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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - GRA­HAM ROCK­ING­HAM

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

PHO­TOS BY SCOTT GARD­NER, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.)

PHO­TOS BY SCOTT GARD­NER, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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