Summerfolk: Reflections on an Amazing Festival Weekend in Owen Sound


I am a “newbie” to Canada.  Having lived here for ten years, I am relatively new to the live music scene, and have been attending outdoor festivals across Canada since my arrival.  I’m not sure if I should have a favourite, but I’ll whisper quietly to you that it’s the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival.  Ever since I set foot in the lovely little town of Owen Sound, ON, and made my way to the shores of the Georgian Bay at Kelso Beach Park, I have been utterly in love with the place, the people and the event.

The first thing that strikes me every time I walk into Kelso Beach park is the friendliness of the 700-plus volunteers, who are always eager to help with broad smiles from the duration of the weekend. I had a boss that used to say to me, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” and I’m certain he was on the advisory committee when they set this event up.  The community that has been created here in some cases spans the lifetime of the event, and each year, more people find that sense of community and it grows, with music, storytelling and camaraderie binding us together.

Everyone has their favourite festival, I’m sure.  In my own circle of friends, I know that to be true, whether it be blues, folk, or Celtic, these days, both folk festivals and blues festivals have grown by incorporating many genres of music into the presentations. Boasting a great crowd at Summerfolk, I often wonder why so many seem to flock to these events every year.  Could it be that the long, dark, cold winters are an incentive to most to stay outdoors and listen to great music as often as they can over the summer months? Or does it result from the hard work and dedication of the artistic director’s and their teams to locate and bring together an amazing mix of artists from both near and far?

Fulfilling the role of artistic director at Summerfolk is James Keelaghan, one of Canada’s greatest songwriters and performer.  James has worked with many of the artists who perform, and also mentors and nurtures several young artists who appear each year as part of their Youth Discoveries program.  Giving musicians aged between 14-22 the experience of playing at a major folk festival, the program helps to foster a sense of community amongst the next generation of performers.  I particularly enjoyed the music from the invitees this years, which featured JoJo Smith, Vintage Flight, Molly Roach, Miranda Journey and Sterling and the Birdwatchers, and I’m sure we’ll see them at many festivals throughout the provinces in the future.

When considering that Owen Sound, ON, is not in close proximity to a major city, I’m astounded by the number of visitors who travel from far and wide for the spectacular event. “Build it and they shall come,” is often the saying, and if you build it well with very strong foundations, the result is Summerfolk.  This year was very special, in my opinion, with the addition of kind weather too; always a bonus for outdoor events.  I arrived late on the Friday evening, making my way from just outside Toronto, and took in a few of the artists who graced the amphitheater stage: Ariana Gillis, Maria Dunn and Kathleen Edwards, in particular, who were all outstanding and made me eager to return for a full day of music and interviews on Saturday.

I have to offer a huge ‘thank you’ to Ben Petit, the media liaison, who does an outstanding job each year of facilitating our access to the artists, and also to Benjamin Dakota Rogers, T. Nile, Hat Fitz and Cara (Australia), Jon Brooks, Vivienne Wilder and Tara Mhic Coinnigh (The MacKenzie Blues Band) for giving me their time to talk about their latest projects.  Benjamin’s latest album, “Better By Now,” is an amazing piece of work, which is being extremely well received in both the US and Canada.  British Columbia’s T. Nile (Galliano Island) has a project called “Beachfires,” which is electro-folk loveliness.  Hat Fitz and Cara (Queensland, Australia), who have toured the planet over the last ten years, have a new album called “Hand It Over.”  And from King City, ON, Jon Brooks is releasing a new album called “Moth Nor Rust II,” which is a reinterpretation of an album he released a decade ago and is quite stunning.  Whilst with Jon, I was introduced to Vivienne Wilder, whose “Waking Up The Dinosaurs” release is not to be missed.  And to top it all off, I conversed at length with Maple Blues Award winning artist Tara Mhic Coinnigh (Northern Ireland), who is about to release a stunning project based on traditional ways of singing and making music.

Highlights of the Saturday performances for me had to be from T. Nile and The Once at the ‘Gazebo Stage,’ who were doing a workshop together.  After trading songs for about forty minutes, they realized they had just five minutes of time left, and led by T. Nile, everyone embarked on a completely improvised creation with audience participation that was quite stunning in both song and musicianship.  I was left shaking my head wondering how they all got to be so insanely talented as such a young age.  Other amazing performances came courtesy of William Prince, Pharis & Jason Romero, and Kathleen Edwards, from the ‘Down By The Bay’ stage.  One fun and unique element takes place mid-afternoon on this stage, where the audience can participate in and suggest songs by writing them down and placing them in a hat.  When randomly picked out of the hat, if none of the artists on stage know the song, then the audience member who suggested it is invited upon stage to sing it.  Treasa Levasseur had a ton of fun hosting this workshop, with artists Brontae Hunter, The Great Canadian Swamp Stompers, Sammy Duke, David Newland, and special guest, Samantha Martin.

Returning on Sunday, the morning gospel performances are always a delight, and throughout the day I was mesmerized by both The Paperboys and Les Poules a Colin.  I was able to have a quick chat with Ariana Gillis before her “Tricks and Tips” workshop (with Amy Speace), which offered an insight into crafting songs.  Ariana is no stranger to songwriting, having just recorded an album called “The Maze” with Buddy Miller in Nashville, and learned today that she had broken into the Billboard Top 100 Americana chart.

In the week that we lost a unique Canadian creation, Mitch Podolak, the founding artistic director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974, I recall that his influence and insights played a key part in both the origins of Summerfolk, and his role in mentoring James Keelaghan as the artistic director.  As tributes rolled in over the last few days, I began to understand why so many of the things Mitch had a hand in were, and are, so very successful; he treated people with kindness, he spoke to everybody on the same level, and had a mutual respect for everybody – volunteers, musicians, the committee, board members, and visitors alike.  And after spending an entire weekend in Owen Sound, the gracious hospitality I encountered proves that his legacy shall continue to live on.

In my original hometown of Peebles, nestled in the Scottish borders regions, there was a fish and chip shop down in the Northgate called Eb’s.  On Friday evenings, my parents (and sometimes myself too) would sit in the back room and have a fish supper for dinner.  It was a great wee place, with lovely people, and I have been proud to take my wife there for a bite to eat when visiting from Canada. Eb would tell us about his nephew who had moved to Canada thirty years earlier.  Sadly, while the owner passed away a few years ago, there was a simultaneous new-born connection to Summerfolk.

About five or six years ago, I was in line to get some food at the festival, and overheard a man in front of me chatting away to somebody. I excused myself for interrupting and asked where he was from. “Edinburgh,” he said.  “No, you are not from Edinburgh with a dialect like that,” I responded. “Well no, actually I’m from Peebles,” he shared. “I say Edinburgh because nobody here knows where Peebles is.”  Lo and behold, he was Eb’s nephew.  I could not believe it, and we chatted for ages and spent some time together.  He lives near Cobalt in Northern Ontario now, and only travels out once a year to attend Summerfolk. I live near Toronto and travel once a year to the festival too.  The chances of us meeting were a zillion to one five or six years ago, but now, every year, we meet up in Owen Sound, enjoy some music, share a pint, and say our farewells until the following year.

Summerfolk has a thousand and more stories of people like us who meet during the day on the festival grounds, and in the evening at the after-hours jams in the campsite across the street.  It is an amazing community, a bonding place where people come together to share stories, listen, and play music.  I’ll be back to see my friends next year, and I hope that if you’ve never been, that you are now inspired to venture up to Owen Sound during the third week of August.  If you do, come and say hi, buy me a pint, and thank me for the great time you’ll ultimately experience at this wonderful festival.

An award winning piper, composer and singer / songwriter from Edinburgh, Scotland now based in Ontario, Canada, Stevie is the founder of Blues and Roots Radio, a multi award winning media platform established in 2012, based just outside of Toronto, with a hub in Melbourne, Australia. He has been recognized in 2014 and 2017 by the Mississauga Board Of Trade and Legislature of Ontario for his work in support and promotion of independent artists across Canada and around the world. He has in the past been honoured to sit on national music award panels.

He is currently head of programming and music director at Blues and Roots Radio where he oversees the running of two online radio channels and reviews the many releases sent to the station for airplay consideration.

He is passionate about the Canadian independent music scene and covers as many live events as time will allow.

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