Attending Toronto’s 90s Nostalgia throwback fest

I am a self-professed music festival junky and a Tamagotchi-toting 90s kid. After 18 grueling festival-free months, Vaughan’s three-day 90s Nostalgia blowout was a much-anticipated affair for me and my crew. Held on the northern edge of the greater Toronto region after a last-minute venue change, Improve Canada became the cherished home to three glorious days of everything 90s. And, by everything, I mean the music, the dancing, the energy and the techno-neon slap-bracelet and bedazzled scrunchies. Atop was a haplessly dancing figure in hi-tops and throwback athleisure — the type with big bold stripes, of course. By the time those festival gates opened Friday afternoon, a buzzing line of obnoxious neon, teeny tiny backpacks and bucket hats stretched around the building. A dual lineup of Nostalgic fans — literally decked to the 9’s (as in 1999’s, of course…) — snaked around the grounds and out toward the street.

The venue was surprisingly well-suited to an all-weather music festival, with options for COVID-friendly social-distancing, a giant food truck courtyard, lavish VIP appointments (including a sky-high viewing deck with a covered seating level) and a sizable stage. The weather largely held out for Day One, where the Freestyle Fiesta kicked off with Toronto native and 90s pop/dance legend Elissa, whose silky vocals and delectable stage presence got the energy flowing. Armando Music took it to another level with slick dance moves, velvet jackets and many a hip bump before Max-a-million brought his ultra-smooth reggae rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” dance-style. Before we knew it, Fito Blanko’s unmatched energy had everyone (back row included) on their feet, dancing, against their will. 90s teen pop idol Joee — bespoke to the max in a crisp suit, tie and suspenders — arrived onstage with 97’s hottest pop single, “Angel”. It took only a few verses and a wink over his slick aviators before the all-female front row had thoroughly lost their minds.

Luckily, sponsors Flying Monkey Craft Brewery kept us going, with a delectable selection of craft beer and crisp seltzers.

I sampled several over the course of the weekend and couldn’t decide on a favorite between their Juicy Ass IPA (perhaps I’d identified too literally with the namesake after one or two… don’t fault me) or their Pineapple-Mango-Orange Creamsicle Supersonic Puppy Dreams Craft Seltzer. I kid you not. Voted #1 Best Named Seltzer in the history of seltzers and amazing stuff. Between sets, I grabbed a poutine — that’s a Canadian delicacy, if you’re not already aware. I can only lament its’ lack of existence for our non-Canadian friends reading this. But, trust me when I say, the gooey cheesy gravy and fries is the perfect fuel prior to finding yourself in the front row. Finally, we were ready for the Latin splendor and irrepressible energy of an Elvis Crespo set. “Sauvamente?” …hardly. But, we count that as a good thing. A very good thing.

Day Two dawned sunny and bright, with early sets from Thea Austin of Snap and the infamous Max-a-million, back for another rendition. Before we knew it, we were ready to “Bring it all Back” in the golden early evening with a sunset set by S-Club 7 alumni, S-Club Party. I count myself very lucky to have run into them backstage later in the evening, where my 12-year-old self was thrilled to discover that they were precisely as polite and perfect as she’d always imagined her teenybopper heroes to be. Strangely, also frozen in time, were the band members, appearing not to have aged two months since their wildly successful late-90s touring years. They might be robots, now that I think about it. Must research further. Whigfield, clad in a techno-punk robot bodysuit and perfect ginormous blonde ponytail, took the techno teenyboppers to the next level with party anthem “Saturday Night” — fittingly, on a Saturday Night. Did it sound better just for this meager coincidence? Absolutely, yes. 2 Unlimited followed with hit after hit and, with the opening bars of “No Limits” and then “Get Ready”, not dancing was simply not an option… which, as you can imagine, is a unique challenge when you happen to be in the photo pit, attempting to take non-blurry pictures.

My 90s kid was already more than satisfied, but next up was beloved Jenny from Ace of Base, who managed to bring a show-stopping vocal performance, beautiful costume changes, many a bouquet of roses tossed gracefully to adoring crowd members, as well as a setlist of the biggest, most goosebumps-inducing hit songs, all of which had graced my gaudy yellow Walkman on repeat 20 years ago, until the cassette tape wore out. My inner 13-year old self was beyond fan-girling even before I ran into her and Donny of The Vengaboys backstage. Next up, the Eurodance party bus had very much arrived and Boom! (Boom Boom Boom…) The Vengaboys were onstage, in ALL the colors, with ALL the dance moves. Confetti and Vengabucks rained down on the crowd at numerous intervals, between boot-scootin’ dance hits from the late 90s and early 00s. My inner 90s child almost couldn’t believe it, but the big names kept coming. We wrapped the glorious evening with headliners Aqua, who simply blew my mind, with both a dynamic and heartfelt performance, and some of the best vocals I never knew to expect from the “Barbie Girl” herself. Simply a stunning set in every way.

My 90s kid sang along the entire time, because she (still) knew all the words and simply couldn’t get enough.

Sunday, the third and glorious final day of Nostalgia, was our Rapcity Edition, featuring an early set with Max-a-million and Canadian rap legend Choclair. Kicking off with his most excellent dance version of “Africa”, Karl Wolf’s contagious energy, big beats and colorful stage presence took Sunday to the next level. But, Sunday, too, was a lineup of epic proportions. Next up, none other than the best of the “Dangerous” best, Kardinal Offishal. The weather took a bit of a nosedive into torrential showers. After a brief delay, the queen herself, Ashanti, graced us with an endless set of hit songs and slick dance moves — not hindered in the least by the pouring rain. Coincidentally, the rain storm really set in as she performed hit “Rain on Me”. Is she magic? Probably. Ja Rule, unfortunately, was a no-show for the sub-headlining set on Sunday due to COVID border-crossing issues. Fortunately, Ludacris made it and saved the day (despite flight and weather delays). He closed out the night with an unforgettably magical midnight performance in the pouring rain and there was not a single dry eye (or human) in the house.

I’m in awe at the lineup and 90s power of 2021’s festival, rescheduled several times over and brought to us by a surprisingly small, but determined crew in Vaughan, Ontario. I’ve since gotten to know these determined 90s lovers and they deserve a round of applause for their determination and hard work in making it all happen. This little festival, truly the first of its scope and scale after a very long pandemic, pulled off the unthinkable. To draw such an impressive lineup and under such unforgiving circumstances is nothing but impressive. Crowd comments reiterated much the same: nothing but awe, appreciation and love for a 90s party of epic proportions. I can’t wait to see what they pull off next year!

Top Shelf Music official 90s Nostalgia 2021 playlist:

Photography by Kaili Rose

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