Once a year in the small hamlet of Grafton, Ontario, a small community descends upon a local lavender farm for the idyllic Shelter Valley Folk Festival. I use the word community as this is not a typical music festival at which music is served alongside a barrage of corporate endorsements, and where everyone goes home after a few hours of braving sweaty crowds and long line-ups. It is rather an amiable weekend-long gathering of local artisans, musicians, food and wellness experts and Canadian “folkheads”. This past Labour Day weekend saw the festival’s seventh successful gathering which remained as blithe as ever despite sporadic onslaughts of rain and brisk winds.
In past years, the festival has been headlined by Canadian folk mainstays such as Valdy and Sarah Harmer while showcasing burgeoning newcomers such as Great Lake Swimmers, Serena Ryder and The Good Lovelies. There are also a number of hidden folk gems that the fest is known for higlighting, and which receive much deserved attention on the main stage. This year’s line-up was balanced in a similar fashion with Fred Eaglesmith being the highlight for many on the opening night. The gruff country-folk songwriter’s set was riddled with comical stage banter and deprecating humour which had the crowd attentively amused despite constant jabs at the “hippies” in the audience. Any notions of Eaglesmith being a washed-up unknown were thoroughly dashed after witnessing his repertoire of blue collar anthems and the dedication of his fans. The scene was reminiscent of a boozy barroom sing-a-long as Eaglesmith sang through his classics “Time to Get a Gun” and “Alcohol and Pills”.
Another obvious crowd pleaser of the evening was the father-son duo Beaucoup Blue. The duo had the audience completely entranced as they flawlessly performed their bluesy folk songs. One would sing and play rhythm while the other played on a slide guitar (or vice versa) and they brilliantly fed off each other’s energies, blurring the lines of age and experience between father and son.
One of the more polarizing acts of the evening was Toronto-based Lal. Their experimental blend of electronic beats, funk-charged bass and free flow and oft-improvised vocals seemed to confuse and occasionally irritate the older members of the audience while simultaneously captivating much of the younger audience (many of whom unabashedly danced throughout their entire set).
Throughout the daytime on Saturday and Sunday, there were numerous workshops and group events which ranged from tai chi and yoga sessions to instructional sessions on sustainable living, musical discussions, and wellness and relaxation workshops. This was when the festival most imitated a close-knit community. Without seeming too contrived or pretentious, local artisans and experts shared their wares and ideas while the festival’s musicians held intimate and impromptu collaborations on three separate stages.
One of Shelter Valley’s yearly objectives is to provide young up and coming musicians a chance to gain a broader audience and further recognition within the Canadian music scene. Saturday’s main stage was particularly energized by two of these buzz-worthy musicians. The first was Winnipeg-based JP Hoe who was nominated for a West Coast Music Award last year. With his gripping voice and earnest musings, Hoe’s roots influenced sound is indicative of a Canadian folk rock scene that is fresh and very much alive. Backed by the ethereal voices of Hayley and Kendra Penner (daughters of CBC Television star Fred Penner), JP wowed the listeners and put the weather-weary fest-goers into a dead-silent trance of attentiveness.
The second notable newcomer was Niagara’s Ariana Gillis. Certainly galvanizing old and young alike, Ariana displayed a formidable stage presence while rousing the audience to their feet. Receiving much attention in Southern Ontario and from CBC Radio, Gillis’ heartfelt folksy pop could easily be a mainstream radio staple without sounding shallow and over-manufactured – a feat not easily accomplished when her nearest musical contemporaries are the likes of Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne. Here’s to hoping she retains her musical potential without being hijacked and watered down by an increasingly uncreative industry.
To go into more detail, giving due recognition to all the acts of the Shelter Valley Folk Festival would require a piece of writing much longer than this. That is simply because each artist displayed a consistent talent and energy rarely seen at most music festivals. There was no dead time - no insipid performances. Even the MC's (featuring the quiet but deadly Brian Macmillan, the old Dixie gramophone stylers Sheesham & Lotus and Canadian folk hero Ken Whiteley) kept the crowd riveted despite some horrific weather and powered the performances along. The organizers of Shelter Valley certainly have a keen ear for excellent musicians who otherwise would not receive the attention of most music-listeners. Combine all of that with their efforts to promote sustainable living, local businesses and artists in a community-oriented fashion, and the result is a festival that is one of the best kept musical secrets in Ontario – one that will hopefully continue to thrive in coming years.