By: Laura Beaulne-Stuebing –
Next to the main stage, constructed out of white tape and fashioned onto a fence, were the words “Girls to the front,” spelled out large enough for a crowd gathered up close for a band to see clearly.
The statement resonated, the perfect few words to catch out of the corner of the eye for anyone in the audience as Braids closed the third night of Ottawa’s annual Arboretum Festival. While the opening bands that night helped change a once vacant island lot to a celebration of music and art, the headliners Friday night brought ideas meant to challenge.
Albert Island is a sacred place for Ottawa and Gatineau-area Algonquin communities, and was a new site for Arboretum’s weekend events. Before festival organizers transformed it with lights, white bunting and food and drink vendors, it had sat idle, a few empty industrial buildings beside a river gathering dust, for almost 200 years.
The main stage opened with Hull’s Scattered Clouds, then continued on with twangy guitars as the Sadies tore up the stage. Local band New Swears, always a high-energy party, had the crowd dancing, had themselves crowd surfing and climbing on fire escapes, before the evening’s headliner.
Braids, a Montreal via Calgary trio, leaned on their Polaris shortlisted album Deep in the Iris, an impressive effort and departure from their previous album, electronic, intelligent dance music-esque Flourish // Perish. Deep in the Iris layers complex, jazz-like drumming, lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s unique voice and cutting lyrics with piano running underneath, moving the songs forward.
Standell-Preston’s youthful and bright voice and her bashful “thank yous” after the crowd’s applause were deceptive in a way, a contrast to the anger and biting emotion conveyed throughout her lyrics. Nothing spelled this out more than when Braids closed the set with feminist anthem “Miniskirt.” The words are scathing; Standell-Preston points a finger at society, at gendered expectations and slut-shaming as she cries, “You feel you’ve the right to touch me/ Cause I asked for it/ In my little miniskirt.”
Even what Standell-Preston was wearing, a shapeless brown thing that could have been the uniform for members of a hippie commune, asked the audience to ask questions. Girls to the front? Yes, girls to the front.