People who think music festivals are simply a bunch of people getting together to witness some of the best musicianship the world has to offer simply aren’t looking at the whole picture; there’s so much more. This year’s edition of the Pemberton Valley Music Festival transcended all expectations, both musically and aesthetically. It was all about firmly embracing the fortune of finding myself at one of the apexes of my youth. That narrative might be a bit heavy for certain readers, but hear me out. Before recapping the particulars of the weekend, I’ll share a bit of my own background with you so you understand where I’m coming from with my outpouring of appreciation for this year’s festival.
This was the third Pemberton I have attended since 2014. I have also been to Sasquatch Music Festival at The Gorge in Washington State five times. I have been truly blessed to enjoy nearly a decade of some of the most epic festivals that the Pacific Northwest has to offer. I’m not some unassuming newbie that is in awe of the spectacle of everything that encompasses a large-scale music festival. I have seen my fair share of the good, the bad, and the just plain strange from some of the biggest musical celebrations in North America.
The second thing you need to know is that I am a 26 year old, longtime resident of beautiful British Columbia. That’s all about to change this fall; I am taking the long trek out East to attend Ryerson’s Graduate School of Journalism. Why is this important? Pemberton was my last big party within the confines and comforts of home. Meaning, this was one of my last chances to truly break free of the rigid lines and responsibilities of metropolitan life. In a way, it was the final chapter in an epic part of my life. An era that has been full of irreplaceable friendships, a bachelor’s degree, loud music, expeditions close and far, much to much beer and endless growth. This year wasn’t going to be just another Pemberton.
Now that you know a bit about where I’m coming from, it should help contextualize everything else I have to say. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the important stuff: the festival and everything about it. The first and best decision our group made this year was to stay at a beautiful cabin in Whistler. Last year, we marched into the campgrounds like a hoard of cattle and endured four days of the grueling, relentless heat that Pemberton summers are known for. For me, this culminated in an aggressive bout of heat stroke. It was an experience that I didn’t wish to repeat. This year we had experience on our side, a generous friends cabin to stay in, and enough alcohol to supply the entire Eastern Seaboard during Prohibition. We were all set.
Coming into July, I had two serious concerns about this year’s festival. Transportation wise, I wondered how well the shuttle system would be organized. In regards to the concerts themselves, it wasn’t exactly love-at-first-sight when I first looked at the lineup. It seemed outdated, underwhelming and I wasn’t sure the weekend would even be worth the price of admission. As we neared Whistler, passing the pale, green-blue water of the Pacific on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, I didn’t have a lot of faith that either of my concerns would end up going unfounded.
The forty-minute shuttle ride it turned out, was a breeze. I was expecting tight security, long lines and a grumpy old bus driver, but I didn’t notice any of the above. The festival organizers clearly understood that keeping the party spirit alive during the journey back and forth between Pemberton and Whistler was a key ingredient to keeping any potential cynics at bay. The recipe for the trek back and forth was simple: On the trip to the concert venues, socialize with friends (new and old) and enjoy an ice-cold beverage. On the way back home, firmly plant your forehead into the seat in front of you and hit the snooze button. Repeat x 4. This was our travel formula all weekend and it never let us down.
My biggest unshakeable concern leading up to the weekend was the lineup that HUKA Entertainment had put together. With contemporary and highly sought after headliners like Kendrick, Outkast, etc. the last few years, I was sure this year’s lineup release would blow me of the water. Instead, we were given ancient relics dug up from a time portal buried in the mid 90’s. Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Billy Idol, Noel Gallagher, Cypress Hill are iconic, don’t get me wrong. Each one heavily influenced the music industry, style and cultures of their time. That being said, I think most of my generation would agree that their time as top-billing festival headliners has come and gone.
Though I didn’t view the lineup as idyllic, I definitely wasn’t going to let it dissuade me from attending the festival and from having a damn good time once I got there. I’m glad it didn’t. Upon reflection of the weekend, I was able to listen to and experience so much more eclectic and wide-ranging music than I had realized I would. The weekend was a vibrant mix of different ranges of Rock, Hip-Hop through the years and both easy listening and Bass thumping EDM sounds. Whether you’re a mosh enthusiast, a flower child or somewhere in between, Pemberton had something for everyone, though I can’t claim the wealth of these genres was distributed evenly.
Rather than share each droning detail of my weekend, I will highlight some of the most memorable moments from each genre…
One thing Pemberton was not short on was Hip-Hop Masters. The Old School was well represented by Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Method & Redman. The New School was also out in force, headlined by J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Tyler, the Creator, YG, Tory Lanez, Joey Bada$$, Pell and Vince Staples. I assumed the new blood would show the old-timers what time it was, but it seems the elder statesmen weren’t ready to pass the torch. J. Cole performed with precision and swagger as I’ve grown accustomed to, but some of his young contemporaries like Tyler and Whiz reasonably underwhelmed me. It seemed like they were going through the motions for large parts of their set. I can’t comment on everyone, as I obviously wasn’t able to see all the shows I would’ve liked to. To their credit, all of the word-of-mouth reviews I got for Pemberton newcomers Pell, Vince Staples and Joey Bada$$ were outstanding.
Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg both showed why they are considered masters of their craft. I have cloudy memories of listening to “Insane in the Membrane” and “The Next Episode” in my dorm room back in the day (Definitely should’ve been in class) so both of these concerts evoked a certain early twenties nostalgia in me. I was thoroughly impressed by Cypress Hill’s ability to take command of a stage and spit unyielding hot fire for a full set. Snoop Dogg didn’t really do anything unexpected, though he did have a gold plated microphone, which should count for something. Let’s be honest though, he doesn’t need to do anything unexpected…he’s Snoop D-O-Double G. His sets are always good in my experience because he is a natural, seasoned performer. The fact that he has remained one of he coolest dudes on the planet for the better part of two decades doesn’t hurt either.
Though the weekend was littered with iconic Hip-Hop acts, the main event was always going to be Ice Cube. I know I was throwing a bit of shade at the former N.W.A front man earlier on for being old news, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited to see him go to work. Lethal Injection is one of my favorite classic Hip-Hop albums of all time and the man revolutionized the rap game in the 80’s and 90’s with his explicit, I-do-what-I-want-live-with-it attitude that is so prevalent in the rap game today. I just wasn’t sure if we were going to get Angry Ice Cube, or the watered down, “Are We There Yet?” actor that has seemingly been so Hollywood-ized the last decade. Last Saturday, Pemberton was blessed with angry Ice Cube.
Continually working off the adage “They keep saying Ice Cube can’t do Gangsta Rap music no more,” he proved that he’s still President and CEO of the Gangsta Nation. He belted out hit after hit and delivered them with the brash attitude that made him a household name. From “Bop Gun” to “Fuck the Police,” it was vintage Ice Cube. He’s come a long way from the skinny, jerry-curled, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted rapper of the 90’s, but his stage presence remains unquestionably strong. The belly might be a bit rounder and the sweat a bit thicker, but who can blame the man, he’s living comfortable. The magnitude of what he’s been able to accomplish in his life after such a riotous youth is hugely impressive and I am glad I got to marvel at it with the glorious Mount Currie as a natural backdrop.
Rock and Roll
I know I have been offering unwavering praise for the festival thus far, but what kind of commentary would this be if I offered no critique of anything. The type of music that would’ve made Chuck Berry loving, guitar-smashing, whiskey-shooting enthusiasts proud was hard to find. I’m talking of course, about good old-fashioned Rock and Roll. I probably would’ve settled for a plethora of decent India Rock. Festivals like Sasquatch and Pemberton have been known to present a solid range of everything from Hard Rock to the various nuances of Indie Rock. This year, I found for the first time, these types of music were few and far between. The lineup was almost a perfect union between Rock the Bells and Tommorowland, with just a handful of supplementary acts sprinkled around in order to fill time slots it seemed.
To be completely fair to HUKA, the few Rock acts I did seek out absolutely killed it. For weeks leading up to the festival my girlfriend begged me to come around to Grace Potter, but I simply couldn’t do it. I thought she sounded like background music for a bad Budweiser commercial. Once her set started, she quickly turned me into a believer. I was amazed how she was able to turn the stage into her own personal Rock Star playground. One part Joan Jett, one part Grace Slick, Potter shook her long, blonde hair angrily and with fervor. When it was over, I instantly craved more. The peaks of her performance were something like what I would imagine the rebellious, attitude-driven rock shows of the 70’s might’ve been like. Grace Potter…who knew.
Other Rock acts were impressive, though far from life changing. The Killers are consonant pros. They put on a great show, and for ninety minutes, my girlfriend found herself back in her eighth grade “happy place.” I’m convinced she could’ve been a stand in for Mr. Flowers and not missed a lyric. Kaleo’s performance was like watching a poor man’s version of the 2004 Black Keys. I mean it when I say that this is in no way meant as an insult. The Cold War Kids were typically wonderful. I will say however, that their performances in recent years lack a certain edge that they had when they were belting out Robbers and Cowards back in the day. That being said, they still do a masterful job of finding a fine balance between playing their newer dreamscape-esque tunes with the timeworn stuff that the longtime fans yearn for.
A far cry from the up-tempo performance of Grace Potter, The Thievery Corporation was the second most impressive non EDM/ Hip-Hop performance of the weekend in my eyes. It’s hard to group them into a specific genre, as they are more like a holy mixture of Jazz, Indian Funk and Easy Electronica. This concert was a welcome reprieve from some of the speaker shattering, high-energy shows of the weekend. It gave me a chance to sit back, relax and marvel at a group of artists that all had something unique to bring to the table. Rob Myer’s, the groups Sitar All-Star was mesmerizing as he sat on a rug in the center of the stage and did his best Ravi Shankar impersonation. Understated, smooth notes escaped from the keyboard and melodic vocals swept through the crow like short-setting waves and it all married into perfect unison. Thievery Corporation was an instant classic.
If you’re wondering where the accounts of Rock legends like Billy Idol, Pearl Jam and Noel Gallagher are, you won’t find them here. I respect what they’ve done during their respective eras, I really do. The reality is that they just weren’t the kinds of acts I went to Pemberton to see. Take me to 1982; I will rock the fuck out with Billy Idol. I just had the sneaking suspicion that seeing him last week at age 60 would’ve been for lack of a better word, pretty “meh.” I made an exception to this rule for a few Hip-Hop shows as I am decidedly biased. I grew up on Hip-Hop so people like Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg were must see in my mind.
If generational Hip-Hop was the theme of this festival, Electronic music was its pulse. Not a lot of hours passed each day without my friends and I firmly planting ourselves at the foot of Bass Camp to dance until our knees shook. Full disclaimer: I am not an EDM encyclopedia. I won’t debate with anybody about which one of Kaskade’s nine studio albums was the most hard-hitting and which one was the most self-reflective. However, if you put me in the middle of twenty thousand people, get him on stage and crank the synth, I will certainly join the party. Though my technical knowledge of the genre is limited at this point in my life, what I can do is share the sights, sounds and feelings of those shows that left the deepest impressions on me.
After a brief stint at Kaleo, our crew gravitated towards the flashing yellow and red lights that were the backdrop for Kaskade. He is the epitome of the kind of DJ I don’t find myself listening to a lot on my own time. Sitting back on the couch and reading a Hemingway novel while bumping some Deep House isn’t exactly my idea of a relaxing time. This is the very reason I find it so liberating to let loose and enjoy the hypnotic rhythms of house music at a festival. It didn’t take a connoisseur to recognize that Kaskade is a master of his trade. With the sun long asleep, the ground trembled as Kaskade went to work on his laptop like a mad scientist and lifted the crowd into musical bliss. It was a great pre-cursor to what we still had to look forward to on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, Chainsmokers compulsorily lost out to Ice Cube. That meant Girl Talk was the main EDM event of the night. I have now seen Gregg Gillis perform several times and it’s always raw, uncut and brilliant. This performance was no different. Spinning in front of giant backdrop of the letters “GT,” he had the crowd buzzing from the get-go. With a brilliant mash of seemingly every genre imaginable, Girl Talk was easily one of the most frenetic concerts of the weekend. My mind constantly worked to process each mash-up, only getting momentarily sidetracked to observe as a huge group of festivalgoers hopped up onto the stage area and proceeded to dance side-by-side for the entirety of the show. Gillis was unperturbed. He fed off the crowd’s energy. It was the perfect marriage of energies. The crazier the crowd got, the more Gillis seemed to unleash on us. My head wasn’t stationary for a second.
Sunday was bittersweet. Not only had we run out of Hey Y’all Southern Iced Tea’s to shotgun, but the weekend was also coming to a close. Baauer and DJ Snake were the only EDM shows we had left. We made them count. Baauer was Harlem-Shakeless. I hardly recognized any the tunes he performed, but that was just fine. With the nervousness of the end being near, the crowd seemed to form a robotic army that’s only command was to savor every bass drop. This concert reminded me of the scene in “The Matrix,” where the humans have one final party in Zion. Beads of sweat emanated from dancing festivalgoers like they had just completed an Iron Man; in a sense, they had. Energy, Hygiene and Money were now reaching an all time low. Now was not the time to quit though. Everyone knew that if they pressed on for DJ Snake, there would be ninety more minutes of paradise before the dream was over for another year.
Sami Grigahcine aka DJ Snake relished the fact that he was the last performer of the weekend. His set certainly reflected this fact. The show had the unmistakable energy and feel of being every young festivalgoer’s “Last Kiss” (sorry, Pearl Jam). No “Turn Down for What,” no problem. DJ Snakes beats ebbed and flowed for ninety minutes, like a superhero calmly gliding over endless mountaintops. The light show was not low budget. As “The Middle,” came on to finish our weekend, Glistening silver streamers shot out of cannons and confetti streamed down from the sky. To our left, an enormous flagpole adorned with a Canadian flag swayed back and forth through the air. To the right of us, a young couple embraced for a fleeting last moment of total ecstasy. Besides me, my three best friends on the earth smiled and put their arms around one another. I perched down and kissed my girlfriends rosy cheek. If it wasn’t one of life’s magical moments, then I don’t know what is.
The last concert of the weekend fittingly ended with its best moment. If I had been at home at that very same moment and “The Middle,” had come on the radio, the effect would’ve been minimal. I probably would have brushed it off as just another overplayed pop-inspired EDM radio spot. Having Pemberton as a backdrop turned this song and moment into something special that I can look back upon years from now and smile from cheek to cheek. Pemberton is over now and life continues to shift forward. For most people in the world, reality has nothing to do with confetti and bass drops. Now, more than ever it seems like the human race is determined to shroud itself in conflict. One day’s senseless violence seems to lead into the next.
As school in the fall approaches, it dawns on me, how rare these DJ Snake moments are; lost in celebration with our friends. Pemberton this year provided a perfect backdrop for me to forget about the future for a weekend and simply be 26 years old. That brief moment spent lost in elation during DJ Snake will never be duplicated. That can’t be understated enough. As we grow, so to do our responsibilities and our commitments. Many years from now when I’m sitting with my children and they make a crack about how “uncool” dad is, my mind will inevitably shift to the night confetti was stuck to my sweat covered face and my friends and I were just a bunch of kids living our lives. On the surface, Pemberton is a simply a four day music festival. In reality, it is part of the integral fabric of our youth.
To Be Continued….
Words by Daniel LeBaron