Not too far from the Canada/US maritime boundary, within the cluster of British Columbia’s beautiful Southern Gulf Islands is an 8.1 square mile speck of verdant land that is one of my favourite destinations on earth. With a population of around 1,100, tiny Mayne Island is where my wife and I have headed every June since 2012 for the weekend closest to, or coinciding with, the summer solstice. The pretty, serene island is itself reason enough for the trip, but our annual jaunt is for the Campbell Bay Music Festival (CBMF), being quite simply the best of its kind we have ever attended.
As it has never advertised, therefore attracting its audience and stellar reputation by word of mouth and music community grapevine alone, we learned of the CBMF by accident, upon its fourth occurrence in 2012, when hearing that the great Victoria folk-rock band Bonehoof (currently on hiatus) was to play there. Keen to check out at least one new festival every summer, having not yet visited Mayne Island we added it to our summer calendar. In a nutshell, despite the intermittently appalling weather, our first experience was wonderful, so even before the weekend was over, we resolved to return the next year.
Held on a small parcel of private farmland belonging to a highly respected, creatively talented local family, the CBMF was founded from folk festival tradition, but while folk music is always healthily represented the line-ups are increasingly diverse. So, beyond some wondrous performances by folk musicians of many styles, we have witnessed sets of bluegrass, country, Jazz, chamber pop, indie rock, Afrobeat, electronica, poetry, comedy and much more.
However, regardless of who takes the stage the levels of musicianship and performance have, in our experience to date, been unfailingly brilliant. Whether it be the inspiring ocean-side site; the legendary hospitality; the intimacy of the event or, more likely an amalgam of the above, there is something magical about the CBMF that brings the absolute best out of its visiting musicians. It may seem inconceivable that every act could bring their A-game year-in, year-out, but that really is how it is here. Having seen thousands of live shows in over four decades of gig-going, some of the greatest performances have been in this idyllic setting, including two mind-bending headlining sets from fast-rising Boston art-rockers, Bent Knee.
And as if to frame the artistic treasures of the weekend, even the wonders of nature play a significant role en route to the festival each year. Gorgeous Southern Gulf Island scenery flanks the ferry for the entire passage, and on two of six outward journeys we have gasped at pods of orcas travelling silently, majestically past. I could not make this up if I tried.
In short, for us the CBMF is not only a classic West Coast experience, but the perfect combination of a stunning location; consistent musical excellence; phenomenal sound and, by and large, civilised community. So, with a virtually flawless track record for the previous five years, and anticipation as high as ever for a line-up of favourites, familiar and unknown names, what did the 9th Campbell Bay Music Festival deliver?
The honour of kicking off CBMF 2017 fell to folk duo Roger Roger. In the vein of Flagship Romance or The Civil Wars, Winnipeg twins Madeleine and Lucas Roger presented a charming set of intelligent acoustic material, performed on guitars crafted by the latter, and drawn mainly from their sole album, 2016’s Fairweather. The standout for me, however, was 60 Years More, a new song with a powerful lyric addressing the global travesty that is male-female wage disparity.
Resplendent in cream suits, Quinn Bachand’s Brishen took to the stage next for a wondrous set of gypsy jazz. The 21 year-old Bachand is a rare prodigy, rightly recognized as a phenomenal musician even before entering his teens. We saw him perform with his sister Qristina, many years ago, and was dazzled by his guitar playing back then, so it is most satisfying to watch him lead his own superb, authentic jazz manouche outfit today. In truth, some of Bachand’s material is reminiscent of M. Ward’s more nostalgic sounding songs, and on his solo debut he covered Radiohead’s Nude, but it all swings so sweetly in Hot Club style. The set was a joy, one highlight being a groovy, Herbie Mann-esque arrangement of Bernard Hermann’s Betsy’s Theme (from Taxi Driver).
Appearing in an unexpectedly early slot, the excellent Fish & Bird are widely considered one of the most inventive folk-rock bands in Canada, but with their five members now scattered all over the North American continent this performance was a rare showing. We had seen them play on three previous occasions, including an outdoor show at a private residence that was nothing short of miraculous, and by pulling every hoped-for nugget from their four albums, they were as solid and rewarding as ever.
Now came a major highlight of the weekend with a dramatic and incredibly beautiful set from Montréal’s Thus Owls. With the charismatic Erika Angell’s vocal soaring over the festival site, and husband Simon’s powerful, twangy guitar coming on like Duane Eddy on steroids, I heard everything from PJ Harvey and Patti Smith to Tarnation, Fiery Furnaces and Beach House in their intoxicating performance. Showcasing new material written on Vancouver Island, the trio concluded their appearance with a haunting rendition of Chris Isaak’s oft-covered Wicked Game. Magnificent.
Everything had been comparatively mellow until Lafayette’s Grammy nominated six-piece Cajun/’Swamp Pop’ group The Revelers (main image) hit the stage. Within seconds of the first accordion riff, dozens of people – including my wife and I – sprang to their feet and remained there, dancing like dervishes to fiery Cajun, Zydeco, deep Southern soul grooves and balls-out rock ‘n’ roll. Amazing musicianship and a really fun, high-energy set got the party going and the sweat pouring for a highly appreciative audience.
This festival is nothing if not wildly eclectic these days, and to follow the boys from Louisiana came Friday’s incredible headliners, Top Men. These four dapper fellows specialise in cinematic Daft Punk- meets-Giorgio Moroder style electronica, with live drums and bass, and have become an institution in their hometown of Nanaimo. In the space of six years, through sheer hard graft; spectacular, often movie-themed DIY stage shows and thrilling music, the ‘gentlemen’s techno’ four-piece has graduated from pub gigs to bona fide festival headliners. I had previously seen the band fifteen or more times, so had a good idea what to expect, but Top Men are prone to springing surprises. And so they did, although mainly visually, being entirely backlit and with teenage singer-songwriter Max Pittet guesting as a silent, expressionless android girl, draped in white fairy lights and going walkabout in the audience as the music swirled out of clouds of dry ice. Their set was drawn heavily from their current Heavenly Bodies album, but it also included an improvised experimental piece, and a slinky cover of Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes, with vocoder vocals. It was amazing.
When the main stage wraps up at 11:00 pm, for a couple more hours action switches to an atmospherically lit stage tucked into the adjacent forest. It had been a hot and emotional day, so we were pretty spent but wanted to hang on in as long as possible. We are glad we did, as we were treated to a sparkling performance – just their third live show – from Victoria’s Distant Grand. Utilizing lap tops, electronic percussion, vocal effects and a crystalline electric guitar tone, Jesse Brown and Manjinder Benning trade in soft house beats, minor key melodies and dreamy vocals reminiscent of such as Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Teen Daze and The xx, and as illustrated on their debut Fascination EP, they do it beautifully.
We wish we could have lasted longer, but midway through Daemon & Airdrie’s Portishead/Goldfrapp-esque set, also noted for its cool reggae interpolations, lids were drooping and beds were calling. Marley Daemon (Marlies Iredale) and Airdrie (Jesse Thom) are members of Dirty Grace, whose soulful folk music was the catalyst for my first contributions to FRUK two years ago, but as keen as I remain to keep tabs on their activities I had to admit defeat and hit the hay to rest up for what proved to be an epic second day.