Tall Tree Music Festival: A Gonzo Festival Review

Tall Tree Music Festival have just released their epic lineup for 2015 and to get you excited for this year’s event we have for you our contributor Will Miller’s review of last year’s shenanigans. Tickets are on sale now, those who hesitate…


We were headed across the Georgia Straight to Vancouver Island on a B.C Ferry, and the forecast was rain. But that wasn’t what was on our minds. We had the excitement of the 4th annual Tall Tree Music Festival getting closer by the kilometer to keep our thoughts away from the reality of mud. An eclectic festival of an intimate size nestled away in a clear-cut on the side of Brown’s Mountain just outside of Port Renfrew, on the very west coast of the Island. Past years’ bookings had always been a unique and boutique mixture of live bands and electronic acts. This year was no different. The headlining acts ranged from the swooning folk riffs of Dan Magnan and The Blacksmith to a legend in the world of electronic music production, and my most anticipated act of the festival, Tipper.

This was my first year attending Tall Tree, and I was going because I had been told by many notable members of the GTAG* that Tall Tree was the best way to begin festival season in B.C. Special vibes, unheard of musical gems, and happy people are the hidden treasure for an experienced festival pirate. So we went forward into a foggy wet cloud of moisture and uncertainty, seeking the X that marked the spot.

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Day 1

We managed to arrive on the Friday evening ahead of the rain, which was our biggest concern of the moment. If you’ve ever tried to set up camp in the rain then you understand. Our set-up was quick and breezy, with much help from the Tall Tree staff and an impressive level of co-ordination and communication—essential and yet often unseen components of festival organization.

The sun had begun to set, apparent only by the darkening of the grey cloud surrounding us, then the rain started to fall. Lightly at first and then heavily and quickly thereafter, repeating this unpredictable cycle for the rest of the night with sprinkles of howling winds making the rain fall horizontally. All of this might sound brutally agonizing to be in, but something weird and beautiful happens when a group of people endure something uncomfortable together. The perfect soundtrack for this weird and beautiful thing that was happening was Dan Magnan and The Blacksmith. Even still, the presence of mist and rain seemed to raise the production value of the stage lighting dramatically. It was one of those rare, perfect moments when something bad is the variable that makes everything good.

Uplifting psychedelic bluegrass folk-rock is how I would describe Dan Magnan and The Blackmith’s set that night. It was an incredibly endearing performance from the Canadian front man and the band was tighter then Phish in their prime. Although we did not know it yet, this unique blend of genres and musicianship set the precedent for the variety of music we would experience for the next two days.

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That was the last performance on the Main Stage for the evening, and we all went back to camp wondering what the late night stage would be like (it had been moved and upgraded from the previous year, so no one knew what to expect). After a 5-minute walk down the road from our camp, we started to hear the unmistakable bass of a huge PK Sound system. We approached a white-top tent large enough to host an Italian Wedding. The only difference was that this party was better than any wedding and had way more sound and lasers. Everyone was happy to be out of the rain and dancing in the warmth created by each other.

Parties like this are the natural habitat of local BC legend Mat The Alien. Here, deep in the woods, surrounded by exuberant bass heads starving for the deep vibrations of sub bass, he thrives. He played out a staple set of bass driven hip hop and dub selections with drum and bass peppered in for good measure, and a thick layer of grime rubbed over the whole thing. Between and during the tracks he displayed his natural talent for turntablism, a forgotten art in today’s DJ culture.

After getting the satisfaction of deep alien bass and an hour or so of refuge from the rain, I returned back to camp to hang out and make sure my stuff had not gotten soaked. Our tarp shelters withstood the storm, and we hoped that would be the last we would worry about them for the rest weekend.

Day 2

The second day teased rain but only ever did just that, tease. With many thanks to the mystical forces that control the unpredictable West Coast climate (we’ve narrowed it down to either positive intention or Stephen Harper) we stayed dry and enjoyed the second day’s programming.

After getting a hot meal in me I went to the Main Stage to find out that Tipper’s first of two sets had been cancelled due to “uncontrollable circumstances”. This was quite disappointing being one of the sets I was looking forward to the most, but I remained optimistic that his late night set would be just as good and so I continued the only way I knew how – dancing along trying not to spill my beer with a perma-grin on my face.

The most memorable performance of that day for me, and a bit of a surprise without mention of it on the schedule was DJ Outsider’s second set with Autokrat on the mic. I had only heard of Autokrat on the way to the festival and wasn’t sure what to think of her based on her YouTube videos. My opinions were quickly shattered as she stepped up on the Main Stage with O.G level confidence and proceeded to attack the mic. Her style of flow is like an Uzi on Adderall. Relentless and with impeccable breath control she slaughtered Outsider’s bass heavy instrumentals. Hip Hop is one of the hardest mediums to excel at as a performer, and at a festival it can be easy to lose the attention of a crowd – but this was not the case today. She commanded our attention like a female Napoleon covered in tattoos.

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The night continued on and anticipation for Tipper built higher and higher, with many rumors flying around about why the first set was cancelled. I chose not to bother with what happened or why, and focused my energy on stoking myself and everyone else for the set to come. The Late Night Stage (or Rave Tent as many had taken to calling it) was full of energy again, and when Tipper stepped on you could feel it reach a boiling point.

He proceeded to pump out an hour of high-energy and gut-wrenching drum and bass. The crowd seemed to love it, and it was a safe and well received decision for the time and place. Yet I was not completely satisfied. Anyone who enjoys down tempo electronic and has heard Tipper’s most recent album Forward Escape will probably want to spend a decent amount of time telling you how incredible it is, and they would be right. It is some of the highest quality production I have ever heard, creating a dreamscape of sound that pulls you through like you are riding on a marshmallow down a river of huge, warm syrupy bubbles.

Unfortunately for me and everyone else who was looking forward to hearing that through a PK Sound System, he did not play any of it. I imagine the plan was to play the new stuff at the Main Stage and then play some high-energy stuff later on, and the set I was looking forward to was the one that was cancelled. When you’ve driven several hours and are at the top of mountain with some of the greatest people you know and even more that you don’t, and there is a party happening, it is best not to get hung up on these things and focus on having a good time. The wonderfully vibrant and happy group of people at this incredibly located festival made this task quite easy.

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Day 3

I awoke to the ridiculous galumptious fatness of the “Low Rider” remix by Lookas being played from the Valley Stage across the dirt road from our camp. This stage proved to be a great place to hang out during the day as it was open from around noon till 6 and overlooking an incredible view of the mountainous shoreline. DJ Anger was playing, and as soon as I heard that song I sprung from my tent, mixed the fastest Caesar I have ever made in my life, and joined the dance floor. He closed his set with Canned Heat’s “Going up the Country” and that special vibe that I mentioned earlier began to creep up my back once again. The only thing brighter than the sun that finally decided to join us was the smiles of everyone around me.

A friend of mine was passing and told me he was heading to a jam at DJ Allgood’s Turntemple. I had heard of this Turntemple and decided to follow. The Turntemple is a 5-ton truck with 4 sets of turntables inside. It promotes an inviting and inclusive attitude to encourage people to come in and learn how to scratch. With the rise of interest in DJ culture, and a lot of mystery and debate surrounding what they actually do on stage, it was pretty cool to see something like this try and bring the knowledge to the public.

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I returned back to the Valley Stage just in time to catch the beginning of Kuba Oms lively and very interactive set. With an almost Cabaret/Vaudeville style of performance, Kuba sang of love, sex, broken hearts and broken condoms—a performer (and hopeless romantic) in the truest sense of the word.

The Valley Stage continued to provide excellent times and positive vibes as Mount Doyle hopped on the decks and laid out what proved to be my personal favourite set of the weekend to dance to. I was craving some mid-tempo funky glitchness and oh boy did he bring it. Rinsing some of my favourite Griz tunes like “Simple” and “The Future is Now,” he had the dance floor in a state of bliss for the entire hour. He even topped it off by sneakily putting on a banana suit halfway through the set. At this point the sun was shining and everyone was loving life in that special way that you can only find at a party this good. The weekend began to tie itself together quite beautifully.

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After the Valley Stage closed I went to the Main Stage to be treated to a fantastic set by Bear Mountain. With enough synths to make A Flock of Seagulls jealous and an extremely danceable pop vibe, Bear Mountain had us reaching for the sky. As they played, I saw one of the most magnificent displays of sun, cloud, and mountain that I had ever seen in my life. Many of the people around me attempted to photograph it, but nothing did justice to the slowly shifting full range light spectrum that was peaking over the mountains and being splayed into all directions from the clouds. Combined with Bear Mountain’s uplifting melodies, it was a moment that I will never forget.

The creeping reality of going home started to seep into everyone’s mind as we prepped for the rest of the night back at camp. Everyone started consuming the rest of whatever they had brought, and we set out to the Rave Tent for what was one of the deepest house sets I have ever heard. Max Ulis and Monolithium, both legends in their respective cities of Vancouver and Victoria, went back to back for what seemed like hours but felt like minutes. Deep House does a funny thing to time when you let that deepness take you. It is certainly an acquired taste with extremely subtle changes in the rhythms, but when you feel it, oh boy, you really feel it. And that night I was feeling it.

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I left briefly to re-stock supplies at camp and return to dance until I no longer could. I came back to DJ Koosh playing an I-don’t-know-how-many-hour-long marathon all-vinyl disco set, wearing a safari hat to boot. The slowly dwindling crowd of dedicated and hardened festival veterans basked in the glory and bliss that only good disco on a great sound system at 6 in the morning can bring. Complete and total reckless abandon towards the reality of leaving in a few hours- these are the moments I live for. I’d like to take a moment to give some respect to anyone reading this who was there for this moment, you are the people that give West Coast festivals the special vintage that they are. Stay weird my friends, see you at the next GTAG meeting.

Koosh played the last track of the festival, or the “Terminator” track as he referred to it. And after much hooting and hollering from the 10 of us still on the dance floor, we realized there would be no more music. We walked together in the new sun back towards the varying degrees of reality we had left behind, feeling refreshed and with a sense of vigor, and our minds on how to bring this magic back with us.

*Good Times Appreciators Guild – we meet at sunrise on Mondays at the last stage open at all of your favourite West Coast music festivals, for anybody interested in joining. Please note the strict dress code of complete insanity.

WORDS: Will Miller

PHOTOGRAPHY: Tall Tree, Kim Jay Photography, Betty and Kora

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