this article originally ran in the owen sound sun times on August 10, 2021
Written by James Keelaghan
Something that Summerfolk audiences have come to expect is the workshop. Because it’s such a fixture of our festival, and most festivals across the country, some people are surprised to find out that it’s a Canadian invention. In fact I have to explain to artists who are visiting us from other countries just what the concept is about.
It is true that the Newport Folk Festival presented workshops from their earliest days, but they were more instructional. The workshop that we are used to, where a number of performers share a stage and a common theme, comes to us from the legendary Artistic Director of the Mariposa Folk Festival, Estelle Klein. In 1964, Estelle paired a twenty-five year old up-and-comer named Gordon Lightfoot with the legendary Mississippi John Hurt and a Canadian model was born.
As folk festivals proliferated across Canada in the 1970s many of them adopted the Klein model of workshops, grouping performers under the banner of themes, giving them a time slot and letting them take it from there. It was a brilliant concept, largely because it trusted the musicians to work it out themselves.
So it was that I had a conversation with Coco Love Alcorn and David Sereda. I had them booked into the Harmony Centre for a Saturday afternoon show for this year’s festival and sensed that they were eager to do something more than a regular concert set. Both exceptional performers, but they are also performers with big open hearts and a desire for collaboration and cooperation.
I first heard David when he released his Chivalry Lives album in 1981. He was living in Edmonton and I was just starting to cut my teeth in the folk scene in Calgary. The honesty and bravery of that album impressed my circle of friends and we would catch him when he came to town. Since that release, David has defied pigeonholing. Over his career, he has been a singer, songwriter, actor, pianist, composer, voice coach, producer and educator.
In his heart, he’s a collaborator. Since moving to Grey County a few years ago, David’s been with the community arts company, Sheatre, where he worked on the musical TOM with Joan Chandler, based on the life of Tom Thomson working with novelist Anne Micheals.
When booking talent for festivals, I always make sure there are performers that I refer to as “spark plugs” — artists who can help other artists come together. They are the people who can take a workshop into the stratosphere. Coco Love Alcorn is that kind of artist.
When she released her CD Wonderland, Coco wrote, “Everything I’ve ever done has led me to here, to Wonderland, a collection of songs that are an invitation to connect, an invitation to sing,…” She was right. If you’ve attended a Coco Love concert, you know that you are part of the show. That everything that happens in the room is part of a conversation between Coco and the audience.
If you’ve ever seen her in a workshop, you know that she creates such an open, welcoming atmosphere that the other performers can’t help but be swept up by. Coco loves improvisation and the key to improvisation is listening. She has, as they say, big ears. I know that I can drop her amongst any group of performers at the festival and it will end up being a great jam.
When I had that conversation with David and Coco, they both expressed the same sentiment about the Harmony Centre show — how can we make this collaborative? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a third voice into the mix to stretch things a bit? They both suggested Toronto singer-songwriter, Lori Cullen.
Lori is a great choice as a third for the workshop. She honed her skills hosting the open mic nights at the famed Free Times Cafe in Toronto and has always been open to the spirit of collaboration.
When Lori was in the depth of a covid funk last year, with work evaporating and worries mounting, she did what all good spark plugs do — they call on a spark plug. Lori asked her friend, Ari Posner to send her a piano track for inspiration. For the next few weeks they collaborated at a distance on a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. It’s how she copes, she says.
She’s done projects with some of the finest in the business from The Free Design’s Chris Dedrick to Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallet. Things came full circle in a way last year when two of Canada’s finer songwriters, Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer collaborated on writing an album’s worth of songs — Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs — for her to sing.
So, the stage is set. Three fine, open, and talented collaborators. Three hours of stage time. Sounds like a workshop.
Coco Love Alcorn, David Sereda and Lori Cullen will be on stage for a once in a lifetime workshop at the Harmony Centre, Saturday, August 21st as part of this year’s Summerfolk.
The Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival happens all around Owen Sound on August 20th, 21st and 22nd. Information can be found at summerfolk.org.