Band on the Run: Shelter Valley Folk Festival in Grafton, Ontario

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

The Shelter Valley Folk Festival is only in its fourth year and you’d never know it. It’s one of the smoothest run festivals I have performed at in years. This was our first time there, but I walked onto the site on Friday evening and felt immediately at home.

I’m not sure if it’s the shape of the land, how it lolls uphill in Northumberland County (just south of Grafton, Ontario) and overlooks the huge sparkling body of water to the south: Lake Ontario. Maybe it’s the energy of the festival, which is geared towards community, local suppliers and artists, collective decisions, family. Or, maybe it’s all of the above combined together that draws around the event like an embrace and made my shoulders loosen up and take it in.

Whatever the reasons, it was a breath of fresh country air this Labour Day weekend.

I arrived to my band mates and friends lying in a pile in front of the stage Friday night, their faces lit up by spill of the stage lights, listening to Bill Bourne‘s set (accompanied by Michelle Josef on drums and percussion.) The pile gaped open to allow me to drop myself into it and we all huddled together staring up at the stars to the melodic lilt of Bill’s dancing guitar lines. Everyone was mesmerized and the whole audience seemed to be breathing in time to his tunes.

The next day, I kept running into my fellow artists who I knew weren’t programmed to play that weekend. I had read the schedule but their names weren’t on the performer’s lists. I found out shortly that many artists combine forces and volunteer at this event. It might have something to do with the founder, Aengus Finnan, an artist himself who was the visionary for this festival. And, while it may have been his vision to start with, many artists now share that same vision and lend their energy to prove it; they were doing things like MC’ing the stages, taking tickets, clearing plates in the dining tent, stage managing. That’s testimony right there to the magic in this event. It’s very rare to see musicians volunteering to work events that don’t include their music.

That’s belief in an event’s power.

That’s powerful.

We performed a total of seven times this weekend. Usually, I’d grumble a bit at being programmed so much at a festival. There was only one full concert on Saturday night, but we were playing in several workshops that included two or three songs round-robin style. (If you’re reading this from Australia, this is the “song swap” style of performance.)

What I found instead of pure exhaustion from these additional performances (which has been the case at other festivals at different times in my festival touring career) was an injection of energy from each workshop. We were collaborating with several other artists whose work all aligned beautifully with ours, like complimentary colours of a continuous musical spectrum. We did workshops whose themes were road stories, songwriting, community and collaborations, to name a few. I looked forward to each one and they all delivered that same post-performance grin.

A distinguishing feature of this festival compared to many others is the arts and wellness areas. In the artists’ booths, there were local artists from all different media whose only stipulation for being part of the festival was to provide demonstrations of their work to festival goers. There were people glass-making, painting, carving and paper-making for all to witness and learn from. Those booths were humming all day with onlookers and questions flying. I found it fascinating.

I was peering at the paper-making demonstration when there were suddenly horns blowing, shakers shaking and drums drumming coming down the path. Everyone’s head lifted and turned to see the kids’ parade walking towards us having already walked the circumference of the site and through the backstage as well. Kids were dressed and painted and smiling. Parents were filming. The young ones held onto a rope like the kind they have for preschoolers on walking trips through the city. It created this colourful spine around which the older kids and adult supervisors danced and jumped like the legs of an enormous caterpillar as it snaked its way around the remainder of the festival site.

This plastered a smile on my face as I took in the wellness area just beyond the artists’ booths. The area included talks and demonstrations of various body work. You could attend a shiatsu seminar and follow that up with a talk about sustainable organic gardening, for example, before catching a late afternoon musical workshop and then heading to the food stalls for organic and locally grown food.

All in all, this festival is educational, entertaining and healthy. The backstage area had full recycling drop points including composting and the use of re-usable plates, cutlery and glassware. It was healthy towards all things living, most importantly the Earth which we all can’t live without.

My friend Darlene (performer and volunteer at this festival) makes hula hoops as a side project to her amazing music and she graciously gave me one as a present this weekend. I think the gift may have been inspired by my long hula hoop session with a few eight-year-old girls in the open space to the east of the main stage on Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t stop playing with those hoops and I had to be tugged away when it came time for all of the performers to take to the stage for the finale songs.

Now I have a bright red hula hoop as a memory of this event.

And hopes to return some future year.

Shelter Valley Folk Festival is worth your attendance.