Coming of age:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

Would as many talented musicians be living and playing in the nooks and crannies of the Bulkley Valley if the popular local music festival hadn’t been around these past 25 years?
To say “no” would be wild speculation, says valley resident Kevin Widen (pronounced weedin). But as one of the “co-conspirators” who helped create the grassroots Midsummer Festival in 1984, he may be a little humble.
Others have a different point of view. “It’s been a deciding factor in me sticking around here so long,” says born-and-bred Valley musician Mark Perry.
He now has six albums to his credit, but Perry was touring BC and Alberta in a bar band around the same time the Midsummer Festival got going. The self-described small-town guy admits he wasn’t the first to jump on the folk-festival bandwagon.
“I liked playing in front of the drunks,” he says with a chuckle. But after a few forays into the local coffeehouse and festival scene, he changed his tune. It was in this supportive environment that Perry started writing original material and rethinking his musical path.
Although he still enjoys cover tunes, the Midsummer Festival has provided Perry with some of the highlights of his musical life.
Whether it was walking off main stage high as a kite from the vibe at his show or jamming around campfires with other performers until dawn, Perry realized “these guys are way more what music is about.”
The music scene has been good to people in the Bulkley Valley. Besides the festival, the small but dedicated group of volunteers who make up the Bulkley Valley Folk Music Society (BVFMS) organizes guitar camps for adults and youth, puts on concerts throughout the year, oversees and administers the thriving local coffeehouse scene, and awards musical scholarships. Current festival co-ordinator Joan Belford describes music as soul food, and says that when she came to the valley 10 years ago the BVFMS was a good way to make connections in the community.
No one really wants to know what would happen if the festival didn’t exist, but after a few lean years, organizers aren’t completely certain Northerners won’t find out.

High waters
The worst-case scenario happened last year. During the spring of 2007 the snow pack was at record levels, and by early June flood warnings had been declared across the Northwest. When the Bulkley River exceeded its 100-year return, festival organizers were given ten days to find an alternative to their traditional riverside venue.
The BVFMS, which prides itself on running a self-sustaining show, had to break into its tidy nest egg to pay the cost of setting up in Heritage Park next to the arena in Smithers, including moving equipment and renting tents to house the stages.
But it wasn’t the same vibe as at the fairgrounds, and attendance was down.
The coffers were already diminished, says long-time organizer and BVFMS past-president Karen Diemert, thanks to a few other bad breaks. Another flood forced the group to cancel camping in 2001, and the following year was very rainy so fewer people came through the gates.
Then there was trouble with the police. After a few years of concerns about rowdies at the fairgrounds, the local RCMP detachment told organizers they’d have to cough up $6000 for extra security services.
Since most of the problems happen overnight, the society members decided camping, a major revenue generator and crowd pleaser, had to go. “We had to screen out the elements that were causing problems,” Belford explains.

Starting from scratch
Canceling camping was a challenge, but the BVFMS had been through challenges before.
In the early days, Diemert says, some organizers pulled money out of their own pockets to keep the festival afloat.
Then, in 1991, Midsummer hit upon a new challenge—success. The provincial government made funding available through a promotion called Music ’91, and American blues master Taj Mahal was brought to town. Diemert says at least 5,000 people crowded the fairgrounds over the weekend. “That was the year we finally made money,” she says.
But some thought the festival had gotten a little big for the volunteers to handle and the group decided to give some of that success away. Again, it was Widen’s inspiration. He proposed that the BVFMS spread the festival spirit around, and they gave out their first pocketful of seed money to music aficionados in the Kispiox Valley to start up an event of their own. Since then, seed money, gear and expertise has been provided to festivals like the Edge of the World on Haida Gwaii, the Rosswood Music Jamboree, and the Robson Valley Music Festival.
Spreading the music around means that, regionally, “people are playing at a level that was unheard of 25 years ago,” says veteran festival organizers George Stokes.

Growing talents
Shara Gustafson of the Dunster-based band Mamaguroove agrees. She doesn’t know where her band would be now without the Smithers festival.
“We were just two struggling bands out of Dunster and we sent in a couple of crappy little tapes,” Gustafson says of their first application. The two bands, Mama Drum and Dry Tree (which later became the Looped Gurus), were vetted by Stokes and his wife Norma and given a chance on the smaller stages. Eventually the two groups merged into one funky dance band that’s played late nights on many a main stage throughout the Northwest—seven times at Kispiox alone—and beyond.
Gustafson and her husband/bandmate Seth MacDonald now run the Robson Valley Music Festival on their property in Dunster. She doesn’t think they would have pushed it the way they did without the incredible support and encouragement they got from the BVFMS. Now that they’re festival organizers themselves, Gustafson says they keep in mind the kindness paid to them. “When we get applications from new groups, we try to give them a chance.”
Jenny Lester is another local who worked up her musical chops in Smithers. Now part of the bluegrass sensation Hungry Hill, she thinks the festival is an essential cultural asset. “It’s like having a museum in town: you might not get there, but the community is better because of it.”
The bluegrass singer-songwriter, fiddle and guitar player started at 8 years old in the Driftwood Canyon Family Band, but soon was spending as much time as she could seeking out other musicians to play with, and her teenage summers were spent doing BC’s bluegrass festival circuit.
The festival has given direction to a couple of generations of musicians, she says, challenging them to get a set together to play at festival.

Changes and challenges
Money problems aside, festival organizers are faced with a new challenge—this time to their overriding philosophy. As much as the festival is about providing a venue to encourage local people to play, it has also been about remaining independent and true to its grassroots. Seeking sponsorship or outside funding was never part of the original plan, but Diemert and others see that times have changed. Organizers are pounding the pavement to find local business sponsors (they’re still shying away from major corporations) and have even filled out a proposal or two (after Music ’91 Diemert swore off the practice, citing that it was a major pain in the patootie).
Camping is back, but would-be campers must register and pay for their camping pass on-line before being let through the gates. Not only will this help provide pre-festival cash-flow, but organizers hope it will deter the problem individuals.
“We’ve got to pull this one off, because if we don’t manage it, it could be the end,” says Belford. “That would be real sad because it all ties together—guitar camp, coffeehouses, music scholarships and the BVFMS as a whole.”
But change has affected other Northwest festivals, too. On Haida Gwaii, the festival moved locations and even dates after several years on the Inkster’s property in Tlell.
Research into historical weather records found that the festival’s July date was often a wet and cold weekend. In contrast, the second weekend in August is one of the warmest of the year.
The new site at the Tlell Fall Fairgrounds also has access to electricity, buildings for vendors and hot water that the old site did not have. The only thing it doesn’t have is on-site camping. But organizers are confident their second year there will be as good as the first.
In Prince George, their relatively new summer music festival decided to make some changes and this year, for the first time, became a winter festival. “Coldsnap 2008” spanned eight days in January and February putting an end to the city’s mid-winter blahs.
For the Smithers festival’s 25th anniversary, the BVFMS intends to feature players like Mark Perry and Jenny Lester—folks who’ve given so much to the local music scene—along with other exciting headline acts.
“We need people to come and be there for the music,” says Stokes.