Jan Schmitz, who took over the Desert Days Music Festival reins from Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan after the 2019 event, is hoping that he’ll get to experience at least one live festival during his time as organizer.
The “Best Little Fest in the West” was all set to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2020, but had to go with a virtual event that saw 10 acts perform at 10 venues around Spences Bridge; the results were filmed and broadcast online. Earlier this year, the Desert Daze committee announced that they were switching the date to the second weekend in September (instead of the traditional second weekend in August), in the hopes of taking advantage of loosened COVID-19 restrictions.
Instead, restrictions tightened, and the decision was made to cancel this year’s festival completely. Now the committee is looking ahead to 2022 and hoping for better luck next year. At a meeting on Sept. 26, they made the decision to stick to September for next year’s event, with Schmitz explaining that the change serves a few purposes.
“The weather should be milder and more pleasant; not so hot in the day, maybe sweater weather in the evening. Plus there are so many events taking place in the summer, and this won’t conflict with the Ashcroft fall fair [which takes place on the second Sunday of September], because Desert Daze ends on Saturday.”
That said, the committee is looking at the possibility of extending the event to include other venues in Spences Bridge, to incorporate more of the village itself into the Desert Daze festival experience. One idea is to have other performance venues on the Friday morning and/or Sunday, with Schmitz noting that the festival used to run through Sunday.
“We generally start on Friday afternoon, so we talked about having music earlier that day at the Packing House, and maybe on Sunday after the event is done the Packing House or the Log Cabin Pub could present some music for people who want to hang around.
“Early festivals went over Sunday as well, but it turned out people had to get home to go to work on Monday, so they would leave early, and musicians playing on Sunday played to an empty house, so we decided to quit on Saturday at the site itself. However, we feel there’s a niche for smaller venues in Spences Bridge to hold events at other times, so we’re looking into it.”
There’s another key reason for the switch in dates, adds Schmitz.
“It will get us back to the agricultural/harvest/bounty nature of the event. Originally, Desert Daze promoted the lifestyle of rural communities, and agriculture and farms are a major component of that. In August a lot of produce isn’t ready to go, but in September we can have display walls of things like pumpkins and squash. We want to be able to bring mature produce to the event for display and sale, and we’d like to entice Horstings and Desert Hills as well as Secret Garden and Hilltop Garden, to get more of the agricultural/harvest theme integrated into it.”
This year’s festival was to have featured local and regional musicians who have played the event before. Almost all the contracts had been signed when the decision to cancel was made, and Schmitz says that even though a clause meant there was no penalty for cancelling, the committee sent each contracted musician 30 per cent of their fee.
“These acts have been at Desert Daze before and they’ve supported us, and they’ve been struggling.”
He notes that the organizers get the same musicians on a regular basis because they like to give a venue to local acts, but that can have a downside: “We end up getting the same people over and over, and that can lead to people saying ‘Not them again.’”
To get away from that, organizers are considering having local and regional music throughout the event, but getting one bigger, high-profile act to come and headline on the Saturday evening. “We think we can get someone big; we just need the funding, to bring in as big a name act as we can afford.”
The committee also wants to have more than just token recognition of First Nations arts and culture.
“We want to incorporate more Indigenous music, arts, crafts, and storytelling,” says Schmitz, “especially after the loss of Lytton and the horror of the Residential Schools. Indigenous culture needs to be better-recognized, and we need to foster better understanding and respect of our mutual cultures. When these collide it can cause chaos, but it can also lead to better appreciation, and the integration of our cultures.”
The meeting on Sept. 26 brought together several stakeholder groups, including the Spences Bridge Improvement District (which oversees the maintenance of the building and property that is the home of the festival), the Spences Bridge Community Club (the not-for-profit that oversees the funding opportunities for the festival), and Marcie Down from Explore Gold Country (no one from Cook’s Ferry Band was able to attend).
“Many different groups in Spences Bridge are trying to do the same thing: promote Spences Bridge,” says Schmitz. “As a director for Desert Daze, I’m focusing on trying to integrate all these groups and stakeholders and persons and businesses to focus their resources on achieving one thing.
“Desert Daze is now the biggest draw for Spences Bridge, and the meeting was specifically designed to bring everyone together so we could talk about how to enhance the festival and the venue where it’s held [the former elementary school], which is really falling part. We hope by next year to replace the entire sprinkler system and have the lawn green again.
“The SBID recognizes that the building and grounds need work, and they’re doing their best to fix them.”
Funding is being sought to commission local artists Kathleen Kinasewich and Dwayne Rourke to mural-ize the rest of the building with iconography specific to Spences Bridge, such as bighorn sheep. Kinasewich recently painted two butterflies on one wall of the building, and the front wall got a much-needed coat of paint. On Oct. 3, volunteers got together to repaint the support beams in the covered outdoor area that serves as the festival’s beverage garden.
“The SBID supplied the paint and Desert Daze supplied the manpower,” says Schmitz. He adds that they will also be re-wiring the area to add another 20-amp circuit for the stage. “That will provide more lights and sound for the stage, and give us greater lighting and audio capacity.”
The committee plans to continue working closely with local businesses, and hopes to partner with other businesses in the region. They’re also looking at the possibility of using the community bus to transport people to and from the festival site.
“My hope is that all these different groups and stakeholders can start looking at these options,” says Schmitz.
“Desert Daze impacts the whole town. It brings in a lot of traffic, and everyone does well, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to support the event. My goal is to get everyone working together for our festival.”