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The LIVE At Squamish experience

Did the first year festival live up to its promise of "happy times in a big field"?



Last summer was a rough one for Sea to Sky residents. We'd had a couple rocky one-night stands with the Music in the Mountains and Whistler Music Festival and had been unceremoniously dumped by Pemberton Festival - boy did that sting. Sure, we managed to soothe our broken hearts with a rebound romance with the Olympics, but still, this summer was shaping up to be a bit empty, without any outdoor music festivals on offer.

Then, in mid-June, a new suitor stepped onto the scene: brand.LIVE.

The Vancouver-based production company announced that it planned to host a two-day music festival in Squamish over the Labour Day weekend. Like scorned lovers, many Sea to Sky residents skeptically rolled their eyes at the announcement. But these guys had a proven track record - they successfully staged the 2005 and 2009 Grey Cups and last year's Sarah McLachlan, Neil Young and Sheryl Crow concert at Ambleside in West Vancouver. So the real question was: could they get people to come to Squamish, a former logging town, for live music?

Well, as it turns out, they could, and they did. As promised, it was "happy times in a big field" for just about everyone who snagged tickets to the inaugural event. According to Paul Runnals, one of the owners and senior vice president of production for brand.LIVE, just over 13,000 people turned up for the first-year festival, which is slightly less than the 8,000 per day organizers were hoping for.

"We were hoping for 8,000 a day, so we were down a little, but it was the first year, so we had nothing to go off of other than our own aspirations of what we thought would be a really great starting number," Runnals said Tuesday morning. "We weren't far off."

Moreover, Runnals said the feedback he received onsite was almost entirely positive.

"I talked to a lot of sponsors, the vendors, all the artists - everybody was really happy and having a great time and thought everything was well-organized," he added. "So we achieved what we wanted to do in the sense that we proved the concept, we proved the site and we showed everybody that this can be a very viable, great, well-run festival."

The key to success seems to lie within the eclectic lineup, which featured up-and-coming pop, electronic, indie and rock bands from throughout the region (think Said The Whale and Mother Mother) playing alongside more established acts like Devo and Bad Religion. Seriously, if there wasn't at least one act on this bill that you were stoked to see, you're a straight-up music snob, plain and simple.

Maddeesun McLeod and Sam Leblanc were two of the music lovers who were intrigued by the lineup and were drawn from their respective homes in Victoria and Whistler to check out the first-year festival. Leblanc was keen to check out Tokyo Police Club, The Decemberists, Said The Whale, Z-Trip and Dirty Vegas, while McLeod pointed out that the timing was perfect - held at the beginning of September, it gave people a chance to end their summer with a bang.

"Devo was so weird, it was kind of awesome," McLeod reflected.

Both say they will come back if the festival returns next year.

In addition to the lineup, organizers also nailed a few logistical issues that helped make the festival-going experience fun and fairly trouble-free:


The venue

With the Stawamus Chief acting as a stunning natural backdrop (and amphitheatre, as I'm sure some residents will grumble), concertgoers were able to soak up some of Squamish's natural beauty as they enjoyed the music. Organizers spread the three stages (the Stawamus main stage, ClubZone and SERF Stage) out over the sprawling site, which stretched across the Logger Sports grounds and Hendrickson ball diamonds. Someone had their thinking cap on when they decided to put the ClubZone Stage smack-dab in the centre of the Logger Sports arena, with the stage facing out onto fenced-off stands that served as a beer garden. Yes, you read that correctly: people could actually enjoy a drink AND easily see the stage. Earth-shattering stuff!

"To tell the truth, I've been to Sasquatch Festival, and this is a way better layout," Leblanc said, pointing to the Chief in the background.

Vendors, water stations and port-a-potties were scattered strategically around the site and there seemed to be plenty of all to go around.



Anyone who took part in Pemberton Festival '08 would probably tell you that transportation was a nightmare. In some cases (my own, namely), it took hours to get on or off site and shuttle service was sporadic, at best. Whether it was because their numbers were smaller or they were learning from others' mistakes, LIVE At Squamish organizers seemed to have their heads on straight when it came to getting people to and from the festival. First, they cut off vehicle access on Finch Drive to create a biking route and encouraged people to walk or bike to the site.  They even offered a "bike valet," which was crammed with people's two-wheeled chariots on both days. They also offered plenty of pay parking and encouraged people to carpool to save money if they needed to drive to the site. Apparently there was also a park and ride shuttle service running from downtown Squamish.


The downside

Of course, no first-year festival is perfect. Though most of the feedback I heard from attendees was positive, there were a few points that people thought could be improved upon. The biggest gripe? The fact that the beer gardens shut down before 9 p.m., while the final act started at 9:30 p.m.

(Runnals explained that they were erring on the side of caution this year, wanting to make sure that things didn't get out of hand.)

There were also a few people who seemed miffed that there wasn't any on-site camping, and a few others felt that the $79/day ticket price was a bit steep. McLeod and Leblanc both felt that the festival wasn't advertised well enough, because they only saw posters for it a week out and didn't see any mention of it on Facebook. But they did seem to have a strong presence on Twitter, holding lots of ticket giveaways and other contests to stir up excitement. And my hat's off to whoever was behind their design and branding concept. Loved the bears and the clever little sign at ClubZone that read: "Jersey Shore fist pump zone."


So, will brand.LIVE be back in Squamish for a second summer? Or is LIVE At Squamish another "love-em-and-leave-em" musical experience?

Runnals confirmed that Brand.live has already inked a five-year agreement with the District of Squamish and that they are in conversation with a number of artists for next year's festival, so stay tuned for the dates and details!