Photo Credit: Arianne Loranger-Saindon/capturingmusic.ca
A buffet of summer music
Heading to a music festival often means embracing all styles and genres of music. Of course, many festival-goers are selective about which performances they check out, but when you’re on festival grounds, whether in the Kipiox Valley or up at Murray Ridge Ski Area in Fort St. James, you can’t really escape the sounds of the bands you didn’t come to see. Music trickles through everywhere you go. The sound of a singer-songwriter strumming a banjo and crooning a country ballad drifts past as you eat a sandwich; an improvised vocal loop catches your ear as you have a conversation with an old friend; a distant campfire jam session lulls you to sleep inside your tent.
Exposure to all this music is like attending a multi-cultural food event. Maybe you’d never tried dolmades before—after the event, you can’t get enough. Same goes for hearing that special rhythm, that soulful voice, or that bluegrass tune that changes your whole perspective on a genre. Your musical horizons have just been stretched further than ever. With this handy guide to northern BC’s annual festivals, you can set your course to hit those horizons and go beyond.
June 13-15: Sweetwater 905, Rolla
Every year, Emilie and Larry Mattson’s ranch in Rolla, BC is transformed into what the festival website describes as a “melting pot of musicians, filmmakers, farmers, and folks from all walks of life.” From the dedication of a few comes the entertainment of many. Sweetwater 905 is truly a grassroots kind of festival and every year it gets a bit bigger. This year, they’re welcoming a plenitude of artists, including storyteller and spoken-word performer Ivan Coyote and former Montreal busker Scott Dunbar.
Featured performer: B.A. Johnston
Humour doesn’t always work in music. But B.A. Johnston, self-described as “Canada’s favourite failed song and dance man,” has an understated way of making cynical humour work with his weird, quirky tunes. His style falls somewhere between the cracks of genre, like a chocolate-covered raisin lost in the couch cushions. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, he has a song on his 2013 album called As I Am in Tim Hortons, I Realize I Hate Tim Hortons. He also sings about cat-sitting and collecting GST cheques.
July 4-6: Midsummer Music Festival, Smithers
Last year, Midsummer celebrated its 30th anniversary. This year, the Smithers festival is ramping up for a high-energy event that celebrates music of every genre. New this year is an electronic stage, featuring a variety of acts including DJs, electro-bands and more. On the main stage, among many others, Alex Cuba will be performing.
Featured performer: The Pack A.D.
Becky Black and Maya Miller are a two-piece band from Vancouver. Becky plays guitar and sings, sometimes with a low guttural voice that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and take notice; Maya is an unstoppable drummer who knows how to make use of cymbals and has no fear of thrashing out a beat that drives straight into your feet and makes your body shake. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with. Their latest album, Do Not Engage, managed to keep the number one spot on campus and community radio charts for 10 weeks straight. CBC is picking them up, too, playing tracks off the album and hailing them as one of the best live acts on the scene today.
July 11-13: Atlin Arts & Music, Atlin
Atlin is a small town. But for some reason, inexplicable to many, its festival is huge. The dedicated organizing group has a knack of pulling in big names and putting on an epic festival. This year is no exception. A cool feature of Atlin’s annual gathering is film. Each year, attendees can check out a variety of music documentaries. Last year’s selections included a movie about soul singer Charles Bradley and a classic show of a Stompin’ Tom Connors concert.
Featured performer: Gord Downie, The Sadies, and The Conquering Sun
No, you didn’t read that wrong. Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip has teamed up with indie country-rock band The Sadies to put out a record. It’s good. Exactly what you might expect: the tunes both rock and are reflective and introspective. Downie’s characteristic growl meshes perfectly with the skilled instrumentation of The Sadies.
July 25-27: Kispiox Valley Music Festival, Hazelton
Twenty years ago, a small group of volunteers received some money and advice from the Bulkley Valley Folk Music Society in Smithers. Armed with both, they launched a festival that has grown exponentially ever since. The Kispiox Valley Music Festival attracts people from all over northern BC and beyond. The setting is beautiful. The scene is mellow and friendly. The weekend is guaranteed to be fun. To celebrate its 20th, KVMF is inviting back a number of alumni artists and regional performers including Rachelle Van Zanten, King Crow and the Ladies From Hell, and the Racket.
Featured performer: Tower of Dudes
They call themselves a “cowpunk” band. Tower of Dudes is based in Victoria, but formed in the Czech Republic in 2007. With accordions, banjos, mandolins and drums, this is a group that knows its way around different genres. Their music embodies the essence of expatriate life and free-spirited gypsy ethics. They have a huge arsenal of high-energy original songs that are going to turn the dance floor into a crazed, seething mass.
Aug. 1-4: ArtsWells, Wells
With over 100 musical performances on 12 stages, ArtsWells has artistic expression everywhere you look. This festival near historic Barkerville isn’t just about music. There’s theatre, film, spoken-word, dance, visual art and more. This year, it’s expanding to include a new large-capacity outdoor tent that will keep the music going until midnight. Wells truly embraces all genres; past years included hip hop, electronic, pop, jazz, folk, soul, world beat, rock and too many others to list.
Featured performer: Adam Shaikh
This Kootenays-based artist embraces a variety of musical styles and methods of performance, including live instrumentation, looping, synthesizers and other electronic instruments. His world-beat tunes earned him nominations for both a Juno and an Emmy. His tunes are modern, hip, urban and yet somehow come off sounding traditional. He dabbles in genres like Indian ragas, Cuban jazz and Jamaican dub, all with a modern twist. This is music guaranteed to make you groove.
Aug. 2-3: Grizfest, Tumbler Ridge
Because of its location, Tumbler Ridge is a town you visit for a reason—even though it’s not hard to get to, it is off the beaten path. But the town attracts visitors with its scenic setting, cultural history and palaeontology—there’s some pretty skookum dinosaur stuff to check out. Every year on the first weekend in August, Tumbler Ridge hosts a fun little festival aimed to entertain attendees of all ages. Grizfest always includes an opportunity for local bands to play on stage with a Battle of the Bands competition.
Featured performer: Trooper
“We’re here for a good time, not a long time, so have a good time, the sun can’t shine every day.” Need we say more?
Aug. 8-10: Edge of the World, Tlell, Haida Gwaii
Life on BC’s north coast archipelago is decidedly different from the rest of the province. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is, but anyone who’s spent time over there understands that it just is different—in a good way. Edge of the World attendees talk about the festival in similar, vague terms. If you go over to Tlell for this festival, you’ll likely experience a strange shift when you step off the ferry and then you’ll experience another one when you step onto the festival grounds. Sounds appealing. So does this year’s line up, which includes Said the Whale (Juno-award winning indie rock), Delhi to Dublin (critically acclaimed world beat) and Dirty Radio (electro/RnB).
Featured performer: Dave Bidini
For 28 years, Dave Bidini was a member of iconic Canadian band The Rheostatics. Prolific songwriter and author, Bidini is something of a Canadian icon himself. He plays guitar, bass, drums and sings. He’s played hockey with the Tragically Hip, writes a column for the National Post and is a much-followed personality on Twitter. He’s been playing with Bidiniband since the Rheostatics disbanded in 2007 and has received critical acclaim and awards for almost everything he’s ever done. There is no question that whatever this guy does on stage in Haida Gwaii will be memorable.
Aug. 15-17: Robson Valley Music Festival, Dunster
Ah, Dunster. What better place to immerse yourself in musical expression of every kind than the town nestled in the Robson Valley? Held every year on a property owned by Shara Gustafson and Seth MacDonald, the Robson festival is yet another of northern BC’s secrets: intimate, family-friendly and featuring amazing artists from around the world.
Featured performer: Shawn Stephenson
Imagine a single acoustic guitar sounding like four or five guys jamming. That’s Shawn Stephenson. The Kootenays-based musician ran a stage at ArtsWells with his wife, Carla, for years and now runs a tiny festival, aptly called Tiny Lights, in Ymir. For his music, Shawn uses looping electronics to create a live performance that makes you furrow your brow trying to figure out how he’s making it all work… but then, after a few minutes, you relax and just enjoy. This is music that’s easy to dig—it’s smooth, melodic, musical, chill. Perfect tunes for kicking back on the grass and letting the sun do its thing.
Aug. 22-24: Music on the Mountain, Fort St. James
Family seems to be the unwritten theme of the MoM festival—and not just because of the acronym. There’s a sense that everything up at Murray Ridge is instilled with the spirit of extended family, community. There is plenty for kids to see and do, including workshops, puppetry and performances. There’s art and dance, food, and camaraderie. But of course, MoM isn’t a festival just for children—last year’s line up included a burlesque troupe—but it has this warm fuzzy feeling surrounding it. Or maybe that’s just all the hearts they have on their website…
Featured performer: Scott Dunbar
This guy seems to be making the circuit, as many artists do. With so many potential festivals to play in northern BC, why not make it a rollicking musical road trip? To sum up what he’s all about, and what to expect, just search for a YouTube video of him covering Michael Jackson’s classic Billie Jean with a suitcase kick drum and an accordion. Music-loving residents of northern BC sometimes have to make a little extra effort for their passion. If you’re looking to groove south of Highway 16, the tiny town of Horsefly not far from Williams Lake hosts Arts on the Fly, July 11-12. If you like all things bluegrass, check out this cool little town and funky festival.