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Natalie MacMaster and Bruce Cockburn

Natalie MacMaster and Bruce Cockburn at Summerfolk

By James Keelaghan

You have to understand that there was a full-tilt party going on. The performers’ bar was like a who’s who of Folk Music — Paul Brady, Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, Aly Bain and Garrison Keillor. The volume was indescribable. People were packed in shoulder to shoulder amidst the fug of cigarette smoke and the cracking of plastic pint glasses. Tables were placed in rough concentric circles around the bar.

She was sitting at a table in the outer-most ring, her eyes hidden beneath the peak of a ball cap. In front of her were some textbooks and notebooks. The seats across from her were empty. A guitar player in Lennie Gallant’s band, Chris Corrigan and I sat down opposite her.
“ What are you doing, Natalie ?” I asked.
“ Studying for my exams,” she replied.
“ What? Here?” I asked incredulously.
“ They’re not going to take themselves.”

I ran into Natalie MacMaster a lot that summer. She was riding high. She was getting main stage slots all across the country and in Europe as well. She was clearly on the edge of breaking big, of becoming the new Canadian fiddling icon, yet she was focused enough to keep up with her studies.

The summer after that, in 1996, she made her only appearance at Summerfolk. She’s been away too long and, after 20 years she’ll be returning to Summerfolk41. A lot has changed since that smoky bar in Denmark 21 years ago, but she has never lost her focus. She knows what she wants and is willing to do the hard work necessary to get it.

Natalie MacMaster Photo 1

Natalie MacMaster will play Sunday, August 21.

All that makes her sound rather serious, but she’s not. She has a great sense of humour and is as much fun as you would imagine someone who was raised in the kitchen party atmosphere of Cape Breton should be–as long as you catch her when she isn’t studying.

Consider this: Her uncle was the legendary Buddy MacMaster, her mother and father are both musicians, her cousin is Ashley MacIsaac and another cousin is renowned fiddler, Andrea Beaton. She comes by the music honestly — it’s an integral part of her. When you watch Natalie, you are not watching one person — you are watching generations of players who have all contributed to what she is now. She’s aware of that history, but she wears it easily.

The best thing about of Natalie MacMaster is that she measures success not by ticket sales or CD downloads. Success is time spent with her family, in hard work completed, and the power of music. Natalie is busy, amongst everything else, raising a family of five.

I grew up in a family a little larger than that. Not being blessed with infinite amounts of space, the way the kids were distributed about the house was a complex algorithm of age and gender. As boys, my brother and I were assigned bedrooms in the basement early on. Strange music would waft down from the bedrooms above and some of the tunes would stick. Going to the Country became the soundtrack of my twelfth summer — a tune I sang quietly while watching the prairies roll away through the back window of the Custom Suburban station wagon. So began my relationship with Bruce Cockburn. It’s been ongoing for over 40 years.

Bruce is the embodiment of the Canadian acoustic music scene for the past four decades. He’s never been content to plough one crop and, by turns in his life, he has been a solo acoustic player, an electric player, a bandleader and a social justice advocate. That is the secret to his longevity as a figure on the Canadian cultural scene — the ability to explore new sounds and new approaches to writing.

Bruce Cockburn will play on Saturday, August 20.

Bruce Cockburn will play on Saturday, August 20.

As a songwriter, there is no mistaking his style, sometimes as regular as any Tin Pan Alley pro, sometimes spilling out lyrics in an unrestrained flow where the words tug and push at the margins. As a guitar player, he has inspired a couple of generations of players. Learning to play Foxglove is a rite of passage for most young Canadian guitarists.

He’s not afraid of politics. We’re living in an era where there is pressure on live artists to leave politics out of the performance. Bruce retains a devotion to a folk singer’s responsibility to sing about issues. He has always done so. From songs like Gavin’s Woodpile or Going Down Slow– another station wagon favourite — to the debate-inducing If I Had a Rocket Launcher, he’s never been afraid to put his ethical heart on his sleeve.

Nor, has he left out the spirit. There is often a note of searching in his songs, a longing for the calm at the centre of the human experience.

Despite the fact that he has been part of my life for so long, to me he is still enigmatic. My memories of him backstage at festivals are from a distance, a solitary figure walking and deep in thought. He is soft-spoken and considered. In another age, he might have been a cloistered poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins.

We are especially happy to welcome Bruce Cockburn and Natalie MacMaster back to Summerfolk after too long an absence. Come on out and enjoy them, but don’t bug them if they are studying.

Bruce plays on Saturday, August 20 and Natalie on Sunday, August 21. You can get information and see schedules at summerfolk.org

big tent

Where the music happens

By James Keelaghan

When you talk about folk festivals, music is essential, but really it’s all about the space.

In 1992, I played the Tønder Festival in Denmark for the first time. That festival was a week after the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival in Nova Scotia, so rather than go home to Calgary in between, I went directly to Denmark. I hung out in Copenhagen for a few days and then went down to Tønder.Main-Telt-Tonder

It’s a small town — 6,000 people at most, but tens of thousands descend on it for a weekend of music.The town doesn’t have a concert facility for that large a crowd and so, in a square on a field at the edge of town, they set up two circus tents. One holds about 3,500 people and the other 1,500.

After I’d spent half a day seeing everything I could see in the town, I went to the festival office and asked if there was anything I could do to pitch in. They looked at me sideways and then gave me to a guy named Neils. He took me to the bigger of the two tents and I spent a pleasant day tying off the acoustic baffling that would be hoisted into the roof of the tent.

The tent was amazing! It was completely empty with no seating. The stage and sound gear hadn’t been installed. It was just a big canvas shell.Over the next two days, crews transformed it into concert hall. It was beautifully lit, had great sight Main Stage Telt 1lines and a powerful, well run sound system.

Ever since then, I have had my eye on the spaces that music happens in. A well thought-out site with great well-run venues are essential for a successful event.

One of the undoubted stars of Summerfolk last year was the new Down by the Bay tent. Since starting as Artistic Director of Summerfolk, I’ve wanted to bring in some clear span tents. I’ve seen them, and performed in them, at festivals in Europe and Australia but have never encountered them at a Canadian folk festival.

It’s taller and more open than the tent we used for years in that space. That’s because it has no interior poles. The structure of the tent makes it easier to hang lights meaning that we can light the roof of the tent and the stage without bringing in additional scaffolding. The result is a space that inspires and welcomes. It transforms the space into a proper concert hall.

big tent

Looking into the Down By the Bay tent.

I really wanted to have the tent in our licensed area. Veterans of the festival call it the “Beer” tent. We call it the “Down By the Bay” tent because “Beer” tent just doesn’t reflect all that goes on in that space. It’s a place for high-energy music — just ask anyone who danced to Delhi 2 Dublin or The Mackenzie Blues Band last year.

20150823-1073 d2d in beer

Delhi2Dublin inspired a high energy dance party Down By the Bay at Summerfolk40

It allows for incredibly intimate moments as well. Last year’s “Tall Tales” workshop with David Francey, Steve Poltz and Donovan Woods brought the house down. During the songs, you could have heard a pint glass drop, it was so quiet.

20150822-0546 poltz in beer tent

Steve Poltz performs Down By the Bay

On the Saturday of the festival, activity in the tent starts at about 9 AM as the stage crews arrive to ring out the sound system and prep the stage. Music starts at 11AM and runs straight through until until 1AM -– with the exception of a quiet hour between 6 and 7 so the crew can get dinner. Last year, on Saturday, twenty-seven acts played on the stage in fourteen hours.

We’ll do pretty much the same this year. One highlight will be Bruce Cockburn playing an afternoon workshop with Leonard Sumner and Lindi Ortega. On Sunday the tent will host an east coast kitchen party with Natalie McMaster, The East Pointers and Cassie and Maggie Macdonald. On both Friday and Saturday nights, the evenings traditionally end with sets that blow the roof off. This year, Blackburn, Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra and My Son The Hurricane will do the honours.

Down By the Bay has evolved into a second main stage at the festival. This year, by adding another section to the tent, we can have close to a thousand people under cover.

We now have the audience under cover at five of the six daytime stages. That’s not just because we want folks dry in case of rain.

The fact is, recently we have had more sunshine than rain at Summerfolk. In the past four festivals, we have only had one day of rain. The sun is becoming a concern for a lot of people and a shady place to listen to music is a great thing on hot summer afternoon.

We don’t worry about the sun as much at the other mainstage — the Amphitheatre.

Digging Roots led a round dance in the Amphitheatre on Sunday night

Digging Roots led a round dance in the Amphitheatre on Sunday night

That’s because we only run that stage at night. For the first few years of Summerfolk, the area where the amphitheatre is now was just a broad field. The amphitheatre was built in 1982. For 35 years, it’s hosted thousands of performers.

The stage, of course, is named after the late, lamented and much loved Stan Rogers Summerfolk loved Stan and he loved it back, setting the pattern for a relationship many performers have with Summerfolk.

An amphitheatre is not unique. What makes ours special is the backdrop. It’s a combination of sky, water, trees and a hint of the industrial.  It’s easily one of the most beautiful backdrops of any festival in Canada.

You can enjoy our Summerfolk space at Kelso Beach Park on August 19, 20 and 21 this year.Advance tickets are on sale until July 31st and information can be found at summerfolk.org.

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