Fes­ti­val of Friends must re­claim its brand

THE SPEC­TA­TOR’S VIEW

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Gra­ham Rock­ing­ham

Con­grat­u­la­tions to the or­ga­niz­ers of the 42nd an­nual Fes­ti­val of Friends and the many vol­un­teers who man­aged to suc­cess­fully bring a well-loved mu­si­cal in­sti­tu­tion back to its Gage Park birth­place.

Con­sid­er­ing it was a tran­si­tion year, both in lo­ca­tion and lead­er­ship, it’s a mi­nor mir­a­cle this year’s fes­ti­val even got off the ground.

A de­ci­sion was made in the fall to move the fes­ti­val back to Gage Park, af­ter six years at the An­caster Fair­grounds. Soon af­ter, long­time fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Loren Lieber­man re­tired. Lieber­man wasn’t re­placed un­til late April when it was an­nounced long­time board mem­ber Rob Rakoczy would take over, leav­ing just three months to put to­gether a fes­ti­val that nor­mally re­quires al­most a year of plan­ning.

On top of that, the fes­ti­val dis­cov­ered its normal dates — the sec­ond week­end in Au­gust — were al­ready booked by a rib fes­ti­val, forc­ing FoF to move to the civic long week­end. Just to make things in­ter­est­ing, a large part of the park was un­der con­struc­tion with the $4.1 mil­lion green­house project. That came as a sur­prise to or­ga­niz­ers, so much so that the city felt ob­li­gated to re­bate park ren­tal fees.

The lead­er­ship change also left un­fin­ished pa­per­work — like ap­pli­ca­tions for a Cel­e­bra­tion On­tario grant which brought in $45,000 in 2016.

So things weren’t look­ing too good for the Fes­ti­val of Friends much an­tic­i­pated re­turn. Luck­ily in May, the prov­ince came through with a huge gift. Through its spe­cial Canada 150 ON­tour pro­gram, it pro­vided the fes­ti­val with an out­stand­ing Satur­day night main stage lineup — Scott Hel­man, Kath­leen Ed­wards and July Talk.

With­out that help, the fes­ti­val’s re­turn to Gage Park would have been lit­tle more than a small midway, a few rows of ven­dors, a hand­ful of lo­cal mu­si­cal acts, an arty techno-pop band called Stars and coun­try star Terri Clark.

There were a lot of good things about last week­end’s fes­ti­val. The new main stage set­ting was an im­prove­ment and the Satur­day night lineup de­servedly drew a huge “wel­come home” crowd. There were some fine mo­ments on the bandshell’s sec­ondary stage, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Many of us re­mem­ber what the Fes­ti­val of Friends used to be back in the ’70s and ’80s. It was folky and in­ti­mate with mul­ti­ple work­shop stages and ven­dors sell­ing ar­ti­san craft­work. You could lie back un­der a shady tree and lis­ten to per­form­ers swap sto­ries, trade riffs and find new ways to sing old songs.

Those are the things peo­ple re­mem­ber, the things that gave the fes­ti­val a strong brand. We un­der­stand that the midway, the beer gar­den and the com­mer­cial ven­dors may be nec­es­sary to pro­vide the funds to book big-draws like Terri Clark. But the fes­ti­val needs to bring back some of that folky feel, es­pe­cially dur­ing the day­time pro­gram­ming, with qual­ity acts that don’t nec­es­sar­ily have main­stream ra­dio pres­ence but will im­press, nonethe­less.

Now that the Fes­ti­val of Friends is home in Gage Park, it’s time to re­claim its brand.

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