A Folkie at North by Northeast

Billed as a forum for new music discovery and networking, North by Northeast (NXNE) takes over Toronto every June, blanketing the city with posters and pamphlets, filling clubs and concert halls with a steady stream of live music, and offering up a full schedule of discussion panels, film screenings, and industry parties.

This year marked my third appearance at NXNE. As a solo singer-songwriter, I had always been scheduled to perform at the Free Times Cafe. A small, intimate venue widely known to present folk music, the location was appropriate and I was happy to showcase on the stage that gave me my very first Toronto gig years ago.

With over 500 acts performing and a wide range of music genres represented at NXNE, a gal with an acoustic guitar at a folk club admittedly gets lost in the flurry of rock spectacles and big name headliners. After my first showcase in 2008, I quickly learned that no amount of press releases or publicity that I stirred up on my own could ever compete in the fray.

Instead of attempting to get noticed in the grand scheme of the festival, in my experience, the key was to focus on the showcase night and treat it like any other gig, regardless of the timeslot, and just play a great show. NXNE has been a fantastic opportunity to play alongside some of my favourite musicians and hear and meet new acts. I’ve made contacts at NXNE that led to future performance opportunities and shared gigs. And in the folk community, these genuine personal relationships have the most value anyway.

A recent initiative has seen the festival expand outside the club schedule to include a series of free, public concerts at Pearson Airport, Union Station, and various city parks. I had the pleasure of playing a set in Bellevue Square on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and while the usual challenges of outdoor sound abided, it was a fun, laid-back show and an accessible preview leading up to the festival.

This year, I was especially impressed with the well-thought out programming. Similar acts were presented together, at venues that were known for a particular genre of music, as though any regular could walk into their favourite haunt and get treated to exactly the kind of music they were expecting.

The heart of any music festival is its tireless and enthusiastic volunteers. From the stage manager at my showcase, whose excitement for the night’s lineup (which included Robbie Hancock, Mandippal, Shawn Clarke, and David Leask) could be heard over the phone during my check-in call, to the gals working the door  — their heartfelt words at 2:00 am surpassed any feelings of exhaustion.

Whether it was a dark, sweaty bar, an airport arrivals gate, or the expanse of Yonge-Dundas Square, the music was always at the root of this year’s NXNE, complete with the exuberance and energy of everyone who was a part of it.

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