In the winter of 2010, I asked up-and-coming folk trio The Once how difficult it was to bring the traditional songs and stories of Newfoundland and Labrador to an outside audience.
“So easy,” Phil Churchill responded instantly. “There’s no trying to explain what Newfoundland music and culture is, no explaining the instruments and what we’re trying to do, our past trying to move into our future – nothing like that.”
“Folk music can be bluegrass, country, singer-songwriter, acoustic kind of stuff, it can be bluesy – so many different things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional music with an accordion and fiddle, even though that fits under that umbrella too,” Andrew Dale added.
Both comments resonated again over the weekend, when Bannerman Park was transformed into a showcasing grounds of music and culture from around the province at the 36th Annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival in St. John’s.
Bouzoukis, fiddles, bodhrans, and shanties all found themselves on the main stage and throughout the tents, but ultimately there was an unspoken understanding of the sweeping scope of Newfoundland folk music. From a cappella French ballads to five-piece alt-country rock performances, the festival doesn’t attempt to define folk music – rather, it aims to show how diverse it actually is.
Unprecedented rain storms drove the last year’s event to Mile One Centre, but the weather this time around was sunny, warm – precisely what organizers and audience members craved, it seems. Tents displaying Newfoundland art and crafts lined the periphery of Bannerman Park, while families, friends from home and away huddled around the stage on blankets and chairs, with the odd standing moment to scuff their feet, of course.
Bowline (Charlotte-Anne Malischewski, Fergus Brown-O’Byrne and Duncan Cameron) opened the festival’s main stage Friday evening. Their set of tunes and reels segued into 18-year-old Neil Murray alumna Emily Andrews’ collection of soulful acoustic covers that dipped into pop and Americana stylings.
Jenny Gear, accompanied by Wonderful Grand Band guitarist Sandy Morris, dazzled the crowd with her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s heart-wrenching “Alexandra Leaving,” while Republic of Doyle’s Krysten Pellerin, over in the tente francophone, demonstrated an impressively melodic voice and her fluency in the French language.
An hour-long songwriters circle hosted by Jim Payne featured displaced Newfoundlander Amelia Curran, Calgary-born James Keelaghan, and local folk songstress Pamela Morgan of Figgy Duff fame.
Stage lights and patio lanterns illuminated the park at dusk, just in time for folk rockers The Punters hit the stage and offered, among other things, an updated rendition of the Dermot O’Rielly classic “Candlelight and Wine”. With up-tempo electric instruments and no shortage of energy, the band instigated a movement of dancers at the front of the stage. Five-piece traditionalists the Dardanelles solidified that congregation: their 2011 release, The Eastern Light, is half comprised of instrumental tunes that are perhaps best suited for a sweaty kitchen party. Dancers’ feet were granted a brief reprieve as vocalist Matthew Byrne led the endearingly sweet ballad of love’s uncertainty, “Polly Moore.”
“The song ends before we find out if they get back together,” Byrne explained as he strummed his bouzouki. “Being an optimist, I’m pretty sure they do.”
The starlit evening ended with Sherman Downey and his band, The Silver Lining, who broke from their tour to attend the festival. From Corner Brook, or the “left” coast as they were introduced, Downey and crew pulled out all the stops with banjo, stomping toes and yodelling, performing tracks from their debut Honey for Bees and a few numbers from the forthcoming album, which Downey announced already has eight tracks in the bag.
If bringing Newfoundland and Labrador music to the rest of the world requires no explanation, then allowing it to all come together in one field along the foggy streets of St. John’s makes perfect sense. Friday was a night of dancing, sharing traditions, and taking a boisterous look into where this music scene is heading. And the weekend was only beginning.
Friday’s reacquaintance with that warm outdoor, summertime music ambience set an optimistic tone for the first full day of activities on the festival grounds, especially given many of last year’s events were rained out. In the morning, songs echoed through the Oral Traditions Tent, the fiddle was front and centre in the Instrumental Tent, and dancers and audience members were running the goat in the Dance Tent. In the afternoon some of the province’s best young talent graced the Neil Murray Stage while variants of Newfoundland, Acadian, Irish and Greek music were the focus in the Cultural Diversity Tent.
The music of Corner Brook native Andrew James O’Brien and his band brought the audience into the nighttime festival spirit as the beer tent began to fill, and Amelia Curran’s poetically somber performance was like the calm before the storm, which crescendoed as A Crowd of Bold Sharemen, Power House Blues Band and The Idlers followed.
The evening session kicked off with performances by newcomers The All Stars and All The Wiles, the latter whose album “Painted” won the 2011 Atlantic Music Prize for being voted the best Newfoundland album released last year.
“The Labrador Balladeer”, Gerald Mitchell, was also recognized by the Folk Arts Society Saturday evening when he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
While music on the main stage Sunday ranged from The Forgotten Bouzouki’s Greek-influenced tunes to the sing-along folk stylings of The Masterless Men, the Neil Murray Stage on the other end of the field offered just as eclectic a taste of home-bred musicians – albeit much younger. The stage, a right of passage for budding musicians, showcased solo acts and bands from 7-18 years of age. Like the throngs of children dancing before the main stage all afternoon, it’s a reminder that the folk festival forges a boisterous link between the traditions of the past and the spirit of the future.
Nell Ní Chróinín led an a cappella ballad to introduce Raw Bar Collective, an Irish tunes-based group featuring two flutes, a fiddle and an accordion. James Keelaghan was next, following an introduction by CBC’s Tom Power as “Gordon Lightfoot meets Stan Rogers meets Ron Hynes meets Michael Crummey . . . but is somehow one person.” The poet’s repertoire dipped into songs about lost love, Irish whisky, and barrel riding, and a hushed darkness settled over the park as he finished his set.
Judging by the crowd, The Once was one of the major highlights of the festival weekend. The local trio marked their return to the Folk Festival after 5 years, playing old Newfoundland songs, new songs, Leonard Cohen, and Queen. “Song for Memory” from their newest release, Row Upon Row of the People They Know, had the audience singing along to the grandiose chorus.
With proceeds from a Ron Hynes songbook in the merchandise tent going to a special fund, the Man of the a Thousand Songs was on people’s minds this weekend after his recent cancer diagnosis. The Once welcomed Andrew James O’Brien and Amelia Curran to the stage, culminating in a rousing “Crier’s Paradise” dedicated to the songwriter.
Acadian tunes group Vishtèn kept the audience on their feet, getting them to sing with them in French and keep time to the fiddle and accordion. The evening concluded with 7 Deadly Sons, something of a local super group, featuring past and present members of The Punters, Great Big Sea and the Irish Descendants, among others.
After last year’s weather and rescheduling fiasco, the 36th Annual Folk Festival depended heavily on volunteer organization and had a nearly Newfoundland and Labrador-exclusive list of performers – nonetheless (or, quite possibly, because of this), the thousands who passed the gates each afternoon and evening were on their feet, tapping their toes, lost in reflection, and singing along to something entrenched in tradition and something completely new.
Sometimes though, the best things are right in front of you the whole time. You just need to listen carefully – when you do that, it’s like Phil Churchill said. It’s easy.