With Toronto's CN Tower looming in the background, Skrillex stopped several minutes into his headlining set last weekend to address the crowd. "I'm so happy to be in Canada tonight," he announced from his spaceship-looking DJ booth, as a sea of people wearing neon clothing and slogan T-shirts ("Drop Beats Not Bombs," "Keep Calm and Listen to Dubstep") roared their approval.
The show was the first stop on the Full Flex Express Tour, a cross-Canada trek with dates in six cities, including Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Conceived by Skrillex, the tour – which also features Diplo, Grimes, Pretty Lights, KOAN Sound, Tokimonsta and Hundred Waters – finds the artists travelling together by train to each city. The tour hits Winnipeg tonight.
With the event held on the grounds of the 18th-century British site Fort York in downtown Toronto, many braved sweltering temperatures for five hours just to get a good location to watch the current king of dubstep. They weren't the only ones eagerly anticipating the three-time Grammy Award winner.
"I'm, like, the biggest Skrillex fan," said Grimes backstage, minutes after finishing her performance. As she toyed with a sampler she feared was broken during her set, the 24-year-old Canadian singer (real name Claire Boucher) explained how she landed a spot on the tour, despite wanting to take a break from a non-stop schedule of festivals and overseas shows.
"My manager said, 'I have a tour for you,' and I said, 'I won't go on any tour unless it's a Skrillex tour,' half-joking," she recalled. "And he was like, 'Well, it is a Skrillex tour.'" While her dark synth-pop might seem like a strange contrast to Skrillex's skull-crushing, bass-heavy beats, Boucher reworked songs from her latest album, Visions, in preparation for the festival. With the help of friend Michael Diamond (a.k.a. Blood Diamonds), her single "Oblivion" got a dubstep outro that received spirited applause from the crowd.
"I think people are going to have a good time listening to a wide spectrum of artists," said Derek Vincent Smith, the Colorado artist and producer who makes music under the name Pretty Lights. Though the festival's lineup leans heavily toward the different branches of electronic music, from dubstep to Pretty Lights' hip-hop-influenced electro, there is a noticeable rock influence on several artists.
While an afternoon DJ set from Wesley "Diplo" Pentz (without the hype man and backup dancers that have become staples of his Major Lazer sets) included Kanye West's "Mercy" and the new Major Lazer single "Get Free" (which features the vocals of Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman), the biggest singalongs came with AC/DC and Blur's "Song 2." As for the headliner, Skrillex's past career fronting the post-hardcore band From First to Last was present in his more aggressive material, and his song "Breakin' a Sweat" (which he recorded with members of the Doors) was the highlight of a hits-packed set.
The Full Flex Express tour was inspired by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin's infamous 1970 train tour across Canada, which was filmed and can be seen in the 2003 documentary Festival Express. While that tour was a financial disaster, Smith said he sees a connection between those artists and the rise of EDM as a concert business force in North America. "It's crazy, and it's definitely having a huge impact on how the music industry is re-structuring itself," Smith says. "I can't even imagine how much fun this tour is going to be. There's a studio car, a chill car, we all have our own cabins. Just rocking out across Canada – it's going to be awesome."