"Our subscribers were raving and pleading that we bring back the Quintet next year."

Fundraiser helps soften economic blow of festival’s cancellation this year

by Stephen Cooke in the Chronicle Herald

Maritime folk music fans hoped they’d never have to come up with a finish for the simile “A summer without Stanfest is like a summer without …”

But the answer was simple enough when the approach of hurricane Arthur called a halt to this year’s Stan Rogers Folk Festival. It was like a summer without music in the community of Canso; both from the performers on its stages and the sound of the voices of visitors from around the country converging on the remote corner of Guysborough, temporarily swelling the ranks of a town that’s had its share of ups and downs.

To make up for the loss of the music and to help soften the economic blow of the cancellation, Wednesday night’s Rise Again: The Show Must Go On brought the Canso experience for the first time to a crowd of 3,000 at the Halifax Metro Centre.

Or rather, “Cansofax,” as MC Steve Antle called it, proclaiming “This is not a wake, it’s a celebration. It’ll take more than one hurricane to blow this festival away.”

In remarks that followed, festival artistic director Troy Greencorn said, “We’re not defeated, we’re just cranky and determined.”

That seemed perfectly in keeping with the Stan Rogers spirit: forthright, outspoken, perhaps even downright cantankerous at times, and driven to see that a job isn’t just done well but done to perfection.

In that style, the music began with Singing Stan, normally a Sunday afternoon tradition at the festival, remembering the power contained within the late singer’s songs.

Bruce Guthro led the session, singing to the rafters on his own Stan’s Tune, an ode to Rogers written for a tribute concert at the Rebecca Cohn nearly 20 years ago.

“It’s almost like you never went away,” he crooned.

That felt even more true when Canso’s Carl Bond lent his rich baritone to Make and Break Harbour, inspired by the two-stroke boats Rogers watched in Chedabucto Bay in his youth.

Thanks to the giant video screen, you could see Laura Smith redden a bit when introduced by Guthro as “the beautiful young lady to my left,” but there was nothing girlish about her defiant Song of the Candle. And Mike Doyle, whose band Modabo performed at that Cohn concert in ’95, brought it home with an a cappella Northwest Passage, painting a wide and savage Arctic landscape with a tenor that seemed to reach for the hand of Franklin itself.

Granted, the Metro Centre doesn’t have the same ambiance as the Canso Athletic Field. There wasn’t a tent or RV in sight, no huddled masses in rain ponchos or gulls fighting over discarded french fries by the food vendors up on the hill.

So there was an extra air of class about the evening, and I don’t just mean Antle’s and fellow MC Kelly Peck’s coats and ties. Rhapsody Quintet gave an extra sense of grace to a pair of tunes written by festival favourite Ron Hynes, before accompanying two performers who’ve seen their careers grow by leaps and bounds over a series of Stanfests.

“This is the warmest, driest Stanfest I’ve ever been to,” grinned roots music powerhouse Matt Andersen, joining Rhapsody for a soulful Coal Miner’s Blues, made even sweeter by the strings.

“Upon reflection, I’m pretty convinced there would be no J.P. Cormier without the Stan Rogers Folk Fest,” mused the Cheticamp giant before he tore into Kelly’s Mountain at a breakneck bluegrass pace matched by Rhapsody’s five-part instrumental harmony. Talk about matches made in heaven.

There was also some rock and roll flavour to the evening, in acoustic form, from Joel Plaskett, who performed a fun new tune, The Park Avenue Sobriety Test, inspired by a bent guardrail in his Dartmouth neighbourhood and akin to the wit of the Kinks’ Ray Davies.

The air soon turned electric though when Peck asked “Is Cape Breton in the house?” and Antle introduced “the world’s greatest band.” Slowcoaster quickly got butts moving with Hollywood Vampire and The Darkest of Discos, while guitarist Steve MacDougall suggested setting off the fire sprinklers for the true Stanfest experience.

Another part of that experience is a spontaneous discovery like Ontario’s Randy Uberig, who’d driven as far as Antigonish before finding out the festival he hoped to attend was cancelled.

Undaunted, he wrote a song about the event’s resilience, Winds of Canso, and made the trip out east again to perform it at the Metro Centre after playing it over the phone for Greencorn. It’s probably not where Uberig thought his tune would wind up, but the experience is true to the nature of Stanfest’s frequent surprises.

The power of song was also demonstrated by the second half’s workshop set, which saw Stephen Fearing sing Long Walk to Freedom, written for Nelson Mandela, with North Preston gospel/R&B singer Reeny Smith, and Dave Gunning dedicate These Hands to the community at the IWK Health Centre.

Cormier’s Hometown Battlefield, an unflinching portrait of soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, felt even more in the Stan Rogers spirit, honest and direct, and meant to spread a greater understanding.

It’s a from-the-gut tune that’s exactly the sort of thing that brings thousands of music lovers hours from home to sit in a field and hear the best the folk world has to offer, and we can’t wait to do it again in 2015.