Band on the Run: The Swelling of Art in Wells, BC

The little town of Wells, BC is as cute as they come. It’s snug in the valley between several mountains, (one of which is mysteriously called “Island Mountain”), and it’s a eastward turn off of highway 97 that connects Prince George, BC with Williams Lake, BC. I had never made that turn until this weekend and it took me along highway 26 for about 90kms into what is an historic hotbed.

Here’s some history: Wells, BC is really close to what is known as “historic Barkerville.” This area was bursting with activity during the mid 1800′s with the Cariboo gold rush. During its heyday, Barkerville was the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. However, with the death of the gold mining prospects there, the town died and sat abandoned for seventy years until the provincial government decided to restore it and bring it back to life as a tourist centre.

That was obviously the definition of a ghost town. I’d love some of those stories!

Wells, BC, on the other hand, was built in the 1930s as a company town for the Cariboo Gold-Quartz Mine. This mine was discovered long after things had died for Barkerville and represented yet another modest boom for the area. Wells enjoyed about a thirty-year burst of activity and prosperity before, as it always happens, the Earth could not sustain such abuse, gave up the last of her jewellrey in disgust and then forced the mines down.

Everywhere in Wells are mining or panning-for-gold references and old-fashioned images of the Wild West. By that, I mean rickety but colourful storefronts, paintings of covered wagons, and lots of puns about nuggets and gold dust finding their way into the names of restaurants and shops.

The people there welcomed us with big grins, hippie beads and sun-kissed shoulders.

The festival we performed at is called “Arts Wells Festival.” I love the double meaning when it’s said fast, although the logo doesn’t highlight the “swells” part of the festival name so I never did ask if it was intentional… but, I’m going to assume so. After all, in an area that has experienced significant swells in growth for destructive reasons, why not encourage the swelling of arts and community — constructive swells in Wells. (Well, that’s where my mind took me, anyhow!)

We arrived at around four o’clock on the last day of this long weekend festival. That was the soonest we could get there and it felt as though we arrived to a house party that was long underway. People were comfortably hanging out front of the century-old Sunset Theatre that was a wood frame building no bigger than a one-room school house with a stage and a front lobby and a tiny backstage tucked behind a musty old curtain. It reminded me of the school/church from Little House on the Prairie.

Everyone was either dusty from a long weekend of barefoot dancing at the main festival site (the local school down the road) or was damp from having just taken a dip in the river that ran right behind the theatre.

I wandered into the crowd unnoticed and found my way to the inside and the merchandise area looking for someone who could let us know where we needed to be and when. I found two smiling women selling CDs and eager to check in our items before the four o’clock show ended. We were scheduled to perform at five o’clock and were the final performance of the festival. It didn’t take me long to see the lay of the place and know that it would be a simple set-up and easy load-in.

I returned with a stack of CDs and was awarded two wooden festival badges with strings to hang around our necks. They are, by far, the coolest festival badges I have ever seen. Handmade and completely in tune with the vibe of this place; it was a family atmosphere and “homemade” seems to define everything that this festival is about.

I walked back outside then to get my gear and introduced myself to a couple of funky looking guys sitting on the outside steps. Turns out that most people here for the event were from Victoria or Vancouver, but a few were locals and everyone was super friendly – so friendly, in fact, that someone offered to go home to his house to get his amp for me to borrow. He hopped in his station wagon and was gone and back within five minutes. The tube amp under his generous arm as he made his way backstage made me smile immediately. There’s nothing better than tubes with my electric! (And of course, his smile to return my smile made me smile even wider.)

Just before four-thirty, I had myself organized enough to take in the last fifteen minutes of an amazing four-piece, spoken-word, beat-boxing group from Victoria called “Odditory Presence.” They were amazing. In the few songs I caught, they made me laugh, think and want to dance… and there was no instrument on stage besides their mouths and their minds. The mouth is an extremely important instrument for change. They’ve certainly got that covered.

When we stepped on stage, the place was full and looking onwards expectantly. Microphones were hardly needed thanks to the fact that it was built for optimum acoustics from a time when microphones weren’t even a consideration. It was intimate, to say the least. We laughed and were really casual on stage, playing a few old songs (“Goldilox” from our 2000 “The Wage is the Stage” release as our encore!), lots of new songs and telling long-winded stories. All told, the place embraced us and when we finished our encore, we were invited into that established group of friends that had long forgiven us for our late arrival.

The evening wore down then into dinner and drinks and a late-night jam. Well, it wasn’t too late, really. We headed back to our billet’s house before midnight knowing the long drive back to Edmonton the next day was going to hurt if we kept drinking wine and “scream singing” cover tunes!

A sunny-smiled woman named Kate who lives in a log home and is a massage therapist there in Wells put us up for the night. Her house smelled of cedar and incense. We both stepped in and knew we’d have a hard time leaving. Even the soap in the bathroom was handmade and all natural. And, the fact that her backyard is the foot of a mountain doesn’t hurt either. Her spices lined the kitchen counters in jars – counters that are homemade with tile tops and framed by pine – and the old fashioned stove top kettle reminded me of my grandma, its spout ornate and swooping upwards like a raised eyebrow lifts a question.

When we pulled out of Wells the next morning, I really didn’t want to leave. Just a taste of this warm community was a tease. My heart swelled with fondness when the drivers of two pick-up trucks that passed us coming out of the café in the morning as we were balancing steaming travel mugs honked and waved, the driver of one leaning out the window with “great show last night” catching the wind and making its way to our ears. Maybe next year (if they’ll have us back), we’ll plan a longer stay.

Yes, I think that’s in order.