The stars don't always align, but when they do the result is magnificent. Cowboys have rodeos. Politicians have summits. Superhero fans have Comic Con. But for us, aficionados of deep electronic music, we had Bass Coast -- a three-day spectacular located in the vibrant Nicola Valley at Merritt, B.C., from Aug. 2 to 4, 2013. The avant-garde intersection of bass music and West Coast culture was an inspiring manifestation of creative minds, soulful hearts and -- of course -- the best cross-genre-pollination you could expect from a festival focused on the lower end of the musical spectrum.
The "Year of the Zebra" was upon us, but I didn't know it yet. It was the day before the opening of Bass Coast and I was in the sweaty depths of a small downtown Vancouver nightclub when I bumped into Nardwuar the Human Serviette soaking up some experimental trap music. Naturally our conversation veered right to Bass Coast.
"I wish they were having it in Squamish again," he said, referring to the place on the Pacific where the yearly jam had been held up until it outgrew its digs last year. But expect big things, said the man in the plaid tam.
The encounter underscored two big questions swirling around the festival. Number one, could the enchantment of previous years be transferred to the new inland location? And number two, with trap music supplanting dubstep as the popular electronic genre du jour, would the festival just end up being multiple stages of trap-infused sets, as producers strive to make a splash and DJs struggle to remain relevant?
I linked up with Whistler girls Heidi and Nicole and got outfitted at Value Village before hitting the 30 km per hour traffic jam exiting the city that lasted until Abbotsford. When we arrived at the festival gates there was no line-up to speak of, and I wondered if this year's event was going to be a quiet one after all. We signed waivers and were initiated onto the grounds by volunteers who put us through a Goldfish-eating contest. Then the Zebra stripes began to emerge, emblematic of this year's Bass Coast theme. On couches, bikinis, scarves, onesies -- you name it -- a plethora of equine and other African prints appeared. We set up camp and quickly realized that while there was ample space on site, there was no absence of people. As Disclosure's invigorating revival house track "When a Fire Starts to Burn" wafted over the river the place sprung to life. It was on.
Four stages served as platforms for the myriad musicians to deliver their creations. Slay Bay was a jungle theatre with a "roof" made of interconnecting striped fabric and what looked like a cross between colourful Ikea lampshades and stalactites hanging down. The Bassment was the grand stage backed by an octagon and diamond backdrop pattern that gave the large outdoor site a proper big room club feel. Because it wasn't as large, the Radio Stage had more of an intimate atmosphere. But the open space for dancing encouraged mass movement while the surrounding artisan booths added a DIY aesthetic. The Bigger Brain was a geodesic dome to stop off in between locations, featuring moody mélanges at night and offering a range of classes during the day - from morning yoga to lucid dreaming workshops.
"It's torture deciding what stage to go to sometimes, because it's split so evenly," said Mandeep Ubhi aka Wax Romeo. "Obviously you can't tri-locate and be like three different places."
The Calgary DJ said he'll never miss another Bass Coast, adding he had a bit of fun with his Friday night set at Slay Bay.
"I was playing really dark serious music, but I was just livening it up with stupid jokes," he said. "Keep it kind of light you know? Even if the music isn't."
The setting itself was surreal. The mountains ushered in the full spectrum of weather patterns. Festivalgoers experienced a climate that ran the gamut from blistering sunshine to vivid lightening. It gave the place a powerful mystique. You could be totally enveloped by fog one moment only to wake up in a hammock under blue skies as water droplets misting your face the next. On his way into the festival for a passionate performance Justin Martin was stunned as he looked up to see a double rainbow. Ravers extolled the virtue of blissful rays through dance to a funky reboot of the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine" during a daytime dance party.
The landscape provided fertile ground for meeting up with old friends, budding romances and creating new connection points. Many travelers were on a pause before heading out on one international expedition or another. Others gathered emotional energy before heading back up to the excavate bitumen or pump natural gas from the oil fields. Bass Coast may have been smaller than the massive free-for-all of Shambhala, but the more manageable numbers allowed organizers to cultivate the ambiance, seeding visual installations across the property and encouraging plenty of space for expression and introspection.
Korean River enjoyed the more intimate setting. "Shambhala is like your manic joy," he said. "Bass Coast is just gentle beauty." That probably has a lot to do with the feminine touch used by the curators, he hypothesized.
"Plus I love how much art installation there is and how much this festival drives people to contribute." A non-judgmental attitude permeated the grounds and the sense of total acceptance was profound.
Over the weekend attendees were treated to some of the best electronic formulations the world has to offer. Eschewing the needlessly trite elements found in genres like euro-trance and happy hardcore Bass Coast firmly entrenched itself in the worlds of UK funky, grime, house, drum n' bass, dubstep, ambient and oldskool rave. Trap was not missing from the equation, but it didn't overpower the vibe of the festival either. It was obvious each DJ had spent weeks if not months preparing their offerings for the big show. The crowd devoured each morsel ravenously, dancing throughout the night in ridiculously amazing costumes until the sun had long risen.
After a heavy-duty banger of a show on Saturday, Mat the Alien dropped a relaxing set the following evening. JPod got an amazing response for his bouncy gospel-influenced Blues & Bebop creation on Sunday morning. JETS said their turn behind the decks later that night was the "biggest" of the tour so far.
One of Ben Ulis's favourite memories was lying in the water with a good crew around after playing an energetic set as DJ Self Evident the previous night.
"A lot of people are a bit disappointed to move away from the Squamish site -- and the reasons for that are good reasons," he said. "But personally I'm really enjoying this Merritt site."
The chillout tune carried on behind us with uplifting airs as the festival he's played every year began to wind down. Ulis smiled, thinking of all the amazing musicians that had contributed.
"There's so many proper people for the heads," he said, savouring the moment. "It's fantastic."