Before I say anything else, I should say that I do not actually remember a time in my life when The Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival didn’t exist, nor a time when I didn’t want to go. The festival is now 34 years old, and though I’ve not been alive that long, I’ve attended (if I’m recalling correctly) 21 years out of the 25 I’ve been planted on this lovely island. It’s safe to say, I think, that this festival holds a pretty big part of my heart.
All that said, this is actually the first time I’ve written about it.
One wonders, I suppose, why I choose to write about it now.
This year’s festival, taking place in its usual spot (Bannerman Park), at its usual time (the first weekend in August), was actually quite unusual in many ways. Everything was a bit bigger this year, a bit more dramatic, and a bit more organized (well, to an extent). Scanning the seating situation on the field during the early part of the Sunday night session, I made a comment to my aunt (who is truly a festival veteran) that “this [was] the year that you couldn’t get away with being laissez-faire about the festival”. And it’s true — this year there was a big push on advance ticket sales both online and at the box office, and more than one session sold out completely, even though the standard boundaries had been widened to accommodate for a significant increase in attendance. On top of that, there were more tents, stages, and sessions; more security, volunteers, and staff; more food, beer, and more of all of the stuff that goes along with it. On one hand, this is all absolutely wonderful: the festival was a smashing success, and I’m sure they made a few truckloads more money than usual. The quality of talent this year was absolutely outstanding — I was blown away more times than I could have hoped. The teamwork on behalf of the organizers, volunteers and staff was (as always, but it’s worth mentioning) above and beyond. And yet, it wasn’t all as good as other years.
Well, why wouldn’t it be as good? Surely it was better than other years! Enh, not exactly.
This year’s festival was all about being more, and lost in that was the relaxed atmosphere of years gone by. I am hesitant to be critical of anything that means success for these folks, but I do wonder if there’s a “too big for your britches” phenomenon going on, here. I could almost feel the collision of the ideologies of the old guard of the festival, its founders and their goals with the new guard, its necessities and the pressures of being a small festival in a big world. I am willing to allow for some of this feeling coming from the pronounced awareness of these things that has come with my age and life experience; all the same, that it contributes to the feeling of anxiety I had throughout the weekend certainly says something about the shift that’s been happening over these last years toward being a true force of a festival.
The thing about this year’s festival that undoubtedly caused the most controversy and commotion was Friday night’s show and Hey Rosetta! having closed it out. A good part of why tickets for that particular session sold out was the formidable gravity of the young, hip, talented ensemble. While Hey Rosetta! are all of those things, I will unapologetically state my opinion that they are not Folk Festival material. Though the other acts that made up the Friday night line-up were clearly geared more toward a younger audience (Rose Cousins and Amelia Curran were definite draws as well), and Amelia Curran actually congratulated the festival committee on having such a rockin’ band close out the show, there were things that happened leading up to and during the Hey Rosetta! set that I am certain I’ve never seen or heard at the festival before.
Bravely, and perhaps brazenly, the organizers chose to sit A Crowd of Bold Sharemen immediately before Hey Rosetta!. By that time, of course, many of the younger members of the audience who’d bought tickets particularly to see Hey Rosetta! were gathering near the stage — standing, of course. During this time, I heard disrespectful comments yelled at the Sharemen, and a chorus of sitting audience members begin to chant, “Sit down! Sit down!” I happened to be sitting far enough back to see the band despite the standing contingent and as such was able to see it all happening. I’m aware that Jim Payne has quite the sets of pipes, but it seemed as if he was heaving his voice to the heavens with more conviction than usual that night. What I really wanted him to do was put down his foot and for Fergus O’Byrne to growl at everyone to stop being so foolish or he’d beat them clear into next week with his banjo. What actually happened after the Sharemen finished their set was a somewhat moot attempt by Anita Best and “the sight man” to push the standing crew back from the stage. About half way into the Hey Rosetta! set, I left — I hadn’t signed up for a rock concert, and I wasn’t up for one. Again, it’s not that Hey Rosetta! aren’t wickedly talented and awesome entertainers, I’m just not on board with an act that causes such a division in the audience (and ultimately, the first stage barrier I’d ever seen at the festival, too).
The HR! debacle included, this year’s festival should have been subtitled “Bringing out the Big Guns”. Between the entirety of Friday night, the reunions of Pat, Joe and Baxter and the Wonderful Grand Band, the return of several festival staples of yesteryear, and the theatrics that went on in the hosting of the main stage, I was dizzy by the end of the weekend. Normally, on Sunday night, the festival closes with a big bang and the audience is up on their feet, cheering for more. This Sunday night, after a bit of confusion over which bald guy with the glasses and a guitar is really Con O’Brien, and a sometime solid set from the newest incarnation of The Irish Descendants, it seemed as though everyone was too tired for an encore. Anita’s voice flailed through the Ode to Newfoundland, and everyone went home to bed. Uncharacteristically anti-climactic for this festival, the final night was pitch-perfect until about 10:30pm when it began losing steam quickly. To my mind, this might be attributed to the odd dichotomy of the laughably high-school fashion of The Navigator’s bassist and what can only be described as the rock’n’roll bodhran playing exhibited opposite him.
Now, now — have a sense of humour: people were tired. It was a sleepy night (that just made it funnier).
All humour aside, as I said earlier, there were a lot of wonderful things about this year’s go ’round, and I don’t mean to disparage that in any way. The afternoon sessions were grand, and I saw so many kids having fun over the course of the weekend that it really did make me wish I was 5 again. Most people attending were very respectful and kind (though this was also the first year I had someone tersely tell me to quiet down), and there is still a wonderful magic about the place on a starry night. I never worry about the quality of the performances (which get better every year), but what I do worry about is the loss of “the little festival that could”. I was leaning on a tree, watching people scurrying around to find places to put their chairs on Sunday night and I heard a man say to his friend as he walked by, “yeah, ya know, other festivals are so big, but this one’s so laid back. I love it”. Honest to goodness, I kid you not — it’s like he knew I was going to write this blog entry and he gave me the perfect punch line for it. He’s right — compared to other folk festivals, we’re really lucky to have one that still is both very amazing and yet very relaxed. In Newfoundland, it would be hard to have a festival that wasn’t those things really, seein’ who we are an’ all. This year though, I saw a glimpse of what could happen to the festival if someone doesn’t make it their job to really keep tabs on the amount of biggification going on, and let me tell you, it really scared me. I don’t want my children (when they come along, you know, sometime in that vast expanse we call the future) to ever remember a time when this festival didn’t exist for them, either.