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Ask local musicians who play the summer festival circuit where their favourite gigs are and most will mention some outpost fest in a small town, on a farm, by a river or at the fringe of a forest. The more remote, the better to foster in-the-moment engagement and a communal vibe. So, while the big fests like Vancouver Folk Fest (Neko Case plays this summer!) always deliver, here’s where you’ll find local artists grooving in intimate settings with footloose fans.
Grassroots is musician Jenny Ritter’s term for small-but-super-popular Campbell Bay Music Fest, a favourite of hers. On Mayne in the Southern Gulf Islands, the family-farm-based festival sells out fast and is now adding a third stage, off-site and “downtown” by the historic Agricultural Hall. The fest’s devoted following means “…the artistic directors get to be as creative and off-the-wall as they desire,” says Ritter. A good thing. This June, catch that vibe in fiddling sensations, The Fretless (2017 JUNO Award for Instrumental Album of the Year), as well as modern-country singer/songwriter Sarah Jane Scouten (think Sturgill Simpson and Emmylou Harris, Canadiana style).
June 22 to 24, 2018; campbellbaymusicfest.com
The coziest festival in Canada is how Chris Frye of seminal roots/folk band The Bills describes Islands Folk Fest. The five-piece band happily celebrated its 20th anniversary there last summer. Frye says the fest is quintessential, blissful West Coast, set on Providence Farm outside of Duncan on Vancouver Island, complete with charming-chapel venue and “truly West Coast super food!” Helen Austin, of the duo Big Little Lions, agrees. Besides the stellar location and fare (from dragon bowls to Mexican popsicles), she recalls the laidback vibe of “playing as the sun was going down and people got up and started dancing.” Think island time.
July 20 to 22, 2018; islandsfolkfestival.ca
On the Kispiox rodeo grounds (site of an annual 70-year-old rodeo!) is another little-known but much-loved music fest, bringing musicians and fans just beyond the 55th parallel for more than two decades. Surrounded by mountains and the Kispiox and Skeena Rivers in Bulkley Valley, this wild-and-wonderful land (the nearest “big” town is Smithers, a 90-minute drive south) is home to the Gitksan Nation and its striking series of totem poles (Roy Vickers is a Gitksan artist). “Two stages set beside a beautiful cold river with camping and jamming all weekend,” is how musician Luke Wallace describes it. “For a Vancouver kid like me, Kispiox offers a chance to get out into the bush and reconnect with community and the earth.” Hear, hear!
July 27 to 29, 2018; kvmfest.com
This out-of-the-way but beloved fest in the Gold-Rush-era town of Barkerville and Wells has one-of-a-kind venues in candy-coloured historic buildings (like B.C.’s first gambling hall). It’s another of Vancouver musician Jenny Ritter’s favourite festivals to play and participate in (she calls it summer camp for musicians). And she’s not alone…accordion player/singer-songwriter Geoff Berner (a pioneer of klezmer/punk music) is excited to perform at ArtsWells this summer. “The festival there takes over the whole town, and there’s no barrier between artists and audience,” he says. “I don’t much care for two-tiered festivals where the headliners fly in and out in one evening and never mix with the people they’re playing for.” We’re in.
August 3 to 6, 2018; artswells.com
Haida Gwaii is a storied archipelago off the coast of northern B.C., and the Edge of the World festival, set here, has a similar mystique, its origins coming out of the back of a pick-up truck more than 30 years ago. Today, local and regional performers play with celebrity headliners (Fortune Killers’ Felicia Harding gushes about the band’s past Edge Fest gig with Sam Roberts) at this seriously off-the-beaten-track fest (via plane or very-long drive and ferry ride). Once you’re in the village of Queen Charlotte expect enchantment from both the locale and the artists on stage. This summer, the musical vibes will range from the blues-rock of Victoria’s Jesse Roper to the folk-rock and traditional Inuit throat singing of Nunavut’s The Jerry Cans.
August 10 to 12, 2018; edgefestival.com