Home Feature Dispatches from Northern Lights Festival Boreal day one: Thursday

Dispatches from Northern Lights Festival Boreal day one: Thursday

A close up of the Strumbellas singer singing into the mic.
Strumbellas. Photo by Marcia McVean.

Drove up yesterday afternoon from Georgian Bay to Sudbury through rain and wind, holding on tight to the steering wheel. Of course the festival would begin tonight rain or shine, so I headed out with a bag full of rain gear to check out the musicians scheduled for opening night. Bell Park has hosted the festival since its beginning in 1972, offering 500-plus seats, and grass seating for an additional 1400, at a venue on the shores of Ramsey Lake. I’m told by long-time volunteers that folks will be swimming throughout the festival and that it’s a wonderful thing to hear the music out in the lake. I plan to give that a try!

The rain let up into a light drizzle while festival-goers trickled in. Hardcore and family fans were in attendance for Spice Islands, a Sudbury four-piece indie soul band. Their set was lively with driving, joyful original tunes. With a delicious shawarma in hand from on-site vendors Damascas, I especially enjoyed the band’s soon-to-be-released “Mean Things,” with dynamic guitar and vocal interplay. Lead singer Emily Fraser will appear again with her acoustic trio, The Cloves, on Sunday. I look forward to more of her sweet shiny vocals.

A man in an orange jump suit plays electric guitar in the left of the frame. To the right, a singer sporting a black buzz cut, and a sleeveless top and pants that are black fabric on one side and black/white animal printed fabric on the other stands at a microphone with her hands raised to the front and side of her head expressively.
Spice Islands. Photo by Marcia McVean.

Steve and the Royal Motel took the stage next; it’s a four-piece alt rock band of hometown players. The power of Steve Caruso’s rich, warm voice burned off the last of the rain, hitting the right spots with soulful tunes. The band added sultry, thunderous rhythms and stirring guitar to singer-songwriter openness.

Andrea Ramolo appeared next with Kalascima, a musical outfit from southern Italy, featuring a wonderful array of Mediterranean instruments. They offered layers of bazouki, Italian bagpipes, goat-skinned drums, horns and searing vocals with electronic undertones. Andrea started the set announcing to the audience that we would be dancing, and she was right! She twirled and swooned us all up onto our feet!

Andrea Ramalo is dancing to the right of the frame while a bandmate, centre, plays horn and another, left, plays percussion.
Andrea Ramolo. Photo by Marcia McVean.

By this point in the evening, the amphitheatre was filling up with folks of all ages, no doubt for the headliners, the beloved Strumbellas. I may be the only Canadian that didn’t really know The Strumbellas, save for “Spirits.” I had no idea the beauty of this band would take me through a range of emotions as I rocked out with the crowd. They reach out in so many ways, with impeccable musicianship and songs that lay out passion from the start yet continue to build. The impact on the crowd is almost evangelical as they speak to the soul from their five-man/woman line up, their drummer anchoring their sound in the back. The audience received it all, co-creating a culture of love and honour that upholds the spirit. It hit me that, though new to the band, lead singer Jimmy Chauveau is a true front man. He hasn’t taken over; it’s just the archetype that is living in him. What pure joy to behold! It’s magical enjoyment like this that is the gold of music festival alchemy.

Two festival stages will be alive tonight followed by an additional two acts at the Townehouse Tavern. The main stage offers a Franco/Indigenous program, so I plan to start my musical journey with Laura Niquay, an Atikamekw artist from north of Montreal, who guides audiences in her Indigenous language through the values of her culture. The Stef Paquette Symphonique follows on the mainstage at 8 p.m., which I’ll attend for a blast of humour and showmanship. Zap Mama is not to be missed, playing just after 9 p.m. on the mainstage. Though limited as an Anglophone in my ability to comprehend her lyrics, I imagine getting a blast of glamour and wisdom from this Belgian Afropop musician, who has strived to bridge African and European cultures through music for over 30 years. Gracing the main stage at 10:30 is Zachary Richard, an international musician, poet, cultural and environmental activist with over 20 records to his name. I may not understand too many words, but I have no doubt the transmission of his message will happen!

It’s going to be a late one tonight, as both acts playing at the Townehouse look fantastic. At 11 p.m. Sudbury’s Tessa Balaz steps onto the stage with her band. With a decade spent on writing and production teams for Drake, the Weeknd, etc. this should be a special treat. And finally at midnight, Mehdi Cayenne hits the Townehouse stage to share his musical medicine gathered all over Canada and Europe, in various venues including state prisons. I’m planning to keep going to see this show. Who can resist a disarmingly vulnerable punk-funk crooner in the middle of the night?

On Saturday and Sunday the festival offers four stages, with workshops and family programming, along with the Canvas Cabaret and main stages with music till midnight. Musical highlights include Tom Savage, Martha Wainwright, Valdy and Sloan among many others. On Sunday admission is free!


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