The Folk Festival Makes a Triumphant Return

The crowd at Bannerman Park was electrified throughout the ecstatic opening night of the first full-capacity Folk Fest since 2019.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival made a triumphant return to Bannerman Park on July 8, 2022.

In 2020, the 44th Annual Folk Festival went fully digital, presenting content via Facebook and YouTube. In 2021, a scaled-down version of the 45th Festival took place at First Light Performance Centre on Cochrane Street. In 2022, the Folk Arts Society finally made it back to the Park, back to the main stage, and back to full capacity. Many were excited to get back to the beer garden, clinking cans of Quidi Vidi’s specialty Folk Fest brew “Folk’d Up” with friends and family.

The Friday evening events roster kicked off with a trad session, with musicians Billy Sutton, Brad Klucowicz, Duane Andrews, Rob Brown, Michelle Brophy, and Paddy Mackey ramping up the crowd for a beautiful summer night full of music and dance.

For the official opening ceremonies, Rebecca Sharr and Natasha Blackwood of Eastern Owl teamed up to perform some traditional Indigenous song and dance—since we were “allowed to dance this year,” Sharr joked.

Wearing gorgeous brown, red, orange, and yellow regalia, Sharr danced on stage before jumping down amongst the crowd to lead a “snake dance.” Picture a conga line and you’ve got the right idea. Putting their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, the dancers writhed around in front of the stage as Blackwood sang. It was the first time I had seen such closeness in a group of strangers in a long time, and my heart both was and wasn’t ready to witness such a wondrous sight.

All around Bannerman Park, there was a kind of magical feeling. Standing at the back of the crowd, I watched people snuggled up on blankets, lined off in rows of camping chairs, sharing Ziggy Peelgood’s fries and Fatima’s Indian food. Kids ran around, comparing face paint jobs and blowing bubbles. While we’re still very much in the midst of a pandemic, it felt good to recover for a moment the lost pleasures of a pre-pandemic world.

That magic continued as young singer Julia Penney sang the “Ode to Newfoundland,” provocatively introduced as a “national anthem” instead of a provincial anthem, likely confusing any Come-From-Aways in attendance. I looked down at my old-school “Newfoundland Liberation Army” shirt, then over to the adjacent Colonial Building, and giggled to myself.

Mama’s Broke were next to take the stage—the first of only two non-local acts on the Friday night bill. Musicians Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler told the crowd of their excitement to be playing at Folk Fest, marking an overdue return to the island. 2019 was the first time the duo performed in Newfoundland, opening up for Rube & Rake at The Ship Pub before embarking on a Newfoundland tour.

I attended that Ship show, and at the time, wrote the following about their set: “My expectations were quickly exceeded by their immense talent, and how wonderfully their unique voices complement one another.” In 2022, I was still just as amazed by their raw talent. The well-travelled band met on the road, and still find much inspiration on their adventures—like, for example, picking up a Spanish song in Ireland, and bringing that tune back home to North American audiences.

Maria and Keeler played a number of selections from their latest album, Narrow Line, released in May 2022, but it was a song from their self-titled 2014 EP that really grabbed my attention. “Black Rock Beach” gives a fictionalized take on a piece of Nova Scotia’s dark history, creating a story of what might’ve been the scene where hangings once took place. This area in NS is now ironically called “Point Pleasant Park.”

Twin Flames were next, taking the stage around quarter to nine – the second of the two non-local acts. Ontario-based husband and wife duo Jaaji and Chelsey June had been wanting to perform at Folk Festival since 2019. Accompanied by drummer Jason Watts, the Junes played guitar, hand-held drum, and spirit flute, with the latter being especially captivating as the band performed “So Qaigit (Come with Me),” off their 2017 album, Signal Fire.

In between songs, the band spoke of their First Nations and Inuit connections and history, also taking time to teach the crowd a few words in Inuktitut. The duo interestingly indigenized the popular TikTok song “Savage Daughter,” adding additional lyrics about “savage” sons, and the power of reclaiming words like “savage,” historically used as an insult.

The band played a few more songs, leading folks young and old to get up and dance. While toddlers bounced around the front of the stage, an older couple waltzed off to the side, proving that Folk Fest really is fun for all ages.

Twin Flames finished their set with another indigenized cover, performing The Tragically Hip’s “Grace, Too” with incredible throat singing.

The Sherry Ryan Band kicked off their set around quarter to ten. With Sherry Ryan at the helm, her band consists of a slew of heavy hitter musicians: Brian Cherwick, Andrea Monro, Chris Donnelly, and Brad Power.

I first met Ryan in 2012. I was a green journalist on my third assignment, an article on Ryan’s upcoming Lucinda Williams tribute show. It’s not surprising that Up Magazine called Ryan “St. John’s answer to Lucinda Williams.” The two singers could be long lost siblings based on their similarly powerful vocals and country twang.

Fans of Gillian Welch and Joni Mitchell would have deeply enjoyed Ryan’s Folk Fest set, which bounced around her discography and highlighted Ryan’s diverse catalogue of works, from piano heavy ballads to foot stompin’ ditties.

We swayed together for a more tender tune, “One of Those Amazing Nights,” off Ryan’s 2005 debut album, Bottom of a Heart, and got up to boogie for her latest single, a fun and funky little number titled “Roll it Out.”

The set concluded with “Stop the Trains,” a locally beloved song about the famous “human weathervane” “Lockie” MacDougall, off her 2018 album, Wreckhouse. Her telling of the story of this legendary west coast man in the song has been so well received that now people think the St. John’s singer is actually from the Wreckhouse area.

In 2022, Ryan will release her fifth album, Shout for More. At the end of her set, the crowd was doing just that.

The Friday evening session of Folk Fest concluded with The Kubasonics, “Newfoundland’s top Ukrainian band,” emcee Chris Batstone of K-Rock repeatedly joked.

Brian Cherwick had ditched the white cowboy outfit he had donned while performing with the Sherry Ryan Band, and entered the stage wearing a giant fuzzy suit, blowing on an alphorn—a very long wooden horn traditionally played by Alpine herdsmen

The “family band” comprises Dad Brian Cherwick on tsymbaly (the Ukrainian version of a hammered dulcimer) and a myriad of other rad Ukrainian instruments, daughter Maria Cherwick on fiddle, and son Jacob Cherwick on drums—with Matt Hender on bass and Darren Browne on guitar.

When the set began, I had laid out a blanket to sit back and watch. By the second song, I had to relocate, as the crowd dancing at the front of the stage had become so dense so quickly that my view was completely obscured. Upon getting up, I noticed something that blew me away. 

While The Kubasonics always impress me with their dizzying Ukrainian speedfolk, I was exceptionally mind-boggled this time after noting that Jacob was drumming with a broken leg.

The group performed an assortment of songs from their large discography, including numbers from 2017’s Kubfunland and their new 2022 album, Kubasongs.

“Buckwheat,” a fun folk song about baking “beautiful buckwheat buns” got the crowd moving extra fast, but it was the performance of “Pana” that really turned things up. 

It tells the story of a young worker who toiled on a farm for seven years, slowly amassing livestock with his annual paycheck. Each farm animal has its own dance move, which Brian demonstrated to the crowd as he told the song’s story.

After seven years, the worker finally had enough money to take a girl on a date. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well, and “the poor guy was left alone to party with all the animals,” Brian explained, with a mischievous laugh.

I watched from the beer tent as throughout the piece the audience tried to keep up with Brian’s dance moves as he named the animals in Ukrainian, the crowd frantically going from duck to goose to goat and so on.

It was a sight to behold—the toddlers and the folks in the beer tent were catching on at about the same rate.

A few songs later, people were running out of the tent to hit the dance floor. Those in the crowd clasped one another’s hands and moved rhythmically around in a circle, flowing in and out in an impromptu group dance. Another truly amazing sight to see.

Looking out over a teeming park full of dancers holding hands and busting moves as a local beloved band closed out the night, I was once again overcome by that magical feeling. It lingered further into the night. Mark Bragg and the Butchers played the official afterparty show where the Folk Fest crowd “christened” The Ship’s new deck with beers and cheers to the return of the summer festival season in St. John’s.

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