Summerfolk Festival, Part III - By Volume

The kid that went down isn't dead; he just can't find his phone. The Hold Steady - Almost Everything

Summerfolk Festival, Part III

There's more to Summerfolk than simply music. Author: on October 3, 2013
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…Flowing for 500 Miles

I woke up on Saturday morning in the top bunk of the VW camper van, baking as the sun lit the orange and flannel inside on fire. I quickly jumped out of my sleeping bag and down to the grass outside the van. The slight hangover, however, didn’t keep me down, for today was the day that I was going to see a childhood favourite (no, not Fred Penner, though I would see him twice over the weekend as well). I grew up, like many people (especially if said people had Scottish heritage somewhere in them) with The Proclaimers, especially their fantastic 1988 album Sunshine on Leith. So grogginess be damned, today was the day that I was going to get to see The Proclaimers live, twice. We breakfasted on baguettes, avocados, goat cheese, plums, and several glasses of water. After a bit of cleaning we walked off the camp site and onto the festival grounds right next door.

It was still relatively early so we walked around the grounds for a bit. I have been to a few folk festivals in the area, most notably in London, Ontario, and while each one is enjoyable in their own right, I tend to have a problem with some of the vendors that are attracted to the festivals in bigger areas. This is not to generalize of course, because there are always many great artisanal vendors at all of these events, but at some of the festivals in bigger metropolitan areas there are always a few faux-first-rate vendors selling cheap-knock of items, overshadowing those who spend their time crafting the things they sell. Not so at Summerfolk, who had a number of very fine vendors. Not all of them were my style, but there were several very whimsical booths, including my personal favourite, Banjo puppets.

The food vendors were great. There was a relative cornucopia of food trucks and local restaurants serving up all kinds of grub. Throughout the weekend I had great curry, brisquet, sausages, lemonade, apple cider, ice cream, mashed potatoes, poutine, and, last but not least, steamed corn on the cob, a Summerfolk favourite. Every fifteen minutes the steam whistle on the vintage engine would let out a loud tooooot signalling that a new batch of corn was ready. People streamed to the queue, ready to slather fresh, juicy, crunchy steamed corn with hot melted butter, garlic salt, and all kinds of pepper. Delicious. And the hazy flow kept going.

Ah yes, back to the flow, the continuous act of being there that the festival nets you into. After a brief wake-up of dehydration and a headache, I quickly found myself back into the flow of things. In fact, the oddest thing about anticipating seeing The Proclaimers was just that: the anticipation. Thing about Summerfolk though, is there is so much to see. Our loose adherence to the concert stages provided little in the way of schedule conflicts. Instead of stressing about which of our favourite bands to see at 2 p.m., we simply wandered the grounds. We would stumble upon a workshop with a bunch of local kids in the gazebo stage playing some Canadian standards, or over the hill where Alex Cuba and his band led some slow dancing, or in the wine tent, where a pretty voice sang for you as you enjoyed some local wine from the very good Coffin Ridge. Which was strange to me at first because of the location: where most Ontario wineries are located in the Niagara region’s rich, fertile soils or further down sound closer to Leamington and Pelee Island, Coffin Ridge exists just outside of Owen Sound, just on the edge of the Muskokas. There’s something relaxing about being surrounded by a bunch of artists who, talented in their own right, you simply don’t know. It offers a chance for music as a medium to become something other than spectacle; it allows music to become a part of the organic festival entity, a part of time and space. The sounds from various tents begin to juxtapose and mix, and this is the space of that flow.

So, yes: the anticipation of seeing The Proclaimers was the first and only time that I fell out of that flow. And that was okay too. Despite the early afternoon set time, I was determined that a beer tent gig by The Proclaimers required a beer in hand, so I got a cup of Fuller’s London Pride and we sat on the ground right in front of the stage. Another workshop, Craig and Charlie Reid were joined on stage by the talented and lovely Kathleen Edwards as well as Scottish legend Archie Fisher. Edwards proved with aplomb why she receives such accolades and constant rotation on CBC Radio while Fisher was about the most charming person at the festival with his dry Scottish wit augmenting an impressively deep song catalogue of traditional folk music you could’ve sworn was a couple of hundred years old if it weren’t for the copyright stating that Archie did indeed write the tune. And then there was The Proclaimers with a guitar and two remarkably polished voices. They went through numerous hits including “I’m On My Way” and “Letter from America” as well as the first single off their latest album, Like Comedy, “Spinning Around in the Air”.

Normally when artists start to get older their voices during live performances start to show their age. The Proclaimers, however, sound exactly like they did on record in 1988. Like, exactly. Take away the late 80’s/early 90’s production with its tinny snares and its super echoey reverb and I really couldn’t tell the difference. And talk about pros. The way they syncopated and bounced their voices off one another was quite spectacular. It was a relatively short set with each artist playing four or five songs, but everyone complimented each other superbly making it a swift and enjoyable hour. By the end I was all out of Pride and there was a loud toooot sounding out, announcing, indeed, that corn’s ready! And I stumbled back into the dreamwave, the flow of the festival.

We spent much of the rest of the day wandering around in the late August heat, listening to music, playing in the splash pad, trying out instruments in the Kids’ Musical Zoo tent. I tried and will probably never try again, some bowed instruments, but I did have some fun with accordions and various things that I can sort of, kind of play in some capacity that doesn’t sound like kittens dying. We wandered down to the beach late in the evening after a delicious meal of curry from Rocky Racoon’s. We trampled across a long patch of rough wild grasses, reeds, and bulrushes to the thin strip of muddy sand that qualified as the beach shoreline. Ducks populated the sound and I waded out a few feet into the cool water. In the background it was as if all the sounds from all the tents coalesced into one drone, the flow-drone, the Summerfolk drone. The sound carried out into the Sound and the water rippled in the breeze. Dominating the southern port was the looming figure of the industrial grain silo, emblazoned orange-red in the fading sunset. Night approached and we went for one last beer, hearing a few songs from Ray Bonneville, before going back to the main stage, where we had left our blanket unguarded, marking our spot, because nobody dares defy the sanctity of the first-come-first-serve blanket space at Summerfolk.

Alex Cuba offered up some smouldering Soul-rock jams with remarkable deftness, getting the crowd prepared for The Proclaimers who were with a full band this time. Some of the songs from the earlier set made another appearance at the main stage showcase, this time bolstered by the backing drums, bass, and guitars. Everyone got up and danced and sang along when the band closed with “I Would Walk (500 Miles)”, but for me the highlight of the show was their lovely ballad “Sunshine on Leith”. The harmonies were warm and the guitars sprawling, and in that warm night sky it was such a perfect song. It was a great way to cap off a great night, and after a napless afternoon we decided that no more drinking was required and we headed back to the camper. Fully in the flow of time I drifted to sleep with thoughts of the day. By this point I knew I wanted to make the trip to Summerfolk an annual event if possible. As much for the festival’s aura as for any particular musical act. It was a fenced in part of the world that seemed to work with (some) different rules from the outside. I’m certainly romanticizing this, but that’s partly the point. What’s wrong with a little romanticization? Sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

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