Dispatches from the Live from the Rock Folk Festival (Friday)
“Well this is different,” I thought to myself, as photographer Veronica Kovacs and I parked our car on the side of the road, 50 feet or so from the entrance to the Live from the Rock Folk Festival in Red Rock, Ont.
After 20 odd years of frequenting big city folk fests, which invariably come with extended hikes from the parking lots to the festival sites, the sheer convenience of seeing live music in a town of 950 people got my night off to a good start.
Ken Yates’ set was just underway as we breezed through the gate.
Ken capped off 2017 by winning the Canadian Folk Music Awards for both New/Emerging Artist of the Year and English Songwriter of the Year – not an easy feat – so you know he’s got some serious talent. Still, a solo singer-songwriter with a guitar can have an uphill battle to command attention on a festival stage unless he’s someone like, say, Martyn Joseph – who couples tremendous personal charm with a rare ability to run the emotional gamut on stage, singing a humourous homage to West Jet one minute then going to the point of near tears in the next during any one of his heart-rending ballads. Ken Yates isn’t Martyn Joseph – yet – but he has all the raw ingredients. He’s personable on stage and tells good stories. He knows how to pace a set between lighter and more profound numbers. And when he sang his closer, the tender “I’ll Leave a Light On,” he showed us what those CFMA jurors no doubt heard on his record: raw emotion, a nuanced vocal delivery, and a profound ability to connect with his listeners. It was lovely. Absolutely lovely. And it sounded great.
“Who IS the sound guy?” I thought to myself.
Keyboard-playing singer-songwriter Jenie Thai is charming and effervescent on stage, and she’s got a voice that can seemingly do anything – from raunchy blues growls to gospel-like swoops to tender lullabies. At times, her voice made me recall young Michelle Shocked. On record, Jenie had struck me as quirky above all else. Live she has some gravitas.
Kelly Lefaive of Georgian Bay guested on violin for much of Jenie’s set, and the other half of Georgian Bay, Joëlle Westman, came out for a couple of songs to contribute to some three-part harmony arrangements that could rival the Wailin’ Jennys.
“Who IS the sound guy?” I thought to myself, again, noting the flawless, studio quality mix of the women’s voices.
By far the stand-out of Jenie’s set was her song “Dreamers and Lovers,” a brand new song, she told us, arranged for the three voices. If this is the direction Jenie’s songwriting is headed, she’s got a bright future ahead of her.
Next up: The Lonesome Ace String Band.
Let’s face it, the only reason a small-town festival in Red Rock can afford three veteran musicians this great is that traditional-sounding Appalachian-style music just ain’t ever going to sell out a stadium no matter how good it is. And these guys are good.
Banjo-picker Chris Coole, fiddler John Showman, and bassist Max Heineman are, hands down, three of the finest traditional musicians in the country, in-demand teachers and session musicians and current and former members of the Creaking Tree String Quartet, New Country Rehab, the Foggy Hogtown Boys and David Francey’s band.
Consummate entertainers the three of them, they took turns introducing their songs and tunes and executed their mix of traditional and original numbers like the seasoned pros they are, playing and harmonizing around a pair of mics.
Audience members responded by getting up and dancing at the side of the stage, while rookie artistic director John-Paul De Roover stood nearby looking satisfied.
Compared to the two previous acts, who are brimming with talent but are still in the process of growing and refining it, the Lonesome Aces, have nothing left to prove. Their set was as good as anything you’ll see on a major international stage because they’ve played major international stages.
It was the highlight of our evening.
Next up was Raine Hamilton, whose first name is pronounced like “rainy,” but she assured the audience she was no relation to the oncoming storm visible on the horizon as she started her set.
The petite, Mohawk-sporting singer and bandleader describes her sound as “chamber folk,” and that’s a good description of the abbreviated performance she gave Friday night.
She has a powerful, complex, slightly melancholic voice that at times recalls Sinead O’Connor’s, and she performs as a trio with a bassist and cellist whose contributions elevate her stronger songs to the level of pure gorgeousness.
It was during Raine’s set that my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I wandered over to the sound board to see who was behind it. His name is John Cookshaw, I was told, and he’s from Winnipeg.
It can’t be cheap to bring a sound guy from Winnipeg to Red Rock for a weekend – nine hours away on the highway – but what a smart investment. If you’re a smaller-budget festival whose line-up is flush with emerging artists, what better way to show love for both your audience and your performers than by making the show sound like a million bucks?
As Raine launched into her set, audible ooohs and aaaahs began rising up from the audience periodically – not because of anything Raine was doing on stage, but because the sky to the northwest was lighting up like a fireworks display from a storm that was headed our way.
I should probably pause here to mention that Red Rock is an hour east of Thunder Bay, and Thunder Bay is so-named for a reason. The thunder and lightning storms are frequent and often spectacular.
Around 20 minutes or so into Raine’s set, her bassist Quintin Bart picked up a hurdy gurdy to accompany her on a tribute to Hildegard Von Bingen called “For Hildegard,” which contained nods to early music and art song. It may not have been Raine’s intended closer but it left me wanting more as Cookshaw ordered the band off the stage for safety reasons.
The storm was now nine minutes away, according to the AccuWeather app on Veronica’s phone.
At first I had hoped to ride it out and see what would happen next. John Cookshaw graciously agreed to store my computer and recording gear in his sound tent, and Veronica and I carried our chairs over to the merch tent hoping to take cover until the worst was over. I will confess here that my rain strategy derives from years of attending festivals in much larger cities, where one’s car, if one has even bothered to bring it instead of relying on public transit, is likely in a parking lot a kilometer’s walk away and not readily available.
Standing in the tent, watching the assembled crowd evacuating, Veronica reminded me that our car was “just over there,” and maybe that was a better place to sit through the storm.
I fetched my valuables from John and we raced to the car as the torrential downpour began.
As we dried off in our seats, AccuWeather informed us that the storm was due to last 111 minutes, in other words, pretty well the duration of evening.
We made the difficult decision to head back to Thunder Bay and prepare for our drive to Ear Falls the next day for the Trout Forest Music Festival.
Before I end this, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a note about the food.
Veronica loves mini donuts possibly more than life itself. I’m a vegan. Both of us left the festival happy. A church group operating a food stand on site offered plenty of options for those hoping to avoid the burgers fries and poutines that dominate outdoor events. Its menu included chicken Caesar salads, meatballs, rice and a vegan bean casserole, which was delicious, thank you. The mini donut concession offered three varieties: cinnamon, chocolate and caramel. Of course, there were burgers, fries and poutines too.
“I’m on my way to the garbage can. Do you want me to take that for you?” asked a complete stranger pointing to the empty paper plate next to my chair after I was finished eating.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Talk about small-town friendliness and hospitality.”
Live from the Rock continues through Saturday and Sunday with stars of the folk world such as Lynn Miles and Ian Tamblyn, along with some wonderful up-and-comers such as Halifax indies Hillsburn and Thunder Bay singer-songwriter Emily Kohne.
Watch for Veronica Kovacs’ photo album from the northwestern Ontario festivals this week!