Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival 2017
I have attended twenty-six of the thirty-two years this festival has been in existence. It’s near and dear to my heart for many reasons, perhaps the most important being that it’s where I met my husband. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the town of Lunenburg is my spiritual home. I feel a flutter of excitement as soon as we pull off the highway at Exit 11 and follow the road around the back harbour to the Oceanview Chalets, where we’ve stayed for the past nine years. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Lunenburg overwhelms with its charm, its steep streets leading up from the harbour lined with brightly-painted wooden shops and houses. It has a rich history of ship-building, sail-making, and fishing. Over the years, it has become a haven for musicians, artists, writers, and craftspeople, giving it a palpable cultural vibrancy.
The people who started the Folk Harbour Festival back in 1985 had a vision for what a folk music festival should be. I have attended a lot of music festivals throughout Canada and this one shines as one of the best, though it’s on a smaller scale than others which have become better-known. I think the key elements which set the Folk Harbour Festival apart are the idyllic setting, the superb sound quality at all the venues, the absence of liquor on site, and the Folk Harbour audiences who are renowned for their musical sophistication and appreciation of the performers. At Folk Harbour it is not at all unusual, when a performer invites the audience to sing along on a chorus, for hundreds of voices to be raised in four-part harmony. These people come to listen and learn, not to party or chat with their neighbours. They save the merry-making for after the evening main stage concerts and take it to the late-night stage venue or one of the local pubs.
We are so confident in the quality of the festival and the good judgement of the Program Committee that we don’t even bother to search the website as the line-up of performers unfolds over the months leading up to the event. We just know it will be fabulous. Every year, we look forward to some “big names” in folk and traditional music, but perhaps an even greater delight is when we discover amazingly talented musicians who are unknown to us, and become our new favourites.
This year’s festival was no exception. Every year, I have the best intentions of writing a review of each day of the festival while it’s fresh in my mind, but I have finally accepted that it’s not humanly possible unless I go without eating or sleeping for four days. So, I’ll touch on those musicians and sessions that were my personal highlights, with input from Bill and our sidekick, Ann Curwin.
Kim Dunn, a pianist and solo performer from Cape Breton, kicked off the opening night concert. For much of his thirty year career, he has been “the essential and versatile sideman” to an impressive litany of the east coast’s finest performers. He toured in Rita MacNeil’s band for fourteen years and his name appears on the recordings of some of the most notable musicians in the Atlantic region. Since 2010 he has focused on his own singing and songwriting. Whether he was playing his own compositions, interpreting a blues classic, or improvising a piano accompaniment to another artist’s song, Kim Dunn wowed his audience. It’s not often that the first performer on the opening night gets a raucous standing ovation, but he did, and deservedly so. We came away from each of his sessions wanting more.
Cassie and Maggie, sisters from Antigonish, have been performing in their home province since they were very young. In recent years, they have earned international recognition on the Celtic music scene. They are highly talented, Cassie on fiddle and Maggie on keyboard, guitar, and vocals, and have a natural gift for entertaining. They drove the grand finale, keeping pace with the legendary Ashley MacIsaac, and closing the festival with a flourish.
Chelsea Amber, a young woman of mixed race and cultural background from Halifax, has a voice and stage presence that command attention and admiration. She sings with power and emotion, and already has won an extensive array of awards. The audience loved her. This remarkable singer-songwriter’s star is rising.
Red Moon Road, a trio from Manitoba are my unparalleled favourite act this year. This is their second visit to Folk Harbour. I loved them in 2014 and came home with their first recording, which I’ve been playing ever since. They have continued to grow musically as well as in their stage presence. The three band members come from diverse musical backgrounds, ranging from jazz to progressive metal, and choral-trained vocals. They are all immediately likeable people whose authenticity and sincerity comes across on stage. Sheena Rattai is a vocal powerhouse, yet she can back away from a musical phrase to make it as delicate as the sound of a butterfly’s wings. The instrumental virtuosity of the two Daniels – Peloquin-Hopfner and Jordan, is woven around impeccable three-part vocal harmonies.
Reverend Robert B. Jones, pastor, storyteller, teacher, musician, and activist was a joy to experience. I use the verb “experience” deliberately. It’s impossible to merely listen to Rev. Jones. Sitting in the audience at the Folk Steps Conference, singing along with him at the choral workshop, and being there for his Mainstage performance and the Sunday morning Gospel Concert, we were in the presence of an immense talent, a vibrant life force, and a gold mine of knowledge. He beckoned us to dip our toes in a deep spiritual well. His voice is rich and sonorant and his guitar skill is noteworthy. When he told the stories and sang the songs of his forebears who lived in slavery, his words came from a place of profound personal connection.
Rosie and the Riveters are three strong vocalists with a vintage 1940’s flair. They’re sassy and witty and musically sophisticated. Their growing nation-wide acclaim is well-deserved. I hope they’ll be enticed to head eastward again.
Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar are categorized as “Rhythm and Blues.” Martin’s voice is aptly described as “cigarette-ravaged and whisky- soaked.” I didn’t think I liked voices that could be described that way. I have seen the error of my ways. Samantha Martin, who hails from Edmonton and now lives in Toronto, has power and layers of complexity in that voice and sings the blues with a sardonic element of levity. Her back-up singers added so much with so little, using just the right amount of volume and edge to enhance not only Martin’s lead, but also in improvising on other performers’ songs. They are a stunning combination. They shone at the Gospel Concert, lending their harmonies impeccably and respectfully to the songs of so many other artists. I also must mention the band’s drummer, Dani Nash. She is not mentioned in the bio, so may have joined them just for this gig. If so, they should sign her up. She’s terrific.
Willie Stratton is a country singer in the tradition of Hank Snow and Wilf Carter. He has made it his goal to preserve and promote the country music heritage of Atlantic Canada. I hereby go on record as saying I really don’t like old-time country, but I have to admit that Willie Stratton does it well. He is a consummate guitarist and banjo-picker, as well as a strong singer – and he’s on-key, with no trace of nasal resonance. He is adept at some of the traditional local yodelling styles. As a speech-language pathologist I can say with some authority that yodelling, when done well, requires exceptional vocal control. Willie won my loyalty at the Gospel Concert. He caught the spirit of the moment and led the crowd in a moving spiritual with a simple, sing-along chorus, exactly what the occasion called for.
New Brunswick Artists
There were several artists from New Brunswick in this year’s line-up and they did us proud.
The Alan Jeffries Bluegrass Band – I used to say that I was not a big fan of bluegrass, until I heard Alan Jeffries and his band. Jeffries and his bandmates are the whole package – highly-talented musicians who put it all out for their audience and come across as nice guys who are having a great time making music together. Although they do share one mic for their vocals, there is none of the “four people singing through one nostril” quality that I used to associate with bluegrass (that’s a quote from Alan Jeffries’ father, John Jeffries). These four artists are exceptional instrumentalists and do beautiful vocal harmonies. If you think you don’t like bluegrass, you might have to re-think your position after hearing these guys. My personal favourite – a love song to coffee.
Sussex – a duo made up of Rob Lutes, singer and guitarist, and Michael Emenau, a world-class vibraphonist. Rob Lutes’ style is reminiscent of the smokey, whiskey-drenched voices of singers such as Louis Armstrong, but a gentler version. He sings his own songs as well as covers. Michael Emenau’s mastery of his instrument adds subtle overtones to their songs.
The David Myles Trio – Every time I see David Myles perform, I am struck by the sheer joy and energy he exudes from the stage. His banter between the songs and his ability to fully engage the audience is unparalleled. I always walk away from his performances with a smile on my face, a welcome David Myles ear worm playing in my head, and a spring in my step. What more could I ask?
I have no superlatives left for Lennie Gallant and his band, consisting of Patricia Richard (vocals, mandolin, banjo, bodhran), and his nephews, Jeremy Gallant (keyboard) and Mitchell Gallant (percussion), and Sean Kemp (fiddle). Lennie is a masterful storyteller in word and song and the musical virtuosity of his band is world-class.
John Wort Hannam is in the same rarefied song-writing league as Lennie Gallant. Both of them write from a core of authenticity, passion, and insight. He played two songs in one set which will require a long period of recovery for both Bill and me. One, Infantry Man, from his 2007 CD, was written for a friend in the Armed Services who was killed in Afghanistan. The other, Man of God, is more recent and was inspired by a book written by a survivor of the residential school system. Look this singer-songwriter up on Google and have a listen.
The Once, charmed the audience as they always do. They are known for their beautiful harmonies and intricate instrumental arrangements. At their Mainstage performance they sang through a fireworks display with aplomb. It was noteworthy that most of the audience chose to stay in their seats and forego the fireworks.
Suzie Vinnick, a ten-time Maple Blues Award winner is brilliant on both guitar and bass and is a crowd favourite for her sultry vocals, engaging manner, and warm wit.
Vishten are high-energy, foot-stomping, musical geniuses. They never fail to entertain and leave their audience wanting more.
Amelia Curran is always a delight. She’s understated, charmingly awkward and unpolished in her stage presentation. But there is nothing unpolished in the poetry of her songs or the warmth of her voice. Her lyrics require the listener to pay attention. My favourite of her songs is the one that asks the philosophical question, “What will you be building when you have to go?”
Ashley MacIsaac was the perfect choice to close the festival. He hasn’t slowed down one iota since he was in his early twenties. His electronic/Celtic fiddle fusion was mind-boggling, but his ability to return to his roots with masterfully-rendered reels, jigs, and strathspeys was even more compelling when juxtaposed with the more innovative contemporary offerings.
The Program Committee has done it again. They have delivered an impressive line-up of performers and a varied selection of workshops and thematic talks. They’ve resisted making the festival bigger and more brash. They have always strived for, and have succeeded in maintaining its quality and its unique essence.
The dates for the 2018 Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival are August 9-12.