I admit: I had no idea what to expect from Atmosphere Gathering. Like, really expect. I'd scoped out the website beforehand, sure, and had a vague notion of what was in store, but still, nothing could have adequately prepared me for the incredible magic that awaited us at the epicentre of Cumberland Village midway up Vancouver Island's east coast.
Cumberland is a small and charming village just a short hop-skip-and-jump from Courtenay (which is about an hour north of Nanaimo), with an estimated population of 3,000-ish and the kind of free-spirited energy that has you planning your new life as a Cumberland-ite after just a brief stroll along the colourful main drag. 2016 year marks the third year the village has hosted the weekend-long Atmosphere Gathering festival, welcoming locals and visitors alike to soak in a diverse variety of bands, DJs and performers across the site's three stages.
What makes Atmosphere particularly special is its status as a boutique festival, with only 1,500 tickets sold this year. With an event this intimate, it's easy to see the extraordinary level of detail that goes into planning it, along with the community's support in making it happen. It's clear Atmosphere's organizers strive to make the gathering a positive one as possible for the community, reminding festival-goers in advance to bring their best behaviour and share their gratitude for the town's kind generosity in turning itself over to the inevitable carousal that accompanies any kind of late-night event.
(Of course, villagers appeared to make up at least half the attendees, their enthusiasm for the event not outdone by that of the out-of-towners. I heard one woman tell her friend she came back to town specifically for the festival, exclaiming, "It just gets better every year!")
One of the first things we did on arriving was get our bearings of the site itself. What impressed us right away was how well laid-out the grounds were, from the food trucks situated at the back of the main outdoor Atmosphere Stage (offering a perfect combination of healthy and I've-been-walking-all-day-and-am-fucking-ravenous options), to the avenue of vendors leading to the more intimate Forest Stage and tipi'd Sanctuary (with the outhouses brilliantly situated at the halfway point to both).
Atmosphere Gathering first caught my attention when they released their line-up last spring and I found out object-of-my-girlcrush, Frazey Ford, was performing as one of the headliners. I have to disclaim, however, that I was otherwise unsure about the rest of the music, mostly because I understood the festival to have a mainly electronic vibe - one of the genres I listen to most rarely.
To anyone in the future who may share my uncertainty: this year's gathering offered an impressive array of musical tastes, ranging from Blue Moon Marquee's power-driven gypsy blues to Red, Gold & Green Machine's bold and uniquely described "Planet Africa flow." I think I may have even discovered my newest girlcrushes in the tattooed trio of Miss Quincy and the Showdown, who kicked some serious rocker-girl butt during their Sunday set.
As for my current object of infatuation, Frazey Ford put on a gorgeously heartfelt sunset show on Sunday night, looking nothing less than an ethereal goddess as she lit up the stage with her crooning melodies (and later, swayed dreamily in the crowd to Liberation Movement’s celestial rhythms).
And then, of course, there was the expected electronic music. But let me tell you that something most peculiar happened during my three days at Atmosphere: on more than one occasion, I unexpectedly thought to myself, "Waitasec. I like this song."
(If you want to understand how little I listen to EDM - electronic dance music, as the cool cats say - perhaps it helps to explain that my favourite type of music is typically the kind involving banjos and tambourines and borderline-emo ballads. Which will help you understand how much of a surprise it was to discover that I not only tolerate - but that I maybe even somewhat enjoy (!!!) - certain electronic music! And even Ryan, who's singular form of dancing is drunkenly shuffling at weddings, couldn't help himself from moving to the beats!)
So with the disclaimer that I'm the least expert voice on electronic music EVER now out of the way, I will tell you that the DJs who shined the most for me over the weekend’s duration were California's Drumspyder, who was refreshingly original and non-repetitive in his sound; JPOD the beat chef, whose buoyant style proved can't-help-but-dance contagious; and most of all, the Kootenay's own Moontricks, who took the banjos and harmonicas of my most favourite genre and blended it with - as the cool cats say, also - sick beats, man. (But seriously: Moontricks. Go listen, like, right now!)
Most of the weekend's electronic performances took place under the towering Big Top, a for-reals striped circus tent that marks Atmosphere's infrastructure amongst the most unique of the summer festival circuit.
The Big Top could perhaps be best described as a portal unto a strange and beautiful realm of glitter and sweat, the air inside the tent muggy with body heat. Every direction offered a feast for the eyes - if not the crowd itself, whose outlandish costumes represented the best of festival attire, then the professional hula hoopers who wowed the bouncing crowd with their seamless tricks, or the hypnotizing stream of whimsical laser-show graphics projected across the tent's inner ceiling.
On Saturday evening, Colorado's Fractal Tribe majorly dialled up the circus vibe, pairing ballet-esque acrobatics with hauntingly evocative music. It was impossible not to be completely captivated as the troupe gracefully careened overhead, solidifying the feeling of being part of something exquisitely special.
In spite of the Big Top's Alice-in-Wonderland vibe – complete with late night silent disco – my favourite spot of the whole festival grounds were those surrounding the more low-key Forest Stage, including an LED toadstool art installation, hammocks for the weary and Harmonic Arts Elixir Temple - an eclectic apothecary, if you will (where I dosed myself with digestive bitters on more than one occasion after hungrily devouring the I've-been-walking-all-day-and-am-fucking-ravenous option of meals).
Also located at the far back of the festival grounds was the alluring Sanctuary, a 40-foot tipi offering festival-goers a welcome reprieve from festival-overload. Apart from the fact I was already sold on the ambience (salt lamps, crystals and beribboned dreamcatchers, oh my!), the tipi gave us a much-needed recharge on Saturday night. Our shoulders and hips aching with having been carrying our equipment non-stop for almost two full days, we settled in amid the soothing glow, lulled into relaxation by burning incense and the hushed murmurings of our fellow sojourners. (So sublime, it cancelled out the fact we were just two of presumably hundreds of sweaty, filthy respite-seekers who'd shared the same blanket and cushion.)
Atmosphere Gathering is an alcohol-free festival, which is not something I'd experienced as yet. Having now seen the other side, I daresay I've joined team “no-alcohol” based simply on the fact of the outhouses being monumentally cleaner than those of any other festival I've attended, ever. It also made for a notably less douchey aggressive vibe, though it's hard to know for certain if that's a side effect of the event being relatively small by festival standards, or that the gathering itself represents a community of like-minded people coming together to be awesome, together.
Though we'd originally planned to camp over the weekend, we opted out at the last minute, the memory of a not-so-pleasant experience still fresh in our minds (a story for a different time, I promise). That said, after surveying the campsite, we decided it probably wouldn't have been so bad - that certainly it was one of the most orderly we've seen so far. But that also said, we've likewise recently arrived at the realization we've come to an age when camping at a festival is, if possible, better left avoided on account of our preference for clean feet and sleeping (or, more acceptably, being rested up in order to continue the next day "working") (in quotations, because spending a weekend soaking in every last glorious detail of a music festival as fabulous as Atmosphere can hardly be qualified as working, proper).
Atmosphere draws a richly diverse crowd, spanning the gamut from small children to retirees and everything in between, qualifying the event as a truly inclusive gathering. In addition to alcohol-free, the festival boasts a family-friend vibe - "the Next Generation", as they've adorably dubbed it - with an ongoing line-up of goodness for the littles. Parents are seemingly comfortable letting their charges loose to partake of the festivities, so that after a short time, the dusty and besequinned festie kids are hardly discernible from their grown-up counterparts (definitely kids remain masters of the dance moves, however, with their no-fucks-given attitudes and ability to keep going long after my own legs are aching with tiredness).
Not once over the course of the weekend were we bored, with so much care gone into ensuring festival-goers are well-looked after, it feels a bit like what I imagine the VIP experience to be. Not only does the festival offer a series of intriguing workshops over the span of the weekend, but around every corner is something new to see and marvel over. From milk-crate scaling to tightrope walking; from geometric art installations to a bohemian Travelling Teahaus, our last hours at the festival were spent diligently making sure we hadn't missed a thing.
Apart from everything else, perhaps the most enchanting thing about Atmosphere Gathering was the inspiring sense of creativity and freedom saturating the event. I was fussing over my outfit on Saturday morning, struggling with the usual dilemma of cute-versus-comfortable, when Ryan sternly said to me, "Don't worry about it. Have you seen the people of Atmosphere? Do you think any of them are worried about it?"
This is an event built on solid community spirit, backed by a dedicated team willing to go to every length to make Atmosphere a truly remarkable experience. For most, it seems, Atmosphere Gathering is a precious opportunity to let go of the anxieties of day-to-day living, to re-enliven the senses and to remember just how good it feels to move your body.
Kind of like coming home to a place you didn’t even realize you were missing.