By Susanne Tabata
VANCOUVER — Tall Tree Festival is in its sixth year, and runs June 26-28 in Port Renfrew, B.C. This is a boutique festival set in a rain forest atop a mountain overlooking an inlet – a West Coast wilderness experience with great music. Powered by 160 volunteers, Tall Tree supports a lot of emerging artists, plus the 2015 line-up features The Funk Hunters w/ Chali 2na, Yukon Blonde, Delhi 2 Dublin, The Harpoonist and the Axe Murder, with big picks from the tented electronic stage – Calibre, Spectrasoul, and Neon Steve. The organizers are organized. There is a huge public safety machine with a hospital on site. Unlike some festivals, drinking water is FREE and fresh. There are licensed areas for alcohol, pack-in pack-out camping with an easy distance to the parking lot, cold showers, toilets, and shuttles to town for non-campers looking for luxury accommodation. This set-up is a far cry from the days when Port Renfrew was the end-of-the-road.
When Tall Trees co-founder Rob Stewart and his business partner Zack first bought the Big Fish Lodge in 2007, they were trying to open a year-round business in Port Renfrew. The B.C. government had just announced they were going to pave the road connecting Renfrew to east side of Vancouver Island through Lake Cowichan. “We jumped on the business opportunity and opened the lodge for the first winter. We measured our success through ‘bums in beds’ and we calculated under 20 bums in four months for that winter. No one was coming here. The lodge offered a great space for music and the local youth hung out there, including Canadian surfing champion Leah Oke. We had to do something novel. We started our first inaugural Song and Surf on December 13, 2008. Sold tix for $10 and that included a potluck dinner at the community centre. We hired a band from Victoria for $100.00, good artists but like-minded individuals. The lead singer from QUOIA was Mike Hann who is now the festival director and co-founder of Tall Tree. One-hundred people came to Song and Surf I.” Mike Hann confirms the story. “It was a one-off thing that I got invited to play at and the next year I invested in the lodge.” By November 2009 there was Song and Surf II, Zack had moved on, and the two guys decided they were onto something. “Mike brought in his best friend Chris Welham, a former Shamrocks Lacrosse player, who does all the site operations, and we secured a site on Brown Mountain for the first Tall Tree.” There have now been seven Song and Surfs and five Tall Trees.
For diehard local Greg Klem, he watches Tall Tree from afar. The retired tree planter once operated Edge-of-the-World-Tours out of an old red Dodge van. “I never did fill it with tourists but did sleep in the back a couple of times.” Like anyone who has lived here for a long time, Klem likes the wilderness. “I tell the visitors to go look at the trees and not climb all over them. I saw the elk today, yesterday it was the bears, last month my dog got attacked by a cougar.” Stewart remembers Klem from the first business meeting they had at the community centre. “Greg stood up and gave two middle fingers to the chair of the meeting and said ‘fuck you’ and the ruckus started,” Klem admits. “My middle fingers are reactionary.” He doesn’t attend the festival but supports it. ”It’s something new so some people don’t like it. People who are the loudest whiners are the ones that make the most noise. More than anything I’m pro-Rob, pro-Mike, pro-Tall Trees.”
Co-founder and festival director Mike Hann is at the centre of running the program. His band QUOIA plays every year and his instincts are no doubt influenced by attending many festivals as an artist and the fact his dad is a well-known folk musician Paul Hann. “We are trying to cultivate a West Coast nature experience. Most people have never heard of Latin Grammy winner Alex Cuba who is a great artist – he’ll play at twilight on Saturday. Sunday we are cultivating a funk experience …and then there is the electronic Spirit Tree Stage tent.” He notes, “It wouldn’t be happening without the 160 volunteers who do everything from site prep to clean up.”
Tall Tree is aware of the need to be a part of the local community. Nathan Mark is the other core part of Tall Tree. “I moved out here to restart my life and find my meaning,” says Mark, who had a serious motor vehicle accident that altered his life. He maintains a year-round link to the youth in the greater Port Renfrew area including the Pacheedaht First Nation, by running Make Music Now, a youth music program. Inspired by A Tribe Called Red and Music Counts, Mark applied for a grant set up by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) and TD Canada Trust. Mark purchased a PA, guitars, keyboards and software, and hired a music teacher for the students. He also teaches Pacheedaht youth including Tynan, son of Canadian surfing legend Isaiah Oke (RIP). Locals are giving love to the program. Mark’s goal “is to have a Small Tree Festival on the reserve and make it a free family event.”
So much new blood doing such great things also means law and order has come to town. It begs the question to be asked of Sombrio surf original and Port Renfrew local Rivermouth Mike. What does he think of all this new activity? “If I was 25 I’d think it’s a good thing. I’m not against them. I’m an independent surfing musician. There’s always blue meanies and I’m not one of them.” Tall Tree seems to be working for now. Says Rob Stewart, “It’s no longer the end of the road…now we are part of the journey because it’s a circle road.” Maybe Port Renfrew has changed.
Tall Tree Festival tix are $160.00 for the weekend. Mainlanders can take a ferry to Nanaimo and drive through Cowichan OR to Victoria and drive through Sooke. Tickets are available through www.talltreemusicfestival.com
Susanne Tabata is the creator of the punk movie Bloodied But Unbowed and the West Coast Canadian surf film 49Degrees featuring the Port Renfrew surfing originals.BC, British Columbia, festival season, Greg Klem, Mike Hann, Nathan Mark, Paul Hann, Rob Stewart, Susanne Tabata, Tall Tree Festival