Words by Emma Linde
Tall Tree Music Festival describes itself as the “smallest biggest music festival there ever was.” Located on Brown’s Mountain near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, this spirited three-day festival ran for the seventh annual time last weekend. Running on its third annual sold-out year, Tall Tree showcases a diverse range of musical and comic talent in one of the most beautiful landscapes British Columbia has to offer.
The sun was fashionably late to its own party, appearing only during the drives there and back. We boogied, stomped, hooted and howled through the entire spectrum of mist a mountain has to offer, ranging from cloud to barely rain. It is only a true BC gathering if it is raining and no one cares. The weather only added to the experience, embodying the essence of BC culture and giving the impression of partying on a floating chunk of mountaintop. The crowd was fabulously positive, free-spirited, and quick to delve into conversation. The festival is large enough to encounter new people at every turn and small enough to encounter them again and again so that, for many attendees, there was a consistent burgeoning of their social circle. Tall Tree is an immersive experience, created partially by the lack of cell phone reception and Wi-Fi, partially by the geographic remoteness, and mostly by the community’s eagerness to delve completely into three music-filled days on top of a mountain.
My journey to the festival can be described by Murphy’s law; when everything that can go wrong, does. After leaving late, getting lost, and taking at least an hour to find a parking spot, we arrived late and frantic to the middle of Thursday night’s headliner at the Tall Tree Stage. Nonetheless, when finally immersed in the cool mountain air and cooler mountain people, the vibe immediately took hold and all pre-arrival stress and hustle evaporated into the mist.
The multi-talented musicians of Nahko and Medicine for the People produced an impressively eclectic performance, characterized by groovy horns, bass lines, strong vocals, and really cool hats. Guest violinist Tim Snyder wowed the audience with the creative use of a loop machine and astounding bow control. Delivered through PK Sound, the bass was amplified and impressively balanced with treble, a common theme throughout the festival’s performances.
Nahko preached the socially and environmentally conscience message characteristic of his band, simultaneously establishing the importance of those values for the festival. Following Nahko’s lead, almost every subsequent band reminded the audience to take care of each other, themselves, and the Earth. Hats off to the Tall Tree’s pursuit of “zero waste” which could only have been accomplished with the many-binned garbage sites and brigade of volunteers who sorted every bin of recycling, compost, and waste.
Tall Tree’ers greeted the morning and the morning greeted us back in typical BC fashion: with misty rain and chill beats. Very occasional breaks of blue skies (or “cloud failures”) revealed the Valley Stage’s spectacular view of Vancouver Island coastline. Though it remained mostly socked in for the remainder of the festival, this stage, which closed at six every evening, was the perfect setting for our morning’ dose of down-tempo electronic, hip-hop and drum and bass. This morning, Emotionz and later Mt. Doyle coaxed us out of our tents, out of our hangovers, and into the festival spirit. As the morning progressed, the crowd morphed from log-sitting coffee sippers to movers and shakers, boogying in an ever-increasing crowd, reveling in the festival’s keystone inhibition-free culture of dance. The sparse population at at the Tall Tree Stage demonstrated the crowd’s preference for an electronic flavour early in the day. Later, DJ Surgery demonstrated incredible skills on the turntables, starting with a quote from Goodfellas, and rocking a crowd-pleasing set that got everyone’s back up off the wall.
Odell Fox took over the Stump and Stone stage, the stage on top of a mountain, to inundate our souls with a passionate set of Americana (Canadiana?) folk. Ghosty following the acoustic tones with a rock set, demonstrating the diversity of Tall Tree music. This show marked the debut of the solo project of the bassit of Current Swell. The crowd was on board, bobbing and head banging along, even toughing it out through technical difficulties.
Twice, Tall Tree sandwiched a night’s headliner between two short sets of the same DJ. Murge served as the bread to the Shad sandwich tonight. This interlude was a party in itself, spinning a fabulously tasteful mix including remixes of James Brown’s Sex Machine and Buffalo Springfield’s Stop Children What’s That Sound. Murge’s finale proved to be an unforgettable moment for many dancers as he dropped an emotion-provoking, bass-infused, remix of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.
As the sun began to set behind an array of gray, Shad impressed the crowd with a demonstration of his extensive years of performance experience. He busted out the electric guitar as he rapped about conscience, down-to-earth material such as clipping coupons, and “not knowing where the hell I am.” It’s true- where the hell were we? There was the ground, and there were the stages, and everything else was one consistent ethereal shade of grey, blurring the line between the land below the mountain and the sky. It was what fog machines try to simulate. We were partying inside a cloud.
Current Swell followed the other side of the Murge sandwich. The OG’s of Tall Tree and rock stars of Vancouver Island performed as if in their living room, sliding gracefully through familiar tunes such as “I Want a Bird” and “For the Land.” They had us wrapped around their little finger, engineering the crowd from genuine moments of centeredness to shoulder-shaking-heel-clicking debauchery.
By full day two, Browns Mountain fully felt like a neighborhood. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Tall Tree’ers unzipped dewy tents, greeted friends old and new, and donned their best dancing gumboots, no doubt wondering how Tall Tree could possibly top yesterday.
Some festival goers visited the harm reduction tent, conveniently located on a well-visited junction within the festival grounds. Services there included information about drugs/alcohol/sun exposure, drug testing, help finding friends, and good conversation. The tent was staffed with extremely knowledgeable and friendly staff, eager to share their knowledge in a nonjudgmental fashion.
Up at the Tall Tree stage, Labs captivated us with downtempo, dreamy synthpop. The lead vocalist mesmerized with the sultriest voice I have ever heard come out of a small blond woman dressed as a disco ball. Later, Bocce Avocado turned the Tall Tree stage into their mother’s garage, keeping it real and jamming out. The rhythm section laid down a steady groove, perfectly framing the tubular electric guitarist and tie die overall-clad vocalist. They preached wise, albeit somewhat satirical, lyrics such as “we don’t give a shit about you motherfuckers, we just punch you in the dick.” Inspiring.
Afterwards, Kytami, a leader in the experimental collaboration between violin and electronic music, won the contest for biggest and most stoked audience at the Stump and Stone stage. They also took the prize for the most and most epic stage dives. The MC dedicated a song to everyone in the crowd who was feeling haggard and still going strong, perfectly captivating the vibe of Tall Tree’s second full day.
Back at the Tall Tree stage, Bear Mountain executed a highly danceable, pop-indie set with a crisp, well-rehearsed sound. They rocked favorites including “Give It Up” and “Badu.” Their performance inspired the crowd to form the longest massage train in known Tall Tree history, immediately followed by the longest conga line probably ever to be conga-ed on a mountain.
Hollerado brought us straight back to boy-band days with matching T-shirts and lyrics inspired by rebellious teenager years. They further demonstrated the fact that don’t give a shit by calling themselves up for an encore and by pulling up a random audience member to freestyle rap who, coincidentally, happened to absolutely murder the mic.
As the field filled for Mother Mother, the sky darkened and mist insulated the bubble between the audience and the stage, completely cutting us off from the rest of the world. We have all seen lasers projected across fog, but have you ever seen them projected through mist? It made for a fabulously ethereal set. Mother Mother provided the perfect sounds for the originally boisterous but now slightly haggard bunch to bob happily along to. The band called us into an intimate space within their hearts and gave us a full tour throughout the show. This performance confirmed Mother Mother’s reputation: that the live performances are what makes this band so fantastic.
After regrouping at various campsites, the crowd headed to the final destination of the festival, the Spirit Tree Stage, for one last give’er. Smalltown DJs, the highlight of the festivals’ last phase, delivered with a dense slapping of the dirtybird sound.
By the end, the Tall Tree community had grown strong. There is a certain sense of comradery that arises when a group of strangers cooperate and we had done just that to create this beautiful experience. We cooperated to not give a damn about the rain. We cooperated to create a judgement-free atmosphere of dancing. We took breathers together in the isolated grove strewn with hammocks. We visited almost every campsite dispersed along the walkways between stages.
On the way home after the very last set on the very last night, the lead guitarist from Current Swell strolled past barefoot , gently strumming a well-loved guitar slung loosely over his shoulder. Tall Tree has to be among the most down-to-Earth, intimate, and certainly most “BC of festivals. Thank you to Port Renfrew on Pacheedaht traditional territory for hosting us. I will certainly be there next year, so stay rad Tall Tree, and until next time, adieu!
Full gallery of photos © Joseph Rootman