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Having written extraordinary songs about ordinary lives,  Stan Rogers still inspires magic at his namesake festival, long after his death

by Peggy Kell


On a hot, sunny Friday morning, I watch my husband, Shawn, struggle out the front door, guitar under one arm and a mountain of sleeping bags under the other. “Do you think we have everything?” he asks. I look down at the large stainless steel pot in my arms (currently jammed full of wool socks and fleece sweaters) that we’ll use for washing dishes, and think yep, we’ve got everything, right down to the kitchen sink. It’s been two years since our initial pilgrimage to Canso, at the northeastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia, and we are practically vibrating with excitement. Along with approximately 12,000 other music lovers, we’re hitting the road for the annual Stan Rogers Folk Festival, a.k.a. Stanfest.

Held the first weekend in July, Stanfest packs in more than 50 acts from all over the globe, performing on six stages, for three days and nights of musical bliss. Performers include festival circuit neophytes, like Halifax-based David Myles who “invokes the spirit of Springsteen,” and tried-and-true headliners like Valdy. Indian and African folk musicians rub shoulders with the likes of Moncton’s The Divorcees, Saskatchewan’s Little Miss Higgins and New York’s Martin Sexton.

The music genres may be diverse—everything from a cappella to country, blues, jazz and rock—but the common thread tying the performers together is that they are all songwriters. Aside from hearing the loving tributes to the festival’s namesake, legendary Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers, and a smattering of traditional ballads, you will not find any cover bands in Canso—just original music performed by the songwriters themselves.

By early afternoon, we descend upon the tiny town of Canso. That this small, coastal community—population less than 1,000—can host a festival of this magnitude is an incredible feat of logistics and planning. “The volunteer corps is amazingly dedicated,” says Ariel Rogers, widow of Stan Rogers, who’s been involved from the festival’s beginning, 13 years ago. “There is a pride and an ownership for all of the folks connected with the organization. Troy Greencorn, along with his hard-working team, has established a festival that stands shoulder to shoulder with any festival in the world.”

The small, coastal-community environment is part of the attraction. To put it in perspective, at the Edmonton folk festival you may find yourself sitting on a hill with 35,000 spectators, whereas in Canso, you might sit among a cozy group of a 100 or so. “We thought Canso may have been its downfall because it is so small, but people like coming to Canso,” says Greencorn. “It is tempting to continue to grow, but we know there is an ideal size for the community and we need to stay within what the town can support.”

We head straight for the registration booth and get in line to pick up our tickets. From the booth’s location at the top of the hill, we have an unrestricted view of Canso’s athletic grounds, currently the festival grounds, in the valley below. There’s a spattering of light blue dots, the festival T-shirts worn by some  of the 600-plus volunteers, and a rainbow of tents. In the distance, I can hear performers striking up their instruments in preparation for tonight’s performances.

The cheery and competent ladies behind the counter, volunteers from the town, speed through several gigantic binders until they find us, affix us with bright green bracelets, and point us in the direction of the Acoustic Campground, our home base for the next three days.

In addition to drawing a large audience of music lovers, the festival also draws a large number of musicians with its Folk Boot Camp, instructional workshops lead by the performers. This year’s series offers sessions in songwriting, acoustic blues, slide and steel guitar, hand percussion, fiddle and vocals. While we haul our gear from the truck to our campsite, we are treated to guitar and vocal jam sessions.

Photo: Bruce Dienes

As we set up our tent, we introduce ourselves to our neighbours Ron and Barry. First timers at the event, the duo took turns driving 19 hours straight from Toronto to Canso. Barry, originally from Cape Town, South Africa, had been introduced to Stan Rogers the previous year while teaching in Repulse Bay, Nunavut, by a colleague from Newfoundland. “I bought every CD, his video, the Chris Gudgeon biography and I had to get to the festival,” Barry says. His best friend, Ron, came along to share in the adventure.

After chatting for a few minutes, Barry and Ron strike out to explore the festival grounds. They don’t get far—we see them about an hour later still in the campground, helping set up four disagreeable tents for other campers. In the spirit of one good turn deserves another, I cook up burgers for the four of us on our little Hibachi.

The sun is still shining as we head over to the main stage for the evening’s performances. Not fooled by the temporary spell of good weather (we experienced every adverse weather condition except snow in 2006), we bring warm sweaters in addition to our fold-up camp chairs, and select a good spot in the crowd to settle in for the night.

Charlie A’Court opens the show; with his big booming voice and stellar guitar licks, he does not disappoint. (Prior to becoming an acclaimed blues and soul artist, A’Court had a history with Stanfest as a volunteer.) The evening performances continue with songwriting heavy-hitters Bruce Guthro and Dave Gunning, as well as many new-to-me performers like David Myles and Little Miss Higgins. Every performer brings a unique sound and style to the stage, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favourite—can I make them all favourites? The night closes with guitar guru Martin Sexton. It’s Sexton’s second time at the festival, and after hearing his soulful sound—Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, and John Mayer all rolled into one—I’m hopeful next year will be his third.

When I awaken the next morning, the tent feels like a wood stove burning full tilt. I stumble outside and look up. The sun is beaming down and there is not a cloud in sight. At 9:30 a.m., it’s already hot. I look at Shawn, who is struggling with the stovetop coffee percolator, and gesturing towards the sky, say “I didn’t plan for this.” Returning to the tent, I rummage through my bags, displacing enough fleece sweaters to make a sheep, but sadly confirming that while I planned for the worst, I failed to plan for the best. I have no warm-weather clothes but the ones I wore here yesterday.

After morning ablutions, and a few scattered chats with the neighbours, I break out a frying pan and cook up bacon and eggs. As the smells waft up from the cookstove, the voice and guitar of Newfoundland artist Steven Bowers drifts over from the Little Dover Stage. Breakfast and live music—it doesn’t get any better than this, I think to myself as I take the first swig of grinds.

As the day progresses, we stroll from stage to stage—there is no way to see all the performers, so we let our ears guide us to the music. The highlight performances of my day are Old Songs, New Songs, featuring Stan Rogers’ brother Garnet and Hot Toddy; The Old West & the New West, featuring Tex Emery and the Santa Cruz River Band; and Our Own Style, featuring Matt Andersen, a huge personal favourite, as well as new favourites Martyn Joseph and Don Rooke.

At 5 p.m., we head over to the Funk Factory drum workshop, open to all ages and skill levels. And all certainly participate, with ages ranging from the very wee to the very mature. I swear there’s an energy released when 30 to 40 drummers all play in unison. Despite the heat, the drummers wear intense, happy faces and on the sidelines, a few folks dance to the beat, at one point culminating in cartwheels.

After a snack of grilled kabobs and a guitar sing-along with friends at the campsite, we return to the main stage. It’s another star-studded evening, with performances ranging from the blues and rockabilly inspired sound of husband and wife team of Mark Stuart and Stacey Earle (sister of Steve Earle), to the a cappella song and dance of the Zimbabwe performing-arts group Black Umfolosi. The night rocks to a close with Canadian legend April Wine hammering out hit songs like Could Have Been A Lady and Oowatanite while everyone in the crowd sings along.

Sunday morning presents the same blazing environment in the tent as the morning before. I don Friday’s clothes one more time and make a beeline to the food court. No repeats of yesterday’s murky brew, I want the free-trade nectar of Just Us! coffee vendors. I bump into campground neighbours Ron and Barry, and as the lovely gents pay for my coffee I ask them for their thoughts on the event.

They tell me Stanfest is everything they thought it would be, and more. I ask which artist stood out the most and was not surprised to learn it was Matt Andersen. “He blew us away with the power of his voice, wicked guitar technique and sheer stage presence,” Barry says. I agree wholeheartedly.

Sadly, our new Stanfest friends say they have to return home, but assure me they will be here for all three nights next year. Be forewarned—it takes only one festival to become a diehard Stanfest fan. I’ve been to a number of festivals and concerts and, while all had wonderful moments and some great performers, I haven’t encountered a single event that can rival Stanfest.

Headliner acts, such as Bruce Guthro, share the stage with festival circuit neophytes. Photo: Perry Jackson

On Sunday afternoon, Shawn and I repeat our meandering, stage-to-stage stroll of yesterday. We meet up with friends on the Hillside Stage for Sliding Through the Ages, a steel and slide guitar workshop. I close my eyes… the twang of steel brings me back to childhood afternoons listening to the old country music LPs my parents used to play on our mammoth record player. My Influences workshop is up next and I am quickly spellbound. Chuck Brodsky and David Myles are incredible lyricists, and I can’t help but compare them both to a young John Prine.

I fall in love with Coco Love Alcorn. Her songs are both quirky and fun, and if a voice could be described as a taste, then surely hers is a mouthful of merlot and dark chocolate. The quartet is rounded out by veteran Canadian musician and storyteller Valdy.

Sunday night offers another star-studded, albeit ultra-
diverse, evening of entertainment. The first act, Canadian Steel, brings all the steel and slide guitar artists up on stage at the same time. The effect is mesmerizing. I’m glad I don’t actually play the guitar I own; after hearing that many masters at once, the ensuing inferiority complex would make me use it as firewood. Archie Fisher and Ron Hynes spin tales of wannabe Scottish cowboys and Jesse James respectively, while Gordie Sampson asks for a little help from the audience with the high notes on his hit, Jesus Take the Wheel. (I don’t think he actually needs any help, but the crowd is happy to oblige.)   

Ontario’s Everything Fitz and repeat-main stage performers Black Umfolosi contribute high-energy, high-stepping entertainment to the evening, after which emcee Steve Antle has me howling with laughter for his inspired parody of the Bob Marley classic No Woman No Cry, reborn as No Fuzzy No Fries, in honour of Fuzzy’s french fry truck in Sydney, NS. Carrying on with the comedic theme, Garnet Rogers’ song Junior hits squarely below the belt with his less-than-flattering tribute to George W. Bush. The last performer of the evening is Canadian icon Buffy Sainte-Marie. At 67 years of age, she proves she’s still able to rock it out with the best of them.

As always, a sing-along closes out the night—The Mary Ellen Carter, Fiddler’s Green and Amazing Grace are handily printed on the Stanfest program so we can all join in. With all the performers up on the stage and all the people in the crowd singing in unison, combined with the sorry realization that it’s all over for another year, I experience a moment of watery-eyed reflection. As Ariel Rogers aptly states, “A town of fewer than 1,000 residents plays host to more than 12,000 people for the weekend and wakes up, still smiling, on Monday morning with a year’s worth of stories.

“That’s magic….”


Festival toolkit

My motto last year was to hope for the best but plan for the worst…
the unexpected “best” resulted in three days without a wardrobe change. In 2006, we got the “worst:” cold temperatures, gale force winds, thunder and lightning. And rain, rain and more rain. Here’s a checklist of what to take.

  1. Camping gear that has been tested at home first. The campground isn’t the time to discover missing parts, a leaky roof or a self-deflating air mattress.
  2. Tarp, light rope and extra pegs. Secured by rope and pegs, the tarp can provide additional waterproofing to your tent; it can also provide additional waterproof storage, or shade from the sun.
  3. Towels and loonies. Showers cost a loonie, and you’ll need your own towel.
  4. Waterproof outerwear—not only for wet weather, but also for keeping strong winds at bay.
  5. Both warm and cold weather clothing. Pretend you’re spending a night at the equator and a night at the tree line, and pack accordingly.
  6. Two hats: a warm hat for cool nights and a sun hat for hot days.
  7. Sunscreen. Even the nasty 2006 weather slacked off for a few hours—and I became a disconcerting shade of hot pink.
  8. Folding camp chairs. Use chairs to lay claim to good seats—place them in front of the desired stage the night before the performance, or early that morning. (Strangely, I haven’t heard tell of any chairs being stolen.)
  9. A large insulated mug keeps your drinks hot or cold while you enjoy the music.
  10. Musical instruments. Guitars, harmonicas, bongos and fiddles are in abundance.
  11. Food—there are vendors on site and places to eat in Canso, or you can cook up meals at your campsite. (Bring your own cookstove.)

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