In February 2018, Lucas Schuller drove from Campbell River down to Cumberland to see the Lonesome Ace Stringband play at the Waverley Hotel. It was a trip he’d made numerous times to see live music since moving to Campbell River in 2016. The trio from Toronto, made up of John Showman on fiddle, Chris Coole on banjo, and Max Heineman on bass, is considered among the best bluegrass and old-time groups in the country. They tour a lot, but Cumberland was the farthest north they’d ever gone on Vancouver Island.
Schuller loved the performance and had an insight that led to an inspiration; for many artists like the Lonesome Ace Stringband, who may not have a big enough draw to fill the Tidemark but are too well-established to play a pub (except for the Waverley, which has a large stage) or coffee shop, there was simply no place to perform in Campbell River.
Later that same year, Schuller attended a municipal election candidate forum hosted by the Campbell River Arts Council at Rivercity Stage. He recounted, “I’d never been to the little theatre on Hemlock Street or even heard of it before. But as soon as I walked in, I thought: ‘I want to see live music in here.’”
Rivercity Stage is owned by the Rivercity Players Society, a committed group of people who love the dramatic arts. They perform for local audiences in their cozy theatre that has a lobby, a concession bar, and basic backstage amenities. The building is tucked away on an unassuming block, just off 12th and Ironwood in downtown Campbell River. Since there are only 96 seats, no one in the audience is ever more than six rows back from the performers.
After his inspiration at the candidate forum, Schuller reached out to friends and former colleagues in the music scene, booked a few dates at the Rivercity Stage, and with the help of a grant from Creative BC, Highway 19 Concerts was born.
The first concert was held in May 2019, featuring indie-pop singer-songwriter Sarah MacDougall. This was followed by fiddle-folk duo Elise Boeur and Adam Iredale-Gray, and a creative jazz trio made up of clarinetist François Houle, guitarist Dr. Jared Burrows, and drummer Joe Sorbara. After a pause for summer, the series returned in the fall with Latin jazz ensemble Robin Layne and the Rhythm Makers. In November of 2019, when the Lonesome Ace Stringband returned to the Island, the tour included their first-ever performance in Campbell River—a sold-out show at Rivercity Stage.
Schuller says part of his intention for Campbell River is to bring music that is eclectic and covers a wide range of genres. The only criteria for judging success are that the music works well in the space available and the performers are excellent at what they do. That excellence shone through in the first year of performances, with enthusiastic reviews from audiences after each show, and similar enthusiasm from the performers, most of whom had never played in Campbell River before, but are now keen to return.
He notes another aim of the series at Rivercity Stage is to be family-friendly and accessible for young people. Tickets for kids 12 and under are always free with a paying adult, and teens can get tickets to any show for $5. With adult tickets between $20 and $30, a family of four can catch a great concert for under $60.
“I grew up going to concerts with my parents all the time at Vancouver venues like the Cultch, the Western Front, the WISE Hall, or St. James Community Square,” says Schuller. “It was a huge, positive influence in my life, and I want my kids and all kids growing up in our community to have that opportunity.”
A show in late 2019 featured Berlin-based art-pop band Kliffs, in what turned out to be the last concert at Rivercity Stage for two years, as the pandemic restrictions hit two weeks before the first scheduled show of 2020.
Schuller spent his enforced downtime applying for funding and forming the Highway 19 Concert Society, the legal society behind the concert series. With the help of a grant from FACTOR, in the spring of 2022 he returned to Rivercity Stage with three shows. Concerts featured chamber choir musica intima, singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider, and indie-pop duo Big Little Lions. At the same time, Highway 19 Concerts was also awarded the contract from the City of Campbell River to take over programming of live music in Spirit Square, following the retirement of long-time manager Jim Creighton.
With programs running from June to the end of August, Spirit Square hosted an array of musicians from British Columbia, across Canada, and around the world. Free, live concerts ran every Tuesday at noon, and every Thursday evening, starting with the opening headliner on June 2, which saw two-time Juno Award-winning Guinean-Canadian master guitarist and singer Alpha Yaya Diallo who had the crowd dancing in the rain.
The summer lineup included Kanatal, on tour from Taiwan and featured at Vancouver Island Musicfest, Indigenous rappers Dakota Bear & HK, guitarist Joël Fafard’s dirty blues trio the Georgia Fats, Vancouver’s Brazilian folk band Forro Do Cana, and North Island-born retro-rocker Paris Pick.
“It’s great to see so many different people out in our public space, dancing and enjoying music together. It’s clear how much we all missed that,” said Schuller. “The plan now is to keep bringing great live music to our town, outside in the Square during the summer, and at Rivercity Stage the rest of the year.”