Ten hours north of Vancouver, situated along a stretch of thickly forested highway that leads to British Columbia’s historic town of Barkerville, sits Wells. With a population of just over 200, Wells is a quiet and isolated Cariboo town for fifty-one weeks of the year. I arrived on the fifty-second week. It was ArtsWells.
Every inch of the town was populated with the tents of artists and spectators alike, moving in and making Wells their home for those few days of relentless artistic energy and encouragement. A comfortable frenzy settled over the town. With over one hundred musical acts performing across twelve stages over four days, it was entirely impossible to see it all — I didn’t even come close. Lighting my way from venue to venue, the program guide forced me to make calculated choices between the acts I wanted to see and acts I could not afford to miss. Even still, I have neither the print space nor time to properly address all the incredible music I saw, so I’ll only mention a few.
Stepping over the threshold of the Sunset Theatre on Friday night was like stepping into a different country. From the stray twanging of banjos outside the venue to the steamy and pulsating latin jazz within, the music of the Gabriel Palatchi Trio transported me far away from that northern town. Palatchi, the Argentinian-born composer and pianist, led the trio — filled out by Jose “Chema” Gonzalez on drums and Kerry Galloway on bass — through a flurry of world music. While it was easy to be hypnotized by their grooves, all three of them possessed an uncanny skill for their respective instruments.
The next evening, on the same stage, Vancouver-based alt-folker Jasper Sloan Yip, backed by a sextet of some of the city’s best, offered the festival a sample of his upcoming third album Post Meridiem. The album’s first three songs all flowed together in an unbroken torrent of lush strings, intricate drumming, and Sloan Yip’s signature soft and stellar voice.
It would a travesty not to pay homage to Doug Koyama, considering his benevolent and boisterous personality is a defining feature of nearly all music festivals in Northern B.C.. On Sunday morning, I was treated not only to one of his world famous hugs, but also a mesmerizing set of improvised a capella that highlighted both the low end of his nearly subsonic vocal range and his knack for distilling music to its bare bones.
Later Sunday, in the basement of the community hall, I caught a few songs from Kelowna’s Andrew Judah. Performing alongside drummer Zac Gauthier, Judah filled the cramped space with robust and challenging indie-prog music. Encircling simple vocal melodies with bursts of heavily effected guitar and vigorous rhythms, the duo never settled with any instrumentation short of unpredictable.
Several hours later, in the wee hours of Monday morning, I went back to the Sunset Theatre to see Blocktreat. Despite manning the venue’s soundboard for the majority of the weekend, Brandon Hoffman moved to the stage to showcase his distinct brand of experimental electronic music. Joined by two live drummers — Brent Morton and Graham Serl — as well as projection artist David Jacob Harder, Blocktreat churned the crowd into a lively dance party.
Though I’m utterly unsatisfied with the amount I’ve left out in this review, I have to stop. All I can say to sum up the weekend is this: There was a certain spirit to the festival, a resounding reverence to the art and the atmosphere that compelled every person in attendance — spectator, volunteer and artist alike — to make ArtsWells the best it could possibly be.