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Summerfolk is seating audiences at intimate venues and bringing the artists to them

The Youth Discoveries workshop at Summerfolk 2018. Photo by Alison Corbett.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The next time a global pandemic hits us, the music business is going to be so ready.

Faced with the sudden and devastating cancelation of tours and festivals around the world last March, artists and promoters have experimented with new ways of bringing music to audiences, and some of what they’ve come up with is so great, I hope we stick with these ideas.

Take for instance Summerfolk in Owen Sound, which unfolds this year Aug. 21 and 22.

Instead of adopting your standard festival format, in which fans hop from stage to stage to see different performers – arguably not a wise plan with the threat of the Delta variant looming – fans will be staying put at each of around 17 small venues while the artists come to them.

“It was all kind of inspired by the fact that I was doing backyard concerts in my place here in Perth last year,” explained James Keelaghan, the Juno-winning Canadian folk favourite who serves as the festival’s artistic director. “And then when I got down to Owen Sound in September to have a strategizing meeting for what we were going to do for 2021, I was on the back deck of my operations manager’s house, and I looked at his back yard, and I said, ‘Hey, you know we could do this in your back yard.”

About half of the venues for this year’s Summerfolk are indeed people’s back yards, while the rest are either smaller halls or tents erected in public spaces, James explained.

Summerfolk artistic director James Keelaghan. Photo by Jen Squires.

Concerts will run from 1 to 4 p.m. each day at each of the venues, and audiences will get to see three sets during that time.

“So if you go to one of our locations, which is the Creamery Hills Farm, you’ll get a set from Danny Michel… probably a local act, and then Kelly Prescott,” James said.

One of the larger halls will play host to the only workshop-like show of the festival, a songwriter round featuring David Sereda, Lori Cullen and Coco Love Alcorn.

The festival is selling tickets to individual venues for individual days, so fans will need to decide what they want to see each day and buy tickets to those specific venues. At best, they will get to see live sets by six of the more than 45 performers booked.

“When we do the audience surveys at the end of the festival, the number one comment is, ‘I couldn’t see everything,’ so we’re just being the same as we always are,” said James, a smile audible in his voice.

As for the artists, the marquee acts will play just two shows on a single day of the festival, James said, one at one o’clock and one at three o’clock.

Danny Michel is one of this year’s Summerfolk performers.

He only booked artists who lived within a three-hour radius of Owen Sound so that they could do their shows as a day-trip, he explained.

“We didn’t want to have a situation where we were packing people into a hotel, cuz you know performers. Put ‘em in a hotel, you know what they’re going to do,” said James, a veteran of packed late-night hotel jam sessions at music conferences.

Summerfolk volunteers will be serving as ushers at the small concerts, helping seat people in a physically-distanced fashion.

Dancing is not allowed, James said, while acknowledging that that will be hard on people at some of the shows.

“We have like Okan playing, and we’ve got Shakura S’Aida playing, and we’ve got Skydiggers playing,” he said, “But you know, no dancing.”

There is still a streaming component to the festival each evening after the live entertainment wraps up. Anyone with a ticket to a live venue gets admission to the stream automatically.

But this year is about much more than streaming, James said.

“The virtual thing just wasn’t really going to cut it for us,” he said. “We really wanted to try and get live music out to people.”


  1. Sorry, James, but the whole little venue thing sounds like a pain in the keester. Peace and joy, my friend. Maybe next will be a bit more normal. Best wishes to all! See ya somewhere… george t mermagen from Rochester, NY area


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