A gem in its set­ting

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc.

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.

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