A gem in its setting
I almost didn’t make it to the 2015 Stan Rogers Folk Festival - and it wasn’t because of the deer that stepped right out into the middle of the road just before Peas Brook. It wasn’t because I was late either - starting at 5 a.m. out of Baddeck, Cape Breton, gave me plenty of time.
No, what almost stopped me was the stretch of highway from Guysborough to Canso, a piece of road that made me want to stop over and over again. What took me aback more than anything else is that no one had ever told me it was there, or how spectacular the sea and the road would be with the rising of the sun.
But this is a festival that has survived something that could destroy lesser festivals: last year’s event was cancelled at the last minute because of an arriving hurricane, cancelled with much of the advance money already spent on travel, supplies and equipment. Not showing up now would be more than just rude.
The festival is almost more invasion than concert: the tent city, the nearby hill with its cap of trailers and RVs, the other RV armada that’s taken over near the water, the scattering of other, even more random encampments. At eight in the morning, it’s like the temporary camp of a sleeping army, albeit one that lacks the order of the Romans. Tents huddle out of square: RVs pin down extra space by arriving and unrolling their outreach of awnings, taking possession of ground by the simple act of shading it. There are only a few people awake: at the edge of tent town, a radio gently burbles music while a man stands with a beer in one hand and a carton of 12 eggs in the other, cleared confused about just what happens next.
But the sun is shining; the sun, at least, feels fine.
“We’re owed some good weather,” one volunteer says, adding that the hurricane was only one weather hurdle the festival has seen over the years.
They knew they had to shut down last year when a marquee tent pulled up its moorings and lifted some of the crew 10 feet in the air: Many ticket holders agreed to swap their tickets for this year’s festival, and other Canadian festivals offered help. A benefit was held in Halifax — and this year, even the weather’s chipping in. There’s a slight breeze off the water, people making their way from stage to stage with an odd, tilted walk, caused by almost everyone being burdened with their own folding outdoor chairs. There’s an air about this festival that suggests there are things you just have to know; that it helps to be a part of the Stanfest family. I got lost in town, unable to see a single sign. Clearly, everyone in the family already knows where the festival is. And family it certainly is.
It is a fascinating concert mix: children, parents and seniors; it’s a very much a family atmosphere, yet there are still plenty of people with the messed-up, drug-tiny pupils I remember from university in the 1980s. Laughing uncontrollably, or else crying soundlessly at the Hard Times workshop, they are a concert constant. Overall, though, the audience is rapt: in the gaps in the music, you can actually hear nearby robins singing. The tent is packed: it’s spilling out the open sides.
The crowd’s not knowingly disobedient, but they keep filling in the space that has to stay open at stage-front. “It’s like talking to pigeons,” another volunteer says after shooing the latest group away. “But nice pigeons.” On stage Sam Baker from Austin, Texas is tuning a guitar: “I’m mostly deaf so it doesn’t matter to me,” he tells the audience. “It might matter to you.”
Sometimes, musicians speak a special truth: Cara Robinson of Fitz and Cara could be speaking right to me as she talks about the way her father would head to the pub if her mother put certain records on: “She’d put the album on, and he’d know to get out ... Then she’d violently Hoover the whole house, singing at the top of her lungs.” Hold up your hands if you’ve lived there, too - Amen, sister. Don’t let the power nozzle hit you on the way out.
It’s not only the fans who are supportive. There are 700 volunteers, made up primarily of people from the town (population 1,250) and other townspeople who have moved away but come home to volunteer for the festival. Many have done so for years. (Audience members, too - Joyce Wallace-Hills has been to all 18 Stanfests. “We camp once a year - we camp here.”)
The volunteers are proud of every inch of it: “They may forget to tell you this,” one of the volunteers says as I help set up chairs in the performers’ backstage area, “But everything’s recyclable. Even our forks and knives are made out of rice.” My mind wanders at that thought: if you’re eating rice with a rice fork, does the fork feel lucky?
There are more and more people streaming in — this morning’s tent city is now a full-scale invasion — and they will keep coming until dark. Volunteers are solving problems full time: Wanda — I only know her name because everyone keeps calling for her - has gone to fix the debit system, and I’m dragooned into telling anyone who asks that she’ll be right back. (Turns out it’s Wanda O’Handley, the general manager of the festival.) She’s already dispatched someone to find probably the last handy metal coat hanger she knows of in Canso — someone’s locked their keys in the car. The music goes on.
From my viewpoint, it’s a tribute to the performers and the organizers.
P.E.I.’s Dennis Ellsworth performs at Stanfest in Canso.