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Organizer keeping 'boutique' Tall Tree festival true to its roots

The Tall Tree Music Festival began as something of a small-scale wonder, a place where a few hundred music fans could gather to watch the best of what the local music community had to offer.

The Tall Tree Music Festival began as something of a small-scale wonder, a place where a few hundred music fans could gather to watch the best of what the local music community had to offer.

That it happened outside of the city limits, in the woods of Port Renfrew, made it all the sweeter. As the festival enters its fifth year in June, the destination event is a three-day marathon with dozens of touring acts on tap, from Dan Mangan and the Dudes to Pickwick and SonReal. Effectively, it is bigger and better than ever.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the course of Tall Tree’s lifespan, however, is the upbeat attitude of festival director Mike Hann. The Victoria native’s passion — for the artists he books, for the area in which the event is staged — has taken Tall Tree from its humble beginnings to its current standing as one of the city’s favourite festivals.

“We are trying to promote our event as much as we are the artists,” Hann said. “It’s not just about our lineup. It’s the location, the community feel, that boutique atmosphere that plays in our favour in that regard.”

Tall Tree just keeps on growing. Based on last year’s sold-out attendance, its capacity has been upped by 500 to 2,000 for the June 27-29 edition. Hann is pleased to say that advance sales are flying, hinting at another sold-out edition. A lineup launch party booked for Friday at Rifflandia HQ (1501 Douglas St.) should only help matters further.

“We are staying true to the fact we are a small boutique festival, but we put a lot of effort into researching acts that are on the up in their careers. In that sense, we feel we have put together a pretty deadly lineup.”

Hann, 34, has been a carpe diem kind of guy ever since an accident, that saw him lose 80 per cent of the vision in his left eye and halted his plans of becoming a commercial pilot.

At 19, a random bottle thrown at the car he was riding in sliced his cornea, very nearly forcing the eye itself to be removed during surgery. It took Hann a few years to recover, physically and mentally. He can no longer play rugby, at which he was once very good, and has a blind spot in his field of view over his left shoulder.

Ultimately, he emerged a better person.

“It took my life from the direction it was on, which was a good one, and completely sent it in a different direction,” Hann said. “In hindsight, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was one of those life-altering moments that puts things in perspective.”

His journey in the years since — from scuba-diving instructor to whale-watching captain to singer-guitarist to Antarctic expedition leader — is one of dramatic twists and turns, all of which are navigated with Hann’s positive outlook on life.

“These little experiences in life can send you one way or another, or put your mindset in a certain place. I’ve had a lot where they left me very humbled.”

After receiving his dive instructors’ licence in Victoria, Hann travelled to Europe, eventually moving to Australia in 2003. It was there he began getting more serious about his own music, which he never pursued with much zest.

He fell into a whale-watching job when he returned to Victoria the following year. Soon after, he got asked to perform at an event in Port Renfrew and fell in love with the place.

Years later, he would become co-owner of Port Renfrew’s Big Fish Lodge, out of which Tall Tree began.

He had extensive experience with sailboats growing up, so when two longtime friends, who happened to be marine biologists, asked him to join an Antarctic research trip out of Australia, he couldn’t resist. A spot had opened up on the 60-foot sailing yacht following the 2006 death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who was pencilled in to join the expedition.

Hann and the crew catalogued and tagged 12 humpback whales during two months of orca research.

“I worked around whales and I could dive, and I could sail, so I led the underwater component of the trip,” Hann said.

It has been a remarkable life thus far for Hann, a B.C. Whale Tours captain with little to no formal education in the field. Hann gets by on instinct and sensibility, both of which he possesses in large supply.

Doing this line of work sans education “is not as rare as you might think,” according to Hann, who will go back to Antarcitca for the fifth time in November.

“A lot of it is experience-based. I’ve been given the opportunities to be in the field around these animals, living those experiences. That’s the best education you can have in my line of work. If I had followed through with all the schooling that I had begun, I would have missed out on a lot of opportunities in my life.”

The same rules apply to his line of work in Victoria, where he fronts folk-rock band Quoia, guides whale-watching trips, and oversees two successful Port Renfrew festivals, Tall Tree and Song and Surf.

“I realized that things could change at the drop of a hat, so I made an effort to have my life full of things I love to do. I’ve stayed true to that model.”

The Tall Tree Festival is having a launch party on Friday at Rifflandia HQ (1501 Douglas St.). Acts appearing include Fort Knox Five, Sam Weber, Thieve and DJ Nigel. Doors are at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 at Lyle’s Place and