Hamilton’s Festival of Friends comes home to great applause.
Hamilton’s favourite festival comes back to Gage Park and it seemed the laughter and the love was stronger than ever
It was, indeed, good to be home, although home is never quite the way you remember it.
After spending six years in the dusty fields of the Ancaster Fairgrounds, the 42nd annual Festival of Friends made its longawaited return home to its Gage Park birthplace on the weekend.
And judging from the size of the crowds, the homecoming was a huge success. Despite an early evening rainfall, thousands of music fans came out for the Friday night headliner, Canadian country star Terri Clark.
They returned in the Saturday afternoon sunshine to browse the crafts displays, take in the midways, wolf down Country Boys poutine and perogies, while taking in the music of some lesserknown acts, many of them local like Tim Gibbons, Trickbag, Coyote Black and Huron.
At 5 p.m., the 1,000 available parking spaces had been filled.
By the time the sun went down, the centre of the park was packed for three outstanding performances by rising pop star Scott Helman, acclaimed singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards and electrifying Toronto rock band July Talk — an extraordinary all-Canadian lineup for a free festival.
Festival manager Rob Rakoczy estimated the size of the Saturday night crowd at more than 25,000 people, probably larger than any night last year at Ancaster.
Hamilton, it appeared, was happy to have Friends back in the heart of the city.
“It’s been spectacular,” Rakoczy told The Spectator on the festival’s final day Sunday. “We’ve exceeded all our expectations.”
Certainly, not bad for a transition year that posed a number of challenges.
Rakoczy didn’t take over the reins of the festival until late April, giving him just three months to find sponsors, organize volunteers, deal with vendors and book acts, all the while dealing with a changing Gage Park landscape that dropped a large construction zone behind the vending area.
The fenced-off construction site came courtesy of the city’s $4.1 million renovation to the Gage Park greenhouses. Rakoczy wasn’t aware of the size of the site until a few weeks before the start of the festival and was forced to turn away some vendors who had hoped to rent space there.
“We had about 30 per cent (fewer) vendors,” Rakoczy said.
That pain was eased by a July 16 decision by city council, pushed by Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Green, to give the festival a break on its park rental fees, which Rakoczy estimated at about $3,800.
The site problem was also alleviated by a decision by Rakoczy to relocate the festival’s main stage from its traditional site in front of the bandshell further north near the park fountain. The bandshell became a secondary, used only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Moving the stage proved fortuitous. A natural incline improved sight lines, allowing people standing at the back to see over the soundboard tent for an unobstructed view of the stage. It also sent the sound south toward the escarpment and not east toward homes.
“I’ve haven’t had any complaints from the neighbourhood,” said Green while strolling through the festival Sunday afternoon.
The timing of the live music acts was staggered, allowing music fans to move from one stage to the other during the afternoon without missing any of the entertainment.
Missing, however, was the intimate “workshop” stage that had traditionally been tucked among the trees southeast of the bandshell.
The workshop stage was a favourite among longtime festival fans who appreciated its folky nature — the storytelling and often spontaneous collaborations between artists.
Rakoczy admitted the workshop stage was a loss, but vowed to bring it back when the 43rd Festival of Friends returns to Gage Park next August. There were other minor problems — not enough port-a-potties in the beer garden, for example — but things went fairly smoothly.
The festival will still face some of the same challenges next year, though. The greenhouse construction isn’t scheduled for completion until November 2018. But the new greenhouse facilities could eventually add to the festival.
Both Green and Rakoczy noted that a small bermed amphitheatre is planned for the project as well as an indoor theatre space.
“Maybe that could be the eventual site of the workshop stage in two years,” Rakoczy said.
The biggest fans of the festival are its mini-army of more than 300 volunteers, many of whom live in the neighbourhood and have been coming for many years.
Maurice Rondeau, 74, has attended 39 consecutive Festival of Friends, working as a “hospitality” volunteer for about 20 of them. He spent the weekend wearing a blue “Gage Park is Home” T-shirt and answering the questions of festivalgoers.
Rondeau said he enjoyed watching the festival grow the six years it was in Ancaster, but he’s glad it’s back in Gage Park because of all the memories it holds.
“This is the first year back so it’s a learning experience,” Rondeau said. “Considering the length of the time Rob Rakoczy had to put this together, I think he did an amazing job. And I’m still delighted to be one of his volunteers.”
A SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP IS REUNITED
Sing it loud and proud: July Talk’s Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay perform at the Festival of Friends main stage in Gage Park Saturday night.
The music casts its spell: Tim Gibbons of TG and the Swampbusters basks in the bandshell spotlight, a young fan gives a new style high-five, and Kathleen Edwards takes the main stage by storm.
Top photo: While the parents enjoyed the music, the kids rollicked on the roller-coaster. Left: A woman in the audience blows soap bubbles between performances at the main stage Saturday. (The audience, too, was floating on air.)
A bumper bonus: With a new stage just south of the fountain in Gage Park, the crowd had more space to mellow-out and marvel.
Dusk falls on a headliner: A new main stage was set up just south of the fountain. The stage banner said it all: For the stars and the crowd, it felt good to be back in Gage Park.
Win or lose, it’s a great night: Games of chance attract the crowds milling around the Gage Park midway.
Milling around the midway: The midway has always been a Festival of Friends mainstay and Saturday night was no exception.
Now hair this: Peter Dreimanis’s hair gets into the spirit of things as he and Leah Fay hit the main stage.