Eyes Pried Shut
Recently I became intimately re-acquainted with the often overlooked town of Ymir, British Columbia. My friends Shawn and Carla Stephenson organize the remarkable Tiny Lights Music Festival there and have done so for the past three years. They have asked me to perform before, but logistical weirdness has hitherto prevented me from committing. I’m glad that this one clicked because I had a Very Fine Time at what is quickly growing into one of the weirdest and greatest small festivals in the country.
I flew into Penticton on the Thursday and my good friends Paul Crawford and Julie Fowler found me at the airport in my usual airport delerium. Anyone who has followed my adventures in years past (or who knows what’s what) will know this power-duo as the masterminds behind the infamous Artswells Music Festival in Wells, BC. My flight had arrived late, but we zoomed into town and caught the tail-end of a Carolyn Mark show at a local pub. Carolyn and friends were as charming and debauched as ever. Her self-effacing party-folk was the perfect antidote to my post-flight, antisocial haze. We all went back to the Crawfowler manor and celebrated until the wee-est of hours.
In the morning I raided P & J’s fridge to make us all an enormous and well-realized omelette with onions and garlic and other odds and ends. Carolyn made an arugula salad with some kind of neat dressing I meant to make a note of… lemon juice, olive oil and… red wine? I forget. In the mid-morning we climbed into the recently acquired Wellsfest Minivan and traveled southeasterly towards Ymir. The journey was a chance for me to catch up with my friends and my rest. Julie recently published a book, The Grande Dames of the Cariboo, about a kindred, mid-20th century musket-wielding painter — Vivian Cowan. Paul has been expanding his already impressive collection of outsider art and multitasking at small galleries around the region. For most of the trip I drifted, sleepily watching out as we passed dilapidated rural-Kootenay houses and seas of self-knowing mountains.
We arrived in Ymir in the early evening. It was fragrant and bustling. During festival time, the tiny town is overrun with makeshift stages and DIY vendors. Every quirky old building — the creaky schoolhouse, the re-domesticated church, a yellowed and rickety community hall — is decked out in patterned hippy cloth, leafy vines and brambly dollar-store strings of Xmas lights. Most everyone in the community seems to embrace these festival shenanigans, but a very few (perhaps justifiably) shut off their lights, barricade themselves behind ‘private property’ fences and hole themselves up in their cellars.
The Tiny Lights Fest unapologetically takes inspiration from its aforementioned northern BC sibling, Artswells. The principal charm of each rests in the way it inundates a semi-unwitting town with lovingly delusional revelry. To reluctant local folk, the festival must be like that overbearing, close-talking friend who smothers your cynicism and isolation with amphetaminic insight and childish whimsy, leaving you shaken, a bit nauseous and dubiously changed; an emergent demon-mind who wakes you from needed sleep to scream-whisper “Nothing and nowhere to hide. All is the Festival. YOU IS THE FESTIVAL.”
The centerpiece of the pine-nestled village is a large, maze-like turn-of-century hotel. The facility is a rustic and whisky-soaked but otherwise well-maintained old mansion. Every inch of wall space is covered by lively, amateur naturalistic paintings. Here I caught Carolyn again with her entourage of special guests. At the end of the show, a confetti cannon was malfunctioning on stage, awkwardly delaying the grand finale. Not one to miss my cue, or an opportunity to special-guest myself, I eagerly grabbed the thing and smash it over the stage speaker, sending coloured bits sprinkling every which way. It was the dramatic finale the Carolyn show deserved, but not the one it needed. After I got over my initial self-love at having found a way to be both spontaneously helpful and attention-seeking, I worried that I might have broken a needed, reusable stage-prop. Carolyn and friends reassured me that I had, in fact, done the right thing — that in some situations violence towards inanimate objects is the only reasonable course of action.
For my part, I finished three performances at the Festival — an uncharacteristically relaxed and low-key church show; a candle-flaring, balloon-bursting dance set at the spooky schoolhouse; and, on Sunday morning, I strummed a somber selection of long-forgotten fingerstyle singsong material. I always risk calamity busting out my older, phalange-twisting tunes, but somehow in Ymir stuff just work out right. The whole experience was a like rejuvenating fever-dream.
Early Monday morning — like 4am early — Paul and Julie woke me. The self-sabotaging devil inside would have clawed himself back to sleep, but the prodding of my trusty friends and my own better judgement pried scratchy eyes wide. We piled our things into the Wellsmobile and sleep-drove ourselves to Penticton, just in time for my flight back home. And home I am. Still buzzing a bit from the experience (though it was over a week ago) and excited for July and August when I’ll be touring that way again to pick up the bits I forgot.