Video by Colby Carruthers | Edited by Tyler Paterson
In a world with more apps than good reasons to leave your house, small-town mentalities are often devalued. Was human proximity not defined as a leading factor for establishing love in my Psychology 100 textbook, or has it moved down the list in the 2016 edition? Even if knowing your neighbour is a dying practice, Otalith Music Festival continues to succeed in drawing city folk into the quaintness of Ucluelet, British Columbia, nearly doubling the town’s population. This year’s headliners were some of the most disparate and accomplished to perform and included Shakey Graves, FIDLAR, and People Under The Stairs. Unlike a vast majority of music festivals that I’ve attended, people seek more than music out of Otalith; almost akin to a cultural shift from their regular lives. That sounds like a lot to ask from a 2 day music festival, but Otalith is set for success with its oceanfront property, surf culture, and intimate camp setting. The appeal in attending a festival like Otalith might be obvious to the classic Vancouver Island brain, but I was pleasantly surprised in learning that a few musicians had their weekends blessed by the Ucluelet/Otalith mindset.
Rolling into the campsite Friday evening, I threw up my tent in a shaded corner of our camping slot and lingered in the shadow of a sitka spruce to drink a few Caribous. The music was quickly underway and I scampered to catch Band of Rascals, a Vancouver Island band who play with a tried-and-true rock and roll voracity - a kind of party music which felt exceptionally situated to the location. Surf rock pros, The Shivas, were next. Captained primarily by vocalist and guitarist Jared Molyneux’ with his whole-body charisma and head bobbing they kicked up the energy of the evening with their single-coil licks and vibrant stage presence.
The crowd was primed for the rambunctious and final act of the night, Shakey Graves. The Texan folk songwriter, with his penchant for the old days and bad-bad boy singalongs, was met with true enthusiasm by the friday night crowd. His set rotated between solo and full-band performance, stomping his heels on a kick and snare while strumming his six-string. As the stars came out he made it known over the PA just how lucky he was to be there, in the wilderness so opposite to his own. Of course the crowd of locals and newly-locals loved to hear that it was so.
What the program guide won’t tell you is just how much fun you are going to have indulging in the Otalithian campfire lifestyle. Beer coolers and singalongs, hammocks in old growth, Westies decked out in woodstock regalia - sure it isn’t unique, but the scale and earnestness makes it feel special. There is a nostalgia for that know-your-neighbour lifestyle here that could, at first glance, seem trendy or tiresome, but is justified by the isolated locale, the proud but simple lifestyle that this part of British Columbia exemplifies, the friendly and mellow party vibes, flitting from fire to fire, the drugs and the late night jams.
Surfing is medicinal when paired with a music festival. As the joy of catching your first wave merges with Long Beach’s numbing ocean water, a morphine-grade painkiller is born. Surfing is a remarkably high selling point for Otalith, bringing like-minded west-coasters in close proximity including musician Alexi Glickman, lead singer of the San Francisco-based band Sandy’s. After their performance, equal parts nonchalance and chops-laden guitar music, Glickman and his band members exited the stage in matching white beach attire and joined me to talk surfing and the magic of community. Their music’s soothing temperament, melodic rhythms and smooth, beachy harmonies are in all ways reflective of ocean living. In the midst of Glickman’s explanation on the benefits of playing in the great outdoors, the magic of Ukee summoned forth Sonny Smith, lead singer of Sonny & The Sunsets, the next band to perform. The conversation quickly shifted to the relationship that Sonny and Alexi shared prior to the festival and the strong sense of community that connects west-coasters. It only felt natural that they would reunite in the magical land of Otalith.
There’s dad rock and then there’s divorcee-husband rock, just as there are The Eagles and The Eagles of Death Metal. Sonny Smith’s lyrical confessions about letters from his ex-wife, life on the road, and the strange cream he found lying on the seat of his car put the music that him and his band make in the latter category. Live, their jammy garage music reminded me of some Silver Jews Cuts, and amounted to a mix of reality-grounded weirdness and heartbreak that I was charmed by.
Sonny Smith and band member Tahlia Harbour also had something to say for strange connections and shared a most hilarious story about their recent American tour.
I couldn’t help but feel a wave of irony wash over me as I entered the incredibly calm and mild-tempered backstage tent housing FIDLAR. In the midst of the band’s parallel universe, two unidentified gentlemen both exuding a life lived on island time were deep in conversation with the band. Family? Friends? Fans? I knew there was a tale of bonding at the bottom of this. Lucky for me Brandon Schwartzel, FIDLAR’s bass player, was able to explain how the magic of Ukee blessed their weekend with this new friendship.
Meanwhile, People Under The Stairs performed with yin and yang harmony. Thes One used every inch of the stage like a twelve year old on slurpee sugar while Double K had the stage presence of a rap veteran. The duo proved their natural gifts as rap gods by integrating Ucluelet and Otalith into almost all the songs that they performed. Their set was equal parts impressive and upbeat and I began fangirling without warning. I couldn’t resist asking Double K to tell me a funny story after their set, check it.
This being the second time I’ve seen FIDLAR perform this year, I was ready to compare an outdoor Otalith set to an indoor Levitation Vancouver set. For the sake of grungy punk music, I was under the impression an indoor set would do a band like FIDLAR justice, but the experience at Otalith was equally as grungy, high energy, and delightfully sweaty. My experience at Otalith was admittedly better due to a very successful stage dive into the center of the mosh pit, where I remained for a hot minute. Both performances proved not to be forces to reckon with. Schwartzel looked like a giant rugrat in plus-size overalls and an entrancing style of bass playing. There was slight disappointment in repeating elements from both shows such as making the crowd sit and wait for the anticipation of “Cocaine” but I’m going to assume I’m in the minority of people who have seen FIDLAR perform twice in three months.
To complete the trifecta of surfing and music, an after-hours performance in the festival’s campground captivated all those who found it. The campground houses Mother Nature’s gift to Otalith - a mossy amphitheater enclosed in a thicket of ancient cedars. The natural stage hosted the festival’s final performance Saturday night by Victoria-based group Carmanah, which just so happened to be the highlight of my festival experience. Have you ever heard the voice of one-thousand angels? While lying in a mossy bed of nature? Surrounded by a hundred people glowing with an ambient halo of camp fire light? The performance harnessed the level of ethereal magic that festivals like Shambhala and Bass Coast only dream of evoking. Otalith’s motto as, “the world’s most intimate music festival” was perfectly captured through Carmanah’s soft and earthy sound. It paired perfectly with the fairy lights strung through coastal old growth and the dual campfires. Even the band’s name is derived from the breathtaking Carmanah Valley region on Vancouver Island. In the words of festival coordinator, Warren Recker, “As Islanders, a campfire jam is our collective culture. It turned out better than I had ever dreamt.” I’m happy to say that I have experienced a small slice of heaven antemortem. Thank you, Otalith.