Ask any electronic music aficionado in Western Canada, and they’ll tell you that Bass Coast is more than just a festival—it’s a cultural mecca. Nestled in the forest at the crook of Coldwater River near Merritt, the site boasts four major stages and world-class performers, but unlike most music events, attendees don’t buy their tickets for the big-name bragging rights. Established as a home-away-from-home for creatives, it’s the giant art installations, intimate panel discussions, and carefully curated layout of the site that draws regulars back to the spot. A base-camp for collaboration and exploration, it comes as little surprise that returning revelers call the event “church”.
This year—the ninth installment of the boutique event—helped cement that reputation. With attendees donning everything from inflatable astronaut costumes to NASA flight jackets and giant rocket ships, “space” was the theme for 2017—but the real motif may as well have been “collaboration”. Everything onsite—including the garbage cans—was art-designed by festival co-creator, Liz Thomson, to facilitate conversation. Enormous sound design sculptures triggered by body movements and tiny hands-on music creation machines dotted the festival landscape with little instruction, leaving it up to the attendees to pass on knowledge of how to make each project work. Borrowed floaties drifted down the river with strangers helping to direct each other into the current, and panel discussions about joining forces in creative endeavors inspired debates and exchanges across the dusty grounds.
More than just a prevailing attitude at the festival, the ethos of teamwork underpins Bass Coast’s organization. Established by DJ Andrea Graham, who performs under the moniker The Librarian, and Thomson—co-founder of art collective the Guild—the festival shuns any corporate connection, funding itself without sponsorship or advertising. Instead, the pair cycles much of the money made from the modestly-priced tickets back into the festival, proving grants for artists to craft or collaborate to make large-scale installations. This year showcasing art including a giant telescope, a handmade Stargate, a tent filled with taxidermied crow feet that could be pulled from the ceiling to reveal a person’s fortune, and numerous blank walls for attendees to write, draw, or doodle on, the event invited plenty of imagination.
Bass Coast’s laid-back and creative culture is aided by the site’s layout. While larger festivals herd attendees like cattle, cram them into baking big-top tents, or leave them squinting at LED screens at the side of a giant stage, the site is planned so that the audience always has enough room to move, breathe, and dance. Despite upping attendance this year by 30 per cent to host around 4,000 visitors, the event still boasted a unique roominess.
That spaciousness extends to the campgrounds, where festival-goers pitch tents next to their cars, or set up large 30-person camps with vans, shelters, and even self-erected geodesic domes—some owners of which DJ music of their own and invite guests inside. This year, harm reduction stations were abundant, as were the festival staff, who were constantly on hand to offer help, advice, or high-fives—though the supervisors’ presence was more of an aid than a necessity, as the audience, mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, were mainly seasoned partygoers.
While the atmosphere itself is enough to draw thousands back to Coldwater River, this year’s lineup reinforced the festival’s status as one of B.C.’s premier boutique festival destinations. BBC Radio One presenter and Nelson, B.C. girl B.Traits lit up the wood-built Radio Stage, packing the forest with gritty deep house before disco-house evangelist Eli Escobar took the reins in the early hours of Saturday morning. Outside of the trees, local collective Chapel Sound closed out the night with an intimate, sweaty showcase in log-cabin construction The Brain.
Vancouver darling Woodhead opened Saturday proper at the Cantina bar stage with smooth funk and soul 45s, while the Lighta! Sound crew rocked Slay Bay with an explosive trip into dancehall to dubstep. Female modern dance troupe Subscura lit up the crowd in anticipation of Washington native Sango’s set, whose cross-pollination of hip-hop, light electronic, and Brazil’s baile funk never failed to disappoint. Sunday, meanwhile, belonged quite rightly to The Librarian, whose ever-popular main stage slot drew thousands to revel in her unique brand of bass music, with the crowd thanking the organizer for her hard work by dancing through their shoes.
With its laid-back attitude and welcoming vibe, there’s a reason why the festival has so many returning visitors. Clothing is optional, fashions are eccentric, and colours are vibrant. Despite this year’s wildfire smoke—which was occasionally so thick it was hard to see the horizon—no-one spoke of the outside world, Facebook and Instagram were largely left alone, and the event concluded with discussions of next year’s Bass Coast. Which, you can be sure, Graham and Thomson have already started planning.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays