We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the Otalith Music Festival is Rocktographers’ favourite music festival. It’s intimate, but still boasts huge international acts. It’s a winning combination.
A lot has changed at Otalith from its humble beginnings five years ago, with each year providing new perspectives and projects for the festival team to tackle. It’s great to see this little festival grow and flourish as a boutique destination event. With a focus on eclectic and diverse music, positive experiences, and the area that surrounds it, Otalith really is a festival for fans of music.
The driving force behind this music festival is its active Board of Directors and the countless volunteer hours put in to make Otalith one of the best festivals out there. This is a festival powered by community. It’s easy to forget that the Otalith Music Festival is a not-for-profit organization, each year giving back to countless deserving local charities they are passionate about (like the Jamie Collins Legacy Foundation). There’s something so refreshing and inspiring about a festival modeled this way.
Well before Saturday’s headliner, Talib Kweli, took the stage, I knew that this might be my favourite Otalith Festival to date. This festival is pure magic.
I’m not going to say there weren’t hiccups this year, but they seemed to be dealt with as the festival went along. One of the most common complaints I heard from festivalgoers had to do with the over-zealous security guards coming in which bottlenecked everyone getting into the festival grounds. Several female festivalgoers mentioned that security patted them down so thoroughly that even the TSA would blush.
Food options seemed to be scarce, especially for the vegetarian and vegans among us. Several people in my group ended up at the local bowling alley for food, and missing acts they wanted to see because there were only two food vendors. This is probably the biggest thing we’d like to see change at Otalith. Keep the hungry masses at bay with tacos.
At its heart, Otalith remains a family friendly music festival where parents are encouraged to bring their kids to soak up the music experience and fun atmosphere. It’s usually on the Saturday afternoon when this most taken advantage of, and this year was no different. Rows of strollers were positioned towards the stage while parents and friends picnicked on the grass playing with toddlers. Bubbles were blowing, face paint was seen on kids of all ages, and more than a few frisbees were flying around.
Tragically, there were no hay bales to be destroyed in a giant hay fight this year. It’s one of my favourite things to take photos of at the festival, but my allergies hate me afterward. I can’t blame the organizers for not bringing out 40+ bails this year though. Who would want to spend all night raking it up? Not me.
As has become a yearly tradition for early-bird Otalith campers, we piled onto a school bus at the Ucluelet Campground to shuttle us to Tofino for a “secret” show. With a song in our hearts and a beer or two in our pocket for the trip we caught up with our neighbours and shared our excitement to party at the Tofino Brewery. It was there we would be serenaded by the dulcet tones of Kevin Morby.
Victoria’s Miffed Neighbours opened up the evening and festival in the cozy gravel parking lot of Tofino Brew Co. Their set had an intriguing duality: lead vocalist and guitarist Nathan Margetts drove hard with a Jack White / White Stripes sound, quickly switching it out for Riot Grrrl when Teresa Krottner left the drum kit to take over as lead. This shift made me an instant fan.
When you are surprised by how much you like the very first act of a three-day festival, you know you’re in for one hell of a weekend.
When I pictured what Kevin Morby would wear to perform, it certainly wasn’t a pair of stained and dirty coveralls. It looked as though he’d just crawled out from fixing the tour van, a stark contrast to the music he and his band played. A mix of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and that modern psychedelic that Otalith has become known for. His set leaned heavy on his latest album City Music while puffs of smoke arose in pockets from a swaying crowd, eyes shut, soaking in everything surrounding them.
Vancouver’s Peach Pit brought their arty pop rock vibes to Ucluelet when they fired up the main stage of the festival Friday afternoon. Think of a Steely Dan that isn’t afraid to rock the fuck out. By the time Peach Pit started, most of the crowd had shaken off the previous night’s hangover from late night campfire jams with a dip in the ocean, donuts, and a hefty dose of caffeine. Bassist Peter Wilton was determined to bring the party back by dropping his pants and playing over half the set in his neon pink boxers.
Brooding Los Angeles based singer-songwriter Tracy Bryant was one of those hidden gems Otalith seems to find every year. It wasn’t long into his set before the barrier at the front of the stage was filled with starry-eyed fans, much like the Kevin Morby set that followed. Kevin’s set was identical to the night before at Tofino Brew Co., right down to the wardrobe and the cover of The Velvet Underground’s Rock & Roll, only made different by Kevin’s interactions with a crowd member who was carrying around a giant whisk for some reason.
Clay Frankel from Chicago’s Twin Peaks might be my favourite person to photograph performing, ever. It was insanely challenging, because he’s rarely actually touching the stage. Much like the rest of the high energy American indie band, it makes for one hell of a show to shoot.
Twin Peaks, the headliners of the night, had no issue throwing themselves and their instruments, rarely taking a moment to catch their breath or take a swig of beer. Utilizing a momentary lull mid-song, keys player Colin Croom leaned over to me side stage to ask if I had a light for his smoke before flying back into action.
The band’s energy was matched threefold by the audience below the stage, with crowd surfers circling the moshpit for the entirety of their set.
The final day of festivities featured a well-rounded lineup of the best and brightest local bands from the Tofino and Ucluelet, as well all-star international acts
The High Tide Collective gave a ska/roots/rock twist to The Cars’ staple Just What I Needed while the music fans filed into the baseball diamond-turned-festival grounds. Shortly after their set, another local favourite, Roy’s Bag, took the stage. The band is in the midst of a whirlwind island tour, having played Vinyl Envy in Victoria the night before this hometown show. They were cheered on by adoring fans . . . one of which was eating an entire raw red cabbage. That’s probably the thing I understood least the entire weekend.
Otalith’s resident emcee for the past five years has been local Geoff Johnson. He finally got a chance to pick up his guitar and sing some heartfilled tunes with his wife Tara. During his set, he joked about how he’d wanted to play the festival since the first year. I’m glad he finally got to share his songs with us. He wasn’t the last of the locals to share their music with us that day. Garage rockers The Barkley Sounds — aptly named for a body of water in the area — got the side stage humming with psych rock grooves.
“Encore! Encore! Encore!”
You’d think that’s a strange thing to hear chanted in the middle of the day during a music festival. Not for Victoria’s Carmanah. With a much-deserved devoted fan base and Laura Mitic’s swoon worthy voice it’s clear Carmanah is on the verge of blowing up. It’s good timing, because they have a new record coming out this fall.
On one hand, I’m a little disappointed Carmanah didn’t do an impromptu encore, but on the other hand we were treated to Vancouver’s FRANKIE. This three piece doesn’t make it to Victoria all that often, and the last time these dream rockers made it over was for Rifflandia 2016. It’s been great seeing them off and on for the last few years, and their sound has filled out substantially.
Portland punk rockers Guantanamo Baywatch took the crowd by surprise after a day of fairly mellow music. Cranking their amps to eleven, they helped the crowd get any leftover aggression from the previous night’s Twin Peaks set out of their systems.
Due to some computer issues, DJ Flipout pulled out his massive collection of 7″ records and performed a Live 45 set between acts. Making a party happen with a limited amount of 7″ records is a lost art form. If I had to do it with my 7″ collection there would have been a lot of depressed and mopey people in that crowd.
The penultimate act of the festival was Michigan’s Curtis Harding. He and his band brought a funky sound that could only come from the home of Motown. Curtis Harding might have been the stand out act of the entire festival for me, and I can’t wait to dig deeper into his catalogue.
There is a horrifying moment for anyone who works at or around a music festival: it’s when you find out that your headlining act might not make it because of a missed flight. That’s what happened to this year’s big headliner, Talib Kweli. When he got stuck in Vancouver, Otalith’s organizers quickly chartered him a helicopter, getting him on site just in time for him to run on stage.
Talib has built a prolific career over the years, from his work with Mos Def in Black Star to his work with the who’s who of hip hop like Kendrick Lamar, Rza, and Busta Rhymes. His set was full of dedications to those we’ve lost over the past few years, including a cover of Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover sung by Talib’s keyboardist. It was a fitting end to a perfect night and an all around perfect Otalith.
Rocktographers is already planning our return to Otalith Music Festival 2018 with our full crew. We can’t wait to get back up there.
Thirsty for more photos from the Otalith Festival? Make sure to check out our Otalith Megapost for your fill of festival photos.