Stan Rogers Festival
in Canso, Nova Scotia
(1-3 July 2005)

If 32 hours of music and song over a three-day time span is your escape fantasy, then the Stan Rogers Festival is the answer to your prayers. Fashioned to honour the memory of a powerful singer-songwriter and to bolster the faltering economy of a coastal Nova Scotia town, the festival has been a success from the word go.

In 1997, I was impressed by the discipline and diligence of the founding folks, especially Troy Greencorn, and my respect for him and his team has only grown in the ensuing eight years of attendance. Enough cannot be said for Canso's hospitality toward the performers and patrons alike, and the flawless organization of the 600 volunteers.

Where can you spend an entire day and not run out of toilet tissue in the portapotties? At StanFest. Where can you choose from SIX stages of international music from 11 a.m. 'til 6 p.m. on a Saturday and Sunday? StanFest. And where can you be entertained by at least eight acts Mainstage on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening 'til the wee hours? StanFest. (Hint, set up your chairs early in the day for a guaranteed seat at Mainstage.)

On the grounds are a kiddie corral, a beer garden (at one of the daytime stages), a beer tent and at least eight food vendors with fare ranging from greasy fries to organic vegetable wraps and free trade coffee. There are ample tented eating areas nearby with water faucets and sinks for clean-up. Other services run the gamut from first aid to a common bulletin board for late-arriving friends.

If you are inclined to carry the melodies home with you, the CD tent offers the music of almost every weekend performer. The tented craft village proffers jewelry, hemp clothing and homemade mittens right through to musical instruments, including drums. And if you wanted to tempt fate, a professional soothesayer is on hand to read your palm, cards or tea leaves for a reasonable fee.

The town of Canso, justting out into the Atlantic Ocean, is victim to that wonderful ocean's fickle temperment. So don't say I didn't warn you. Come prepared for whatever the skies might throw at you, hot sun, thunder and lightning, cold evening fog or summer downpours. Aside from the usual outdoor concert attire, heavy jackets, warm blankets and a full rain suit with waterproof footwear are a good insurance policy.

StanFest 2005 gave us all of the above and I was as grateful for my winter jacket and rain suit on Saturday as I was for my shorts and sunglasses on Sunday. Not arriving 'til early Saturday morning, I was told that the cold fog kept jackets zippered tight all Friday evening. A fogged-in Halifax Airport was a major migraine for the organizing team as incoming acts were diverted or delayed. But apparently the generosity of the other artists left no gaps unfilled; J.P. Cormier stepped up to the mike Friday evening and very capably filled the shoes of anyone still on a plane somewhere. The juggling act continued into Saturday, but if you didn't enter the Green Room, you'd be none the wiser, as the transistion of acts flowed like fine wine throughout the entire weekend.

One had to carefully follow all highway signs marking the sideroads to Canso, as there were no "StanFest" signs to be seen this year. As in previous years, volunteers near the site directed us to the best parking areas. (Another hint: arrive early for the closest spaces to the site. Overnight accomodation info is found on the StanFest website.)

On arriving, the site village was fairly bustling as I headed for the Fogarty's Cove stage. Each stage honours the name of a local community. Even though I was early, I barely secured a patch of ground large enought for my beach roll at the outer edges of the tent. This crowd was eager to get on with the serious task of being entertained, even at 11 a.m. Members of the crowd were still eating breakfast or rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, and I noted that rubber boots were still evident, but despite all this, a roar of approval rose from the tent as Cormier and Rosheen walked onstage at 11:15 a.m. Rosheen (a band from Quebec) opened to enthusiastic clapping while a tin whistle played a bright and cheery tune accompanied by electric and acoustic guitars, bodhran, two fiddles, drums and a keyboard. Just outside the fenced perimeter, three young men, with breakfast beer in hand, kept tune as they stomped their work boots on the ground. Cormier opened his set with the first notes of a child's version of " Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star," to the amusement of the receptive crowd that by now had spilled well beyond the tent canopy. (I wondered if there was anyone at the other stages but upon checking these, I found that they, too, were filled to capacity.) As J.P. continued his lively set, Rosheen's wooden spoonplayer joined in, a mild beat compared with the familiar tapping of our Acadien metal spoons.

Rosheen did well to team up with J.P. for the band's first appearance at StanFest, but with their lively Irish sound, you can be certain they don't need to ride on anyone's coat-tails. As the grey fog continued to drift by the open tent, the haunting vocals of Rosheen's Lynn Vallieres cut though, singing "The Star of County Down" without a trace of French accent. Her voice became stronger as she got into the heart of the song. Though the fog was relentless, sunglasses remained an integral part of J.P.'s act, beneath his gold studded, cowboy hat.

Moving on to the Queensport stage, the pace was slower as Mad Violet crooned with their acoustic guitars. They have a pleasant, sultry sound reminiscent of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Ashley MacIsaac's sister Lisa heads up this duo from Creignish. I also caught the last number from Newfoundland's Ron Hines, which as always was well received.

When the artists walked off stage, prerecorded music by J.P. himself was played for the time lapse till the next act began. His presence followed me from one tent to another.

On the advice of John Gavin, editor of Atlantic Seabreeze, a Toronto-based music newsletter, I set myself up early at the foot of the Little Dover Stage to await the Chucky Danger Band from Prince Edward Island. They presented a most memorable image; Beatles-like black suits and ties with pristine white shirts adorned the four very youngish musicians. Electric and acoustic guitars, a bass and set of drums are their intruments of choice. I was pleased with their clean, uncluttered sound and as the young folks on the site heard the electric guitar and incessant drumming, they filtered in through the fog 'til the tent had a respectable crowd. Near the stage sat Urban Carmichael, a long-time festival comedian, supporting this new home-grown talent from his island. I'm venturing to guess that the lead singer, John MacPhee, has the sun sign somewhere in his astrological chart as he's a born performer. Watching him onstage, I got the cosy feeling of a European cafe. Then the band went into an interesting change-up, putting the lead singer on bongos at one point. It's quite a unique act and you'll have to see it for yourself as I'm not telling you anymore about it. For the most part, they have a good stage presence for such a young group.

Their numbers were a sprinkle of love mixed with the questioning songs of the young fearing the future. I suspect they will have a large following of adolescent girls but there were serious adult fans in the crowd too. An excellent version of "Back in the USSR" had the sound man (who resembled Bruce Cockburn) grooving on the spot. Personally, I liked them and am tagging the group, "Beatles with a Spanish Twist."

As the band finished its act, the downpour of rain was lashing horizontally through the outer crowd of the tent. I was due to move on to the Hillside tent but, luckily for me, that tent was shut down temporarily due to the weather, and its full lineup came to me: Eric Angus White from Cape Breton, Newfoundland's Blair Harvey, Dan Frechette of Manitoba and Dave Gunning from nearby Pictou. What a set! Each one could have easily carried a full concert on his own, but their diverse sounds made for an even better hour of music. The lanky, introspective Gunning began with "Twitter's Song," a tribute to a real clown who lived in his hometown. This is an original number that he performed live on the East Coast Music Awards show, which was broadcast nationally by CBC-TV this past February. It shows off his impeccable guitar picking and is one of my favorites. Blair Harvey, dressed in dark colours, head bent, was a mysterious presence on stage. His songs were on the dark side too, with a pronounced cynicism of religion and politics, but with just a hint of humour. "Another man's blood is in my bed." That's just a sample of the strong lyrics of this Newfoundlander, who was my discovery of the day as he strummed his acoustic and breathed a plaintive wail on his harmonica.

In contrast, Dan Frechette was an open, bouncy character with a mile-wide grin as he did an upbeat story song of an old maid. His guitar playing and two-foot stomping accompaniment created an all-inclusive band sound. If you want to sit back and lose yourself in some well-thought-out humorous lyrics, then Dan's the man to see. He gives it all he's got. Next was the guy with the so-Celtic name, Eric Angus White, a sincere curly-haired Cape Bretoner who, like Dave Gunning, gives his fans an inside track to the story behind the song. Eric definitely had the crowd on his side as he told of his travels in Europe with a duck! Strumming his acoustic guitar, he poured out his soul on the Little Dover stage while the rain dripped from our tent canopy.

By 3 p.m., I headed to the Green Room. The grounds were extremely wet at this point, and I had to step lightly to keep the water from creeping past the waterproof line of my hiking boots. But the rain had eased and the crowd was moving about.

Isaac & Bluett, from New Brunswick's Fundy shore, is the quintessential duo of the folk festival scene. With just a guitar and an eletrified cello, these two musicians have created a very unique sound, which was not lost on the beer-drinking crowd at the Pour House stage, for one of the last day-time acts. You won't find a more relaxed, happier pair of artists anywhere else in Atlantic Canada.

Tim Isaac, who does most of the talking, will pick up you with his "don't worry, be happy" attitude. And when they crank up their instruments and vocals, you're transported to the Appalachians for some downhome toe-tappin' sing-along tunes. I'm just sorry I didn't hear more of their sets over the weekend, but with six stages playing simultaneouly, it was impossible to hear everyone, even once.

As I sloshed past the Queensport stage for the last trip to the car for more clothing and blankets, I could hear the hand-clapping Celtic tunes of the Barra MacNeils drifting through the foggy air.

By 7 p.m., the weather was damp but bearable and the crowd was ready to party. The Mainstage act opened with a trio of songwriters: Liam Titcomb, a Toronto youngster with a new style; Justin Rutledge, another young Torontonian with a debut recording released in Europe; and John Bracie, the Cape Bretoner with the big voice.

Then Eliza Gilkyson of Austin, Texas, took to the stage and wowed us with her smooth vocals and political commentary. Another American, Slaid Cleaves, gave us yodeling that I could clearly hear from way up the hill at the food vendors. Mary Jane Lamond followed with her clear, sharp, traditional Gaelic songs. Celtic hearts were warmed by her lilting melodies. Guy Clark of Texas was the big draw, with a true country style and demeanor. Check his website for the full story on this legend. Back to the Maritimes now, New Brunswick's Ray Legere cranked up the fiddle tunes, which helped ease the chill of the evening air.

Rosheen of Quebec was next with some Irish-style tunes but then, lo and behold, the skies poured down rain, and lightning and thunder made their own kind of music. I made it to shelter before the big rain hit, but there were hundreds in the field that got a soaking.

In contrast, Sunday was a gem, flaunting shorts and hats while sunscreen clung to your nostrils. Guy Clark, teaming with Verion Thompson, drew a huge crowd at the Fogarty's Cove tent for the noon-time show. There were even standing ovations. The sun was hot as Dan Frechette did a fishing song at the Fox Island stage for a smaller but very receptive crowd. I was impressed yet again by the strength of his vocals.

The Fox Island stage is set apart from the others, so not everyone made the effort to reach it, which put the performers at a disadvantage, but luckily each individual performer usually plays at several stages over the course of the weekend. As I walked away from the tent, a curly red-haired child in brilliant yellow boots began plucking straws from the ground and tossing them on the wind. Four abandoned chairs of red and blue stood vacantly staring at the stage as the stagehands readied for the next act. (Just a glimpse of what StanFest might offer in fleeting moments if one is observant.)

When my thoughts wandered back to the music, the Back Stabbers Stringband, with a huge standup bass, fiddle and guitar, got everyone's legs swaying and heads bobbing with their catchy upbeat accompaniment despite the solemn lyrics. Blair Harvey gave another soulful performance, while Dave Carmichael was impressive as an up-and-coming singer of his own material.

The highlight and the "raison d'etre" of the whole weekend was the hour on Sunday when all the tents shut down and only the words of the late Stan Rogers himself, echoed out from the Mainstage tent as the best of the lot paid tribute to the man himself. Bruce Guthro stole the show with his powerful rendition of "Northwest Passage," while Dave Gunning's version of "The Idiot" touched the hearts of those of us from the East Coast. The set ended with Guthro's self-penned tribute to Stan. In my opinion, Cape Breton's John Gracie and local singer Jim Hanlon possess voices similar to that of the legend-Stan.

Back to the daytime stages -- at Fogarty's Cove, two Americans, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, created beautiful harmonies with their honest lyrics. I was quite impressed. Then the masters walked on stage: Archie Fisher from Scotland, Bruce Guthro of Cape Breton, Ron Hines of Newfoundland and the Sons of Maxwell from Ontario.

Fisher's voice has not diminished despite many years on the road. He can bring words together like a fine symphony. The Sons of Maxwell did a reflective number about a couple with alzheimers and multiple sclerosis, to which anyone could relate. They have a distinctive sound that's easily recognized due to their brotherly harmonizing. They write of everyday family matters, poking fun at everything from alarm clocks to reunions. The troubadour himself, Hines, emceed the set, but left time to give us a sample of his songwriting abilities. He and Guthro carried on a good-natured banter throughout the entire set, which left the crowd rolling on the grass in tearful laughter. Guthro did the most amusing love song I've ever heard, assisted by Hines. Fisher continued with the love theme while Sons of Maxwell did a cutesy number. They're popular on the summer circuit, in essence, two happy lads with one guitar and a tambourine.

On to the Hillside stage, which had sopping grounds but no one seemed to mind or notice. Feso, in full regalia, gave us traditional music from Zimbabwe, with birdsounds, shakers and fine drumming.

A touch of sadness overtook me as I watched the tents shut down and the crowd trickled over to the Mainstage. In a few short hours, StanFest 2005 would be over.

With extra sweaters and Mama's plaid quilt, we settled in for the final performers. Andy Stockansky opened with a solid performance, enjoyed by the younger set, but which I found a bit too rocky for the mature, followed by a definitely mature Feron. Her beautiful ballad of life experience touched many in the crowd and I believe this lady from British Columbia left the stage with a new following of fans. The Barra MacNeils then lightened the mood with their usual foot-tapping instrumentals.

I'm sorry now that I didn't pick up the new CD, Red Dog Tracks, by Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez of Austin, Texas. I was taken by their haunting clear voices that harmonized with perfection, while they mastered guitars, harmonica and fiddle with ease. As a matter of fact, Carrie Rodriguez played Carnegie Hall at the age of 10 -- what more can I say? Please come back in 2006.

Sons of Maxwell put us all back in a light-hearted frame of mind, preparing the way for the Chucky Danger Band. Once more, they wowed the crowd as they ran past an honour guard of RCMP officers. Receiving the first standing ovation of the night, they brought the house down. I truly hope that they are not a flash in the pan, but will endure with their fresh, honest faces and stage presence. Then Feso, the African group, gave us a cultural moment with a set of percussion, intensified by a confrontational dance perfomance. Two words -- fantastic, unforgettable -- and another standing ovation.

The psychodelic beat of the Rheostatics was just a bit much for a folk festival and the lack of applause and numerous food and potty breaks within the crowd indicated that I was not alone in my disappointment. But Cape Breton teenagers, The Cottars, in contrast, kept the crowd sitting with toes tapping and hearts stolen by the young foursome. A long day was wearing at my eyelids when the Trews began belting out their Celtic rock, which I'm sure was heard echoing far beyond the town of Canso.

I didn't want to go home. Each year StanFest gives me a new appreciation for the given gift of music. If you've never attended a StanFest weekend, begin your plans now for 2006. In short, you haven't lived until you've weathered a Stan Rogers Festival. I guarantee that you can't attend just one. See you in 2006 and '07 and....

by Augustina Poirier
17 September 2005