Sunday Evening Report …

The Overcast emerged early from its annual ten-day vacation to at least touch on the 38th NL Folk Festival – and hats off to this year’s organizers for such a well-rounded lineup that certainly provided some big names on the bill, alongside some introductions to acclaimed musicians, like these guys, Sheesham & Lotus:

Or Cajun Music Hall of Famers, Jese lege, Joel Savoy, and the Cajun Country Revival:

And how about that moment Saturday night — for many the most explosive, memorable moment of the festival — when The Dardanelles joined Quebec’s De Temps Antan on stage. Whether vous parlez francais or non, any fan of trad music who hadn’t heard of this Quebecois sensation likely bought an album of theirs on the way out of the park that night.

And the ability to buy music on the spot is another thing worth commending about this year’s festival, because it’s the little touches that matter for an outdoor festival. This year had more food trucks and vendors lining the festival, for instance (and what a welcomed sight to  see Rocket, NL Chocolate Company, and Blue on Water serving food). They’d also  moved all the seating in the beer zone away from the fence, so people could easily stand and watch the stage from afar (a flaw of last year’s festival, remedied this year).

The only worthwhile critique of the festival is its silly resistance to dancing … at a Newfoundland music festival! Is it not a crime to tell Newfoundlanders they can’t dance? It’s easy to understand people want to sit, but the rights of the lawn-chair listeners shouldn’t trump the rights of ticket-buying music enthusiasts who just wanna dance. Partition the field down the middle, folk-festival folks: have a sitting zone and a standing zone, like last year, and everyone wins.

The Rain Could Have Been More of a Pain

Newfoundland weather has something against the people of the province: we don’t expect much from local climate, but it’s like the weather knows when we want a sunny stretch – not too much to ask for in this province — yet May 24th weekend we can count on waking up wet or even stuck in our tents from the frost on our zippers– and this year, after a virtually unprecedented heat wave, our fickle skies decided on a forecast of three days of rain for the Folk Festival.

But rain didn’t dampen the people’s enthusiasm for the shows, and the second half of the festival drummed along relatively fine. Most of the Friday night events went ahead in the park, and many in the crowd embraced the rain’s dreamy ambiance, including performer Joanna Barker. Here’s a snippet from her Facebook status the next day, “Ooh what a night! Thank you, rainy city. Closed my eyes and listened to Steve Maloney sing as the rain hit the roof of the stage. And smiled my face off to Craig Young’s perfect licks on my tunes. Oh heart!”

Joanna Barker performing “Worry’s Nervous Daughter”

But the danger of thunder + rain + electronics shut down the last two performances of the night, and Saturday’s daytime events as well.

The one big tragedy of the festival, for most, was the Friday night, weather-induced cancellation of the closing act, The Dardanelles: a batch of talented young musicians just voted “Best Trad Band in Newfoundland” by Overcast readers. They put off one hell of a live show, and watching them do it outside on a big stage – we’d have stomped a hole to China on that outdoor dancefloor.

Like last year: The Ship came to the rescue for the cancellation of at least one of these shows. Friday night’s Matt Andersen show was relocated there, and we were packed like sardines, dancing in a can. Given the mixed crowd at The Ship Friday night, on account of Matt Andersen’s demographic-spanning fanbase, the normal, friendly spectators of a show at The Ship were treated to a rare occurrence: skeets punching each other in the back of the bar. Tony Murray, who runs the show at The Ship, quickly diffused the situation like a pro, and the world-renowned, multi-award-winning Andersen clearly pleased those who packed the bar early to see him.

Matt Andersen covering “Wagon Wheel”

As part of the festival’s “Late Night at The Ship” series, Mark Bragg – champion live performer and one of the island’s most vibrant, original, eclectic songwriters closed the night, to the delight of the dancing crowd.

Sunday Night’s Show

Anyway, The Sunday night show … this article was supposed to be a review of the Sunday night show. And for many of us, the back to back performances of The Burning Hell & Basia Bulat stole the night, and the hearts of many who haven’t heard of these two before.

If there was anyone not complaining about the weather this weekend, it was The Burning Hell – the band were slated to play the Lawnya Vanwya festival in St. John’s last April, and poor weather wouldn’t let their plane land. The band originates from Peterborough, clocked years as a St. John’s based band, and are now based out of Europe. This was their first show in St. John’s this year, and a devoted fanbase flooded the front of the stage to take in what many were immediately calling, “The Best Burning Hell Show I’ve seen.”

“Amateur Rappers” by The Burning Hell

There was without a doubt the perfect balance of small outdoor festival chemistry between the band and the audience close enough to the stage to be in on it, and the band was on fire. Everyone but lead guitarist Darren “Boobie” Browne was wearing the famous Boobie T-shirts (designed by Jud Haynes) in homage of their local legend on the guitar, who was recently crowned “Most vital musician in St. John’s” in The Overcast’s Best Of issue. There were moments Boobie electrified not only the band’s songs, but the crowd as well, who erupted more than once at his effortless, wild solos, particularly to close their song, “Realists” – a song about a bar show gone wrong.

Given that it’s a folk festival, with an attentive crowd, not a loud bar with tons of chatter and shouting, every quality of the band shined – from Mathias Kom’s stellar, witty, storytelling style of lyrics that had the crowd both endeared and in knots, to the rare musical cohesion of a band that’s toured the world together for years.

After 8 or 9 songs that warmed up and won over the crowd, Kom had the crowd sing the “Love” part of one of their greatest slower songs, emphasizing both the humour and universally relatable sentiment in the tune: “It happens in Florida.”

The Burning Hell didn’t just play to the audience last night, they engaged and enthralled them with a rare, commendable charm and performance people will be talking about all week; a performance that raised the bar for what an audience can expect from a live show.

basia-bulatAnd then there was Basia Bulat, also from Ontario, and a woman born with the vocal cords of a songbird: she’s arguably the best female singer in the country. Her voice has a rare, very natural vibrato effect, and it moves you, imbuing her songs with something immediate and engaging that grabs hold of listeners and never lets them go. As was the case last night.

Given that it’s a folk festival she took the stage alone with an instrument as unique as her voice, the autoharp (picture a harp, guitar, and accordion jammed together). To mix things up she played a few songs on the autoharp, then a mini electric guitar, then her synth … before pulling a super classy move in recognizing where she was. She invited Tom Power to the stage to play a local trad song he taught her at his place in Toronto, “Now I’m 64.” The crowd, old and young alike, ate it up, including many older-than-64 women belting it out of them and clapping with possessed enthusiasm, declaring loudly, “Now that was a nice one!”

“Tall Tall Shadow” by Basia Bulat

Next she called out Mr. And Mrs. It of the local music scene to join her on one of her hits songs: Steve Maloney and Meg Warren (of Repartee). It was a heartfelt gesture to embrace where she was playing, and it was clear she’s fond of the city that’s invited her to play at least five times now. She closed the night by having a mic placed behind her foot to do a stomp-and-clap acapella – and why wouldn’t you when your voice is the best instrument in your multiple instrument arsenal?

All in all the rain didn’t dampen too many spirits, and the festival is to be commended for evolving to widen its audience and appeal with acts like Basia on the bill. Everyone wins, artists included. It’d be hard to believe a ton of people didn’t just rush the merch stands for more music from Basia or The Burning Hell.  And if you missed the latter, here’s a 15-minute Basia Bulat performance on NPR: