VANCOUVER – When heavyweights Nine Inch Nails and Outkast relaunch the Pemberton Music Festival this week on a pastoral mountain-side stage amid remote British Columbia farmland, devoted fans won’t be the only ones judging the spectacle’s second coming.
In July 2008, local First Nations residents had their lawns, and sense of security, trampled over three days when 40,000 concert-goers squeezed into sacred territories normally inhabited by 2,400 people.
“(It went) beyond the basic challenge of getting around town and meeting your basic needs,” said Kerry Mehaffey, an official with the Lil’wat Nation.
“We had people wandering through people’s yards — front yards, backyards, near their houses — setting up tents, parking in people’s front yards without permission.”
Seven years later, an unrelated promoter has pumped $18 million worth of infrastructure into the region, aspiring to revive the extravaganza that was mired in snarled traffic, out-of-control dust and putrid porta-potties.
New Orleans-based Huka Entertainment expects to benefit from the vastly expanded Sea-to-Sky Highway, upgraded for the 2010 Olympics, and has partnered with the aboriginal community.
The festival is being promoted as the most highly produced in Canada this year, one that will strive to top attendance charts and has the potential to become the most-vaunted jam this side of the Rockies.
All parties involved are envisioning the July 16-20 relaunch as “year one” of a new festival, which they’ve planned meticulously to avoid past mistakes.
“Everyone is taking quite a positive approach. There will be some hiccups, we expect, but for the … partnership, this is a long-term investment. It isn’t a sort of one-and-done festival,” said Mehaffey, Lil’wat Nation director of business and economic development.
“I feel fairly confident these guys are relying on their reputation and the fact they want to be doing it again for the next 10 years to make sure that those problems aren’t repeated.”
It’s anticipated that about 25,000 people will surge into the picturesque valley at the base of Mount Currie, about 150 kilometres north of Vancouver, to rock out to 100 bands and comedians on six stages.
Other headliners include rap craftsman Kendrick Lamar, resurging rock outfit Soundgarden, Canadian dance producer Dead Mau5 and R&B crooner Frank Ocean. Bob Saget, Tom Green, the Trailer Park Boys and Lisa Lampanelli will also perform.
Attendees can camp within walking distance of the site or be shuttled in from nearby Whistler. Organizers hope early, mid-week shows by Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie, with the Sadies, will further ease traffic and boost tourism.
“What we’re building is the Coachella of Canada,” said A. J. Niland, Huka’s co-founder, referring to the United States’ premier music and arts festival, held annually in California’s Colorado Desert.
His group didn’t inherit the troubled event, he said, but discovered the sprawling grounds through an agent in 2012. Niland fell head-over-heels during the jaw-dropping drive north.
“This is maybe the most beautiful festival site I’ve ever seen, and that was the peak of the interest,” he said. “And then I got a dose of reality from all the problems of 2008. And I went, ‘Ah, you know what? This probably was too good to be true.”
Despite the inaugural gong show, organizers were planning a second concert for 2009. It was cancelled when permitting was bogged down by the province’s Agricultural Land Commission.
Although the approvals eventually went through, then-organizer Live Nation felt it couldn’t entice top talent at such short notice or clear up looming logistical issues.
This time, organizers have doubled the size of the site by leasing 40 hectares of the Lil’wat Nation’s reserve lands. They’ve built two kilometres of additional roads, installed a permanent irrigation system and spent months on a land-clearing project.
Traffic mitigation strategies are in place, six entrances have been built instead of two, and a pedestrian overpass has been erected over the highway. RCMP will bring in extra officers from the Lower Mainland to patrol campers, a move that has been sanctioned by the Lil’wat’s local tribal police.
Canada has yet to see a festival on this scale and it will be up to the crowds to determine whether the multi-year financial investment is worth it, Niland said.
“It’s a tremendous first-year endeavour … it’s meant to go overboard,” he said. “We’re really bringing out all the stops to make sure they’re satisfied.”