Festival of Friends must reclaim its brand
THE SPECTATOR’S VIEW
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.