Clearly the team at Kaslo Jazz Etc. have hit upon a winning formula—already by July 28 single day tickets for Saturday, August 4th had sold out. The festival runs from August 2–4. Friday night saw a younger artist take the MainStage whose popularity has been rising fast – Nahko and Medicine for the People. Add to that a healthy component of local talent, such as Five Alarm Funk, Lost Ledge, Red-Eyed Soul, Wing and Bone – Kaslo-based singer-songwriter Dominque Fraissard – and Kootenay Music Award ‘Artist of the Year’ award winner Naturalist, and you have a genuine feast for the ears and eyes. There isn’t much jazz left in the program, but the shift to music for a younger demographic has proven hugely successful.
Selected as one of the “Top ten places to get out doors and be in tune,” by USA Today, and one of the “Top 10 places to enjoy outdoor summer music” by Reuters, the Kaslo Bay floating stage has been recognized as one of the premier outdoor music venues in the world. The geography of Kaslo Bay Park limits the size of the festival to about 2,000 people, helping preserve an intimate, family-friendly atmosphere. The entire village enters the festival spirit, with music in the Kaslo Hotel pub and main street restaurants Buddy’s Pizza and the Bluebelle Bistro.
The festival weekend kicks off as usual with the parade on Kaslo’s main street, featuring local favourites the Moving Mosaic Samba Band and the more recent addition of percussion group RhythmDance Drum Orchestra. It’s a living cornucopia of colour and sound, proving once again that people do indeed love a parade. As if reminding the audience that our climate is in an often-chaotic state of transition, a freak windstorm Friday afternoon forced festival organizers to close the Kaslo Bay Park site for an hour. Parade percussionists kept festival patrons entertained while cottonwood branches were trimmed and cleaned up by volunteer staff.
Kootenay-based Five Alarm Funk, a perennial favourite, ramped up the energy leading up to the Friday evening program. The big draw this year was Nahko and Medicine for the People, playing to the current appetite for songs with a social conscience. Most in the audience seemed to know the lyrics to all his songs and sang along mightily, encouraged by Nahko himself. His music is a world music hybrid of rhythmic grooves, reminiscent both sonically and lyrically of past festival favourite, Michael Franti. Nahko’s band kept up a high energy groove, though he proved capable of plaintive vocals and delicate piano stylings during a solo number.
According to the Wikipedia entry for Nahko Bear, “Born in Portland, Oregon, of mixed ethnic background which includes Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, he was adopted at a young age by a white, religious, family. It wasn’t until his early twenties that he would meet his birth mother. The band’s song Early February was written shortly before this meeting; it describes a woman far too young to carry, and putting her baby in a bed of a woman she’d never met. Bear says his creative inspiration is the desire to bridge cultural gaps, and that he has been musically inclined since the age of six when he started learning piano.” Both Early February and Build A Bridge were performed to great audience acclaim.
Saturday’s program saw a return to the form that established Kaslo Jazz Etc. as a major music festival over its 28-year history, with Harry Manx and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Manx’s style has been described as “mystic-ssippi,” for its fusion of Eastern raga and Delta blues. Manx travels with a rack of guitars seldom seen onstage, going far beyond the usual six-stringers to produce his eclectic sound. At one point he played a six-string banjo, jokingly calling the instrument “a cross between a guitar and poverty.” Manx may live in the Gulf Islands but his second home may as well be the Kootenays, he’s played here so often. So audience members were thrilled when he customized the lyrics to the classic Baby Please Don’t Go: “Baby please don’t go / down to Nelson, no / don’t you know that I love you so.” References to Kaslo Bay were also worked into one of the songs. Manx was backed by a fiddle player whose name unfortunately escaped me—she was not named in the festival program—and with well-known Canadian bluesman Steve Marriner. Marriner, who has recorded often with Manx, added some tasty chops on blues harp and Telecaster. The fiddle player graced Manx’s songs with ethereal trills.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band were introduced by MC John Cathro as changing his perception of the pedal steel guitar, which in the past has been considered mostly a country music instrument. Three of the band members are indeed family—Randolph’s cousins—and they’re a tight rhythmic unit, laying down a funk and R&B groove often reminiscent of the great Sly and the Family Stone. That by itself would have been enough to keep the crowd bouncing. But Randolph pushes the intensity of the music to its limits, and just when you think the song is ending, he pushes it several notches higher with his incredible dexterity on the pedal steel. Randolph said the band is from New York and New Jersey and was gobsmacked by this amazing Kootenay Lake country and the gorgeous setting of Kaslo Bay. So much so, in fact, that they were inspired to write a new song, Run Away, that was premiered at the festival. A song from their new album, Baptize Me, had people submerging themselves in the waters in front of the floating stage. I had first seen Randolph perform at Salmon Arm Roots and Blues about 10 years ago and was blown away then. The band has also been featured in Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, with the performance released on DVD.
Festival management did a great job of keeping the dust down on the access road to Kaslo Bay, which is closed to all traffic except buses and service vehicles. Two shuttle buses sponsored by the Regional District of Central Kootenay provided frequent service. Given that parking in tiny Kaslo becomes almost impossible during festival weekends, it was an essential service to patrons having to haul chairs and kids’ water toys from many blocks away. Kids are kept well entertained. The Kaslo Jazz Kids Tent provides children’s entertainment, music and activities from 11 am–6 pm every day. Crafts, bubbles, jugglers, and puppet shows are just a few things children can enjoy. Argenta’s Yvonne Boyd elevates kids’ face painting to a high art, making for excellent photo opportunities.
The artists’ village was present again this year, showcasing the West Kootenay’s usual array of talent, including Winlaw artist Buck Walker and tattoo/felt artist Avrell Fox, among others. It was encouraging to see visitors buying artwork at the Bluebelle Bistro on main street. Business owners and artists alike tend to rely on the peak season to support themselves year round. The Kootenays has a long history of attracting world class artists seeking inspiration and a more relaxed pace in its stunning landscapes.
I was unable to attend the Sunday festival due to exhaustion from an autoimmune condition. However, it seems clear the major attraction there was the legendary Ani Difranco, whose penchant for songs with a social justice theme predates the current trend among artists such as Nahko Bear and Michael Franti. Though arguably these songwriters are tapping into a tradition that goes back to folksingers Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Woody Guthrie during the early 1960s, and before that, to the union movement of the 1930s.
And last but not least, thanks must be given to the hundreds of volunteers who have made Kaslo Jazzfest possible these past 28 years. Site attendants, first aid personnel, recycling station staff, and many, many more are vital to the ongoing success of the festival. Kaslo Jazz Etc. has a ‘zero waste’ policy and although it may not be possible to divert 100% of waste from local landfills, it was obvious from the well-filled recycling bins that they’re closing in on that goal. The regional district has been a leader in community composting—diverting organic waste from landfills—and the introduction of bokashi composting methods. Festivals can be huge waste generators, so patrons were encouraged not to bring plastic to the site.
“If music be the food of love, then play on,” Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night. And in a world wracked by political corruption, climate chaos and social upheaval, musicians continue to provide balm for the wounded spirit. May they all play on.