In the midst of packing my ’04 Escape to head up to Port Renfrew, I realized we were bringing too much stuff.
Spoiled in previous years by vast swaths of “Premiere”-level car camping at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Central Washington for Sasquatch (my go-to festival since 2012), my closest festival-going mates and I decided to try something completely different in 2016: we were about to make our first trek to Browns Mountain for the seventh installment of Tall Tree Music Festival.
Knowing that we would, at some point, have to unload all of our gear and hump it across a mountain to find a decent camping spot initially told me I should pack light. Instead, at the last minute, I found myself shoving a dolly with all-terrain tires into the back of my car, deciding we could transport the tent, cooler, stove, totes, special folding chairs with side tables — basically all our regular camping supplies — over a great distance, as long as we could roll it. So, if I could fit something in the car before we hit the road, it was coming with us.
There are two routes to get to Port Renfrew. The majority of Tall Tree festival-goers from Victoria travel via Highway 14 through Sooke. The picturesque two-hour drive snakes along the rugged west coast of southern Vancouver Island, eventually running parallel with the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, which spans 47 kilometres of coastline from China Beach in Jordan River to Botanical Beach in Port Renfrew.
Those travelling from up island (or the mainland via the ferry terminals in Nanaimo) can access the festival site by following Highway 18 through Lake Cowichan, and then take Pacific Marine Road for about an hour, all the way to the main festival gate.
Two members of our party took the alternate route through Lake Cowichan after dropping their kids with family in Duncan for the weekend so, with Port Renfrew being a dead zone for cell reception, we decided to rendezvous at the Renfrew Pub before heading up to the festival site itself.
The town of Port Renfrew is startlingly small; the year-round population is less than 300 people, with another 150 or so living on the adjacent Pacheedaht First Nation land across the mouth of the San Juan River. The community overlooks the scenic Port San Juan inlet, and is surrounded by many natural wonders, including the old growth giants of Avatar Grove, the aforementioned Botanical Beach with its captivating tidal pools, and the southern trailhead of the world-renowned West Coast Trail, all of which attract a growing amount of tourists each summer.
Despite its small stature, the town feels like it’s on the verge of breaking out as a new Vancouver Island vacation hotspot, with a lot of new holiday rental properties springing up over the last few years. In fact, Tall Tree fans seeking a less rustic experience might opt to bed down in a seaside cottage and simply hop on one of the regular shuttles that run to and from the Browns Mountain festival site from mid-morning until late night.
But if you really want the fully immersive Tall Tree experience, you need to join the rest of the campers up on the mountain. While there are limited RV and car camping passes available each year, as first-timers, we were set on having a genuine encounter with the surrounding environs, which meant ditching the vehicles altogether at some point. So after downing a pint and utilizing the pub’s WiFi for a final check on emails and social media, we rolled out and headed for the gates.
Note to potential future festival-goers: the one disadvantage to having a music festival on the side of a mountain is that it’s hard work to get all the people and equipment and vendors and RVs and everything else up and down that mountain. That means patience at the gate is key.
The main artery up to the festival grounds is essentially a one-way gravel road, so the process of getting everyone up to the top with their vehicles to drop off gear, then back down to park, and finally back up in a shuttle has to happen in groups of about 10-15 vehicles at a time. We arrived a day ahead of the festival, which required an early access pass, but still encountered a bit of a wait to drive up even though there was not much traffic. Folks who showed up on Thursday morning with general admission passes reported waiting up to two hours to get in, but they would soon find out it was worth the wait.
Our own experience getting sorted at the top of the mountain was a bit of a challenge that involved getting diverted to a different drop-off point from our friends so we could grab our media credentials, finally reconnecting with them and then having to lug our stuff halfway across the festival grounds (uphill all the way) to where they’d set up camp, and hitting a bump with my dolly and dumping the contents of our cooler all over the side of the trail along the way.
The kicker was when we finally set up camp and discovered our air mattress had a hole in it. After a MacGuyveresque duct tape repair attempt, we decided to call it a night, and see what the next day would bring.
By morning, I realized I was sleeping on the ground, while displacing what air remained inside the failing mattress to keep my girlfriend Melissa scarcely elevated. Our immediate concern was how we were going to survive the next three nights on the ground. The idea of driving to Canadian Tire in Duncan to buy a replacement mattress was bandied about – but we were talking about a journey of several hours. Instead, we resolved to “figure something out”, and as we would soon learn, if you are in need, Tall Tree has a way of providing.
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Day one of the festival kicked off early, with a slew of DJs set to hit the Valley Stage starting mid-morning. The smallest of the festival’s four stages, the Valley Stage is conveniently located on a central thoroughfare of the festival’s main camping area, which makes it a natural place for daytime revelers to congregate for an 8-hour dance party that runs from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm each day of the festival.
By midday, things were about to get started at the main Tall Tree Stage, so we made our way into the primary festival area, which features a market with all the typical festival clothing and jewelry vendors, as well as a terrific variety of dining options thanks to various food carts, a general store and, of course, a beer garden.
A specific structure at the far end of the main area caught my eye, however. It was a teepee with a sign out front that said “Wishing Tent”. Figured I might as well try my luck. As I approached, a smaller sign read “Take Off Your Shoes”. I obliged, and inside I found slips of paper marked with Sharpie-written wishes that had been pinned to the sides of the tent. Most of the wishes people had written were of the existential and/or Utopian variety. Mine was more to the point: “I wish I had an air mattress without a hole in it.”
What happened next, I could not have predicted.
As if guided by some spirit of goodwill, I followed my senses out of the tent and walked down to the Tall Tree general store. On a whim, I asked them if they had any Tall Tree-branded foamies, explaining my air mattress predicament. They didn’t, but one of the crew members (an absolute angel) mentioned she had brought an extra, brand new air mattress that she would be willing to part with. She ran back to her camp to grab it, and then sold it to me – at cost! I was ready and willing to pay a handsome markup, especially considering a bag of ice costs $10 on Browns Mountain, but the Wishing Tent didn’t require it. Thanks, Tall Tree gods!
Feeling triumphant, we made our way over to check out the scene at the main Tall Tree Stage itself. This is really is the crown jewel of the grounds. The Port San Juan just off to the left makes for an extraordinary backdrop on a sunny day, and to experience some top shelf musical acts in that environment makes for an inimitable experience. The layout of the stage is also clever. The main stage is flanked by a raised DJ booth, which allows for maximum efficiency by providing a seamless transition between performers – all made possible thanks to some strategic scheduling (think DJ, band, DJ, band, DJ, band … you get the idea). The performances at the Tall Tree Stage are the heart of the festival, as they generally draw not only the largest crowds, but also the widest swath of festival demographics.
The first band up on the Tall Tree Stage was Vancouver’s Year of the Wolf. A straight ahead rock band with a 70s-era sound, the group won their way onto the Tall Tree Stage courtesy of the Do250’s Play Tall Tree contest, competing aboard the Ogden Point Barge in Victoria in early June. They made the most of their opportunity, bringing great energy, and setting the tone for an amazing three days of performances to come.
Other notable performances on Thursday’s main stage included an inspired showing from Victoria roots-rock band Dirty Mountain, fronted by charismatic singer-songwriter Elli Hart, and a white hot set from DJ Jeremy Baker that sparked a sudden Gn’R-infused afternoon dance party.
Things really got cranked up later in the evening when Calgary indie rock icons The Dudes flexed their signature salt-of-the-earth style in front of the raucous Tall Tree crowd as the sun began to set in the background. If there’s one thing we reaffirmed from this performance, it’s that The Dudes are legit, and a tough act to follow. But Thursday’s penultimate main stage performers, Moontricks, an electronic folk-hop duo hailing from the wilds of the Kootenays, were up to the task. Featuring NOG on beats and harmonica (yes, a DJ who also plays harmonica) and partner Sean Rodman alternating between soulful guitar riffs and frenetic banjo picking, the pair had the audience rapt with their unique sound.
But the clear highlight of the first night had to be the evening’s headliners, Nahko and Medicine for the People. The group, fronted by Oregon native and part-Apache Nahko Bear, features a world music sound that blends various musical influences with lyrical Earth-centric messages about increased consciousness, environment stewardship, and bridging cultural gaps. Nahko’s spiritual message was a perfect fit for Tall Tree, and was easily the weekend’s most powerful performance.
The thing about Tall Tree is, the end of the main stage shows at midnight doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the night for most festival-goers. The Spirit Stage (colloquially known as the rave tent) gets things bouncing at 10:00 pm and rolls all night long, with the last set starting at 5:00 am. Thursday night’s Spirit Stage lineup was highlighted by LA underground staple DJ Dan, long recognized as a pioneer of West Coast House music.
This year, Tall Tree’s fourth venue, the Stump and Stone Stage, located near the “Roundabout” drop-off zone, was re-branded after midnight as the licensed Stump and Stone “Lounge” for an extended late night program in addition to its regular daytime/early evening lineup. For folks looking for post-midnight entertainment without all the drum and bass, Stump and Stone provided a workable alternative to the Spirit Stage. On Thursday night, Cortes Island’s own Mt. Eliah brought a multi-tempo, multi-genre DJ dance set to the stage that stretched until 3:00 am.
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With Friday being Canada Day, we weren’t surprised to wake up to some interesting West Coast Canadian weather. Port Renfrew is situated in a fog zone, but what we found when we stepped outside our tents was something in between fog and rain – a pseudo-Scotch mist that had seemingly enveloped the entire mountain. It was at this point that we realized we were really off the grid. We’d been uploaded to the cloud for safe storage. I mean, we were literally walking around inside a cloud all day. It gave the whole proceedings a bit of an eerie, ethereal feeling.
For the all-night ravers from night one, the first few notes from the 10:00 am DJ set at the Valley Stage must be a bit jarring, but sure enough, sooner or later folks start emerging from their slumber to meet up and swap stories from the night before. And after a bristling midday performance from Vancouver rapper/beatboxer Emotionz, things were back in full swing.
Day two highlights included a rousing main stage show from Victoria roots-rock collective Quoia, who are essentially the founding band of Tall Tree, with frontman Mike Hann pulling double duty as festival director. While on stage, Mike took the opportunity to thank all the crew, volunteers, artists and fans who make Tall Tree possible. It was a nice moment that capped off a high energy set.
Later in the evening, well-known Victoria DJ Murge sufficiently warmed up the Tall Tree crowd before Canadian alternative hip hop luminary Shad hit the stage for a stellar set. Shad – full name Shadrach Kabango, as he explains in his song Good Name – has achieved greater renown across Canada in the past year as the new host of CBC Radio One’s arts program q, but longtime fans know he’s been making influential hip hop music for decade. As the day-long mist cleared temporarily while he was on stage, Shad’s lyrical skills became immediately clear. He employed deft rhyme and wordplay to construct lyrical stories, and delivered clever political commentary with a crisp, audible cadence. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a hip hop show before where I understood literally every word. The man has skills. And even with Friday night headliners Current Swell closing out the main stage with a stalwart show, I have to say that Shad won the night.
Post midnight, Spiral Architects, Mat the Alien and JackLNDN did their thing at the Spirit Stage, while Victoria jazz combo Weird Party held things down at the Stump and Stone Lounge. The ensemble’s distinctive blend of funky, ambient jazz with a dash of psychedelia never fails to make it weird – but in a good way.
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In addition to a morning program at the Valley Stage, both Friday and Saturday morning featured another new wrinkle at the festival – stand-up comedy at the Stump and Stone. Hosted by Shiraz Higgins and Paul Opps – AKA Shiraz and Paul, two guys known primarily for performing comedy in matching gaudy floral-print suits – the comedy show ran for 3 hours from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm. Granted, 10:30 am may seem like a weird time to see live comedy, but in the context of Tall Tree, it worked. We happened to stop by on Saturday in time to catch a 30-minute set from Victoria comic Myles Anderson, who had amassed an impressive crowd of about 100 people. I’d caught a bit of Myles’ stuff over the past couple years around town, but on this day he was totally killing it with a ton of polished, original material. Shiraz and Paul returned to the stage after Myles’ set to host a talk show-style segment, which included a guest interview with Metchosin rocker Jesse Roper where he relayed a hilarious tale of nervous poop involving a “shart” incident at Lucky Bar a few years ago. Safe to say the addition of comedy to the Tall Tree lineup was a good idea.
Sunday was a great day for the Stump and Stone Stage all around, with a quirky show from Hornby Island’s Zoubi and the Sea and an appearance by Victoria’s resident hip hop violinistextremist Kytami, who capped off her pro-level performance with a heated session of dueling violins with guest fiddler Nick Kennerly, a talented young LA-based musician who had already sat in with Quoia on Friday. That was followed up by the Tall Tree Hip Hop Showcase, hosted by Murge.
Meanwhile, main stage highlights from Saturday included former Zone @ 91-3 Band of the Month LABS, an electro-rock outfit featuring singer Lindsay Bryan and guitarist Adam Sutherland, who earned a great response from the Tall Tree crowd during their early afternoon set, particularly with a performance of their radio-friendly hit Down. The evening shows included sizzling sets from well-traveled indie rockers Bear Mountain of Vancouver and Ottawa’s Hollerado, with the ever-popular Mother Mother closing out the Tall Tree Stage for 2016 with their singular brand of art-pop electro-rock. Leader singer Ryan Guldemond and his crew from Quadra Island enjoyed the largest crowd of the entire festival, and the group’s performance was right in line with what you’d expect from a headlining act – pure professionalism and all-around good vibes.
For those looking for a last gasp at the festival, the Spirit Stage again would stay open all night, with DJs spinning until early Sunday morning, while over at the Stump and Stone Lounge, longtime fans of the iconic Victoria funk collective Velvet were in for a treat. Founding member Kuba Oms had arranged an all-star jam session slated to kick off just after midnight. Along with regular Velvet contributors Paul Kannaspuro on guitar and flute, Jeff Scotney on bass, and Thomas Shields on drums, Kuba welcomed special guest guitarist Vince Vaccaro and legendary folk artist Daniel Lapp, who jammed out on fiddle, trumpet and keys. The first part of the show involved just Kuba and Vince on stage together playing some improvised blues while all the other musicians were busy getting their equipment set up and sound checked. This was quite a process, but unlike a regular sound check, it turned into a free-form jam session, with certain instruments joining and leaving the fray throughout. By the time everyone was legitimately ready to play together, it had already been an hour, but the whole organic process of getting to that point was quite interesting to behold. In the end, the enhanced version of Velvet delivered a funkified set that carried on well into the wee hours.
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With all our festival goals accomplished, my crew retreated to camp to grab a few hours of sleep before getting up early to beat the rush off the mountain. Overall, our first visit to Tall Tree was a huge success. The venue is really one of a kind, and we learned a lot – namely, don’t bring so much stuff next time. Just like Tall Tree itself — the biggest smallest music festival there ever was — less is more.