(Photo galleries follow the words) I had the opportunity to head up to Lake Cowichan in the beautiful Cowichan Valley for the May long weekend to check out Laketown Ranch’s inaugural stab at a rock n roll festival. I arrived in the village the day before, and the place was absolutely buzzing about the event, with conspicuous posters all over town and many businesses taking advantage with themed signboards. I might have gotten the last (fairly quirky) hotel room in the place, about a half-hour walk from the ranch (though I was lucky to only have to actually make the somewhat-sketchy highway-side walk twice, once at night. Do not recommend…) and right on the river. On the morning of the first day of the festival, media was invited to the site a couple hours before the music was slated to get started to have a tour. I’d never been up there before, but Laketown Ranch is usually home to a couple of very-popular country-themed festivals through the year. I walked over that first morning, weaving through the scattered tents, campers and sweet 1960s tour buses on the sprawling lawn leading up towards the stage area. It looked like a lot of things were still being set up at the time, but as well, being the Friday before the long weekend officially began, the crowds wouldn’t really start showing up until later in the night.
Up at the box office, the sounds of Sam Roberts and his band soundchecking trickling over from the main stage, I sorted out my passes, met another photographer, and the media coordinator, who then brought out the site owner, NHL-alumnus-turned-savvy-business-guy Greg Adams. This guy knows how to invest, and this venue is one he has big, big plans for. He stuck us on a golf cart and drove us around the festival site, telling us of what he owns, what he plans to own, how much of the 172-acre parcel he plans to develop, and what cool permanent features he plans to add in (a zip line overlooking the main stage and a massive slip n slide on a hill alongside?! Brilliant!). He’s building a third stage at the top of the hill, plans to purchase his own set of video gear/screens, and the last few per-cent of the festival gating and whatever else he was still renting for this event, so everything is self-contained and takes much less time and money to coordinate, even if a big-name artist drops in for a one-off show (Bruno Mars was the example he kept using). There will be potable water and showers on site, which unfortunately weren’t up and running yet for this festival, but amazingly, there were legitimate flush toilets, which was incredibly posh for a festival.
I met up shortly with a friend who was down in the camping area, alongside those oldschool tour buses. The campground atmosphere was wonderful here. The crowd was generally a bit older than your average festival crowd, with far more trailers/campers than tents, and everyone was thoroughly welcoming and generous. I was incredibly lucky and incredibly spoiled with good food, drink and company all weekend, in between taking in some excellent classic Canadian rock n roll. As I made my way back to the main stage for Malahat’s set, the ground staff were putting out the street signs along the camping aisles which were just completed, each named after a musician who has left this world. Malahat were up playing the biggest stage they’d ever played on, though I imagine it wasn’t the biggest crowd. This early in the afternoon, not many had trekked up to the stages yet. The main stage area was split into a couple parts – the “Rock Pit” up front was a general admission standing-room area cuddled up to the massive stage. Behind this, a gated section had seating set up, though many folks brought their own camp chairs in. At this point, most of the crowd was in that area, with just a trickle of folks in the rock pit, but those who were there were gung-ho. Malahat has some devoted fans who made the trek up to this event, decked out in cape-flags festooned with the band’s name. They hollered and danced and jumped at the foot of the stage and the bare feet of rambunctious singer Tristan Savage, who was doing a bang-up job of channeling Robert Plant along with the Zeppelin-esque vibe of the rest of the group (saying nothing of the fact that they actually played “Immigrant Song” during their set). It was a great way to siphon into the day, the beautiful, tree-covered mountains surrounding the site making for a cool backdrop for Savage’s antics tearing around the stage. The big feature on the stage was a catwalk jutting out into the Rock Pit, which us photographers all remarked was critically underused all weekend, but Savage was someone who took good advantage of it. They also played a little Soundgarden, in tribute to recently-fallen singer Chris Cornell, but this was the only reference to him I would see all weekend.
Day 1 seemed to be for the younger crowd, with Matt Mays and The Sam Roberts Band headlining the evening. Mays was on first, warming the darkening evening with his energetic yet somehow comfy rock n roll. His large band looks like they were pulled from a hundred different genres, with a Ramones-y guitarist in black leather, Jimmy Buffett on keys, and Bruce Springsteen on guitar. Ha! The ‘Springsteen’ guitarist is Adam Baldwin, who at one point was literally kicked in the ass by Mays while doing a solo to urge him to go strut the catwalk. He did, laughing, looking a little ill at ease out there – he retreated quite quickly. Mays went out there a couple of times during those few songs he isn’t playing guitar, and what a sight to see him framed by a bright spotlight, audience rapt gazing towards him.
Sam Roberts and co. closed the night, and there is never a night where they don’t get the party bloody started. Massive amounts of toe-tapping, arm-waving infectious energy roar forth from these guys. They played a range of hits from across the last fifteen or so years of his successful career. These guys are the new blood Canadian icons – they seem pretty unstoppable. Guitarist Dave Nugent was using the large stage to particular advantage, skipping and bopping around as far as his guitar cord would allow him. Mays came out to join Roberts on a song they wrote together in Australia (“Uprising Down Under”). The pair have known each other for well over a decade as well, and it’s through Roberts taking Mays on tour that I met him also, which will always be a bright point in my music-shooting life. Roberts also took a few forays out onto the catwalk, clasping hands with fans, and of course at the end of the set, “Brother Down” kicking up with help from all of Matt Mays’ band who trickled out one by one and joined in (what band doesn’t need two bassists, right?) as Roberts hopped down into the Rock Pit and skipped and danced his way around, welcoming all the dance-alongs, high-fives, handshakes, hugs and back-claps thrown his way by a happy crowd. The guy is engaging, no doubt about it.
Day 2 began hot, and after lunch down by the campground, I scurried up to the Flats Stage to check out The Bad. The Flats area included a few food vendors and a small stage built to look like a shack in an Old West town. It was also pretty empty this early in the day, but The Bad is another band that have a dedicated following, and their fans were there getting their drink on and dancing in the hot midday sun.
Let the classic rock commence! The venue was definitely more full than it had been the day before at this time, but I think people were still traveling up to the venue on this Saturday afternoon, and we’d not see the place really hopping til later that night. Prism was up next on the main stage and what a show they put on! Singer Al Harlow was hard to take your eyes off of, with his impossibly-tall coif of dark hair set atop a thin frame that went through an impressive number of coat changes. He whirled, spun, jumped, and pulled faces at the crowd like a true showman. And they opened with “Spaceship Superstar,” I mean what better way to make sure everyone there knew who just had gotten on stage (if the giant PRISM banner didn’t give it away). At a couple points, he strutted the catwalk to interact with his crowd, letting people strum his guitar, or signing a couple things on the fly.
Trooper was next today, and they also rocked a proper good time. Singer Ra McGuire went through some costume changes as well, but they were more subtle, simply swapping out identical black top with different slogans on them in bold white text, like “TROOPER 4EVAH” and “ARRIVE. RAISE A LITTLE HELL. LEAVE.” They stopped for a while to acknowledge guitarist Brian “Smitty” Smith, who had heart surgery recently and wasn’t supposed to rejoin the band until July, but had felt well enough to come out for this one. “He came back today because he’s a rock god!” You’d never have guessed he’d just had triple bypass surgery, good grief. But, in case they’d have to do the show without him, their guitar tech Steve Crane had learned all the parts, and so the band gave him a chance in the spotlight for all his hard work. He was urged out to the catwalk by McGuire, and he shredded his way around, cajoling with eager fans while Smith and McGuire watched with big grins behind him. The rest of the band left the stage for Clayton Hill to do up a drum solo – I mean a serrrrious frigging drum solo. He was joined shortly after by bassist Scott Brown, who drew out a serrrrious frigging bass solo. To end, they were joined by Harlow and members of the band The Wild! Who had played earlier in the day but I regrettably missed, as they looked like they were a pretty good time.
Loverboy headlined tonight, and while I would like to give a more detailed review of what went on there, I was thoroughly distracted after having an entire sticky grapefruit cocktail of some kind dumped across me during the second song, which rather messed up my camera. Ah the pitfalls of rocktography! Anyhow, Mike Reno still has some pretty surprising onstage gusto, decked out in a Loverboy headband and how does he hold his mic at that angle and still project his voice properly?! The audience was really packed in now, and the band brought out Catherine St Germain to sing the female lead in the duet “Almost Paradise,” known from the Footloose soundtrack. That’s when I left though, too frustrated about the camera and eager to get back to my room to clean it. That was the night I walked back to the town down the pitch-black highway, luckily devoid of toothy animals, but the sounds of Loverboy echoed down the valley and followed me almost the entire way back to the hotel.
Day 3 began with The Headpins. Their new singer Kat Lawrence is a total spitfire. She absolutely fit in with a gravelly rock-chick voice, shiny shades and whirling hair. The rest of the band was having a great time – not too serious, they were pulling some synchronised moves while playing and sharing jokes and laughing on stage. They were followed by Kenny Shields & Streetheart, and for such a rocking band, Shields himself comes across as supremely serene somehow. Guitarist Jeff Neill was all over with the rock faces, sitting on the stage edge and rocking out with fans, or plucking up shirts and things from crowd members and posing with them. Heck, even we got a shout out – I was sitting up in ‘the tower,’ the three-tiered cake of a structure that housed the sound board, a VIP/media platform, and the spotlights, all one above the other, dangling my legs over the edge and taking a few minutes off my feet before the next set, with another photographer beside me. We were the only two up there for some reason (there were only like half a dozen of us all weekend anyhow), and suddenly Shields is talking to us. “Hey you in the tower up there… how did you get that spot? How are you doing up there? Get up!” All right, well it got me back to my feet!
Honeymoon Suite was the next band to come on out, and they are another one that really knows how to put on a rip-roaring good show. So much energy and great rapport between them. Guitarist Derry Greehan is undoubtedly the major showstopper here, pouring out ridiculous guitar solos, kicking his feet up, working that catwalk for all it’s worth, canoodling with his bandmates. Singer Johnnie Dee was, as was everyone this weekend, blown away by the amazing venue. “Happiness in a beautiful place,” is a phrase I will probably remember forever. This band is a total hit machine as well, one of those bands you almost forget how many of their songs you know. They were a total joy to watch, obviously still loving the stage. They just released a new album as well, so hopefully we’ll see lots more of them to come!
Headlining the night was Glass Tiger. I admit it, I am a huge Glass Tiger fan. Alan Frew’s distinctive voice and that little kiss of Scottish traditional sound weaving its way into their tunes just always charms me. Smartly outfitted in a long coat, Frew strolled the stage easily, softly telling stories of cheer and drink and song. The band behind him looked pleased and sounded great, but compared to the powerhouse of Honeymoon Suite before them, was a pretty mellow end to the weekend. Unfortunately, not relishing the idea of making that pitch-black walk back to town again, I took a ride with some other photographers who were eager to leave after only about 4 or 5 songs, so I missed most of their set, but here’s looking forward to another shot at it sooner than later.
Overall, awesome weekend. A few start-up bugs, but the venue is mind-blowing, the talent is not lacking, and with the plans the owner has to develop the site and bring in more, perhaps international acts for next year, I think this fest will be a smashing success and perhaps fill a handy niche left by Squamish Fest now getting thrown under the bus. See you next year, Laketown Rock!