We plan to wrap up our remaining Muskoka Music Festival coverage with a series of short features devoted to three of the outstanding workshops that we were able to attend. The musical portion of this year’s festival kicked off with the “On The Road Again” workshop, which brought together three regional artists to perform songs, share tales, and entertain an audience ready to embrace the magic of the festival experience sorely missed due to the pandemic.
Featuring Abenaki and Franco-Ontarian artist Mimi O’Bonsawin, the popular local ‘international’ artist James Gray, and local three-piece band Section 53, this festival opener proved to be a fun hour of music and banter. We’ll summarize each of the performances from these great artists.
“Bonjour, is anybody here a farmer or a gardener,” Mimi asked the crowd after being nominated by her on-stage companions to lead off the workshop. “I’m not a farmer, but I lived a long time in Toronto, and you know when you want something, when you have what you’ve always dreamed of, but you want something else, and you’re just not satisfied and you feel guilty about that? I was busy touring and being on the road, but all I wanted to do was grow food. Now I get to grow food and play music, so I feel really happy inside my heart.” With a performance of “Wish I Was A Farmer” (future trivia fans take note – when asked to name the first song played at the festival this year – this is your answer), Mimi would later reminisce about growing up in Sudbury, and the importance for her to nurture connections to the land that she was raised on – “the trees, the water, the people, the culture, the roots, everything … you carry it with you” – before discussing how such roots carry their way into her songs.
With her final turn, Mimi opted to share a French language tune titled “Elle Danse” – which translates as she dances. “The road is long when you’re trying to heal and you’re trying to find your way in this world, and music for me has been the leading light, the thing that keeps me going,” she shared. “What I like to do is bridge the gap between two communities that make me who I am in my songs.” Midway during this song, James Gray invited sound engineer (and Muskoka resident) Bill Stewart to take a break from the soundboard, strap on a guitar and add his own accompaniment for a brief moment – it was nice to see an engineer up on stage playing and having fun, as opposed to being there just to make on-the-fly fixes as needed. And with time for one collective final number to bring the workshop to a close, Mimi would ask her stage friends to join her for a cover of a classic Bob Marley hit.
Tracks: “Wish I Was A Farmer” – “Where My Roots Grow” – “Elle Danse” – “Get Up Stand Up”
When the festival line-up was officially announced, we were delighted to see the inclusion of Emsdale, ON artist James Gray on the list, and promptly circled his name with a bold sharpie. Recommended to us by fellow GDW writer Douglas McLean, we expected good things from James during this workshop, and he did not disappoint. We quickly discovered his laid-back demeanor, and how easily he charmed the audience as if casually conversing with old friends, leaving an impression of familiarity and intimacy even with those of us he’d just met for the first time. And with “Think About Me” as his opening tune, not only did James demonstrate a natural ability to toss out tongue-in-cheek lyrics without missing a beat, but he also very quickly inspired his stage friends to join him with accompaniment and harmonies.
“I was lucky to play in Australia a few years back, and played a bunch of songwriting circles with a lot of different amazing women who were incredible singer songwriters,” he announced, acknowledging the talent alongside him on the stage at this time. “I felt like such a schlump, but I loved it because in those situations, it elevates you.” Closing with “Goodbye Stella,” James would add that this was a song about his love for beer. “It’s a song I wrote when I took 100 days off beer. I had a little bit of a non-beer journey, and I wrote this song as a kind of therapy,” he offered. “When you’re a folk singer and you can’t afford real therapy, you write a song about it.” “Well how I love when I have you here / How you’ve been this holy part of me / You’ve also been this holy-shit part of me / When you lay me down, inside these little cabin walls / My heart does double Dutch when I hear your sweet call / When there’s nothing left for me here today / Well I love you, but we can’t hang out every single day.”
Tracks: “Think About Me” – “unknown title” – “Goodbye Stella”
This Muskoka-based trio (performing acoustically) rounded out the workshop and brought a high-energy level in both sound and style. Comprised of Jenny Fleming, Mike Toole, and Aaron Kowalchuk, these three performers explained to the audience how they originally met whilst working in a federal penitentiary. “Our band is an unusual name,” offered Jenny. “We all worked out of jail, and … ‘Section 53’ is a term for an exceptional search. Everyone gets locked down and there’s an exceptional search, and I write about different points of feeling, which is why we call ourselves Section 53.”
With their opening track, “New York,” the energy exploded immediately, both through Jenny’s powerful vocals and some meticulous guitar-work from Aaron. “We’ve all traveled away from some relationships and sometimes they sit in our hearts,” Jenny shared prior to performing the song. “And are hard to get back, and you think ‘maybe if I said something,’ something could be different.” With their second turn, the trio would slow things down with “Beautiful Days,” a song Jenny dedicated to her children, before going all-out once more with “Raising Hell,” which quickly had me drawing comparisons to “Somebody To Love,” the classic Jefferson Airplane hit – yes, there was definitely a classic rock vibe going on here, with no electrification, and we loved it. Stunning stuff.
Tracks: “New York” – “Beautiful Days” – “Raising Hell”