Back to the Garden at Winterfolk

Road veteran Jay Aymar was one of many acts showcased this past weekend at Winterfolk’s 10th anniversary festival in Toronto, held for the first time at the Delta Chelsea Hotel. Jay’s keen eye makes this post, from the performer’s perspective, a charming capsule of the weekend. There’s more where that came from on his excellent blog, Jay Aymar – Road Stories.

I walk through the big glass revolving door and am met with two small children having their faces painted by a friendly looking teenage girl. They appear happily innocent as they stand beside their proud parents awaiting the next activity. Their parents, of Japanese origin, wait and watch closely as they fight off the requests for ‘more popcorn’ from the big bright red machine pumping out corn and wafting this scent into the lobby. I enjoy this smell of popcorn in the context of a movie theatre on a Saturday night or during an afternoon stroll through an amusement park. It’s Saturday morning and I’m still trying to dust off the Friday night shenanigans and find a cup of tar to improve my chances.

As I sit waiting for my band mates to arrive, the Japanese father smiles and walks toward me. Knowing I have my ‘Artist’ badge firmly pinned into lapel, I reassure myself that this will be a friendly inquiry as to what stage I will be performing on and at what time. “Excuse me? Elevators?” I notice how he struggles with every syllable and annunciates each word slowly yet perfectly. Never one to let these moments pass, I respond “I believe they are over there” pointing as if truly knowing. “So where are you from?” “Japan – on vacation” he replies. “Arrived today!” Without further notice, he walks his wife and two rainbow painted children down the hallway. The neon green luggage rolls along with them as they disappear through the maze of hotel guests checking in for the weekend.

Suddenly my band mates arrive and we are asked to join two sound technicians for a noon-hour sound check. We all feel it. The blood is yet to be pumping through our musical veins. It’s bright – the ambient noise is everywhere – we collectively retreat into our own headspace to bear down for the ride ahead. We realize the obstacles and intuitively know this is a time for silence and quiet acceptance. We will patiently wait out the sound check, perform the show and likely go our separate ways soon afterwards. This is, of course, what happens.

I am listed in the festival program as performing at 1:00pm in the Market Garden Stage and here I am. “The Market Garden…The Market Garden…” I repeat to myself. The words have me reflecting on Joni ‘s Woodstock and before you know it, I’m thinking about the two children having their faces painted…the popcorn machine…the one brightly decorated woman dancing around the lobby as if at a Grateful Dead concert.

From this stage, as we set up our instruments, I see the metal sign arching over the Starbucks coffee station ‘Market Garden’ and I’m beginning to see how this show might unfold. Three hotel servers huddle around a wet bar, setting up throngs of plastic water and juice bottles for sale. Morning hotel guests suddenly inhabit the cafeteria to enjoy their double-half-caf-decaf espresso latte – cookie combo while perusing the latest METRO issue. The clickety-clack of luggage wheels, rolling toward the elevator …the occasional blender grinding in the distance…the clanging of forks and knives being polished and repositioned…the wailing of children running out of beeping elevator doors.

Suddenly, the emcee of this stage greets me to run through the pending introduction. I quickly revise his intro to ensure he states that although I’ve been living in Toronto for twenty years, I was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, ON not Saint Catherine’s as might be suggested. (There is a significant difference I’ll have you know!) The crowd momentarily stops to watch with anticipation and we break into a heart-felt rendition of ‘All I Know’. My bass player, acknowledging the potential damaging psychological effects of our task at hand kindly states during the musical intro “I love this song Jay”.

”Thanks buddy” I reply.

As the songs drift by, we effortlessly perform them as we have so many times before. We are waking up in the third song and by the fifth song, we are in stride. I look out to the crowd and more friendly faces have shuffled in. Time evaporates. We are given the ‘five minute sign’ from stage left and end with a slow but fitting song – Passing Through. I look off to the right of the Market Garden wrought-iron fencing and see the Japanese family with their faces pressed through the bars watching intensely. Through the bricks, mortar and iron fencing as though symbolizing some cultural divide, I feel the crumbling of nations. I hear their applause and give them a wave.

As strange as it is, we are at a folk festival in the heart of winter in the core of Toronto and although seemingly absurd it appears this organic music is working within this context. Glorious nations are linking and prejudices are evaporating. The Japanese family enthusiastically waves back. Perhaps we’ve have found our way back to the garden (albeit one with five dollar croissants!)

After the set, I square up with my band mates and head off for a solo performance down the hall to the right in the Monarch Pub. It’s a song circle where four songwriters will rotate their musings – usually to a theme. This one is focused on story-telling in a song. Perfect! Right up my narritave alley. I generally don’t do well walking around during my off-stage time. (I remember Carolyn Mark referring to this feeling as off-stage fright! Perfect).

I find a quiet plush chair in the back corner to await my time to join the pending song circle. It is quieter in here. It’s dimly lit and folks are here for the music. As the song circle unfolds, I am surprised to find some familiar faces in the audience. Some have come in from Port Hope, Ottawa and even Buffalo, NY. Strangely enough they’ve been to my shows. As we near the end, I’m listening to another’s song gazing out toward the sea of shadowy faces and in the distance I see the Japanese family, standing outside of the pub, watching and waving. I casually gesture a quiet head nod back and try as I might to refocus on the words of my fellow storyteller singing her song. Then, once more, as if in a split second – it’s over.

Where are my car keys? I have to get to the parking lot to pay the attendant? I need to get my guitars out of the cold? Where is there a bank machine? How do I get back to the Don Valley Parking Lot? As I’m hurrying out of the hotel toward my car, I feel a friendly tap on my shoulder. The father of the Japanese family says “Thank you!” They collectively bow. I offer a hand shake to all of them. “Thank YOU!” I reply. We part ways as though we’re two foreign diplomats who’ve done a solid days work of nation building. Folk music –working its magic at the Delta Chelsea Hotel. Where else but in the centre of the universe.

You better believe it – I’ll remember them well at the Chelsea Hotel.

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  1. Richard Flohil 21 February, 2012 at 15:25

    Lovely yarn from Jay — but in the intro you describe him as one of many “acts” at Winterfolk. Maybe it’s just me, but an “act” is a girl in a tuto balancing on a pony in the circus, or a pennywhistle player who makes bird noises, or a stripper who takes her cloths off in a “gentleman’s club” on Yonge Street. Singers and songwriters are not “acts” but “artists” — and bands are bands, or groups, not “acts.”

  2. brent mason 21 February, 2012 at 15:52

    great writing – you certainly brought it to life – i could really picture the setting as we were there for the cfma’s in before christmas. thanks jay!

  3. David Newland 21 February, 2012 at 16:28

    True, a songwriter is an artist and a band is a band, or a group.

    But what’s the collective noun to describe artists and bands?

    ‘Acts’ does nicely. Several dictionaries agree.

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