West My Friend celebrates 10th anniversary, 650 shows

Upcoming concert, with 70-member chorus and 45 classical musicians, is group’s biggest to date

IN CONCERT

What: West My Friend
Where: Alix Goolden Performance Hall, 900 Pandora Ave.
When: Friday, Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 7)
Tickets: $25 ($20 student/low income) from the Victoria Conservatory of Music (250-386-5311) and Ivy’s Bookshop (250-598-2713)

The numbers are striking. On Friday, Victoria indie-folk trio West My Friend celebrates its 10th anniversary as a group with a CD release party at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall.

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The performance, which marks 650 shows together, is in support of the trio’s fourth album, In Constellation, which was recorded this year with a 53-piece symphony orchestra.

The group will be joined by 115 musicians to mark the occasion, including 70 members of The Choir, a local chorus, and 45 classical musicians from the Victoria Conservatory of Music Senior String Ensemble and other local orchestras.

Add in members of the trio — singer-guitarist Eden Oliver, singer-mandolinist Alex Rempel and singer-accordionist Jeff Poynter — and the result will be the biggest and boldest performance in West My Friend’s long and winding history.

“This is definitely the biggest concert we’ve ever put on,” Oliver said. “For previous album releases, we’ve put on big shows in town, and have had small orchestras on stage with us. But this album is our first fully orchestrated album, so we thought it would be fitting to do a giant concert.”

The hardest part of the process, according to Oliver, has been focusing on her parts in each song. Members of the independent group, who oversee almost every aspect of the band’s day-to-day business, have spent months planning the concert, in between rehearsals with a rotating cast of musicians.

“There are so many amazing things happening,” Oliver said. “It’s so astounding for me, as the person who wrote the majority of the songs we’re performing, hearing all of the parts come alive, that I sometimes forget to sing.”

Adrian Dolan of The Bills (who co-produced In Constellation with Joby Baker) wrote the orchestration for the album, which meant West My Friend didn’t have to spend time on that aspect of the concert — other than printing the charts for each participant, which amounted to more than $500, Oliver said. The trio wanted to update some of the older songs in their repertoire, however, so it was up to Oliver, a former music teacher, to write new choral arrangements.

Each member has a classical music degree from the University of Victoria, which came in handy, as their varied skillsets — as arrangers, players and performers — have been pushed to the max over the past several weeks.

“I have a degree on flute, Jeff has a degree on saxophone and Alex has a degree on bass, so we’re all very familiar with the orchestra environment,” Oliver said. “It’s definitely not new in that sense.”

The band formed a decade ago when Oliver was finishing her degree at UVic, and has been hard at its craft in the years since. For an independent entity, 10 years of hard work can feel like a lifetime, but Oliver and her bandmates have been unwavering in their dedication to the project.

The group averages 65 shows a year, which is especially remarkable when you consider Poynter serves as West My Friend’s official booking agent — even for treks through tough-to-navigate areas such as Europe, where the trio has toured extensively.

“When I look back and see all that we’ve done — to think that we’re capable of putting on this ridiculous show — it’s a big accomplishment,” Oliver said. “We’re basically indie, so we have the mindset of looking at something and saying: ‘I can figure that out.’ If I can’t make it happen, I will learn the skill to make it happen.”

The band members each have part-time work commitments outside the group, almost all of which are music-related. Their schedules are intentionally kept flexible, so they can tour in two-week bursts.

In recent years, they developed two school music programs, Canadian Folk Rumours and Break It Down, Build It Up, to expose elementary-school students to the music-making process, accompanied by music from West My Friends and other Canadian folk-music favourites.

The trio will visit five B.C. schools between Vancouver and Merritt in late November, which adds another revenue stream to what is an already-solid business plan.

Touring doesn’t seem to be a source of stress for Oliver, who was surprised to learn of the difficulties it presents for many of her indie peers in the Victoria music scene.

“I remember when we went on our first tour, we made a few thousand dollars,” she said. “And when we got back, we were talking to other bands, who were like: ‘You made money on your tour?!’ But isn’t that why you go on tour, to share music with people and also because it’s a job? We’ll still do shows where no one comes out and we don’t make any money, but this is a business as well as a passion.”

Several of the band’s former music teachers will be among the musicians on stage for West My Friend’s performance on Friday, which shows how far the band has come, Oliver said.

“Ten years for me is like an award for still being standing. We’ve been doing our thing the whole time, so it’s that big of a deal. But it is. A lot of people don’t get that far.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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