ST. JOHN’S, N.L. —
The Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival goes ahead rain or shine, and the weather gods certainly tested the limits of the long-running festival, held Aug 9-11 this year.
The rain couldn’t dampen spirits in Bannerman Park on Friday, Aug. 9, as the rain began to sprinkle when the evening session began.
After opening ceremonies with Wape’k Muin and Abigale, local group Youngtree & The Blooms kicked off the festival with their alt-country folk/rock sound.
The legendary Bud Davidge of Simani followed, playing “The Mummers Song” for the second time this summer, having performed the Christmas song at the George Street Festival the previous week.
The rain did interfere with the Mark Hiscock Band, whose set seemed to be cut short as the crew hustled to move the gear back from the blowing rain.
Despite the damp weather, Les Poules à Colin, now known as Rosier, certainly heated things up. A Quebecois five-piece band comprised of highly talented multi-instrumentalists, their unique alt-folk brand, drawing inspiration from the members’ individual interests and influences in roots, tradition, jazz, classical and pop, would be a festival highlight for many, including myself.
Father/son duo Bill & Joel Plaskett headlined the Friday night show, playing selections from their 2017 release, “Solidarity.” Their distinctive voices perfectly complementing each other, the pair performed songs like “Solidarity,” and the surprisingly political “Blank Cheque.”
The younger Plaskett entertained the audience in between sets, delving into background information of their music. He kept the spectators energized under their umbrellas, telling the small but dedicated crowd that the view from the stage, as the rain poured down in front of him, was “absolutely magical.”
The first night of Folk Fest capped off with an after-hours show at The Ship Pub, featuring Darrell Cooper and Mark Bragg & The Butchers.
By Saturday morning, the clouds had lifted, but the rain descended on the many morning workshops, and instrumental, francophone, youth and oral traditions performances.
Still, the show must go on, with Jenina MacGillivray opening up the afternoon session amidst yet another sprinkle — albeit with far less intensity than the morning’s monsoon.
Monica Walsh, Joe Byrne and Dave Penny inspired laughs with their fun and funny set, with The Dandelion Few providing the perfect light, gentle folk soundtrack for an afternoon siesta on the still-damp grass.
The tents were packed as the rain poured down through Juno-Award winning children’s entertainer Norman Foote, only to slack off slightly as the formidable Jim Payne and Fergus O’Byrne performed, spinning yarns and playing familiar favourites.
The weather took a turn for the better on Saturday night, as local blues legend Denis Parker kicked off the evening’s main stage performances.
The Folk Festival Tribute honoured artists we have lost since the previous year, like John Koop, Ray Walsh, Jimmy Linegar and more.
Next, Shirley Montague — the first woman to play electric guitar in Newfoundland and Labrador — was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Weather Station, celebrating 10 years in 2019, delivered a captivating set of experimental folk music, with bandleader and creative force Tamara Lindeman at the helm of this musical adventure.
Having heard the band’s 2017 self-titled album during my time at Fred’s Records, I had high expectations, which were surpassed.
The same could be said of The Jerry Cans’ performance. Again familiar with the 2017 album “Inuusiq/Life” through Fred’s, I had a general idea of what this Nunavut band was all about, but the band put on a spectacular live performance with an energy that could not be matched on the recordings. Winning the hearts of many people in the crowd with a song about loving seal meat, one can imagine that The Jerry Cans will be back on the island soon.
St. John’s sweetheart/songbird Tim Baker finished off the night, packing both the main stage area and the beer garden. Now based in Toronto, Baker performed with his new band, playing songs from “Forever Overhead,” released in April.
Playing into the home advantage, the band performed a number of Hey Rosetta! tunes, including “Welcome” and “Kintsukuroi,” plus Ron Hynes’ “Leaving on the Evening Tide.”
The band was joined by Hey Rosetta! members, The Fortunate Ones, Tamara Lindeman, other artists, family and friends for “All Hands,” and finished off with two more Hey Rosetta! songs, “Harriet” and “Bandages.”
On the final day of Folk Fest, traditional music was at the forefront, with Tamsyn and Kelly Russell opening the afternoon session, followed by Corner Brook Mi’kmaw musician and composer Paul Pike, of the First Nations rock band Medicine Dream.
Next up, Shirley Montague and Gordon Quinton wowed audiences with their impressive guitar skills, with Irish traditional legends The Granville Sisters mesmerizing the already entranced crowd.
Aoife and Deirdre Granville of Dingle, County Kerry, are renowned for their flute, fiddle and harp skills, and had two opportunities to showcase their talent during Folk Fest 43, with a main stage performance and a separate instrumental performance.
Le Bruit Court dans la Ville finished off the afternoon, having played the francophone tent earlier in the weekend. Performing as a duo instead of the usual trio, guitarist André Marchand and fiddle player Lisa Ornstein reunited for Folk Fest, performing a number of traditional tunes and Le Bruit Court dans la Ville originals, showcasing why their 1996 self-titled album is considered a must-have trad album in Quebec.
Heralded as a local Lucinda Williams, Sherry Ryan opened the Sunday evening session, followed by Toronto based Grenadian-Canadian Kaia Kater.
One of the most talked about artists since the release of the festival lineup, Kater’s set doubled as an informative and educative experience, digging into the history of Grenada and her family’s immigration to Canada, with audio clips from news reports and family interviews.
Purposefully heavy, her set was a reminder of the hardships people face when searching for a better life.
Listening to Kater’s set, her vocal talent matched her banjo-pickin’ skills and was yet another highlight of the 2019 Folk Festival.
The first of two Irish musicians on the main stage that evening, bouzouki player and singer Daoirí (pronounced “Derry”) Farrell impressed the gathered trad fanatics. A renowned session player in Ireland, Farrell’s solo career, launched in 2016, has taken him all over the world. His set focused on his 2019 release, “A Lifetime Of Happiness.”
The headlining act, Sharon Shannon, was not in the headlining slot, but was certainly the highlight of the evening. In my notes, Sharon Shannon’s name is followed by, “absolutely mind-melting accordion, is she human?”
She is indeed human, and undeniably mind-melting. Makes sense — if she wasn’t so talented, musicians like Sinead O’Connor wouldn’t be crashing Shannon’s set just days ago in Ireland during the Revival Music Festival.
Performing with talented pianist and vocalist Alan Connor, the pair made a fantastic impression during their first-ever gig in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The band garnered the only standing ovation of the 43rd Folk Festival, and it was well deserved.
Recently returned from a harrowing misadventure in Labrador, Rum Ragged finally made it back to the island just in time for their Folk Fest performance.
The band played selections from their 2016 self-titled album and 2018 release “The Hard Times,” also teasing new material. Lead singer Mark Manning inspired the crowd to get up and dance, keeping the main stage area jam-packed for the Folk Fest finishing act — packing dozens of performers and volunteers onstage for a rousing rendition of the “Ode to Newfoundland.”
It was a perfect ending to a great weekend, and a reminder to all of us who cursed the island as the rain poured in the park: “We love thee, we love thee, we love thee smiling land.”