Highlights From Home County Music & Art Festival – Part One

Saturday Night Home County

We wrap up our extensive coverage of the 47th Home County Music & Art Festival with a pair of features that summarize some of the outstanding main stage performances at Victoria Park.  This first article recaps the stunning traditional, instrumental, and bluegrass sounds from Inn Echo, The Fretless, and The Slocan Ramblers – who wowed all in attendance earlier that afternoon during the “Instrumental” workshop on the East Stage. This earlier session included an unforgettable collaborative performance of “Fisher’s Hornpipe” – where eleven musicians brought a timeless piece to life with a combined 5 fiddles, 2 guitars, a mandolin, a cello, an upright bass, and a banjo. All three bands would perform in succession on the main stage that evening, making this an event not to be missed.

Inn Echo

This was our first taste of live music from PEI roots/traditional trio Inn Echo, and hopefully marks many more encounters to come. Combining their own original compositions with their passion for both traditional and Celtic instrumental music, the trio craftily add a few jazz and pop elements to their repertoire too – making this emerging band a must-see. For Karson McKeown (fiddle), Tuli Porcher (cello/fiddle/vocals), and Tom Gammons (guitar), there are no ancestral ties to PEI (Karson – Ottawa, ON; Tuli – Victoria, BC; Tom – Montana, USA), but decided collectively to make this their home after meeting at the School of Performing Arts in Charlottetown.

Performing tracks from their 2019 self-titled debut album, including “Rainy Days” and “Summers With Nan,” along with a few currently unnamed pieces still in the development stages, Inn Echo thrilled the audience with plenty of energy and impeccable skills during their 45-minute set. “It’s awesome to be in London, I don’t think I’ve been to London before, but it’s great,” Karson shared. “Awesome music festival, Home County is. We’ve had a great time already over on the workshop stage with The Fretless and The Slocan Ramblers.”  Karson also proved an incredibly enthusiastic sales and marketing guru – proudly promoting (and modelling) custom-made Inn Echo socks as being available for purchase at the merchandise tent.  Karrnnel Sawitsky from The Fretless would proudly display the Inn Echo custom socks on stage later that evening too.

Inn Echo

With plenty of traditional jigs and reels being offered, Inn Echo did momentarily depart from their instrumental leanings, with Tuli providing some wonderful lead vocals on a new tune possibly titled “Red Rock.”  They would also add a new tune, which, per Karson, is named after “a fluorescent pink drink that you drink in Austria that definitely wouldn’t be allowed to drink here in Canada.”  Some new polkas were also added, with an invitation to offer suggestions for potential song titles for the unnamed tracks, along with another new number titled “Big Blue” (Tom’s guitar intro prompted many fond memories with an uncanny resemblance to the opening notes of “Miners’ Dream,” a track from fellow-PEI band, The East Pointers).  This was a great set from three very talented musicians, whom we truly hope venture this far west from the Birthplace of Confederation and (hopefully into the US) again sometime soon.

The Fretless

We last caught up with The Fretless twice (within the space of a week) back in the fall of 2018, having the opportunity to enjoy music from this JUNO-Award winning quartet both locally in PA and MD.  Regular band member Karrnnel Sawitsky was sadly unable to be a part of that tour, however, taking time to promote his pair of debut solo albums at the time – meaning that when we saw the announcement about The Fretless being part of the festival this year, we knew that this third time around would be the charm.  And once again, each member of this quartet proved to match their musical skills with an equal amount of humor when introducing one another at different moments through the set. 

“We are very, very excited to be here in London, the last time we were in London was in 2019, for the JUNOs, and I think that was one of the last parties that we had as a band before the incident that we shall not name anymore,” stated Karrnnel. “Allow me to introduce on my far right, from Calgary, Alberta…”  Relative silence.  “…Calgary never gets applause…” Laughter breaks out. “…No, no, no, you can’t now after.  He now lives in Nashville…” Applause.  “…Always better than Calgary, give it up for Ben Plotnick.” Ben would briefly address the crowd at this point, discussing their love for traditional Irish tunes, which they planned to play today.

Ben would later offer a bandmate introduction, acknowledging how Trent Freeman only just made it in time earlier that day for their afternoon East Stage workshop. “Now living in Vancouver, and somehow playing in Vancouver yesterday AND tomorrow at the Vancouver folk festival, Mr. Trent Freeman.”  As for Trent, we all know he enjoyed the opportunity to introduce Karrnnel. “From Saskatoon, and now living in Toronto, [he] writes about 14 fiddle tunes every single day, and 1 every year is good,” Trent joked. “No, I’m kidding, I’m saying he’s got about an 85% batting average, which is pretty impressively great.” And, prior to the performance of “Bixie’s,” Trent would share that this was maybe jig number 684 that Karrnnel composed.

Fretless

Karrnnel would turn the attention to cellist Eric Wright shortly after. “He is a wonderful cellist, he plays drums in a rock band, he plays banjo, he plays in an old-time band occasionally, what else can I tell you about this guy,” he offered. “He is actually the number 2 ranked Frisbee golfer in this region. There are 2 players in the league, Mr. Eric Wright everybody.”  As for Eric, the Vermont-born, and now Canadian resident took turns conversing with the crowd towards the end of the set. “As an instrumental band, it’s really hard to have like singalong choruses and stuff, and that was actually our protest piece,” he shared. “In Irish music and this sort of music, there’s reels that are in 4-4 and jigs in 6-8, and that last one is a reel called Climate Changes, so it’s the ‘climate change’s reel.’ Ohhhh, politics!  Sorry.”

The Fretless amazed as always with their tight and complementary musicianship, but held an ace up their sleeve, which was revealed mid-set when joined during “Waterbound” by a guest vocalist. “Waterbound on a stranger’s short / River rising to my door / Carried my home to the field below / Waterbound nowhere to go.” “We were in a festival in PEI a couple of months ago, and we got to share the stage with this wonderful artist,” Karrnnel shared. “So, we’re gonna get Leela Gilday to come out and join us on this song … a song that we recorded about 10 years ago.” “Carved my name on an old barn wall / No one’d know I was there at all / Stables dry on a winter night / You turn your head you could see the light.”

The Slocan Ramblers

Almost similar to our tale about The Fretless, we have attended shows by The Slocan Ramblers on several occasions here in the US, but never had we caught up with this JUNO-Award nominated bluegrass quartet in their native province of Ontario – until now.  What more can we possibly say about The Slocan Ramblers that we have not already stated before?  Well, based on their Saturday evening performance at Home County (and two workshops that they participated in over the weekend), quite a lot, actually – this band are possibly one of the most energized and exciting modern bluegrass bands on the circuit today, and they did not hold anything back for Home County. Having last enjoyed their live show back in Virginia (on my birthday, no less), it was great to catch up again with Frank Evans (banjo/vocals), Darryl Poulsen (guitar/vocals), and Adrian Gross (mandolin), who were joined once more by the incredibly talented Charles James (upright bass/vocals), stepping in following the departure of founding bassist Alastair Whitehead.

Naturally, ever the conversationalist, Frank was happy to raise such a subject. “If you’ve seen us before, you might notice that our bass player from the first couple of albums may look a little different than this guy. Our bass player, as we like to joke, at the beginning of the pandemic decided he was going to buy a farm, and plant some apple trees, and get a dog and a tractor, and he really was going for that authentic bluegrass lifestyle,” Frank teased. “So, we hired this fine fella right here behind me. We said, ‘quit all yer gigs, quit everything you’ve got, we’re gonna take you on the road. We’re gonna be your new employer. We got this great tour lined up. It’s gonna be a month long. It starts March 13th, 2020. It’s gonna be great’.” Cue some natural groans from the audience. “And, it wasn’t great, but he stuck with us,” Frank added, before allowing Charles his recognizable bass intro that leads the band into their recent single, “I Don’t Know.”

Having released their fourth album, “Up The Hill And Through The Fog,” back on June 10th, The Slocan Ramblers were eager to share many of these new tunes – commencing their set with one of Darryl’s offerings (“Bill Fernie”), and adding in cuts from both Adrian (“Harefoot’s Retreat”) and Frank (“Platform Four”).  As is customary with this band, an acknowledgment was made to their own past performing covers of classic tunes on Tuesday nights at The Cloak and Dagger in Toronto’s Kensington Market, which, per Adrian, “was a great excuse to learn how to play bluegrass.”  Offering up a medley of two classics (the band clearly have an extensive list of old-time tunes in their repertoire, as we rarely hear the same covers twice), they delighted the Home County crowd with both “Vacancy,” a Merle Travis cover, before progressing into the popular Carter Family hit, “East Virginia Blues.”

Slocan Ramblers

Currently residing in Nashville, Frank took some time to discuss his recent border crossing into Canada from Buffalo.  “Okay, a quick show of hands. This is the first time I’ve ever done the pedestrian border crossing. I got dropped off by the Peace Bridge. How many people here have done the pedestrian border crossing at Fort Erie,” he asked – detecting a few positive responses throughout the crowd. “It’s a very strange experience because you get all these signs that lead you right to the border crossing, and you’d think there’s gonna be like a lane for pedestrians to walk on, but all of a sudden, you’re just expected to pretend you’re a car, and just stand in the lane where the cars are.”  Pausing while the crowd erupted with laughter, Frank would continue. “I didn’t know if I should make wiper noises, or sound like a transmission or something,” he joked. “It was very strange, but I made it here.”  Jumping in with his own joke, Adrian would add, “I picked up Frank on a weird side road. He was hiding in a bush.”

Mixing some high-speed pickin’ (and grinnin’) with dual and triple harmonies across many of their songs, and slowing things down from time to time with tracks such as “Streetcar Lullaby” and “Won’t You Come Back Home” (both from the new album), The Slocan Ramblers performed non-stop during their 45-minute slot.  And for those of us craving some of their popular 2018 “Queen City Jubilee” album material, we were not disappointed – enjoying the always-lively “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” and their rousing closing number, “Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday.”  This was yet another outstanding performance from a band that I know I shall never tire of catching live on stage – so, just when are they back on the US Eastern seaboard again???

Set List:

  1. Bill Fernie
  2. Mississippi Heavy Water Blues
  3. Harefoot’s Retreat
  4. I Don’t Know
  5. The River Roaming Song
  6. No Vacancy (Merle Travis cover)
  7. East Virginia Blues (Carter Family cover)
  8. Streetcar Lullaby
  9. Platform Four
  10. Won’t You Come Back Home
  11. Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday

Photo Credit: Martin Noakes

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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