Earlier this year, we learned that the first Sawdust City Music Festival would take place over the first August weekend in the town of Gravenhurst, ON.  With a determined effort to execute her vision of bringing a festival to the popular Muskoka region, Canadian folk artist Miranda Mulholland worked long and hard to bring the Sawdust City to life.  By combining her historical family ties to the area with her connections across the Canadian music community, Miranda saw her dream turn to a reality this last weekend as the festival roared into life and proved to be an amazing inaugural concert series.

With the announcement that the Jim Cuddy Family Band would headline on the Saturday night, we quickly secured our tickets.  And as the list of artists continued to increase, so did our happiness level – the likes of Justin Rutledge, Abigail Lapell, and Devin Cuddy being added to the bill.  Better still, aside from the Saturday night event, all other acts were taking place in public locations throughout the town, and were free to enjoy.  It is not often that you can experience this much musical talent for free at a summer festival around these lakes.  We shall cover the Saturday night event in a separate article, and focus here on the other live entertainment on offer over the weekend.

The festival kicked off on the Friday evening, but we could not be in Gravenhurst until early on Saturday afternoon.  We would have loved to have seen the likes of NQ Arbuckle and Zachary Lucky, but alas – although we certainly heard from the intrepid FOGDW (Friends of Great Dark Wonder, who did arrive in time for the Friday events) that the first evening was an enjoyable experience.  We arrived in town with a few minutes to spare before the “Songwriters’ Workshop” held in the Gravenhurst Opera House.  Greeted by a very excited Miranda Mulholland, we were invited into the “Trillium Court” for this first Saturday live music set.  Appearing in the songwriter-circle were Devin Cuddy, Liz Stringer, Justin Rutledge and Jeremy Dutcher.  Each artist would perform four numbers – with Devin and Jeremy seated respectively behind their keyboards, and Liz and Justin on barstools with their acoustic guitars at the ready.  After a brief pre-show announcement by Miranda to thank the volunteers, organizers, sponsors and artists, as well as the attendees, the festivities began.

With his bluesy, New Orleans inspired sound, Devin opened with “Bleeding Kansas” (L, the Kansas native, was especially happy to hear this one again), and followed with ‘new’ tunes “Radio” and “Maggie’s Hardware Store.” His final number would be the title track from his “Kitchen Knife” album.  Not only were all of these tracks appreciated by those in attendance, we happened to notice his brother Sam Polley and a very proud Jim Cuddy at the back of the room enjoying the music too.

Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Liz Stringer performed a selection of her own music, including “Half Filled Cup” and a brand new, still untitled track to close.  She would also sing about a friend in Sydney (the rival city) and reference the Latin “Terra Nullius” (land of no owners) during another song.

Justin Rutledge opened with “Jack Of Diamonds” (much to my appreciation), following with “Almost Gone” and “Captives,” a track from his ‘other’ project, The Early Winters (from the ‘Vanishing Act’ album).  To close, Justin opted to cover the Gordon Lightfoot hit “Carefree Highway,” much to the delight of the room.

From the Turtle Islands, New Brunswick, Jeremy Dutcher demonstrated his modern interpretation of First Nations musical heritage.  With titles such as “Death Chant,” “Welcome Home Song,” and “Honor Song,” Jeremy mixed keyboards with a traditional hand drum and even added a pre-recorded ancestral chant during one of the tracks.  Opting to finish his set with a cover version, he performed a wonderful rendition of the Coco Love Alcorn hit “The River.”

After spending the late afternoon dining at the Oar & Paddle, we not only bumped into Justin Rutledge and Miranda Mulholland once more, but also caught some of the live entertainment being provided by Benjamin Hermann.  We would spot several of the festival artists in the much later hours at the Sawdust City Brewing Company, who were all ready to enjoy the sounds on offer from C&C Surf Factory.  Featuring accomplished guitarists Colin Cripps (Blue Rodeo, Crash Vegas) and Champagne James Robertson (Lindi Ortega), the neo-surf rock outfit traded riffs and low-end twang through an extensive set list of pure guitar driven music.

As the up-tempo sound remained a constant, the space in front of the stage did not take long to be occupied by dancers of all ages.  For us, we had the added benefit of catching up with Glenn Milchem, who stepped in to fulfill the drumming duties and indeed rocked out with his unlimited energy and passion as he pounded the skins for the full set. After the band closed with “Phasors On Stun,” we finally managed to chat for a while with Colin, who we have seen so many times recently.  Loving the sounds and vibes of this project, we were happy that he had copies of his album available for purchase, and we look forward to cranking that up here at home to rock out with some surf jams once more.  We are also grateful for Glenn taking the time to chat, and for the opportunity to thank him again for the exclusive interview he did with us earlier this year.

The first event we chose to attend the next day was held at Arts at the Albion, and featured a 40 minute set from Toronto artist Abigail Lapell. Being one of the first musicians that we had the pleasure of interviewing for this blog, we had been unable to be in the same place at the same time with Abigail until now, so this show was an absolute must for us.  Drawing upon material from both her “Hide Nor Hair” and “Great Survivor” albums, Abigail delivered a wonderful eleven track set to an intimate crowd.  She would even take the time to mention that she is set to tour Germany shortly, and had been brushing up on her language skills.  With a cover of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons,” Abigail performed the song in German, pausing occasionally to get some tough parts down, yet managed this difficult language with some fluidity.  Her comment that she learned German by listening to 80s German pop music added a nice comedic touch to her repertoire.  It was nice to have a brief chat after her set, and we hope to catch up with her again soon.

Abigail Lapell Set List:

  1. Diamond Girl
  2. Nightbird and Morningbird
  3. Sally
  4. Hostage Town
  5. Murder City
  6. Yellow Rose
  7. 99 Luftballons
  8. Fur And Feathers
  9. Paper
  10. Full Moon
  11. Jordan

Our final public event took place on The Barge at the Gull Lake Rotary Park.  Finding ourselves a park bench overlooking the barge, we enjoyed the beautiful weather on offer.  After commencing with a bilingual national anthem (great job by Briar Summers), and a quick piece by Jeremy Dutcher (Honor Song), Canadian country artist Jessica Mitchell would head out onto the barge to open the show.  With her unique brand of “not too Nashville” country music, Jessica and her guitarist Jimmy Reid performed eight tracks to the decent sized crowd in attendance.  Opening with “Grown Up Things” Jessica would also add “That Record Saved My Life” and “Heart of Glass” from her own catalog.  Added to the mix was a powerful cover version of the Bob Dylan classic “To Make You Feel My Love.”  The set would be closed with the tracks “Girlfriend” and her CCMA nominated “Working On Whiskey”.

Following Jessica Mitchell was Melanie Brulée, who introduced Gravenhurst to her guitar heavy alt-country sound.  With just a short three track set list, Melanie would perform “Pretty Wasteland” and “We Get Lost,” two new English language tracks that she is planning to record soon.  To close, Melanie would announce that her next song “is an English song, but I’m going to sing it in French,” and launched into the well-known “Ces bottes sont faites pour marcher” (the popular Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking”).  Midway through the song, Melanie would revert to English and engage the crowd with some active participation towards the end of the tune.  After singing the line “And you keep thinking that you’ll never get burned”, she would add a comical comment, “Hah, my name is Brulée” in perfect time, before continuing with the verse.  We loved her versatility and her natural ability to engage you into each song in each performance, and my only issue was that we craved much more than the three songs on offer (we unfortunately missed her solo performance earlier in the day).

Highlighting the music on the barge would be the eight piece Julian Taylor Band from Toronto.  Combining rock music, soul, and even a little reggae, the band brought their incredible energy to the barge with a ten track set list.  Opening with “Do You Remember” from their Tech Noir album, the soul grooves caught your attention immediately.  Other tracks performed from this album included “Be Good To Your Woman” and “Carry Me Home” (duet with Melanie Brulée).  The most recent “Desert Star” album was well represented too, with “Set Me Free,” “Just A Little Bit,” and “Bobbi Champagne” all being offered.  Switching direction to the reggae inspired “The Belly Of The Underman,” the band displayed their musical versatility throughout the evening.  They would close with a cover of the Al Green classic “Take Me To The River”, before encouraging several artists back onto the barge for an encore performance of the Van Morrison track “Into The Mystic.”

The Julian Taylor Band Set List:

  1. Do You Remember
  2. Set Me Free
  3. Fever
  4. The Belly Of The Underman
  5. Just A Little Bit
  6. Be Good To Your Woman
  7. Bobbi Champagne
  8. Carry Me Home (duet with Melanie Brulée)
  9. Take Me To The River
  10. Into The Mystic

We were fortunate to catch up once more with both Miranda Mulholland and Andrew Penner as the crowd headed out of Gull Lake Rotary Park, and appreciated the time they spent with us over the course of the weekend.  Having learned that Harrow Fair were in PA for a few performances soon, we look forward to catching up with Miranda and Andrew again very soon.  If you are in or around the Eastern part of PA during this time, we strongly suggest you make plans to do the same.

~ M

Visit the Sawdust City Music Festival website.

Artist Websites:

Devin Cuddy
Liz Stringer
Justin Rutledge
Jeremy Dutcher
C&C Surf Factory
Abigail Lapell
Jessica Mitchell
Melanie Brulée
Julian Taylor Band