Peak Performance Project Showcase #1: Jon Bryant, David Newberry and Good For Grapes

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For this small town girl heading out for a night in the big city, this show couldn’t have fulfilled my hopes any more.

Having seen each of the night’s headliners perform before, I was curious if the environment of the “competition” would impact their performances and what they would choose to highlight from their repertoires.

Jon Bryant took the stage first and immediately greeted the audience with his unique charm as he spoke to the crowd without a mic to set the tone for his personal performance and bring everyone closer. For anyone who has been to a Jon Bryant show, you will know that he is incredibly intimate and hands on with the audience; he has an ability to connect in a way I have seen few others do while on stage in the right setting. Opening in a venue like this is typically a tougher slot for a singer-songwriter as people are filing in and just getting warmed up for the night, but Jon kept his cool, held his own and even graciously invited his fellow Peak finalists to the stage to share in a rousing arms linked acoustic sing-a-long of Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage.” For a moment he made a downtown club feel like a living room and gave all of us a taste of what the Peak Performance Project Bootcamp may have been like (aside from the nightly pool parties and zipline extravaganzas). Undeniably, this east coast boy with a gentle heart is impossible not to adore.
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David Newberry is a treasure. After seeing him a little over a year ago perform more of an acoustic set, his albums have been playing steadily in my home ever since. With his latest EP “Desire Lines” garnering him increased national attention, it was a moving experience to watch him play with a full band and see his music come to life in such a remarkable way. His performance was exquisitely planned as he built on the audience’s growing energy with each song. Highlights were his original “Observer” that had the crowd glued to every note, and the finale performance of his recently re-recorded and released single “Slow” was the fitting pièce de résistance. Simply put, he had my heart in his hand the entire set (and entire night to be quite honest).
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Good For Grapes. My goodness. This was the fourth time I’ve seen them in just over a year, and the first seeing them as their evolved incarnation which now includes drummer Will Watson and cellist Alex Hauka. The cello was a genius move for the band as it lends itself beautifully to their sound. Not only that, having the added touch of inviting multi-instrumentalist Greg McLeod to join them on stage for a few fiddle and trombone medleys was the candle on the cake (speaking of which, how fun was it that it was lead guitarist Graham Gomez’s birthday!). At the end of the day, the band blew the roof of the place with a performance that was executed to perfection. Their song line-up was just the right blend of old and new, as they dispersed crowd favourites they have mastered with some touching new songs (like “Time and Time Again” written by lead singer Daniel McBurnie for his sisters that stripped away much of their instrumental fanfare and featured their sometimes hidden beautiful harmonies) and an off-the-charts cover of “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats which was easily the best surprise of the night. I’m not going to lie, I will have an eternal soft spot for this band which goes back to the beginning of starting this site, but putting the personal back story aside, Good For Grapes never disappoints a live audience, and if the crowd’s reaction to their performance was any indication, forget the Horse, 2014 is the year of the Grape.
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Jon Bryant, David Newberry and Good For Grapes performed at Fortune Soundclub on September 18, 2014.

This was the first of four showcases as part of BC’s 2014 Peak Performance Project.

To stay up to date visit http://www.peakperformanceproject.com where you will find links to these artists and the rest of this year’s top 12.

Photos courtesy of Creative Copper Images, Peak Performance Project BC and David Newberry’s facebook page (thanks David).

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Serenity Harvest Music Festival 2014

Magic (noun): A quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life (Oxford Dictionary).

That pretty much sums it up. In all honesty I should stop right there, because attempting to summarize what was seen and felt by the people who attended Serenity last weekend is a feat impossible to achieve. However, if providing even the smallest glimpse into the collective experience helps to entice others to discover the community, talent and energy this hidden gem is attracting, all will be well.

Serenity owner and operator Shirley de Vooght had a vision, a vision that was motivated by many of the artists who she has come to love like family. She had a desire to bring back a select group of musicians she has “harvested” throughout the year at house concerts to headline a 3 day music festival on her property. The 1st Annual Harvest Music Fest was her dream and did it ever come true.

For starters, Mother Nature was definitely on our side. The week leading up to the festival saw daily down pours, but for the three days and two nights on the acreage, we experienced sun, sun, and more sun. Summer came back in all its glory much to the delight of festival goers and all of the beautiful children that adorned the grounds with their laughter, dancing and tireless energy.

At night, the sky glowed as we were lucky enough to experience the eve of a full moon for the duration of the festival. To have the night sky mural on the main stage be reflected in the natural backdrop of the festival itself was a sight that left many in awe of the surrounding environment.

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Campers began arriving as early as Thursday to set up, with midday Friday seeing the steady flow of arrivals. By 6pm, Campground A was full to capacity and the night’s line-up was the perfect combination to open the weekend’s festivities.

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Brodie Dawson opened the festival with her sweet, pure vocals that had everyone under her spell alongside her bandmates Christy Vanden and Blaine Dunaway who nailed absolutely everything. Brodie’s voice carried beautifully across the vast open fields, while the moon began to slowly rise overhead. Vanden’s grooves on the Stratocaster guitar and Dunaway’s mastery of fiddle and cello were not only enjoyed during their show, but the three of them were mainstays at the nightly bonfires enjoyed by those who stayed awake into the early morning hours to discover what can happen after dark when you get a group of accomplished musicians together.

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Next on the line-up was Windborn. For those of us behind-the-scenes, his performance was extra special. Jeff Pike of Windborn was the catalyst behind the idea of hosting the festival and has been instrumental in the development of the venue itself. Not only did he organize the Kickstarter campaign this last year that finally gave owner/operator Shirley de Vooght a new roof for her home, indoor stage and artist housing, he also helped to install the roof over five very hot summer days and constructed a new drum riser for the stage the day before the festival started. Amazing. Needless to say, Windborn is a part of this place and when he plays on that stage, there is a familiarity and nostalgia wrapped into every lyric as if the trees are humming along. His ability to solely own the main stage with his guitar and kick drum continues to astound as his unique sound fills the vast space with ease.

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Cod Gone Wild closed out the night like only they can…with the highest amount of energy possible. They are truly a band that people talk about for days afterwards. You just can’t help but move when you listen to them. Andrew Mercer, Anjuli Otter, Roy Kawano and Chad Carter make up this dynamic foursome. People of all ages (including lots of children!) were dancing to their hearts content well into the night to this modern Celtic band’s flare. Anjuli always has the crowd in fits of laughter with her hilarious banter, and her internationally renowned fiddle playing never fails to blow people away. Not only was their performance a crowd favourite, they also provided the entire lights and sound for all of the bands at the festival. They did an impeccable job and were consummate professionals. Based on their long standing relationship with the venue and undeniable appeal, they will be returning next year and we could not be happier.

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As everyone headed back to their campsites following the show, the bonfire was a blaze with people beginning to congregate there shortly after the stage lights went out. Long after the last child had been laid down to sleep, the fireside jams carried on beyond 2am as people danced, sang, laughed and shared in the joy of friends new and old. This first night was filled with high spirits and anticipation for what was still to come.

The sun shone bright early Saturday morning, with the heat intensifying as the day progressed. For those needing the sleep, it was a day of rest and relaxation with options of taking advantage of one of the on-site vendors such as a pretty pedicure or hot stone relaxation massage from Serenity’s resident dance fairy Arden Melinda, or a private reading from Clearwater’s renowned psychic Erica Von Kcaat. For the families who were up bright and early with their children no matter how little sleep they got, there were activities planned to take part in such as hay rides and farm tours up the road at the Aveley Sheep Ranch, and a Children’s Art Garden with crafts, face painting, storytelling, and karaoke on the garden stage.

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Music started up again at 3pm with Cruel Young Heart. This Vancouver based pop band brought the FUN! They were the perfect choice to get the day going with their youthful energy and dance beats. The band was incredibly interactive with the audience, coming off the stage and sharing the mic with our smallest audience members who were mesmerized by their sound and look. Made up of James Blackmon, Drew McKay, Andrew Blackmon and Chelsea Lang, they have a real pulse on the current radio market with heavy influences from 80’s pop. Unfortunately they couldn’t stay to share in the rest of the festival and get to know everyone better, but they left a great impression and we were sad to see them go.

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Next up was North Country Gentlemen, a blend of men with strong faith-based roots, some of whom have stuck with the path, others who have rebelled against its influence. One of the weekend’s greatest quotes came from them during their set when if recalled correctly Ryan McAllister mused, “I feel like this is the place where hippies and rednecks co-exist peacefully.” This was met with roaring laughter as he hit the nail on the head regarding our community’s demographic. The harmonies created by the foursome of McAllister, JJ Shiplett, Barnaby McRae and Jeremy Friesen were humbly achieved as they played each song as if they were in the comfort of their own home. That is part of the magic of Serenity, everyone is given the freedom to relax and feel accepted. The country flare of their critically acclaimed tunes provided the perfect soundtrack to kick back and bask in the late afternoon sun.

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As North Country Gentlemen’s set was coming to a close, Devon Coyote and his band arrived following an earlier gig in Kelowna. They were met with a warm welcome as they brought along their loved ones to share in the remainder of the weekend. It is always wonderful to see musicians not only bring their partners, but also their parents. There is something about a guy on stage calling out to his mom or dad that just never gets old, and when Devon did it, it was a standout moment.

Devon Coyote has a presence and stage appeal that gets better and better each time you see him perform. Devon and his long time bass player D’Arcy Booth have played Serenity multiple times over the years, and as his success has steadily grown, his shows continue to expand in breadth. We were his third show in less than 24 hours, yet he delivered one of the purest and freshest performances of the festival. This guy has it in the bag. Reunited with one of his original and favourite drummers Rod Anderson, Devon sounded tighter than ever with his dominating Blues Rock edge. It should come as no surprise that he is getting increased recognition, including opening for Blue Rodeo and George Thorogood this past summer, and for 54-40 in November. The bigger the stages he plays, the bigger his sound and ability gets. The Serenity family can’t wait to see where he goes next.

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Not to be outdone by his friend and musical comrade, Greg Drummond took to the stage as darkness had settled in and the glow sticks began to make their nightly appearances. Greg and his band have also been regulars on the venue’s lineup over the past few years. He has earned a place in the hearts of many with his uplifting folk rock sound, and his rise in the BC music scene has been cheered on every step of the way by a growing fan base. Greg and his band (Michael Lothian, Mike Meroniuk, Greg Mcleod, and Alanna Pearce) performed their array of eclectic instruments including accordion, keys, electric guitar, bass, trumpet, mandolin and drums. Coming off months of practice and recording sessions for Greg’s sophomore album, they gave the audience exactly what they were looking for, and the adoring crowd immediately called for an encore that they graciously provided. They were also one of the few bands who camped out at the festival the entire weekend, which was appreciated by festival goers who have come to love Serenity for the camaraderie created between the audience and the artists.

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The night’s finale was a highly anticipated one for many of the venue’s regulars who influenced the decision to have this particular artist headline the second night. JJ Shiplett & The Red River Rebellion played one year ago to the day on the Serenity stage to its largest crowd to date at the time, which helped Shirley decide to host a festival the following year. It was the performance JJ gave then that solidified having him come back to close out the festival. He is raw, real Rock to its core. The guy just lays it all out on the stage, with his tortured soul and bad boy image stealing hearts each note at a time. Joined by bassist Greg Peace and Nate Giebelhaus on drums, JJ proved he cannot be tamed, with his wild red hair, quick mouth, and brooding voice that digs deep into your soul. For the last few songs, he held the stage solo without the band, playing some of his new material that is soon to be released on his sophomore album. Still relatively under the radar, JJ Shiplett is one to watch as his music is ready to resonate with the masses. Of course, underneath that exterior lies a tender heart, and Shirley has a piece of it. One of the weekend’s touching moments was when JJ brought her up on stage to publicly thank and recognize her for all of her efforts and support.

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For his encore set, JJ spontaneously invited members of the other bands to join him on stage where they created an instant super group. They played a rendition of The Band’s classic “The Weight” that put the crowd in a frenzy and included accordion, trombone, drum and tambourine solos to name a few. To take a line from today’s pop-culture vocabulary, “It was epic.”

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Saturday evening drew to a close as had the night before, with a roaring bonfire and beautiful voices filling the starry sky. On this night, the mood was softer, more intimate, as everyone had come to know one another more deeply, and the recognition that tomorrow would be filled with goodbyes was looming. As the hours drew on, the music became sweeter, and the circle huddled closer, not only to get the last of the fire’s warmth, but to soak up each moment we could of each other’s company. It must also be mentioned that many a musician not featured on the festival line-up were “headliners” at the nightly bonfire jams. In particular, Nils Loewen on cello (who also provided the official festival photography and videography), as well as his brother Dan Loewen on guitar and vocals led some of the most memorable jam sessions of the weekend. Accomplished Merritt based artist Cassandra Dolen also graced our festival with her presence and donated one of her beautiful original walnut oil paintings. She too lent her angelic voice to our campfire concerts. Music festival mainstay Doug Koyoma joined our Serenity family as our volunteer gate keeper, and his deep, soulful voice and sing-a-long rounds were dearly appreciated. An honourable mention must also be made to Greg Drummond’s “fill-in” bass player, Greg Mcleod, who came along with a multitude of instruments he showcased including fiddle and trombone…the nickname “Super G” stuck instantly and I’m fairly sure there is a Facebook fan page in production as we speak.

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If that was not enough, by midday on Sunday, the main stage was packed with multiple artists re-creating the nightly bonfire jams only amplified. It was the perfect way to end off what was truly an exceptional experience.

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After all was said and done, with a few hundred people gracing the grounds over three days, it was heart warming to see how respectful festival attendees had been with little to no garbage being left on the campsite grounds and every piece of property still in one piece and in working order.

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Special thanks goes out to Tacos`n`More, our delicious food vendor who fed us extremely well and generously throughout the weekend. And of course as always, our endless gratitude is given to Shirley de Vooght for dedicating her life and property to creating a place where experiences like this can occur.

On behalf of all of us on the Serenity team, a heartfelt thank you is due to everyone in attendance who created the magic that defined the 1st Annual Harvest Music Fest. See you next year!

Photos courtesy of Shirley de Vooght, Steve Mechem and Nils Loewen.

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Shirley de Vooght is Serenity Music

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How do you capture the heart of someone as unique and lovely as Shirley de Vooght. After many attempts to do her justice, I have conceded to accept it is not possible to describe in words the person she is and what she has come to mean to so many. 

As the owner and operator of Serenity Music, a beautiful performing arts centre in the heart of BC’s North Thompson valley, Shirley has carved out a little piece of heaven for touring musicians and a growing community of art and music enthusiasts.

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Like any great accomplishment in life, it began as an idea. After building a stage to host a faith-based music festival coordinated by her sister, Shirley was inspired to continue sharing her property through music after her best friend’s son stopped by with his band to play on the stage. “It was a beautiful September day,” recalls Shirley, “and as I was sitting there listening to David play, I saw everything right there in front of me. I thought, ‘I have to share this, somehow, someway'; that was the original intention, to share what I call home.”

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6 years later, and a lot of learning under her belt, she has hit a groove that has placed Serenity in the sweet spot of the BC music scene; a regular audience, and the artists can’t stop talking it. Getting almost daily calls from musicians across Canada and the US, the buzz is spreading about what people experience at Serenity, and for good reason.

Shirley treats the musicians like family, providing them free accommodation and freshly cooked meals to create a home away from home on the road. This type of hospitality is far from common, and has earned her a highly esteemed reputation among venues across the country. No longer struggling to get through to management companies, managers are now calling her directly to have artists perform here. The venue also now runs a purely house concert format, which means for those she chooses to book, they receive a percentage of each ticket sold at the door. This approach has not dissuaded artists from performing here, but has almost heightened the appeal of the tucked away backwoods venue.

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The people Shirley surrounds herself with have all added to the magic of Serenity. Friends show up to help cook meals for the bands, clean the house, make beds, do the dishes, and act as the welcoming committee for both the artists and the audience. There is a sense of family and community that Shirley has built that truly makes everyone feel at home. Not only does she host the musicians, she simultaneously operates a B&B, and is a friendly face to travellers near and far who stop in for a slice of her world famous cheesecake or to pitch a tent on the property for the night as they are passing through.

shirley sonLocated on 13 acres of the 45 acre property Shirley grew up on, Serenity sits nestled above the North Thompson River with the mountains towering above and a creek that runs directly through the concert grounds. Small bridges dispersed throughout add to the ambiance, with wood fences that hug each corner of the fields. A sprawling horse pasture lies directly beside the main stage and the train tracks line the edge of the river down the bank. It truly is a magnificent place. Aside from the large outdoor covered stage, there is a small garden stage built off of Shirley’s deck, and this past winter an indoor stage was constructed out of her daughter’s old bedroom that faces directly into the sunken living room. Without question, Shirley has dedicated her entire indoor and outdoor living space to the venue.

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This dedication has also lead to a kinship-like spirit of determination she shares with many of the artists that play here, and through all of her hard work, helping others has brought her the most joy. “No matter what happens, It is always about making the world a better place,” says Shirley, “it is about the ripple effect, sending out those lovely little ripples that help people feel better.”

shirley daughterTo describe Serenity is one thing, but to experience it is something else entirely. As I look around at the hand painted sunflower murals adorning exterior walls and furniture, wildflowers growing out of tree stumps, and weathered wood fences surrounding the venue, Shirley’s words echo in my head, “I love sunflowers because they are perfectly imperfect, and that’s what life is, perfectly imperfect; it is up to us to find the flaws and love them anyway.” Those my friends, are words to live by.

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Shirley de Vooght owns and operates Serenity Performing Arts Centre in Birch Island, BC (just north of Clearwater).

If you are ever driving through on Yellowhead Highway 5, look for the yellow guitars and follow them to stop in for a visit. If you’re lucky, there will be a full menu of Shirley’s homemade cheesecakes ready to order and devour on site.

Visit http://www.serenitymusic.ca or search ‘Serenity Music’ on facebook for news on upcoming shows, etc. House concerts now run Oct-June, leading up to a 3 day Harvest Music Festival the second weekend in September. The 1st annual Harvest Music Fest is happening this weekend, September 5-7, 2014. Tickets are still available at 250-676-9456. 

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Windborn: What lies beneath

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Jeff Pike is one special artist. Performing and recording as Windborn for over five years, he continues to take his sound to new places, experimenting with instruments and techniques, and challenging every rule there is when it comes to creating beautiful sounding music.

To fully appreciate the artist, you need only to learn of the incredible person he is, especially to this venue.

Jeff spent the week leading up to the night’s show building a new roof for Serenity owner Shirley de Vooght. That’s right, he took a break from touring to spend five very hot days dedicating his time (and tapping into his past life as a carpenter) to provide this act of service to a woman that has become family and a venue that has become a home.

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Jeff also provided the idea and development of the Kickstarter campaign for Serenity that exceeded its fundraising goal by over $1000.00 and allowed the roof renovation to happen.

Not only that, but at the end of the job, Jeff chose to perform a free show to celebrate. The generosity and good nature behind this artist is remarkable. Shirley herself speaks of him often and sings his praises to anyone who will listen, he truly has her heart.

Windborn is a regular feature on the Serenity schedule, playing multiple shows here a year. Not only did he win over Shirley many years ago, he has done the same with every Serenity audience member to date. Whether he is playing with accompanying musicians, such as his previous regular tour mate Nils Loewen on cello, or sticking to his roots of playing solo (as he is touring these days), Windborn is more than meets the initial eye.

Through the use of live-looping, an amped guitar, kick drum and creative percussion-based combinations, Windborn provides a show that is multi-dimensional and awe-inspiring.

No word of a lie, for our appreciative crowd, he played for over 2 hours without a break, and if it hadn’t been for the twilight mosquitos causing a stir, he likely would have gone longer.

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With a stage presence that puts everyone at ease, and an ability to make strangers feel like friends, Windborn has an ethereal style that is just magic.

He is an artist who lives for music and has dedicated his entire life to pursuing its creation. With his love, they live on the road in a different place almost every night, exploring the country in their quest to share his music and live simply and gratefully. To look at their lives from the outside is like admiring a beautiful painting, it fills you with wonder and inspiration. Of course, the reality likely comes with its own set of challenges, but for those who live within the walls of steady salaries, mortgages, and retirement savings plans, taking the time to appreciate the few who take risks in order to follow their passion is an important thing to do to put life in perspective.

If you let it, the music of Windborn will invite you into the soul of an artist to hear what makes his heart beat; are you listening?

Windborn performed at Serenity Performing Arts Centre on July 18, 2014.

For music (including free downloads), videos, bio and more, visit http://www.windborn.ca

Windborn is playing at Serenity’s 1st Annual Harvest Music Festival September 5-7, 2014. Early bird festival passes are still available for the weekend (price includes camping on the Serenity acreage)!

Photos courtesy of Steve Mechem and Windborn.

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Prairie Dance Club

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To dance is to feel alive.

Prairie Dance Club came to us on a warm July night. With the acreage brimming with children, and a full moon rising over the valley, it was a performance filled with an energy that radiated joy among us.

Serenity owner Shirley deVooght had been working on booking the band here for years. This was a long time coming.

Based out of Langley, BC, tonight the band consisted of Jason Davies (vocals, guitars), Jeremy Friesen (bass, background vocals), Dan Kim (guitars) and Ryan Wylie (drums). It was Ryan’s first night playing a show with the band. An old friend of many of the members, Ryan filled in graciously at the last minute to allow this show to happen and he nailed it.

Barefoot on stage, the guys played their hearts out to a crowd who ate it all up. This audience was ready to dance and the band gave them what they came for.

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Their most recent EP “Pretty Things” (2013) is one of the tightest collections of tracks I have heard in a while and the 5 songs were standouts from the night’s show. The album also has the reputation as being one of the last recordings at the historic Hipposonic (Mushroom) Studios on West 6th Avenue in Vancouver before it closed its doors last March.

From “Thunder Rd. 2,” a great anthem-like tune that was beyond fitting for our backroad venue with a chorus that echoes Take me out into the mountains and set me free; to “Hold Me to the Fire,” an emotionally weighted song that they delivered in one of their strongest performances of the night.

Their finale was a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” They killed it. Shirley’s lifelong friend and Serenity mainstay Lizzy Hopson Cline personally thanked the band afterwards for playing her favourite Neil Young song saying “No one ever plays Cinnamon Girl and does it well, and you did!”

Unfortunately for us, the band had to pack up immediately following the show to drive home, but this is their reality of having other careers and families waiting for them; touring doesn’t come with the same ease as it once did. At this stage in the game, their music is not their full time focus, but has needed to share a seat with their secure day jobs that are necessary for their growing families, with guitarist Dan Kim becoming a dad for the third time just a few weeks ago.

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Listening to their perspectives as fathers and husbands was enlightening. Admitting this show had forced them to come out of relative hibernation, they are starting to realize how their priorities have changed, even as it relates to the music they want to create. “Jason and I have been doing a lot of talking,” said Jeremy, “we just aren’t sure about where the future of this band is headed right now.” Furthermore, he explains, “It’s almost like we are feeling a strong need to play harder rock. There is this indie-pop sound that is everywhere right now; it seems to be the only thing that is booking, atleast in Vancouver. We don’t want to do that, we want to play harder, we just want to rebel against everything.” I joked whether this need was being fuelled by their day to day lives of changing diapers and driving kids to soccer practice, which they chuckled at but interestingly enough didn’t refute. Not that I blame them. As a mother of 2 children under 6, I can relate.

As for their writing process, Jason is the primary songwriter, with Jeremy helping to develop the musical elements along with the rest of the band. In terms of current inspirations, Jason has a 6 year old daughter who he mentioned many times throughout the night, likely because the 20 plus children dancing back and forth in front of the stage acted as a constant reminder.

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A standout moment of the night was when he cued up their song “City in the Country,” a track Jason wrote about not knowing how to explain to his daughter why all the trees where they played down the street were cut down to build new condominiums. Ironically, they had been reading Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” at the time (if you don’t know it, it’s worth the read, especially for all you environmentalists out there). As we stood there looking out over an endless scene of horse pasture, forest, mountains and river, it was difficult to relate to the environment he described, yet there was empathy among us for those who do not have the opportunity to be constantly surrounded by such natural beauty.

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All in all, Prairie Dance Club are a group of extremely talented, kind hearted men who haven’t given up on their dream and passion for creating music, even when the demands of life may stand in their way. Whether it be with this band, or an entirely new path in music for each of them, we wish them luck finding their way.

Prairie Dance Club performed at Serenity Performing Arts Centre on July 12, 2014.

Visit their website for links to music downloads, their bio and more at http://www.prairiedanceclub.com

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Helen Knight: An artist and woman to celebrate

 

I have admired Helen Knight at a distance for a long time.  She served as a Director on the Board where I work for many years and her art is featured in every room of my office building, a gift she provided when we opened our facility.  Most recently I have had the opportunity of getting to know Helen personally, including spending time at her home and enjoying in her company.  Her youthful spirit, passion for life and creative energy is contagious. I know this is a diversion from my focus on artists and their music at Serenity, but I couldn’t help but share the story of this beautiful woman and her art.  This is for Helen. 

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Raised in the Peace River country of Northern Alberta in the small town of La Glace during the Depression, Helen Knight was raised among 7 siblings by her Russian Mennonite immigrant parents.  Learning to live off the land from her homesteading parents, Helen had an immediate connection with the Earth and its gifts from birth.  “I know that when I grew up I was aware of the Earth and life on Earth; the creatures and the plants, the flowers and everything like that. We always gardened, we grew all our own food, that’s how I grew up.”

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Helen spent over 30 years as a teacher, including working as a special needs educator.  During her time working at an institution on the lower mainland, she met her husband Art Knight, a psychiatric nurse.  Helen retired from teaching when her husband became ill in order to care for him full time.  Following the loss of her husband in 1986, Helen turned to her love of nature and made a career change.  She followed her passion to the North Thompson valley where she was hired as a Naturalist for Wells Gray Park in 1988.  Between 1988-2000, Helen worked for Wells Gray Park in a variety of roles, including as an educator and writer for the Park Rangers.  Her time living and working in Wells Gray Park allowed her to extensively pursue her interests including birding and hiking, and her appreciation for nature grew to new depths. “I have always been a naturalist with a love of the outdoors,” Helen explains, “even as a young child I knew where all the bird’s nests were, when the first robin appeared and the when first crocus bloomed.  Nature has always been in my heart.”

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Throughout her life, Helen had a love of art inside of her.  During her career as a teacher, she was very creative and spent a lot time in photography and embroidery work, “That’s how I got my creative juices going,” she recalls.  However, it was not until her friend and eventual mentor Joan Moffat came for a visit and brought paints, paper and brushes with her that Helen discovered her passion and talent for painting. 

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At the age of 64, Helen Knight became an artist.  It took her two years to begin publicly showing her paintings to others.  Almost 20 years later, her home is now her gallery, with her work displayed in every room. 

Her medium of choice is acrylic, however, she has also dabbled in water colour and oil pastels in the past.  For Helen, she feels acrylic paint suits her personality as she explains, “Acrylic works for me because it’s so fast. I am a really fast painter. I may spend a long time wondering what I’m going to do and working up a painting in my mind, and then all of a sudden (when she begins painting), half an hour later it’s done!”  Admitting it is in her nature to be fast and not have to plan ahead or wait for paint to dry, working with acrylic paint definitely suits her needs as an artist. 

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Helen is inspired by her immediate natural surroundings.  “My subject matter has followed a natural history theme.  I am also very connected to the seasons,” she says.  Her garden and riverside property provide endless amounts of subject matter to pull from for her art.  Poppies are her true love (you would understand why if you take a visit to her backyard garden), and she is in the process of thinking about starting a poppy series that will surely be something to marvel.  Currently, she is leaning more towards impressionism in her style.  “I don’t want a picture perfect poppy, I want an impressionist one.”   She also makes scrapbooks where she collects images of art that speak to her. “I feel like they informally inform my own art,” she muses.

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When asked what advice she would give to children wanting to purse painting, Helen clearly recalls the best quote she ever read about creating art, “Paint what you love.”  She also remembers the initial advice she received from her friend and mentor Joan, “She told me that by the time we saw each other again I needed to draw or sketch one hundred items. It didn’t matter what they were or how complicated they were or what I used, I just had to get out a sketchbook.  By the end of that time I knew I could draw.” Upon reflection, Helen has come to realize that since she has become more public with her art, she is also inspired by the people who like and enjoy her paintings, “It’s kind of like an exchange of love.  It’s a gift.”

You can view Helen’s art in Clearwater BC at her personal home gallery; Yellowhead Community Services (612 Park Drive); and Forest House Wellness Centre (717 Clearwater Village Road).  She continues to paint regularly in her home-based studio.

Helen Knight’s art is available.  She welcomes anyone who has an emotional interest in her work to contact her directly. 

Special note: Helen has been selected as the feature artist at this year’s Clearwater Children’s Art Festival on August 6, 2014, 10am-3pm at the Dutch Lake Community Centre. A selection of her work will be displayed and she will be on hand to meet families and answer questions.  Multiple local artists will be providing art experiences for children of all ages throughout the day.                                                             

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Rolla Olak & Friends: Rocky Mountain High Tour

When Rolla Olak, Andy Bishop (White Ash Falls), Todd Menzies and Nick Petrowich (Willhorse) show up, be ready to have your expectations met.

These guys are the real deal in more ways than one.  White Ash Falls opened the show with a primarily solo-acoustic set that took the audience by surprise, as many had come expecting Rolla with a full band right out of the gates.  But it was a pleasant shock, as he mellowed the crowd sitting on the grass basking in the evening sun. His gentle soul serenaded us with his folk tunes that are so clearly close to his heart.  Andy is quite the musical chameleon and has achieved much success in multiple bands over the last decade (Yukon Blonde; Red Cedar; Twin Rivers – as well as guest appearances in many others); however embarking on his collaborative project White Ash Falls a few years ago has allowed him to showcase his maturity and individuality as a songwriter.  When the guys joined him for his last few songs to amp things up, his ability to switch gears on a dime and rock it out was impressive, and it was obvious we were in store for quite the night.

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The man of the hour was indeed Rolla Olak.  His timeless sound is not only a throwback to the early Dylan/Young era, it easily resonates in the here and now.  Rolla has this specific air about him that creates nostalgia for what was, and a longing for what could be.

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Joined by Bishop on guitar and harmonica, Todd Menzies on bass and Nick Petrowich on drums, this foursome tore it up as they dug deep into Rolla’s repertoire of both hard-hitting tunes and soft-hearted melodies.

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It was a welcomed return for Rolla, Todd and Nick who played here for the first time on their Winter Wolfpack Tour back in December with the rest of Willhorse.  There was no question that we were going to see them again.  The moment they stepped foot on the property it was as if a part of them belonged here, an instinct I’d had about them when we first started insisting they find their way to us down a lonely dirt road.

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There are all types of artists and musicians that visit the venue and we, the audience, are thankful to be witness to each of their unique talents and qualities. But once in awhile you happen upon a soul or two who inhabit something that aligns closely with the energy and dream that venue owner Shirley deVooght has worked so hard to cultivate and protect. These guys got it and embraced it instantly, and have been incredible advocates for Shirley and the venue ever since.

It was Andy’s first visit to the acreage, and he fit in like an old hat. Rolla and Andy have known each other for many years as songwriters on the west coast, so to have them share in each other’s music and friendship in this setting was a gift to be a part of.  It remains staggering that Rolla and Willhorse only met a year ago through the Peak Performance Project. With that experience tucked away in the rear view mirror, their relationship is rock solid, with a chemistry that presents as if they have been playing and touring together since day one.

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The thing that stands out about every one of these long-haired, ripped-jean-wearing men who inhabit a natural swagger most would kill for is that they are completely unaware of how appealing they are. Each of them are truly unaffected by the relative success they have achieved thus far in their careers, and genuinely care about making quality, honest music that echoes the same vibe they carry off the stage.  They have this instant chill that reverberates to everyone around them, including honest moments of humour and joy that highlight their mutual adoration and respect for one another, both in creating music and simply in shared conversation.

When I first met Todd Menzies, he made a comment about Rolla that went something like this, “I’ve known a lot of great musicians over the years, but Rolla is one of the few true artists out there.” He was right, but he fell short of including himself. Each of these men exudes an artistic bone that is not all together as common as you may think.  It is incredibly challenging in this day and age to be genuine. With social media taunting their every move and a fan base that is itching for instant gratification, the artist is no longer answering to “the man,” they now have to answer to the masses.  Certain personalities can weather this better than others, and have the ability to stay cocooned within their own motivations and inspirations for the creative process. These few give the impression that they stick to their guns amid mounting pressures in an ever changing industry that seems to throw a new iron in the fire to chase after at every turn.

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Amid their ideals, there will always be the temptation of writing that elusive song that hits the pulse of popular culture to set them up for life. As the guys themselves explained, touring on the independent circuit can be grueling and not all together rewarding. Venues like Serenity are few and far between where they get home cooked meals, individual beds, and are welcomed in to a home to call their own where there is a deep respect and appreciation for not only their music, but for each individual who has created it.

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Through these trials, they each display an authenticity that shines through.  What we experienced with them was the perfect marriage between music and venue, where the audience was given the space to just be, and time slowed down to the point where you could forget about it all together. 

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After the official show had ended, the bonfire was lit and the four of them played into the night under a near full moon.  As the fire crackled in the background, people of all ages came together amid the stars; some danced, some sat back and took it all in.  Somehow, the music and surroundings collided as minutes became hours and time melted away.  We can only await their return until we can erase time once again.

Rolla Olak and friends performed at Serenity Performing Arts Centre on July 10, 2014.

Rolla’s Rocky Mountain High Tour continues all summer long across BC and Alberta.  Visit his website at www.rollaolak.com for tour dates and locations, as well as links to music and more.

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Visit White Ash Falls’ website at www.whiteashfalls.com for music, bio and more.

Fingers crossed the guys make it back here in September to celebrate the 1st Annual Harvest Music Festival, Sept. 5-7, 2014. Rolla Olak is already booked as a headliner for 2015!

Photos courtesy of Google Images and Serenity Music. 

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