Electric City Folks Up

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Last weekend brought the twenty-third annual The Peterborough Folk Festival to Nicholls Oval, Millennium Park, and Market Hall. It was three days of music, crafts, workshops, and food. Electric City checked it out, including the Kick-Off Concert on Friday night featuring Whitehorse and this year’s Emerging Artist Award winner. Jos Fortin.

“I want to thank you,” said Luke Doucet, one of the two members of Whitehorse, at the end of their set in the Pete borough Folk Festival’s gala Kick-Off Concert at Market Hall, “for including Whitehorse in your definition of folk.” In a lot of ways, Whitehorse isn’t your typical folk band. Their songs are often loud, fast, and aggressive. They experiment with loop pedals, vocal distortion, and other distinctly modern, non-traditional music-making tools. And, maybe worst of all, they seem to prefer electric guitar to acoustic. Whitehorse wasn’t the festival’s only attraction that didn’t seem to fit with a strictly traditional definition of folk, either. Sunday’s Workshop Day featured lessons on everything from hula hooping to yoga to auto-harp to knitting. The performers at Saturday’s Festival Day were similarly diverse, including country music from Melissa Payne, line dancing from the D’oh See Doughboyz, singer-songwriter (and Emerging Artists Award winner) Jos Fortin, marimba music from the Resolutionaries Marimba Band, and the night’s closer, Donné Roberts, who integrated everything from traditional Malagasy music to funk and soul.

Doucet continued: “Thank you for acknowledging that ‘folk’ isn’t about a specific way of playing music; it’s about folks.” And he’s right. While some genres of music try to conceal the performer and focus as much as possible on the music, folk music, to an extent, is very much about the performer, as well as being about the people hearing it, and about the shared space that’s created in the middle. Folk music is a coming-together of people – performer and audience – to share and celebrate all the neat things that people can do, and especially the things people can do when they get together with other people. And, of course, what I say here about folk music applies just as much to folk dancing, folk art, folk crafts, and folk… hitting each other with wooden swords while dressed as a knight. This is why Sunday’s Workshop Day, which has relatively little musical content, still fits into a folk festival.

Much of the joy of watching Whitehorse’s fantastic performance on Friday was the experience of watching the two folks that make up the band, husband-wife duo Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, who have played music separately for years, and have only recently joined up to perform together. Their performance reminded me of watching Peterborough’s The Express and Co., another band with a couple at its core. Both bands are wonderful to watch, partially because of the evident warmth and comfort between the performers, the easy banter between they share, the stolen glances, the small in-jokes, and the natural way they play and sing together after knowing each other for so long.

There’s a lot to their show beyond watching a couple be cute together, of course. This was the band’s first performance of the new tour, since locking themselves away to write, record, and rehearse new material. As such, the show had a slightly rough-around-the-edges quality. Some of the new songs feature fairly complex rhythms and instrument switch-ups, and somehow it just made the performance more endearing when Doucet and McClelland got confused, or lost, or had to restart a song – which happened only a few times. Much of the complexity involved creating layered rhythm sections using a loop pedal, which replaced having a full band with a rhythm section. I have seen more inventive uses of loop pedals (and, frankly, Whitehorse used them so much that on some songs it felt a bit more like an indulgence than a necessity), but there was a joy in watching these two people literally banging together pots and pans, like they were just a bit too excited to try out a new toy. The whole performance felt less like a gala concert at Market Hall, and more like Luke and Melissa were showing off some neat stuff that they’ve been doing that they’re really proud of and are really excited to show off.

However, Friday night essentially belonged to Jos Fortin, the young Peterborough singer-songwriter who released his first album, Typewriter, to great acclaim a few months ago. Fortin is also the recipient of this year’s Emerging Artist Award, an award given out by the Folk Festival each year to a promising young performer. The Folk Fest does an excellent job of booking local musicians (and craftspeople and vendors and volunteers and so on), but the Emerging Artists Award is one of the best contributions of the festival to the local scene. Fortin joins an impressive list of past winners, including Serena Ryder, James McKenty, Benj Rowland, and Melissa Payne. He’s a very talented songwriter, with poetic, evocative lyrics, a clear tenor voice, and an easy charisma that keeps his shows entertaining. Like Whitehorse (and most folk performers), Fortin’s a great storyteller, turning inconsequential events from his life into inspirations for songs and stories to tell on stage – essentially, sharing small personal moments from his life with everyone in the audience. Even Fortin’s inability to find a cup for water to bring on stage somehow turned into a funny, sweet little story, and a moment of connection between audience and performer.

Jos actually played twice during the Folk Fest – once at the Kick-Off Concert, and once on the main stage on Festival Day – and it was these small moments in performance, these essential bits of human connection, that simply worked better in the casual, outdoor festival environment. A formal show, with the audience in darkness and in hushed silence, and the performer on stage alone, creates a distance that makes it hard to forge any kind of connection. Without a doubt, the gala performance is a great way to honour a performer – especially a young performer who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a venue like Market Hall or a crowd like the one on Friday – and so is certainly valuable, but it simply can’t beat the casual togetherness of an outdoor festival in the middle of a park. It’s great to be able to sit and chat with friends, watch kids running around, listen to music, maybe dance a bit to it, and then later see the same performer you just saw on stage, dosey do’ing with your next-door neighbour. There’s also a long-standing connection between folk music and the great outdoors, and so it somehow just feels right listening to that music while sitting on the grass.

The wide open format of the event in Nicholls Oval also allowed for one of my favourite things to do at outdoor festivals: wander around. If a Folk Festival is a celebration of all the things people can do, it only seems appropriate to drift around and take in the sheer variety the festival has to offer – from artisans to local food vendors to square dancers to crafts in the children’s area to dancing to yoga to a musical petting zoo (a travelling exhibit that gives kids the opportunity to see, pick up, and try out over a hundred musical instruments), and, yes, medieval reenactments.

Earlier I made a bit of fun of these performers, the totally awesomely named Society For Creative Anachronism, and there is something inherently funny about seeing a guy dressed as a knight and checking message on his iPhone before doing battle with his officemate. And yet, it’s also just another example of a group of interesting people with a specific passion, the will and the perseverance to follow through on it, the unusual and quite entertaining set of skills to execute it, and the desire to come to the Folk Festival, to show it off, and to say, “Hey everyone, check out this cool thing that we folk have figured out how to do. Isn’t that neat?”

Our resident photographer, Scott Dancey, was on hand for Friday’s Kick-Off Concert and part of Saturday’s Festival Day. If you have any shots of performers and events that we missed, send them our way and we’ll post them! And let us know what you thought of the Folk Festival, in the comments below.

All photos by Scott Dancey.

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