The 38th Folk Festival Reigned Despite the Rain

The 38th Annual Folk Festival, in a nutshell, with emphasis on the Sunday Night Show


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:

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  • Love this review. It was spot on. The Burning Hell blew me away. One question remains – where do you get one of those Boobie browne shirts?

  • So I am just going to guess that you “Calm Down” writer don’t have children given your very insensitive remarks. Who are you to comment as to the length of stay of families at events? Most people I know treat the festival as a family event and not as a concert venue. It is NOT promoted as a concert venue;it is promoted as a festival. Most of the families that I know go to all the sessions – afternoon and evening. I wonder, given your comments, how much of the festival you attend. Maybe if you experience the whole weekend you would see that indeed it is very much a family welcomed event. I am also wondering what you deem as adult behaviour at the festival? Rushing the stage and stepping on people does not seem very adult to me. Maybe, your idea of “adult festival goer’s experience” is perhaps not that adult after all.

  • How do you put up with these commenters, Overcast? So negative and attack-based constantly. No one would read your thorough review and think you were attacking any kind of festival-goer except this person who had a flip-out. Holy! CHILL OUT PEOPLE! Maybe you shouldn’t have your kids out in a cold rainy park full of drunk people at 10pm expecting a quiet serene hippy experience. Maybe they should be in bed on time so they can’t infringe on the adult festival goer’s experience hey.

  • Ok – I am still fired up about it! From what I heard, the festival was not allowed to put the fence down the middle for separation ( as they did the past year). I agree that it is an issue that the organizers need to work on so that everyone gets the festival experience they want.

  • I agree with almost everything you say here.. but I will disagree on your stance on what you call dancing and what I call rushing the stage. You said “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.” Let me put it to you: My family of three met two other families there at 7 pm. There were 5 adults and 6 kids. We set up in the ground seating are as the signs indicated. We had a lovely supper picnic, and were really enjoying the music. At 10 or so the kids had all settled down around us in blankets and it was a great time. But then, the crowd rushed the stage… so not only could we no longer see, but we had to endure people walking over us ( with NO regard for where they were stepping), smoking, and pot smoking. So the festival goes from a family event to a George Street event within 20 minutes. And this is ok with you since we all paid our money? Most of the people who rushed the stage has only just arrived.. so us crowd on the ground who have been there since 7 (not to mention for EACH session) all of a sudden don’t matter ’cause Newfoundlanders got to dance? Give me a break. I, and those people around me have been going to the festival for over 20 years… and now, in the evening sessions, come 10 o’clock we have to endure this stuff? I think not. Your not looking at the acts when dancing are you? So why not suggest that those Newfoundlanders that got to dance – do it away from the front of the stage and stop blocking the view of the people who went early to ensure they could get a decent spot to have a nice evening out!

    • Oh, Anyone trampling over your seating area, that’s unacceptably disrespectful. Likewise, there were people pushing their way through the crowd in the same manner. The suggestion in this article wasn’t meant to favour one crowd over the other, but to compromise, by partitioning the field down the middle — a sitting area and a standing/dancing area …. everyone wins? I can certainly see your frustration at what happened to your experience of the festival, 100%. But most outdoor festivals provide a variety of ways to enjoy the music, granted, in fairness, they have more space to work with. As someone who was standing up front at the stage, me and a friend were quite conscious of blocking people’s view of the stage, but, the set up of the festival seemed to allow no choice. This was a small critique of an overall well-delivered festival, for the sake of some critique.

    • I completely agree with the idea of a partitioned crowd, I was there Saturday night and I saw the crowd rush up to the stage, it is unfair for people who like to sit and watch, and have staked out their spot for the evening. For most of the evening, the two areas were kept clear for dancing/sitting, but when Gord Downie came out, it was a free for all. For every person that may have been dancing, there were 10 more who just wanted to be up close to someone famous and get cell phone pics to post online and show everyone what a #greattime they had, which is fine, but it’s unfair to people who want to sit and watch. The same thing has been happening at the Atlantic Jazz Festival in Halifax for the last few years, they’ll bring in a headliner that appeals to a younger/hipper crowd, and as soon as said headliner comes out, the crowd forms on the “dancefloor” and blocks the stage for us fogies who have grown tired of fighting for viewing space over the years, I was at a show that Charles Bradley headlined and the exact same thing happened, a lot of people didn’t even watch the openers, but as soon as the famous person came out, they all spilled out of the beer tent and pushed their way to the front, a lot of them talked through the entire set. I saw some of that going on during Saturday’s closing set too.

      There’s never any way to please everyone, but the idea of a partitioned crowd is definitely a good one. One thing I’ve loved about the folk fest is the welcoming atmosphere, and lack of douchebaggery in the crowd, I really hope that doesn’t change

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