Summerfolk Festival, Part I - By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Summerfolk Festival, Part I

Keelan travels through the countryside on a lovely journey for folk. Author: on October 1, 2013
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…Road Trippin’ at the Gates of Hell

We flew down the highway, passing small towns and hamlets throughout Southwestern Ontario in an orange 1974 Volkswagen Westfalia — through scenic Stratford, blink and you’d miss it Moncton, quaint Durham, and seen-better-days Chatsworth on our way to Owen Sound for the 38th annual Summerfolk Festival. Warm sun, lazy tufts of clouds, spread throughout the sky and numerous, long construction delays: this is summer in Southwestern Ontario. We listened to Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell because that’s exactly what we needed to be listening to. “Romanticism is the key” said my friend as she continued with the workout that is driving that 74 Westfalia. She was, of course, referring to Summerfolk, a thing that had been talked about between myself, my friend, and my girlfriend as if discussing something mythopoeic in nature. And yes: Summerfolk, as I was about to learn throughout the weekend, is not remembered as an event but more so as a labyrinthine story that strings memories together and trails off in so many directions it’s impossible to keep track. So, in anticipation of these excursions into the great meandering abyss of personal memory, I can’t simply write about this weekend as some sort of concert review. Because romanticism is the key; any elision of the particular, any eschewing of the thoughtful detail is to ultimately fall into tedium and cliché.

Like so many other Ontario cities, Owen Sound puts on a folk festival in August. My friend, born in Owen Sound and attending the festival for as long as she can remember, and my girlfriend had continuously reminded me during the lead up to Summerfolk that this was no ordinary festival. “There’s something so endearing about the entire weekend that you can’t really justify it until you experience it”, they would say to me — which rings of naïve nostalgia, but it was a self-aware naïve nostalgia from two people that are the furthest away from naivety of anyone I know. The festival attracts two or three big headliners a year, usually of the kind you would find on CBC radio. This year included Kathleen Edwards and The Proclaimers. I was excited because I grew up with The Proclaimer’s Sunshine on Leith and the prospect of seeing them live (twice: appropriately they also had a show in the beer tent) had me giddy. But these kinds of facts and biographical details are uninteresting in the grand scheme of things.

I had never been to Owen Sound before this Summerfolk weekend and was surprised by how pretty it was — not necessarily because of the location, as almost anything that shares a shoreline with Lake Huron is bound to be beautiful, but surprised because my friend who grew up in the town of roughly thirty-thousand people didn’t always have the most glowing things to say about the place. Of course, small town Ontario, especially for those artistically inclined, is not always the hot bed of fun and excitement when you’re growing up. The town slopes toward the sound, with a nicely preserved downtown dominated by a massive industrial grain silo. At sunset the grey of the silo’s concrete walls turns immaculate fire-orange and is the haunting spectre of the industrial revolution’s most endearing dreams. The festival takes place at Kelso Beach Park, just outside of the downtown area. The water has receded, the beach now a bed of matted grasses and low rising reeds. The grain silo stretches over it to the south.

But these are all the things I didn’t know as we traveled up through the country highways bordered by endless farmland. The most wonderful thing about a weekend long festival, where you don’t know the majority of the acts on the bill, is that you don’t spend your time fretting about managing time and solving the dilemmas of schedule conflicts—you simply meander into the expectation of what if. Meandering: such a word comes well equipped to border the thoughts and experiences of the weekend. Meandering: the wonderful act of indirect course. Meandering: apropos of the road trip to Owen Sound, we wandered through numerous, poorly labeled detours around stretches of highway construction. We found our little Orange Crush (as my friend named the Westfalia) wandering down gravel farming side roads. Handsome red wing black birds, cheery gold finches, and groups of sparrows indulging in dust baths, flitted like flecks of light in the sun as we listened to Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”. It has that particular brand of schmaltzy that Meat Loaf brands so well while showcasing Jim Steinman’s songwriting chops, like the way the chorus never quite resolves in the way you expect it to. It’s something a little bit unexpected. And that’s the thing about such a road trip to such a festival — the humorous joys of the unexpected. And it’s not just a matter of not expecting, but much more than that it’s the joy of creating the possibility of the unexpected.

Because sometimes the world needs Meat Loaf. Because sometimes the world is a ridiculous place. And sometimes it’s a beautiful place. And sometimes it is weird and unexpected and fun. And sometimes you get to spend the weekend in the sun listening to folk music.

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