with the monthly Art Crawl series and expanding with Supercrawl, this seemed like the perfect way to do it. In the years that followed, cries of “Art is the New Steel” and “You Can Do Anything in Hamilton” echoed through the downtown core, as the city began shedding deep layers of rust and grime in a flurry of small business loans and wild ambition. Vacant warehouses became ad-hoc music venues; new cafés and bars opened on long-forgotten street corners; pop-up galleries and vintage markets flooded the area.

Most importantly, people from all corners of the city started going downtown again. For Supercrawl director Tim Potocic, maintaining strong ties with the community and supporting Hamilton’s downtown core has always been a priority. Since its inception, Supercrawl has been anchored along historic James Street North in the city’s urban centre — a stretch of commercial and residential properties that runs from the Jackson Square shopping complex all the way to the city’s waterfront.

In recent years, the strip has emerged as Hamilton’s go-to destination for anything artistic, independent and avant-garde. Like Haight Street in San Francisco, Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn or Portobello Road in London, James Street North is chock full of bookstores, record shops, art galleries, restaurants, cafés and curious little nooks, each one offering an array of unique flavours and one-of-a-kind wares. “Right from the get-go, when we originally started it, conceptually, there was a tie between the urbanism of the festival, the fact that it’s free and the fact that the timing was specifically picked to be in the fall, past the summer festival season,” says Potocic, co-founder of Sonic Unyon Records and a longtime fixture in the Hamilton music community. “That was all by design.”

Canadian Winter by Fehn Foss

When we meet for coffee one week before the festival, it’s obvious that Supercrawl has taken a large physical and mental toll. After securing a table near the back of the room, I watch through the café’s glass façade as Potocic paces back and forth on the sidewalk for nearly 15 minutes — fielding an endless stream of phone calls while rubbing his forehead and staring into the night sky. When we’re finally sitting across from one another, coffee in hand, Potocic seems relieved to find a little peace and quiet. I ask if he’s been pulling 20-hour days leading up to the festival’s opening night. “More like 19,” says the festival’s most overworked problem-solver, only half-kidding. A colleague of Potocic’s briefly joins us at the table, and mentions how some members of the Supercrawl team have begun drinking coffee late into the evening to prepare for their minds and bodies for long days and a lack of sleep. It seems like a cruel joke, but again, not that far removed from reality.

Potocic’s team is already booking headliners for next year’s festival (a closely-guarded secret, despite my best efforts to pry) and working hard to finalize an ambitious five-year plan that could see Supercrawl utilizing First Ontario Centre — a 17,000-seat hockey arena just around the corner from the festival’s main drag — for a ticketed launch event with a big-time roster. But despite its rapid expansion and promising future, Supercrawl still feels like an intimate show in a basement venue.

In an era when so many Canadian music festivals are dominated by imposing security, long lines and high prices, Supercrawl offers a welcomed reprieve from the kind of heavily scrutinized, meticulously organized “fun” offered at most large-scale events. This year’s festival was no different. Part of the appeal of Supercrawl remains being able to step in and out of the festival atmosphere while exploring some of the shops and galleries that line the street year-round.

It’s a major pride point for the organizing team, and something they hope to hang onto as long as possible, Potocic tells me. “Geography is always an issue, and containing people is always an issue. But we take a lot of time and effort to plan, logistically, how to make flow happen,” he explains. “But would we ever outgrow downtown Hamilton? I don’t think so.”

For many local bands on the bill, Supercrawl represents much more than a hometown gig. Because the festival is free and open to all members of the community, it offers a rare chance for bands to attract new fans and support independent retailers by bringing heavy foot traffic into the area. “I’ve lived here for 10 years now, and back in 2004 there was no reason for tens of thousands of people to come into the downtown core like this,” says former Alexisonfire frontman George Pettit. His latest project, the bone-rattling hardcore outfit Dead Tired, performed on an outdoor stage at the corner of James Street North and Colbourne Street on Friday night. “The festival location is unique, because a lot of the bands are partaking as well as performing. It’s a nice feeling, because we all have a vested interest in supporting the city and the local economy.”

Dead Tired by Fehn Foss

Canadian Winter frontman Kobi Annobil agrees. “I’ve stayed in a bunch of different places throughout my life, but Hamilton, for me, has maybe the most remarkable number of talented people living here than anywhere I’ve lived before,” says Annobil, a U.K. transplant who moved to Hamilton in 2008 and formed his funk-driven hip-hop collective not long afterward. “I’ve seen the impact Supercrawl has on people, and the scene increases every year. This year, I feel like a lot of people I run with are getting a shot. A lot of people do it for the love, and they’re not necessarily really well known, mainstream names. But they’re getting their shot this year, which makes me really happy to see, for sure.”

Even with big names like Spoon and Kevin Drew on this year’s lineup, for many fans at this year’s Supercrawl, the main draw was Arkells — a homegrown group of blue-eyed soul devotees with a pair of JUNO Awards and three hit records to their name. At the height of the band’s Friday headlining slot, the surge of fans was so strong that attendees began climbing on top of cars and swinging from traffic lights to catch a brief glimpse of their hometown heroes. With thousands of fans jumping in unison during the band’s performance of “Michigan Left,” the power cut out and flickered on and off during the next three songs. The band later suggested on Twitter that the overwhelming number of fans were responsible for the power outage, and added that they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Canadian Winter by Fehn Foss

During a pre-show stroll around downtown Hamilton — less than an hour before hitting the Supercrawl main stage — frontman Max Kerman can’t walk more than three blocks without shaking someone’s hand or posing for a photo. When we pass through the city’s most famous intersection of King and James, he’s swarmed by fans and curious onlookers who spot the frontman’s signature quaff, leather jacket and floral button-down from all directions. “You know what the craziest part of all of this is? I rode my bike over here tonight, right up to the main stage,” Kerman tells me. “I think it’s the perfect festival for Hamilton. Throughout the rest of the year, there’s so much hard work being put into the core, whether it’s through small business or people investing their time and energy. To have an event that celebrates that like it’s Christmas or something is really cool.”

Despite being born and raised in Toronto, the 28-year-old has become the de-facto leader and spokesperson for Hamilton’s music scene. His five-piece band has performed at large festivals all over North America and Europe, but it’s obvious that Kerman relishes the opportunity to play Supercrawl — an event that he’s been attending as a fan for years. “Cynical Bastards,” one of the band’s most aggressive tracks off their latest record, High Noon, stands as a fist-pumping ode to Hamilton and the strength of city’s downtown music and arts community. Naturally, it’s become an instant hometown hit.

Jessy Lanza by Fehn Foss

Prior to launching into the song at this year’s Supercrawl, Kerman stepped up to the front of the stage and addressed the crowd. “This song, most of all, is a thank-you to everybody who’s working here, who’s living here, who’s bringing their positive energy to this city. And it’s a small note to all you cynical bastards. We don’t need you fucking here anyway, you can get out of town.” By Monday morning, the entire city seemed to be suffering from a Supercrawl hangover. There was a general sense that everyone just wanted to be a part of it in some way — whether that meant attending one show, or running a four-day gauntlet of live concerts and outrageous after-parties, all of which were within walking distance of the festival grounds. My experience fell into the latter category, with the mossy teeth, bloodshot eyes and ringing ears to show for it.

If the Festival Gods truly do exist, you can be sure they reside in Hamilton and make a habit of attending Supercrawl.

Andrew Baulcomb hasn’t slept in four days. He’s on Twitter - @abaulcomb
All photos courtesy of Fehn Foss