Arts Wells – Aug. 2-5, 2019
The fall of night time darkness has the ability to change your perception of a situation. It can make a welcoming green, mossy forest turn to one of terror, where all you see is black all around you, and all you hear are the quiet mysterious sounds of the creatures lurking in the trees. It can make highway driving much more difficult and turn a city into a debaucherous playground for adults. And as night descends upon ArtsWells, most of the children get tucked into bed and festival-goers don their night-time costumes while the bands get amped up and put the energy levels on turbo-speed. I was asked by artist Yael Wand to write a take on the ArtsWells night time performances, so I was happy to have an excuse to stay up as late as possible each night, often staying up well past the last scheduled performance. As with the daytime activities at ArtsWells, there are many trajectories one can take and many events one can miss, so here are my findings based on the paths I chose to take.
My Friday night started with the Adult Songwriting Workshop Student Showcase. I had been up for the week taking the class with songwriters extraordinaire Dan Bern and Linda Mcrae, and this showcase was our chance to share the results of the class. Many of the student songwriters also had solo sets at the festival, including Richard Garvey, Orit Shimoni, Kim Beggs, Lyndsay Wills, Bruce Horak and Onalea Gilbertson (The Railbirds), and it was great to get a taste of what all of these artists do. As students, we had been bonding over the week, and then after the showcase finished, we all went our separate ways to see what Wells had in store for us as night descended.
I was scheduled to emcee at the upstairs main hall, so I changed into my nighttime outfit and was fortunate to catch most of MIP’s set before my shift. Originally from Smithers, MIP is now based in Toronto. She arrived onstage sporting an electric guitar backed up by electric bass and drums. The music was raw and wild, filled with power and driving grooves. MIP certainly got the upstairs hall bouncing and raring to go into the night.
Vancouver band Warless then mounted the stage to start their soundcheck, which ramped up the energy even more. As I was preparing to announce them to the crowd, the PA went suddenly silent, and all the lights in the hall blinked out. We were thinking it was a breaker issue (as had happened at the museum stage earlier), but we soon discovered that the entire town was out!
This is of course where the magic of ArtsWells kicks into gear. In true ArtsWells style, Warless got off the stage into the middle of the hall, and started up an acoustic set. They kept the energy going relentlessly with drums, vocals, and acoustic guitar for a solid half-hour, illuminated by lanterns, flashlights and cell phones. When Blackberry Wood (who was supposed to go on next) arrived, they added to the melee. I grabbed my trumpet, and the jam continued to grow and get wilder. Soon the horn players from Babyface Brass (Mike WT Allen, Ashton Sweet and Alex Dugdale) as well as K-Sun the Bear took the jam to an entirely new level, a place with no limits. The music continued in the dark until 2 a.m., at which point the musicians and crowd migrated to either Niko’s Bliss Cafe or the Sunset Theatre, where the jams continued to fly until 3 a.m. Hearing reports from other musicians and festival-goers, it sounded like the situation was similar at most other stages – sets turning from fully-amplified powerhouses to intimate acoustic jams all over town. The magic of ArtsWells indeed!
By Saturday morning, the power had returned and festival programming was back to normal (whatever normal is at ArtsWells…). I kicked off Saturday night by playing with Babyface Brass in the downstairs hall. A relentless powerhouse of East Van musicians led by Kenan of High Society on the drums and vocals, surrounded by a tight rhythm section and as many horns as can be crammed onto the stage, (this band kicks it up a notch wherever they play). The downstairs hall is known for being a place for more ruckus bands after dark, and it immediately filled with hot, sweaty dancers. The set was non-stop high energy for the whole 45 minutes.
I packed up and headed upstairs where Elage Diouf was playing. A Senagalese-born percussionist/singer-songwriter and musician, Elage and his three-piece band kept the crowd upstairs completely captivated with their mesmerizing and complex rhythms. I stuck to the hall for the night, weaving my way up and downstairs to try to watch acts on both floors as much as possible. Old Soul Rebel (also from East Van, a bold and intense band led by Chelsea DE Johnson and Lola Whyte) kept the upstairs hall rocking, while a punk-rock outfit from Skidegate, Jason Camp and the Posers, kept things sweaty in the mosh-pit downstairs.
The musical portion of my night ended with Warless (who I was itching to hear plugged-in after the power outage the night before). Having seen and danced to Warless at a previous ArtsWells, I was still taken by surprise by their level of diversity and energy in terms of musical genres and technical prowess, in addition to their ability to completely command a crowd. Later, I learned this was their last show ever. EVER! So for those of you who haven’t experienced Warless, you will either have to go back in time or delve into the preserved videos and recordings online.
After the music shut down for the night at the hall I wandered the streets of Wells just to observe the nighttime happenings. Jams and performers on an unofficial stage at Niko’s continued well into the night. Dan Bern worked on his painting of ArtsWells organizers Paul Crawford and Julie Fowler at the mural station. Poly Hatchet kept things weird at the Sunset Theatre with his old silent films and original soundtracks. I packed things in around 4 a.m. (still well before many other festival goers), thus ending yet another epic ArtsWells night.
My Sunday night started off with Daniel McKell – my camping neighbour for the weekend and a fantastic performer from Montreal. You may recall his previous band, Lake of Stew. Daniel seamlessly weaves stories and songs together, and the stories are just as entertaining as the songs. They are inspired by real life situations and adventures turned into comedic, fantastical works of art, never once following any sort of standard formula for songwriting – and always involving the audience! Daniel is someone to check out, and he was a highlight of the festival for sure, day and night!
I left Daniel’s set a little early to get into the line-up for Dan Bern’s show at the Sunset Theatre. Good thing too as the lineup was already at the porta-potties across the street. Dan of course did not disappoint. It was great to work with him all week in the songwriting class and then see his gems of wisdom put into action – audience interaction, short punchy numbers to keep the energy up, use of repetition and humor, and, of course, some serious songs as well, such as his song “Take the Guns Away.” A special treat was when his daughter, Lulu, asked to get up on stage and sing “The Year-By-Year Home Run Totals of Barry Bonds” with him. If you haven’t already checked out Dan’s immense discography, now is the time!
My friends and I then wandered over to Cookie Cottage (a new venue this year across the highway), to see what was going on. Having a rare night off with no sets was fun – a chance to just wander freely and see what was happening. A French EDM duo, Kaleidos, was spinning beats, and although this typically is not my scene, I was instantly drawn into the hypnotic rhythms.
After half an hour of dancing and an aloha crepe from the Yummy Crepes stand (run by Roland and Udette from Nemiah Valley, as well as their son Jesaja the Illusionist), I got back into the line at the Sunset for the legendary Tomas Kubenik. Originally from Prague, Tomas (also an instructor at the pre-fest workshops), is a bit of an enigma – performer, illusionist, contortionist, musician, comedian all rolled into one. His show starts with him announcing he will balance a glass of wine on his forehead while doing a backwards somersault into a triple lutz then drinking the wine while holding the glass with his teeth, all while playing the ukulele and whistling a tune. Just the announcement itself is entertainment, and then he actually does it! That’s how his show STARTS. He continued to captivate the audience by turning himself into a chicken, making eggs disappear and reappear (then explaining how he did the trick only to have a plastic egg turn into a real egg in front of our eyes during the explanation).
Tomas concluded his set by balancing a precarious stand and platform with three glasses of water underneath a plexiglass sheet and three egg cups filled with eggs … once again on his forehead — before whacking the whole contraption with a stick only to have the eggs land in the glasses of water as he caught the entire platform. He led the whole crowd out into the street and had everyone greet a stranger while we marveled at the magic of the infinite sky. A master performer indeed!
While I calmed down after the set, I wandered back to the main hall to take in the last of Old Soul Rebel killing it downstairs and 333 Collective (Kimmortal, JB the First Lady and Missy D) slaying the upstairs. As the scheduled live music wrapped up for the night, the late night crowds were treated to one last show – the aurora borealis – the strongest it has ever been in that region of the province. To watch the neon green lights dance and sway across the endless sky, as well as the faces of all those in complete awe, was a total show in itself. As the neon green started to fade, I returned to the Sunset one last time for the 2 a.m. showing of Walk Hard, a parody biopic about singer-songwriter Dewey Cox (based off of Johnny Cash) with music written by our workshop instructor, Dan Bern. He opened the movie by playing a couple of songs and talking about the writing process. The movie was fantastic and hilarious … but the late nights were catching up with me, I lasted 10 minutes before I rolled into my tent for the night and fell asleep to the sounds of revellers in the distance.
A nighttime ArtsWells review wouldn’t be complete without the volunteer/performer after-party. It started with a tribute to the king and queen of ArtsWells (Paul and Julie of course), by Al Simmons, Tomas Kubenik and Peter Paul von Kamp. They were honored for the endless and tireless work they have put in over the last 16 years – not only organizing the festival but continuing to build and grow it over the years. You will not find a kinder, more generous couple – and what a party they throw!
Of course, the festival wouldn’t happen without a mass amount of volunteers, which is why the Monday night party is necessary. The first set was by The Interstellar Jays and an impromptu horn section (Mike WT Allen, Jen Davidson and yours truly). We warmed up the crowd with some killer jams before Miss Quincy (backed up by This Way North and Aurora Jane) took the stage and brought it to a whole new level. DJ Grampa Groove capped off the night (for at least two hours!) with some great beats, until the acoustic downstairs jam (and of course the Niko’s Bliss Cafe jam) took over until the wee hours of the night. The late night jams seamlessly turned to morning and saw people starting to take down the stages and clean up the trash and the empties, officially bringing ArtsWells 2019 to a close. It was as epic as always. Less than 365 sleeps till ArtsWells 2020. Hope to see you there!