“The rain’s not supposed to start until 11 or so.”
“So I won’t need my raincoat?”
That was the gist of a conversation I had with myself as I studied the Weather Network’s St. John’s forecast around 4:30pm last Friday. Shortly afterward I headed out to meet some friends for dinner before we all headed to Bannerman Park to take in the opening night of the 35th Annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, leaving a perfectly good, recently re-waterproofed raincoat hanging in my closet.
I would later come to regret that decision, but despite the weather, the Folk Festival got off to a great start. In fact, the weather just contributed to the sense of community – something everybody was willing to tolerate to hear great music. I was sometimes forced to seek shelter in the beer tent (oh, the hardship), but Mahers Bahers, Rik Barron and Karla Pilgrim made it worthwhile. Les Tireux d’Roches were up next, and although I don’t know what they were singing most of the time (not being bilingual) they were a lot of fun. They were followed by A Crowd of Bold Sharemen, made up of Fergus O’Byrne, Jim Payne, Gerry Strong and Dan Payne, and then the Masterless Men, collectively providing enough energy to keep people in the rain.
Sarah Harmer was quite a change in style from the more traditional Newfoundland bands that dominated the Friday night line-up, but she closed out the night with a great performance.
Although I woke up Saturday morning still feeling slightly damp, I was looking forward to a full day of great music, so it was a little disappointing to learn that the afternoon session had been cancelled. I was especially disappointed to miss the Labrador showcase, Superpickers (Sandy Morris, Glen Collins and Peter Narvaez), and the songwriter’s circle, but the move to Mile One Stadium was welcome news. I missed the festival atmosphere, especially the food stalls (happily I had the foresight to have a moose burger the night before), however the evening show just about made up for the loss. The Spinney Brothers put on a high-energy bluegrass performance, and Andrew James O’Brien and the Searchers rocked as usual. Felix and Formanger kept the show going with some great stage banter, and of course some fantastic accordion playing.
It’s impossible for music to be a completely solitary activity, and Catherine MacLellan’s great solo performance was made even better when she invited the Good Lovelies onstage. Several performers did this, inviting friends and colleagues to join them. Music has the ability to develop and solidify relationships, and these group shared performances are pretty indicative of the working relationships and friendships that develop around music. Matthew Hornell and the Diamond Minds drew a huge number of friends to the dance floor on Saturday night, followed by The Dardanelles. Their instrumental work was great, and though I tend to enjoy songs with vocals more, Matt Byrne sang just enough to satisfy me and, apparently, the crowd.
Although The Barra MacNeils closed out the night at Mile One, one of the highlights of the weekend for me was still to come. Saturday night there was a “secret” after-show at the Inn of Olde in Quidi Vidi, itself one of the city’s best secrets. The after show was amazing, with many intimate and moving performances, including Andrew James O’Brien, Matt Hornell, Steve Haley, Pat LePoidevin and Sarah Harmer. This show felt pretty much like all these great folks were hanging out in my living room, and music and company don’t get much better than that.
There’s something about folk music that transcends generations. A lot of music only appeals to a specific age or cultural group, but folk music attracts people of all ages. Sunday’s main stage line-up began with 17-year-old Jenna Kelly, who ended her set with some beautiful renditions of two Kate Rusby tunes. While a veteran of the Neil Murray Stage, Jenna Kelly is still a relative newcomer to the folk music scene. Compare her to Ryan’s Fancy, whose tribute closed out the night and the festival 10 hours later. The music of Ryan’s Fancy has been a staple of the Newfoundland and Labrador traditional and folk music scene for almost 40 years. Or, to put it another way, the final act of the night has been performing for two-and-a-half times as long as the first act has been alive.
In between the two, Gordie Tentrees played some excellent blues-tinged songs, and Kelly Russell branched out into storytelling as well as his trademark fiddle playing. Finest Kind showed off their harmonies, and even demonstrated how they do it with a great tune they call “John Barleycorn Deconstructed.” An interesting thing about Finest Kind is that their members hail from London (UK), the southern US, and Ontario, yet their repertoire includes many songs from or about Newfoundland. It’s great how folk music transcends boundaries in the search for good stories that can be shared through songs.
One of the performers I was most looking forward to seeing was Basia Bulat. Unfortunately her set was cut a little short due to some technical problems with setup (I’m guessing the Mile One technicians aren’t used to working with her unique instruments), but her performance was still excellent and a great showcase of her skills as a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter. As a friend of mine said, “man, that girl can wail on the autoharp.”
The evening session was kicked off by the Celtic Fiddlers, and Chris Kirby and the Marquee drew a good dance crowd with their upbeat music. Ron Hynes owned the stage as usual with his great stage presence and excellent songs, a tough act for The Good Lovelies to follow but they were up for it. Somehow I was completely unfamiliar with Paul Brady, who was up next, but the crowd clearly enjoyed him. The final show of the weekend was the Ryan’s Fancy tribute, featuring Fergus O’Byrne and guest musicians including Chris Hennessey, Chris Andrews and Mike Hanrahan, and they played many of the songs that Ryan’s Fancy is known for, songs that have become Newfoundland folk staples. It was a fitting end to a weekend of great friends and great music, especially since Fergus O’Byrne was this year’s recipient of the lifetime achievement award.
This was certainly one of the most memorable Folk Festivals, not just because of the unique circumstances but also because of the great lineup. You might expect me to be suffering from music overload after a weekend like this. But on Monday I hit the road to see the great musical “Songs for a New World” at the Stephenville Theatre Festival, and I’ve spent most of the 1300 kilometres I’ve driven since swapping Matt Hornell and Andrew James O’Brien’s CDs in the car stereo.
Visit the Folk Arts Society’s website at www.nlfolk.com.