What is it Like to Perform Music at 4/20 in Vancouver?
“4/20” is an exciting time of the year for budding stoners in in the lower mainland. Every year, on April 20th, thousands of people flock to the downtown core to celebrate their love of the cannabis plant. The atmosphere is fun, friendly, and the crowds are as dense as Mumbai, India. In an almost religious celebration of the plant, hoards of teenagers, businessmen, and people of the middle class partake in a myriad of rituals. This includes making purchases from small vendors, chanting, smoking openly in public, and soaking in the free music and theatrical acts. Using reflections on my own personal experiences as a performer, I will provide a brief experiential account of what it is like to be a musician playing at 4/20 in Vancouver.
Polarhorse and 4/20
In 2012, 2013, and 2014, I performed at the Vancouver 4/20 event with my instrumental math rock / jazz band Polarhorse. Polarhorse saw stage time playing on both the main stage (our performance taking place minutes after the 4:20 p.m. countdown) and the secondary stage. For my bandmates and I, playing at 4/20 was something that we were always excited about. The opportunity as a small local band to play in front of large crowds was a special treat. Specifically, for our band and other similarly small local musicians, 4/20’s inclusive atmosphere provided a unique opportunity to perform for a large live audience. In normal circumstances, for both ourselves and other smaller groups, such an opportunity would never be attainable elsewhere in the city.
Many might wonder how we managed to secure a gig at the 4/20 celebration. For us, our tactic was simple; we made ourselves known to the marijuana community. We began by contacting key members of Vancouver’s pro-marijuana movement (such as Jodie Emery) and we inquired about performing. Furthermore, we tried to make regular appearances at the BCMP Vapor Lounge open mic event called “Jams in the Key of Green”. From there, we secured relevant contacts and impressed important individuals with our performances.
The Gigs and Setting Up
Every year we encountered the same general ritual for setting up and performing so the account given here will be applicable to all three of my performances at 4/20. To begin, we would arrive at the art gallery earlier than our allotted time slot. This was always done to make sure that the necessary equipment to perform music was actually present. Unfortunately, every single year, there would be miscommunications between ourselves and the event organizer. We found that in trying to organize with the 4/20 event planners, what was promised by them never seemed to fully materialize in reality. In most instances, the 4/20 crew would be missing something like a previously promised guitar amp or crucial part of a drum kit. In anticipation of this, we were always prepared for the worst. As a warning to the prospective performer, always be prepared to provide your own equipment for 4/20. In my experience, the entire tech team is quite friendly although sometimes profoundly stoned. In instances such as these, making clear communications between your party and theirs is difficult, but necessary. Sometimes they may fumble, be forgetful, or make an error in their tech duty. In consideration of their inebriation, it is important to be patient and understanding in instances such as these. Furthermore, if you’re performing it is common to expect the fantastic perk of a free substantially large bag of marijuana as “pay”.
On Stage Experience
When the gear is set up, and the band is ready to play, this is where some of the most interesting experiences happen. Every set begins with a small preaching session by a political marijuana activist. As performers who were admittedly not as invested in the political cause as the speakers on stage, being behind such passionate speakers (as a backdrop) was always an awkward experience. Generally these speeches are quite long and we often couldn’t help but wonder if the speeches were taking away from our stage time.
At the point when we are finally allowed to play, the glory of playing a 4/20 concert comes to life. Swaths of people who you will have never seen before go into a passionate trance of dancing and head bobbing. Under the haze of music that is wafted towards them, the audience at 4/20 displays signs of life that are simply not apparent at other concerts in Vancouver’s music scene. Perhaps it’s from the marijuana, but people people dancing seem more in tune with their bodies than at other concerts; comfortable, erotic, and completely un-phased by the preying eyes of those around them. As a performer, you also adopt this attitude and, in a sense, also feel high.
Performing music at 4/20 is fun and offers challenges for a band in several ways such as initially securing a gig at the event, organizing with event planners, and dealing with stoned audio technicians. The benefits of playing 4/20 are based on the free weed, crowd size and the behavior of a crowd that is heavily subdued by marijuana’s effects; in this state they are particularly receptive to music.
By Trevor Wong