The space is small, intimate and packed. There’s a warm glow in the dark, retro lounge as the microbrew-pint-clutching crowd grooves along with the five-piece band playing in the corner. The slick-haired singer, outfitted with a bolo tie and strumming an acoustic guitar, serenades, yodels and growls within the same song. Next to me, a fan gesticulates and twitches on beat.
It’s hard not to be swept up in the feel-good energy of this crowd gathered around roots-based Americana band Petunia and the Vipers at WISE Hall in Vancouver’s East Side. Petunia, the singer, says it’s one of his favourite venues. “It has a special community vibe that people really seem to enjoy, and I mean all people. [Fans] aged 20 to 90 come to see us here.”
The same could be said for coastal BC’s outdoor music-festival circuit, which Petunia and the Vipers is a part of every summer; it’s a scene in which a diverse and passionate group of music-lovers — both performers and fans — gather in offbeat spots with a communal soul, set amid memorable natural backdrops.
This performance at WISE is like a warm-up for those summer nights.
Photo courtesy Phillips Backyard Weekender by Luke Connor Visual.
MUSIC FOR EVERYONE
The festivals taking place along BC’s coast are as eclectic as the artists and enthusiasts playing and participating in them — small and large, rustic and urban. From the 40-year-strong Vancouver Folk Music Festival in Jericho Beach Park to the intimate Campbell Bay Music Fest, held on a Gulf Islands farm, there’s more on offer than any one fan can experience in one summer.
“No matter what your taste, there is music for everyone,” says long-time Vancouver-Whistler DJ Vinyl Ritchie. “There are almost too many music festivals to choose from. It’s exhausting.”
I tend to agree. So, in the interest of narrowing down my choices, I ask him which ones he’d never miss. “My must-go-to event is Otalith in Ucluelet,” he says. “It’s a smaller, two-day, band-oriented vibe with a few DJs in a beautiful location.”
Laura Mitic, singer in the Victoria-based band Carmanah (known for its West Coast soul), also has a soft-spot for Otalith Festival, which is set on the far-west edge of Vancouver Island. “This beautiful festival holds many magical memories for us,” she says. “It’s the perfect size in that you can get lost while making new friends, but not so massive that [you’ll lose track of who you came with]. We’ve played on the main stage for an excited crowd, as well as at a campfire stage in the middle of the forest with 300 people gathered around, listening intently in the dark.”
All along coastal BC, the music scene is about beautiful settings and engaged crowds. And for some local musicians, the more isolated the scene, the better.
“We particularly enjoy playing the smaller community festivals,” says Shawn Hall of the blues-based duo The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer. “There’s a level of abandonment [at these events] that leads to wilder life moments.”
Folk-rock singer/songwriter Jenny Ritter agrees. “My favourite gigs on the festival circuit always turn out to be in the smallest towns,” she says. “A massive festival near a city has its benefits, but I love the community that is so visibly built up around a small-town festival.” She names ArtsWells Festival in northern BC as “summer camp for musicians.” And, because there’s no cell service there and it’s a trek to get to, everyone is “really there, very present,” Ritter says.
Back on the coast, on a Mayne Island farm, Campbell Bay also has that summer-camp feel. “Campbell Bay Music Fest is the most grassroots of them all,” says Ritter of the stay-small, two-day event that always sells out. “There’s also a beautiful visual art element to the festival, installations created across the property, and a community stage at the local farmer’s market, which anybody can attend. It’s a really special weekend, and attendees are asked to treat the property and community as if it were their own, which is a lovely thing to observe.”
Photo courtesy Phillips Backyard Weekender by Dean Kalyan
FROM ICONIC TO UNDER-THE-RADAR
Of course, the larger and more-urban fests have their place, too. Iconic Vancouver band 54-40 (inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame last year), was the big closing act at the Vancouver Island MusicFest in the Comox Valley a couple of years ago, and the event impressed them.
“The festival is large but it retains a homey, organic feel, with diverse music and entertaining workshops,” says bassist Brad Merritt. “There’s something for everyone.” He also gives a shout-out to the “one-of-a-kind” Vancouver Folk Music Festival on the shores of his hometown, overlooking English Bay, the North Shore mountains and downtown’s skyscrapers. It’s the “best mainstage view in all of North America,” says Chris Frye of Victoria-based folk/roots/rock quintet, The Bills.
Last year, The Bills also played at Islands Folk Fest on Providence Farm outside of Duncan as part of a celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary. “The festival pulsates with positivity and grooviness — it’s the [epitome] of a West Coast musical event,” says Frye. “And our 2017 set in their overheated and gushingly charming little chapel was one of our best of the past 10 years. Total festival bliss.”
Nearby, in Victoria, a series of fests roll out over the summer, one of which got international coverage last year in Rolling Stone magazine. The Phillips Backyard Weekender takes place at one of the city’s best-loved microbreweries (Phillips Brewery), transforming a parking lot into an open-air, three-day party every July.
Playing there was a highlight for the alt pop-rock group Fortune Killers — dubbed one of Victoria’s best up-and-coming acts in the same Rolling Stone piece. “Hitting the stage at Phillips Backyard Weekender in Victoria and getting interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine was a huge moment for us,” says the band’s singer, Felicia Harding. “It was very surreal and thrilling.”
This year, the band hopes to play the event’s sister fest, the bigger, end-of-summer Rifflandia. “It’s our favourite local festival,” says Harding.
And yet, like every other artist I talked to, for Harding, smaller is better when it comes to the festivals in other coastal BC communities. “We really love small-town festivals … and among our favourites is Edge of the World Festival on Haida Gwaii,” says Harding. “There’s something so personal about [it]; you get to connect with the community and the other artists and it’s really special. Magical even. Plus, the scenery is stunning — I’ve never seen the stars so bright as in Haida Gwaii.”
BRINGING THE FUN
Whatever the location — the wilds of Haida Gwaii; a farm on Mayne Island; the western shores of Vancouver Island; the urban beaches of Vancouver or a microbrewery in Victoria — the BC crowd brings the fun, loves to dance and lets loose at summer festivals.
“I remember at Tall Tree festival [in Port Renfrew], a couple dressed like beautiful, glittery fawns was dancing in the front row. They came up to me after the show and told me they’d fallen in love to ‘Dust and Bones,’ our first single [released under the band name Isobel Trigger],” says Harding. “One of my favourite memories.”
It’s a sweet story that underlines the come-togetherness of BC’s music-fest scene. And it makes me think of Petunia, belting out ballads in that romper-room-like lounge in East Vancouver, after which fans yelled “crickets, crickets” for an encore. They were asking to hear “The Cricket Song,” which nods to the sound of those vocal insects on a warm, full-moon-lit Canadian night.
Here’s to crickets, crickets all summer long.