If I had to choose two words to describe Montreal in the summertime, I would probably go with “picnics” and “festivals.” The former provides an affordable, relaxing way to enjoy the sunshine with friends, while the latter fulfills the desire to engage with community, to be part of something larger than one’s self or social circle, even if just for a few hours. While there are number of festivals that attempt to integrate the two, I have yet to see one that does so as seamlessly as The Folk Fest on the Canal.
Even at many of the free events around town, there are still barriers, both literal and figurative. There are security people to check your bag on the way in, there is the requirement to spend $6 dollars on title sponsor beers and $9 on food truck tacos – which is not to rag on St. Ambroise or food trucks, don’t get me wrong – but to note that sometimes, even free events can be expensive. Which is where Folk Fest gets it right. There are no checkpoints, no wristbands, no stress. With two stages nestled between the canal and the bike path, the festival almost feels like a massive community picnic that some enterprising musicians decided to play for. Groups of friends share blankets, baguettes and bottles of wine from the dep down the road. Passing joggers out with their dogs stop in at their leisure, children run around on the lawn while their parents enjoy the chance to relax and listen to some banjo. Of course, there are paid events at the Folk Fest, because at the end of the day a festival has to make some money, and a lot of people still buy their goodies from the myriad of stalls and stands available (because who doesn’t want a duck confit poutine??), but the option to enjoy the show for free exists. For the many cash-strapped starving artists of Montreal who still want to participate in the cultural life of the city, this is a welcome option.
In this way, the festival embodies the spirit of folk music itself. Since its earliest roots, folk has been the music of the people. In contrast to more commercialized forms of music, early folk had no copyrights and no owners. Songs were recorded and re-recorded by countless artists throughout generations, becoming a story of culture and place rather than a product to be bought and sold. In the spirit of this tradition, Folk Fest gives music to the community for the sake of community itself. It reminds people that music is not a commodity, but an experience to be shared and a collective story to be told.
I cruised down there on Friday evening to catch the last half of the show by Nova Scotia’s Mo Kenney, a singer-songwriter with poetic lyrics and a tendency towards tales of heartbreak. At one point, Kenney introduced a song by advising the audience that it would a sad one, “because all I write is sad songs.” But if heartbreak is what got her here, Kenney certainly made the best of a bad situation. Accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar, her voice has an almost resigned quality of someone who’s fated to simply sit and reflect on love. Her lyrics are thoughtful and evocative, and the rise and falls of her voice transport the audience on their own journey of reflection. Kenney takes the age-old practice of writing songs about love, and somehow makes it new again.
Livening things up a bit afterwards were Victoria’s Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, a bohemian, all-acoustic ensemble that seamlessly blends Spanish, African and North American influences that basically takes you on a trip around the world in five songs. A distinctly bluegrass-y fiddle is rounded out by a Flamenco-style accordion and African-influenced djembe percussion, all backing up beautifully crafted nature-themed lyrics that root the boys in Canada’s west coast.
On Saturday, I was admittedly too preoccupied with the purchasing and assembly of sandwich materials to pay close attention to many of the performers, but one group does stand out. Québec’s own Yves Lambert Trio, with their contemporary take on Québécois traditional music, brought the sound and story of rural Québec to the urban stage. Listening to that familiar fiddle and accordion combo, my Québécois friend remarked that he felt like he was in the local pub in his small hometown. That very moment, to me, was the essence of the festival. Folk music tells a story of people and place. Sometimes the story is of one place, or in Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra‘s case, of many. But they are stories that continues to be written and rewritten as new people and elements are added. By bringing all of these different artists together with all of their own tales to tell, Folk Fest itself becomes part of the story, weaving itself into the cultural fabric of the city.