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Keeping the Magic (A)live

By Jon Farmer
Lately, I’ve been asking people to describe Summerfolk in one word. The most common response has been ‘magic’. It’s an accurate description but it makes it hard to write about.

Magic has to be seen to be believed, so how do you describe it to someone who doesn’t know? Some people think that concerts – and festivals especially – are just expensive ways to listen to music. It is 2016 and you could probably spend the rest of your life listening to free music online but nothing can fully capture the magic of witnessing a live performance.

It has to do with connection, in the same way that eating a home cooked meal is so much more than chewing and swallowing. It’s special to share the meal with other people, to know that someone made it just for you and that it will only be like this once. Maybe two cooks are sharing the kitchen who have never cooked together before and the new combination of flavours amazes you.

I’ve seen that happen, musically, more than once on a stage. Summerfolk follows the Canadian workshop tradition of placing multiple bands on one stage at the same time. The musicians take turns playing songs related to a theme and often play along on each other’s tunes.

In 2014, at Summerfolk, I saw a guitar workshop with Tim Edey, and Olivier Rondeau. Olivier started a song and invited the others to join in. After a minute or so, Tim’s fingers started flying along the neck of his guitar. Soon the song spiraled into a ten minute long improvised jam. When it was over, both players were grinning from ear to ear and the audience was cheering. “Well that was fun!”, one of them said. It was a once in a lifetime performance.

Something similar happened the first time Beppe Gambetta and Tony McManus played together at Summerfolk38. As the story goes, Grit Laskin came up to them after the workshop and said, “You should play together more often”. That idea planted a seed that bloomed into a new duo mixing Beppe’s incredible flat picking with Tony’s Celtic tunes. You’ll see them back as a duo this year.

Beppe Gambetta and Tony McManus

Beppe Gambetta and Tony McManus

Performers enjoy a good jam anywhere and festivals like Summerfolk make room for the audience to participate, too. I once watched Ken Whiteley lead a workshop on how to play with a band, coaching audience members through their own songs while some of the best players in Toronto backed them up. That’s where I learned that a good backing band is as much fun for the musician as the audience.

Ken Whiteley & the Beulah Band

Ken Whiteley & the Beulah Band

Ken will be back at Summerfolk41. You’ll see him centre stage during the Sunday morning gospel workshop. Gospel is best sung together and you’re sure to hear harmonies rising from the Kelso Beach amphitheatre that would make a professional choir proud.

If gospel isn’t your thing, there are other ways to raise your voice. You can join the Songs from a Hat workshop where a panel of performers competes with the audience to sing randomly chosen, but well-known, songs. It’s a friendly combination of live karaoke competition and jam session.

For those who like more structure there’s the free-to-join-everyone-welcome Summerfolk Choir. This year the choir will be led by Treasa Levasseur – one of Hamilton’s finest blues and R&B players. If you like to sing along with more anonymity, there’s the Summerfolk Finale when all the performers who are left crowd on to the stage to lead the audience in Stan Roger’s ‘Mary Ellen Carter’.

Festivals give communities the chance to connect. Volunteer-run festivals like Summerfolk do it especially well. You’ll see almost 700 volunteers at Summerfolk from their mid-teens to late-eighties, all working hard to make sure that everything is set up and running the way it should be. But you don’t have to volunteer to feel like part of the team. Spend some time wandering through the festival grounds and I guarantee you’ll run into someone you know.

Even if you don’t know anyone going in, by the end of the weekend you’ll recognize familiar faces. You might not realize that you’re starting to recognize faces, but one of the secrets to a good magic trick is to start the process without the audience knowing. The same faces will appear again and again throughout the festival, in line at a food vendor, dancing at the Down by the Bay tent, or looking at jewellery in the artisan village.

Eventually you’ll find yourself singing along to a chorus at the end of a night and when you look to your right or left there will be familiar faces sprinkled through the crowd. You won’t really know them but familiar strangers have a peculiar power to make us feel at home. Maybe you’ll see them downtown a week later; maybe you won’t see them again until next Summerfolk. But where ever your paths cross next, you’ll know that you share something, even if it’s only the memory of a great concert. I can’t fully explain this feeling but that, too, is part of what makes it magical.

If you’re looking for a little bit of magic, then head to Summerfolk.org for more information. There won’t be any eye of newt or leg of frog, just good music, beautiful art, tasty food, and friendly people. That’s magic enough for me.

photo by John Fearnall

Crowds mixing and mingling at Summerfolk39 photo by John Fearnall

Jon Farmer is Promotional Coordinator for the Georgian Bay Folk Society and a long-time Summerfolk volunteer.

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