Canada’s Best Summer Festival Roadtrip

Part One – Growing Up in Tall Tree Music Festival

On a brand new summer’s day, dew clung to my trusty van “Hodor” as I hummed west-of-west along Vancouver Island’s coastline. I hummed with it. Like a child let out from class I was ready to play. And what a playground I approached: I was on my way to Tall Tree Music Festival.

Perched atop Brown Mountain in Port Renfrew, Tall Tree Music Festival overlooks old growth forests spilling into the Pacific Ocean. It’s the end of the road for the island’s coastal highway; the land beyond is too rugged pave or pass. I first glimpsed the festival grounds crossing a one-way bridge in Hodor over a river. Tents and flags speckled a ridgeline above with colour. Could the festival be way up there? I thought. Indeed it was.

I summited the mountain and hunted for a prime camping spot. While I had never attended the festival, friends had coached me on the best camping spots. As a volunteer I was granted an early entry on Thursday, while the event officially began on Friday. I walked through the grounds and remarked on the camping selection. Totally integrated into the festival, I passed hillside vistas, forested groves and secluded trails all open for homemaking. No gates, no checkpoints, no fences. They left the kids with the keys to the castle.

I found the perfect spot: tucked into a thicket of appropriately tall trees, my campsite boasted plenty of shade, a central location and best of all: a tree fort! The child in me exalted. I set up camp for my incoming crew. Once I had finished, it was time for my first volunteer shift as stage crew. I headed down the central path towards Spirit Stage for Thursday night’s volunteer pre-party.

The Spirit Stage is one of Tall Tree’s two major music stages. Situated at the back of the mountain, this electronic focused stage featured an enclosed tent packed with PK Sound and tricked out lighting. Impressive speaker stacks, glowing copper trees and mesmerizing lazers transformed an otherwise mundane enclosure into a proper warehouse-party-in-the-woods. It’s lineup boasted bass heavy DJs and funky west-coast favorites like Slynk and festival founder Neon Steve. Acts were scheduled to run from 9pm to well past dawn, paying tribute to the island’s strong rave culture. It was a long nights work. By sunrise I felt like I’d just finished an all-nighter studying in college. Maybe that was just the Dexedrine.

When I awoke on Friday afternoon the festival had truly begun. My friends arrived and celebrated our campsite. We decked out our tree-fort, guzzled some bagged wine and set out to revel amongst the people. Tall Tree’s attendees were bursting with energy. Not only were we on the cusp of a wild weekend party, but also a short and precious Canadian summer. Tall Tree felt like the start of something big. The air was electric with the beginning of things.

Main Stage overlooked the natural beauty of the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. Sitting on the panicle of the mountain, this stage had sweeping views of the hills bay and open ocean as its backdrop. In the mornings, coastal mist would surround the mountain leaving Main Stage to feel like a Jurassic peak floating above the clouds. At sunset the sky behind the stage was lit with burning hues. The wide, semi-circle awning was situated in a natural amphitheater. Perfect acoustics for the roster of live acts such as The Funk Hunters, Five Alarm Funk and Delhi to Dublin. The Main Stage pounded us daily with ecstatic dance parties until 1am. I was crushed each night when the last act finished (so early!).

Having only hosted Tall Tree for the last 3 years, Brown Mountain was a young venue. Though the event was well put together, it was clear that the mountain was a bit fresh to the game. The festival was lacking the major art pieces you’d expect at a more mature event. About half of the camping spaces were recently cleared. When I arrived on Thursday some of the infrastructure was being built just a day before the event. It’s a testament to the dedicated work of the crew that Tall Tree came together smoothly on such tight time. Much like my own summer plans, everything fell into place just as it needed to. It felt as though Tall Tree was growing something new. Something unbound by tradition.

On Saturday we were firmly established in our tree fort when a bit of rain rolled in. After another long night volunteering I was happy to nap to the tune of summer raindrops. Too bad for BC’s raging forest fires, the rain didn’t last and when it cleared I struck out in search of a shower. The showers were high pressure, free and without lineups – can you believe it? I passed one of Tall Tree’s smaller stages on my way back and stopped to snap some pictures. A small stage bisected the festival’s main pathway and tempted passerbys with funky beats all day long. It also had a killer view. I dug one local DJ banging out deep house favorites in full silver spandex.

Another notable niche was the “Jaguar Lounge,” a beach bar straight out of Ko Phangan. It span tropical house poolside mountainside all night long. Laser fields lit up overhanging foliage. Unfortunately no Thai red bull or whippets (I checked). Just down the path was The Turn Temple. A moving truck sprayed head to tow with graffiti, the Turn Temple featured three two-track vinyl mixers setup for anyone to take for a spin. Records covered the interior. It was the place to be at 4:20.

Over the weekend our camp coalesced into a familiar group. Like many around us we were getting into the grove of summer – showing skin, letting loose and planning our fun. I had a lot still ahead of me, most of it unknown, but irresistible to imagine. We stoked our hearts and our minds for the nights to come. At Tall Tree anything was possible.

The standout acts of the weekend were Neon Steve’s opening set, Delhi to Dublin’s world-electro explosion, Slynk and the chance to see Chali 2na of Jurassic Five perform alongside The Funk Hunters. The becoming-island-legend Neon Steve played to a crowd of a thousand friends on Friday night, mixing hip hop, rock and pop with dub and dnb in his genre defying style. On the Main Stage Delhi to Dublin charged a Saturday night crowd with relentless tabla beats, skipping fiddle and electrifying bass-lines tightly executed with skilled showmanship. The exuberant bollywood dance moves plastered a grin across my face as I “screwed in the light bulb” to the Indian rhythms. Slynk hit it home Sunday Night with a set somehow fresher then his look. A veteran funkerfier of the west coast scene, Slynk took nostalgic tracks like Shaggy’s ”wasn’t me,” snuck in a slippery bassline and fed them to the dance floor like a midnight snack. It was delicious. The Funk Hunters brought the legendary Chali 2na onto the stage for a wild performance that ended with a tribute to Jurassic 5. If anything Chali is at the peak of his game, spitting rhymes impossibly fast and working the crowd like it’s his day job. I guess it is.

On Monday morning my friends woke me up to say goodbye. Tall Tree’s pilgrims were descending from their sacred mountain to return from whence they came. When I finally left Tall Tree in the afternoon I was feeling lifted. I had grown way, way up. I was high on summer. Though I was off the mountain, I wasn’t coming down. Not for a while. Maybe never.

Part Two – Expanding at Basscoast

We struck east in the dead of night. Hodor the van hummed a familiar tune as Vancouver’s glow receded in the rear view. Just two hours from the big city’s outer limits, the Nicola Valley near Merrit hosts the infamous BassCoast Music and Arts Festival. I was buzzing to get there.

I awoke in a lineup of cars thrumming to life. Having arrived the evening before, we beat the rush and hit the gate around 8am. Security was candid and friendly – they gave us a quick talk on safety and high fives.

Marked by a shallow, cool, winding river, the Nicola Valley is a worthy destination in itself. With fresh water, almost unlimited space and a breezy climate it’s by far the best festival camping I’ve seen. We scored some waterfront property shaded under poplar trees and kicked it. Not bad for a $200 ticket that includes camping.

Something about Basscoast felt special the minute I walked into the grounds. Everything was carefully and willfully expressed. Art installations were everywhere with astonishing thematic consistency. The whole festival seemed an art piece in its own right. A large clearing in the center housed numerous sculptures, interactive pieces, stylized chill zones and structures, swings, games and shops. Basscoast had succeeded in creating that “Magical Dream Forest” that other festivals strive for.

TENTACULARRR was the theme of the year – huge latticed tentacles pierced the barn-like Main Stage and field beneath. Above them flitted thousands of long white streamers in a flowing canopy. At night, all aglow, the effect was spectacular tentacularrr. My favorite act on Main Stage was undoubtedly Diamond Saints. The duo astonished. They layered their unique, minimal trap-like bass beats under choice records with liquid skill. Their empty sound filled the night air with a subsonic charge and rocked the body to the core. The chance to see An-Ten-Nae cast the heaviest of bass-spells over the crowd was a treat (and a long time coming!).

Tentacularrr

Basscoast’s extraordinary vision attracts extraordinary attendees. Everyone seemed to be “those awesome people you see at festivals.” No room for scrubs and vibe-leaches. People were generally in their late twenties or thirties, dressed in outrageous finery, healthy, happy and good-looking. It’s no wonder they call it babe coast. I definitely noticed the female energy – perhaps because its created and run by women, or perhaps because everyone was just so sexy. And thanks to the veteran party crowd, an affordable bar served up beer and cider without issue.

When I entered Slay Bay for the first time I was hypnotized. A large white canopy, stretched between trees, covered the lush grass dance floor. Like a giant lace doily, air streamed through it causing it to billow and breathe in the wind. The stagecraft, lights and presentation of the space were breathtaking. I found myself returning to Slay Bay time and time again as my favorite spot. Perhaps that was just because the bar was there.

My favorite picks for Slay Bay were Mr Mo, Small Town Djs and Ekali. Playing in the afternoon, Mr Mo showcased his skills on the mixer bending and warping primal frequencies. His soundscape was huge – textured melodies flitted above warm and joyful beats. I couldn’t tell if the birdcalls were coming from the track or the crowd – probably both. Small Town Djs delivered the perfect dance party. Combining familiar hooks with cheeky breakdowns, the duo surprised the crowd with fresh takes on classic booty shakers. Their positive sound split grins. We stomped our feet in the grass and hooted amongst our tribe. Ekali closed out Sunday night with no apologies. Displaying his talent as a producer, he accosted with a crisp, heavy hitting set that left no one unaffected. Somehow Ekali’s music always sounds louder.

The feeling at Basscoast compared to losing my festiginity

The first time I attended a music festival it blew my mind. All the music, all the art, all the people – all the fun – I couldn’t believe it was real. Basscoast expanded that experience. It was just so damn good. The feeling at Basscoast compared to losing my festiginity. Like the The TwerkShop: I was privileged to watch this unfold from a tree-fort overlooking the Pirate Radio stage. A renegade tower of reclaimed lumber, the pirate-pagoda had tiered dancing platforms and a florescent sign declaring “on-air.” The twerkshop was led by foxes, powerfully and positively instructing an enthusiastic crowd of booty shakers. Babecoast, remember?

While the Nicola Valley venue could easily host six or seven thousand people, Basscoast limits the attendees to three thousand. This means waterfront camping, spacious dance floors, a lineup-less bar and no issues finding your friends. It also means the “cuddle-dome,” a huge inflatable igloo filled with blankets and ambient glow-lighting, is never full. It means you probably haven’t heard of most of the artists and you may not have heard of Basscoast at all. And that’s ok – shhhhh – its our little secret.

On Monday morning I woke up and went for one last swim in the river. We packed up our campsite, said our goodbyes and piled into Hodor. The drive back to the city flashed by. I replayed vivid memories of the festival in my mind, trying to hold on to the experience. Was it a just a dream?

Part Three – Grounding at Atmosphere Gathering

The mind flies when you’re having fun. After Basscoast I took Hodor east, leaving the familiar forests for the open road. I left with my partner-in-crimefun to pay tribute to wanderlust, cottage life and Bassnectar. A few weeks and 12,000kms later, I returned in love to forever-home British Columbia. Its late August and I’ve come full circle, back to Vancouver Island headed to another festival.

In late August the small town of Cumberland hosts Atmosphere Gathering. Markedly different then Tall Tree or Basscoast, Atmosphere is all-ages and situated right in the town. Its not hiding and its not excluding; none-the-less it flies the weird flag. The “gathering” is situated in a large park, essentially some trees and a field. I snuck Hodor around back by way of an adjacent residential neighborhood and unloaded our festival-home over the fence. The camping was pretty squished but conveniently next to the stages. The first thing I noticed when I entered the festival were the kids. Little hippy kids everywhere.

And why not? A music and arts festival is a great place for kids as long as it has the right atmosphere. Kids are all about play, which is a big part of festivals. And like their parents it turns out they love dance music as well. The family energy was mostly great. It put a grin on my face seeing toddlers with fairy wings chasing a beach ball, or two boys surveying the magical land like explorers. There was a big hairy dad and a little ballerina princess hoola hooping together. I played an epic Frisbee marathon with some twelve-year-old kids. After the debauchery of festival past, it was a welcome change. That being said, young kids need ear protection (!!!)

Kids

The opening ceremony, like Tall Tree and Basscoast before it, addressed the aboriginal land which the festival was held on. The main stage’s Canopy arched over field beneath in the shape of bird with flagged wings. With the sky as a backdrop, the bird’s head peered down at the crowd with glowing eyes. A few art pieces surrounded the stage, which spread out into a big grassy dance floor / field.

On Saturday night local funk-gods Five Alarm Funk played on the main stage. The smaller scale of the event gave them a big spotlight. Frontman and drummer Tayo Branston was a wild animal in a frenzy of funk – and his bandmates kept up. They fully committed to an eccentric and charged band-personality. Between two songs, the guitarist asked sweaty shirtless Tayo to say some funk poetry for the crowd. He screamed. Not only were they tight musically, their synchronized dance moves were off the hook. They challenged the crowd with complex callbacks. “May the funk be with you!” they shouted. “And also with you!” we replied, on the offbeat.

The other big stage was hard to miss: a huge red and yellow triple-peak circus tent in the middle of the grounds. It was certainly authentic, which made it epic rather then cheap and lame. While its sets were mostly DJs, the standout act was a huge ensemble. Reverend Heathen Strangefellow and the Vaudeville Vagabonds are a turn of the century rock-n-roll ghost-band / steampunk fire-circus. Two exceptionally strange and talented vocalists lead a band of a wraiths trough an over-the-top score. It’s a concert woven into an elaborate performance of circus tricks, gameshows, werewolf combat, high level acrobats, fire spinning and contortions. I was absorbed, transfixed and transported. We were in a vision, in a story. It was unimaginable and fantastic.

I went to a few workshops during the day. The dance-workout session was good fun. In a crowd of shameless hippies and flower children I never felt self-conscious trying new and funny things. I learned how to hoola hoop too, though not as well as the ten-year-old next to me. While a few things were hoky-poky-magicky-bullshit, for the most part it was an intentional, healthy, happy and seemingly spiritual event. And why not pretend you can hug on your “chakra side” for a bit.

Full of memories we left and hopped on a ferry crossing the Georgia straight. As we drove down the sunshine coast I thought back to all the magic days and wild nights I’d spent at festivals this summer. What a privilege it was to participate in them. A big thank you to the organizers, artists and many others that make these festivals in British Columbia possible. And to all the friends that make them unforgettable.

Tall Tree