This weekend Fred Penner led a spirited singalong of “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the shoreline of Kootenay Lake while six unicorns and a pregnant narwhal danced around him — an impromptu collaboration that featured the Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival’s second in command, Jake the Lady.
“It wasn’t super premeditated,” the 28-year-old lead dancer of the Circus Acts Insomniacs said about their sunny Saturday performance during the 26th annual event.
“When Fred arrived I was checking him in. I mentioned there were going to be unicorn dancers performing right after him. He’s a lovely guy, very friendly and animated, and we were giggling around backstage getting prepared when he decided to call us out.”
The beach in front of her was packed with families with beaming faces, while all around her festival-goers listened from their kayaks, floaties and paddle boards. As she traipsed around in her shimmery costume, sporting a pink tutu, she felt as if her worlds were colliding.
“I’ve been a fan of Fred Penner since my childhood, and seeing the amount of joy he brings through his music was a really cool experience. It was kind of geared at kids, but it wasn’t just for them — it was for everyone.”
This is just one of the experiences she’s processing after the hectic festival, which featured big names like the Sheepdogs, In Orbit and A Tribe Called Red. One of their biggest gets this year was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which played an extended set on Saturday evening to rapturous applause.
That was the highlight for executive director Paul Hinrichs.
“That was a life-affirming moment for me. I’ve seen them in New Orleans and they play festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and I’m such a fan. So I took off my radio and that was the 90 minutes I had — I just sat down and let them change my life,” he said.
This year Hinrichs and his team has discussed their aim to continue to broaden the scope of the festival, looking for ways to incorporate more live performance elements, such as aerial silks from Discover Circus’ Joy Weick, workshops with topics ranging from yoga to beer, and a visual art showcase run by Blue Night director Brian Kalbfleisch.
“Selling tickets is just one part of the equation. Getting the right number of people versus what we can execute and have it be magical, it’s a science. So we’re trying to find a balance between making money and creating magic,” he said.
And though there were a number of logistical issues — for instance, the water main leading into the festival burst on the first day — his team was able to keep things under control. On Sunday morning their headliner, Charles Bradley, informed them he wasn’t going to be able to make it that evening — so they shifted around the acts.
“We overcame more challenges than the public realize. I was talking to Shane Koyzcan midway through the weekend and he asked me how things were going, and I said we’ll define success by who knows about our problems — and most people didn’t have any idea what was going on behind the scenes.”
They’ve learned how to roll with the punches.
“When the screaming eagle of soul cancelled, we didn’t miss the beat — I called up In Orbit and moved Badbadnotgood, and it turned out awesome.”
The weekend’s lineup included a who’s who of the Kootenay area, including Selkirk College music instructors Laura Landsberg doing her best Aretha Franklin impression and Melody Diachun rocking out to saxophone solos alongside acts such as Dirt Floor, The Eisenhauers, Brian Rosen and the Whatnow and Moontricks.
One of the most prolific performers, Nelson’s Jesse Lee, played with no fewer than six different acts including Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long. It’s that sort of commitment that makes the festival possible, said Hinrichs — he’s aspiring to pay more people in the future, now that revenues are up.
“We’re a charity, there are no stakeholders, so nobody’s interested in the bottom line here. Right now we’ve got people doing 15 to 20 hours a day volunteering, doing crucial roles like artist transportation, and that’s a ton of responsibility. We couldn’t do it without them, and I want to pay them as soon as it’s feasible.”
For Jake, the dedication of the Kaslo Jazz team is overwhelming.
“It takes a while for it all to sink in, and production is a whirlwind, so I have to stop and remind myself to appreciate all the connections we’ve made and the experiences we had,” she said.
“One of the biggest things for me was I was completely blown away by the amount of love and energy that goes into this festival. This year we had 380 volunteers with 50 managers, and they put so much hard work into making this happen — I can’t express in words the way that makes me feel.”