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Be Kind rewind: the Be Kind Festival Jan. 17-19 at the Tranzac, Toronto

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Simone Morris at Be Kind. Photo by Paul Corby.

It’s that time of year when most people need a very good reason to go out. This past weekend, the people at Speak Music gave us just that with the inaugural Be Kind Festival, a three-day event with 51 performers on three different stages at Toronto’s Tranzac.  The organizer’s proudly claim that it is the first gender-balanced festival of its kind in Canada – something to be proud of indeed, although it is a sad fact if it has taken this long for the feat to be accomplished. Hopefully it becomes the standard occurrence at festivals of the future.   

There’s a risk in hosting any event in January in Canada because of the likelihood of bad weather. Unfortunately, the worst snowstorm of the season hit the city over the weekend.  As I trudged through the snow on Saturday afternoon, I wondered how many, if any, would make it to the Tranzac. On arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to see that numerous hardy, like-minded souls had braved the winter conditions and made it.  My heart was warmed instantly with a friendly welcome from volunteers and the sound of music already emanating from the various rooms.

I wandered into the Southern Cross Room where the Jamzac Open Jam was already in full swing.  It featured a large circle of players harmonizing, picking and smiling their way through old-time, bluegrass and folk tunes. It was the perfect snapshot of what the festival is all about: bringing people together through music regardless of race, gender or age. 

Eager to see The Lifers (from Guelph, ON) I went to the mainstage. Fronted by talented multi-instrumentalist sisters Liv and Anita Cazzola, The Lifers, charmingly dealt with troublesome sound to deliver a compelling set, laughing off occasional feedback as “the ghosts in the room”.

Next on the mainstage, was Toronto native and Tranzac regular, Abigail Lapell. The award-winning singer-songwriter treated the audience to road stories, accounts of alien life and songs predominantly from her most recent album, Getaway. She was joined on stage by Anna Horvath (a.k.a Merival) on backing vocals, which complimented her unique sound and brought an added dimension to the performance. 

Festival-goers really were spoiled for choice with so much talent on show, intimate performances, song circles and workshops all happening simultaneously over the three days. Many of the performers were paired together for amusingly-titled showcases, sharing their perspectives and approaches to song-writing and music in a much more intimate and informal setting.  I can only imagine how good Fiddlin’ Fury, featuring Dr. Draw and Anne Lederman, must have been – or Sunday’s Blues Rockin’ Roots featuring Julian Taylor, Kim Doolittle and Ken Yoshioka.  

For me, the highlight of the night was Lydia Persaud. Her soulful voice seduced me within moments of hearing it. Judging by the response of the attentive audience, I wasn’t the only one captivated by her seemingly effortless vocal ability. Accompanied by talented vocalists James Bailey and Kyla Charter, harmonies soared and intertwined over Lydia’s sophisticated ukulele playing. It should be no surprise that tight harmonies and hooky backing vocals are a feature of Lydia’s songs, given that she is a member of Toronto’s folk trio the O’Pears. Introducing her songs from her recent album Let Me Show You, she was frank, funny and candid about love and inevitable heartbreak while touching on the personal realities of facing gender and race issues. Lydia may not have grown up listening to CBC radio, but she is now a born again advocate of the broadcaster since her single, “Low Light,” started getting heavy rotation. It’s a classic in waiting. 

From the mainstage, Lydia joined Chloe Charles of ECHLO in the Tiki Room.  Dubbed “New Soul Directions,” the workshop’s title left lots of room for interpretation.  No one, including the artists, could define what the performance was supposed to be, but it exceeded all expectations. It was an intimate back-and-forth between the two talented songstresses, who often abandoned preconceived selections to perform songs as a direct reaction to the song they had just heard. Chloe, who would later close the night’s proceedings on the mainstage with ECHLO, delved into her back catalog and even performed one of the first songs she had ever written: “Snowflake.” It was fitting given the conditions outside. 

While a few were settling in and getting cozy by the Tiki Room fire, things were heating up on the mainstage with Ginger St. James and her band.  The performance had people jumping on the dance floor and talking about it in the aftermath. With the crowd primed to party, Johnson Crook was up next and took full advantage. Their boisterous supporters from Manitoba were in full voice for “Minnedosa,” an ode to the small provincial town. The hand-clapping and foot-stomping didn’t end there, as the band played a medley that included segments of classic hits “Cecilia” and “Fat Bottomed Girls.”  

Hard to believe that there was still more music to come and all for $20 – yes $20!! Or $15 in advance for the weekend if you were thinking ahead. Unbelievable. Incredible.  Incredible too that the net profits from the festival were to be distributed to the Unison Benevolent Fund, which provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community. Find out more and donate at www.unisonfund.ca

Folk duo Tragedy Ann took over the Southern Cross room with sweet sounds and tales of young love while on the mainstage. Then, to paraphrase Monty Python, it was “time for something completely different.” A self-proclaimed “Doctor of Chaos,” Dr. Draw, clad in a colourful ensemble akin to a rock’n’roll circus performer, could not be accused of holding anything back.  His bow was ragged and thread-bare by the end of the set. His gold electric violin was only outshone by its master’s performance. Dr.Draw and his band weren’t confined by genre, tip-toeing the line between classical and jazz, stepping in and out of rock, only to triumphantly swan-dive into disco by the end of the set. They were deserving of an audience of 50,000 rather than the 50 or so that were there. Lucky for us in attendance, I doubt they would have performed any differently.

We retired to the Tiki Room, with its winged-back chairs, floral wallpaper, fireplace, and feline wall hangings and ornaments for the final workshop of the night. Ginger St.James and Abby Zotz explored their “Work Town Roots” through song.  Even without a band, I quickly understood why Ginger had been such a hit earlier in the night. Cheeky, fun, and likable, she not only possesses a great voice but writes some great songs too. 

There you have it. A full and memorable day at SPEAK Music’s inaugural Be Kind Festival.  Hopefully, it’s the first of many year. Next year, I’ll be marking my calendar and returning for the entire weekend of events.

Lesson for the day: Don’t let a little snow stop you. Go out, have fun and … be kind

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