In Whistler, B.C. on Saturday and Sunday
'There's nothing quite like a cool mountain breeze and the lingering smell of skunk," mused Elvis Costello as he closed the Whistler Music Festival on Sunday.
What began on Saturday morning with a bear escorted from the venue half way up Blackcomb Mountain, ended with a sun-baked, dirt-caked crowd singing along to Costello's Peace, Love and Understanding, before tidying up after themselves and waiting patiently in line at the gondola for a ride back down to the village.
Festival Network's first year at Whistler was a success - if only modestly so at the box office (early estimates suggest 5,000 attended Saturday, slightly fewer Sunday). Carelessly clashing with the more established Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and just a week before the corporate behemoth of the Pemberton Festival rolls into the mountain region, Whistler felt a little forgotten in the mix. The low-key profile may do them no harm: With three more years already booked, this felt like a trail run, with Festival Network's CEO, Tom Shepard, in attendance throughout, making changes on the fly and taking notes for next year.
First on that list should be creating a more hospitable space: The lunar-like landscape, usually home to Whistler's Tube Park, was miserably rocky underfoot and every gust of air brought with it a fresh cloud of dust. Ticket holders were unfazed, trekking back to the village to return with chairs, tents and coolers (a "no outside food" rule was waived for the weekend), the chilled out, family-friendly atmosphere leaving the couple of cops doing cursory circuits nothing to do save smile and sweat. "Keep hydrated and ask us if you need sunscreen" became the m.c.'s mantra.
The searing heat made getting the audience onto its feet a tough call. On Saturday, it took Ontario's Bedouin Soundclash, with their reggae beats and easy stage presence, to get things moving. But it was Philadelphia's hip-hop group the Roots that cajoled the crowd to create a 3,000-strong mosh pit that stayed on for Washington, D.C.'s prime electronic/lounge band Thievery Corporation.
Day two opened with a last-minute addition: Stephane Wrembel's mellifluous Gypsy jazz, which proved to be the perfect soundscape for a hot and hazy hilltop. An eclectic, heavily instrumental afternoon continued with the psychedelic trance jazz of Medeski, Martin and Wood. Robert Randolph and the Family Band drove the funk a little dirtier, before Cajun legend Allen Toussaint sparkled brighter than his glittery necktie.
Expectations were high for Broken Social Scene, but the weekend's first sound problems saw them leave the stage in disgust after a couple of numbers. Whether it was the false start, or the fact the band's back-up singers were stopped from entering Canada, BSS never got its groove on. The ramshackle set, with long pauses between songs and a visibly irritated front man Kevin Drew, itching to come off early, threatened to wreck the good-natured vibe. Drew's final thanks to "those who only came to see Elvis Costello, anyway" ended a lacklustre performance on an unnecessarily sour note.
When Costello did storm the stage and launched into a high-octane reprisal of Pump It Up, it felt like a slap in the face to the Canadian indie band. The audience may not have been huge, but Costello couldn't have cared less. Ricocheting from classics such as Watching the Detectives and (I don't want to go to) Chelsea to tracks from new album Momofuku, Costello and his band, the Imposters, relished the venue's potential. Encouraging the crowd to turn around and look up the mountain, Costello summed up the weekend: "I can see a bear up there, and he's digging it. Every nightclub should look like this."