The weekend before last was the 2013 Peterborough Folk Festival, this town’s annual celebration of music, art, craft, food, dance, and all those other gloriously strange, eccentric habits that we humans take part in. Because that’s essentially what a Folk Festival is festing, isn’t it? ‘Folks,’ and all the crazy things they do. It’s one of the only events I can imagine where, wandering around, you could be listening to Olenka sing songs about (as she put it) “sad old men,” then wander 15 feet and reach a lecture about vegetable growing, while 15 feet further along a group of kids are having a parade, while across the field some guys are simulating a medieval swordfight over a soundtrack of rock courtesy The Charming Ruins playing on another stage 15 feet further along, right next to the stall selling handcrafted artisanal birdhouses – and yet somehow it all makes sense together.
A folk festival is a celebration of human potential, in all its weird, wonderful forms. That means both looking back at the traditional forms that have kept folks going on this planet for the past few thousand years, and also looking ahead at the all exciting new things we’re coming up with every day to keep us going for how ever long this planet will still have us.
This is why it’s been a bit disheartening to watch the Folk Festival in recent times more or less repeating the same patterns and the same events year after year. The Folk Festival has been a decently enjoyable, modestly well attended weekend of acoustic-based music, local crafts, and children’s activities – but, musically at least, not one that displays much creative spark or innovative spirit. It’s been especially difficult to see how the festival fits into the local music scene, which is always expanding, diversifying, and ever willing to experiment.
But now, in the 24th year of the show, with a landmark anniversary just on the horizon and a brand-new Artistic Director on board (local musician Nick Ferrio), it was the perfect opportunity to start reflecting on what’s been working, and what hasn’t. (See our recent interview with Ferrio for more on that.) And indeed, this year was a Folk Festival renewed, featuring one of the most exciting musical lineups in years and some innovative new events. And this was all done without sacrificing the things that have worked in the past: the beautiful handmade crafts, the good food, the fantastic children’s area, the relaxed indie atmosphere, the kind people, and the stunning setting for the festival in one of Peterborough’s most perfect natural environments.
It’s just that this year, we also had music to match that was more exciting, more innovative, and better known than in past years. There was LAL, a Toronto duo consisting of Nicholas Murray, an electronic artist who constructs beats from traditional and world music elements, and poet/activist/singer Rosina Kazi singing about social and political issues over top. There was transgender musician Rae Spoon, a former country singer-songwriter who has recently started to explore the possibilities of digital music, who played one set with a laptop, and one acoustic. There was Daniel Romano & The Trilliums, who sing throwback school country in the mode of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. There was Festival Stage hosts Sheesham, Lotus, & Son (not a new addition to the festival, but a wise continuation from years past) who throw even further back with Vaudeville-style comedy, Seussian homemade brass instruments, and a gramophone horn used to project a tinny, 1930s-sounding version of their music. And there was Canadian indie rock icon Joel Plaskett, who played an enormously entertaining, yet surprisingly intimate-seeming, set at Market Hall to kick off the show, accompanied by his father Bill, telling very funny stories from his time on the road, and singing songs spanning his entire career, Thrush Hermit onwards. And of course, MANY MORE.
But it wasn’t only the music lineup that made this year’s Folk Fest special. This year also included a push into more diverse styles of venues, with two brand-new events in off-beat locales exploring the interaction between a performance and its space. On Friday night, there was a series of ‘pop-up shows,’ featuring intimate performances by various Folk Fest artists in various downtown businesses. Michael Duguay’s complicated, brainy songs were paired with the clean, bright Le Petit Bar, while Jos Fortin’s smooth, homey music was ideally suited to the closet-y warmth of Sympathy For The Rebel at night.
The other new event was the ‘scavenger hunt shows’ on Festival Day, where festival goers could decipher mysterious clues to find small, intimate shows scattered around Nicholls Oval and along the Rotary Trail. This is one of the most beautiful areas in Peterborough, offering so many wonderful little spots both metaphorically and literally off the beaten path – so it’s been a shame in recent years to watch the festival neglect these areas, and just stick to the hill and the park above. These ‘scavenger hunt shows’ were able to reclaim those green spaces down below in a wonderful way, with odd little shows along the water or tucked away in the woods. The final ‘hunt’ show (see cover photo), with Jennifer Castle performing on the the tiny island that juts out into the water just as the sun was starting to set, was easily one of the most beautiful moments of the entire festival.
Of course, the festival has always had a number of different venues, with shows spread over Market Hall, Millennium Park, and four stages in Nicholls Oval, each of which have their own personality. Out on the Solar Stage, the sun was shining, the grass was warm, children were playing nearby, and the music was mostly soft and acoustic. Then under the darker, fenced-in Publican Pavilion, the beer was flowing and the music got a bit weird, featuring some of the more experimental and electronic performers. And then, there’s the permanent Festival Stage on the hillside.
This year saw the hours of those smaller stages extended, and the Festival Stage only opening up as evening set in. This meant that there was more (and more varied) music during the day, but it also gave wonderful focus to the evening’s performance. After a full day of strange and wonderful mish-mashes of performers and events, everything started to shut down and the light started to fade, until the Festival Stage was a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. It was as if the whole festival collectively said “Ok that was fun and all, but seriously: you need to pay attention to this.”
And the performers that hit that Festival Stage were truly worth it. It all began with a set by the wonderful local folk/roots group The Express And Company, whose frontman, Dylan Ireland, won this year’s Emerging Artist Award (bring that band’s Emerging Artist count to three out of five members!). Then there was the big blues-rock of The 24th Street Wailers and the down-home country of Daniel Romano. But without question, the main event on the Festival Stage was the closing set by The Wooden Sky.
Like a powerful wave of sound churned up from the depths of The Mighty Otonabee, cresting up high over the Rotary Trail, swallowing up the stage, and finally crashing over the hill and the entire crowd, The Wooden Sky’s show was an intense experience. Their music is many things at once, combining the simple emotional honesty of traditional folk music, the raw power of a good, solid rock show, and that ethereal, otherworldly beauty of that only a synth can provide. It was also a really, fantastically loud rock show, attracting by far the biggest standing crowd by the stage of the night, and echoing off of far-off hills and houses. It was in fact a wonderful summation of the whole day: a band that paid tribute to, without being beholden to, anything that came before them; shamelessly willing to steal, rip apart, and recombine traditional elements; and creating something new, dynamic, and exciting. A wonderful choice to close out a day full of wonderful choices and great music.
Photos by Scott Dancey.