In what organizers hope will be the beginning of a musical tradition in Prescott, fans of folk music will now have something to look forward to in the fall.
The inaugural Upper Canada Folkfest will take place on Saturday, October 3 at Prescott's Kinsmen Amphitheatre and will feature five hours of music from five of the top names on the region's folk music scene.
Organizers are, of course, acutely aware of the unique challenges they face trying to launch a brand-new event of this sort in the middle of a global pandemic, but they have spared no effort in making sure the festival will be as safe as it is entertaining.
The initial impetus to create the Upper Canada Folkfest came from local musician George Tierney, who came up with the idea about a year ago. After toying with the idea awhile, he finally decided to pursue it in earnest, and earlier this year, he set about putting together an organizing committee and began working on the musical lineup.
There are dozens of folk festivals in Ontario every year, some very big, such as the Mariposa Folk Festival north of Toronto, which draws tens of thousands of people each year, and some small, but there isn't much for folk music fans in this area, and many of the other festivals around the province have been canceled because of the pandemic.
When Tierney and the organizing committee saw that the government was permitting outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people, they saw an opportunity to offer the public some sorely-needed fun and excitement and to do so with their health and safety at top of mind.
"We decided to go ahead, and we reached out to some pretty amazing artists who came on board pretty quickly," says Tierney.
Organizers and volunteers will all be wearing masks for the duration of the event. Performers will also be masked when not on stage, and members of the audience will also be required to wear masks when not in their seats. There will be assigned seating for a maximum of 100 guests, and chairs will have to be placed, in sets of two, at pre-arranged positions on each level of the amphitheatre. Tickets will be sold in singles or pairs. There will be about 13 feet between sets of chairs on each level, and the seating positions will be staggered so that there will be about seven feet separating seating positions between levels. Volunteers will escort guests to their seats and moving or relocating the chairs will not be permitted.
Despite the strict safety measures, the Upper Canada Folkfest is going to be a good time, and as MC, Tierney will make sure everyone takes seriously the health and safety of all those in attendance while at the same time enjoys five-hours of light, funny and fantastic entertainment. Festival-goers won't be glued to their chairs though.
"We aren't asking people to sit still and not move for five hours," says Tierney.
Windmill Brewery will be there to serve beer and snacks and people are encouraged to get up and move around, even during performances, but they will have to be wearing a mask when they do so.
"We're going to have fun; we're going to do this right; we're going to do this safely," says Tierney. "It's still going to have a festival feel."
The lineup of acts Tierney and his team have put together will certainly make the afternoon seem to fly by, and in most entertaining fashion too.
Leading the lineup is Perth's James Keelaghan, a Juno award-winner and three-time nominee, and one of Canada's most admired singer-songwriters, with a glorious voice that Tierney says can't help but win over any listener.
"He's a storyteller. He's an entertainer," says Tierney. "Put on one of his albums and listen for 15 minutes and you're totally relaxed and amazed."
The Upper Canada Folkfest is also fortunate to have Stittsville's Jim Bryson in the lineup. The well-known performer and record producer has recorded six critically-acclaimed albums, and his unique brand of folk music has attracted a legion of fans.
"I'm not even going to speculate what he's going to bring to the show. It will be folk-oriented, but Jim is just as likely to show up with an electric guitar and notch things up a little bit in that direction."
One of Tierney's long-time favourites is also on the bill. Ottawa's Lynne Hanson is a two-time winner at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and is well-known as one half, alongside Lynn Miles, of roots duo the LYNNeS.
"Folk music is really about storytelling, and she's a great storyteller," says Tierney.
Festival-goers will also be treated to a performance of some wonderful traditional tunes by Anna Ludlow.
"She is a world-class fiddler," says Tierney.
In fact, the native of Barrhaven was one of the primary fiddlers in the Toronto-based production of the highly-acclaimed hit musical Come From Away. She has also been nominated for both Juno and CFMA
Rounding out the lineup is the family trio of Terry Tufts, Katherine Briggs and Beth Tufts, who call themselves Tripod. A multi-instrumentalist and extraordinary finger-style guitarist, Tufts has been a working musician in the region for more than 30 years. He is joined on stage by his wife, Katherine, a university music professor and exceptional pianist. They are joined by their daughter, Beth, who also plays guitar and piano but whose fantastic voice really sets the trio apart.
Though all the acts in the lineup can safely be called folk artists, they are each quite different, which is in keeping with the diverse character of folk music generally.
"Folk music is such a broad genre," says Tierney. "It's a catch-all for the storytelling type of music that doesn't fit cleanly into any other genre."
Telling a story through music, says Tierney, is at the root of folk music. Exactly what constitutes the genre and what falls outside the category, though, can be a matter of opinion, but Tierney favours a rather inclusive view.
"When a solo singer sits down and does a pile of stuff from the 70s and 80s, I'm calling that folk music," he says. "They're one person on stage with a guitar and their voice telling story after story."
Though it was Tierney's idea to launch the Upper Canada Folkfest, he readily credits the other four members of the organizing committee for their enormous contributions of both energy and expertise to making the inaugural edition of the event one that respects artist and audience alike and showcases the exceptional talent throughout this region.
Arthur McGregor was the first person Tierney tapped for help. As a founding member of the Canadian Folk Music Awards, McGregor is well known for his many years running the Ottawa Folklore Center, and he used his impressive network of contacts in the music world to help put together the festival's lineup.
Spencerville's Mary Moore is also in the group and brings not only expertise as an organizer and graphic designer but as a talented performer herself.
"She's a great vocalist and guitar player," says Tierney.
Moore helped produce all the Festival's marketing materials and created the event's website.
"She just stepped up to the plate in spades," says Tierney.
Herb Cloutier is an expert sound technician and initially came on board to make sure the audience enjoyed a fantastic concert. In fact, all the technical aspects of the show are being handled by Cloutier and his company, J.A.M Productions, out of Kemptville. More than that, while the Upper Canada Folkfest goes through the process of attaining non-profit status, J.A.M. Productions is helping to manage the festival's finances.
Graham Lindsey is another important member of the organizing committee. The multi-instrumentalist is a member of the board of the Canadian Folk Music Awards, and has assisted immeasurably with not only assembling a great lineup of musicians but also planning a festival that is both safe and fun for everybody involved.
"He came to the table with an incredible amount of energy, skill and good ideas," says Tierney.
Of course, there is also Tierney himself, who, like his fellow organizer, Graham Lindsey, is a member of the board of the Canadian Folk Music Awards. He's also the coordinator for the live music shows put on at Johnstown's Windmill Brewery and is well-known to area music fans as one of the three members of the Celtic garage band Happy Crap.
"We're just a crazy, Eastcoast, party-music, drinking-music kind of band," says Tierney.
As a member of Happy Crap, Tierney plays anywhere between 25 and 30 gigs a year, and the band could very well play more, such are the benefits of living and playing in an area that so values live music.
"The live music scene in our area is unlike any other you're going to find," says Tierney, remarking on how many opportunities there are for working musicians in this region and hoping the Upper Canada Folkfest will prove to be another valuable outlet for local talent.
When Tierney first conceived of the idea of creating a folk music festival, he wanted to do it right and make sure the festival was on solid footing. One of the first things the organizing committee did was to pin down what the purpose and goal of the festival would be beyond just entertaining audiences.
"Part of what is very important for this festival to do is to celebrate local artists and to celebrate youth and up-and-coming artists," says Tierney.
It is also, of course, to promote folk music and to provide a forum for all its various practitioners. Even the festival's logo drives home that point. It's a graphic image of a guitar leaning against a chair. The graphic depicts a real guitar, one that inspired Tierney to pursue the idea of launching a new music festival. It's a 1916 Gibson L1 that has played music all over the world.
"It has a history and a story it takes an hour to tell, and it was the final push I needed to launch this festival," says Tierney.
While the festival won't look quite like organizers thought it would when they began working on it earlier this year, they have already begun looking forward to the second annual edition and anticipate it will be a longer and more fulsome celebration of the local folk music scene.
"The goal this year was to get this off the ground," says Tierney.
A two-day event with a larger lineup of artists and more going on will, organizers hope, build on the solid foundations that will be laid by next month's festival.
"Hopefully, we'll go into the second one with a good track record and a story to tell," says Tierney.
Tickets for the Upper Canada Folkfest are selling for $40 apiece and while some of the money collected through sales will be saved to help with staging the next installment of the festival, the rest will go to the people who have made the afternoon of entertainment possible.
"Our goal is that the money we take in goes right back out again," says Tierney. "The money will go back out to the performers as much as we possibly can."
The event runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and those times were chosen by the organizers in hope that those who attend the festival might take advantage of some of Prescott's fine restaurants when the event ends around suppertime. In turn, the festival is also hoping that some of Prescott businesses might be willing to come on board as sponsors.
Tickets are already selling at a fairly brisk pace, so Tierney and the organizing committee hope that anyone interested in a pleasant afternoon of fun and music will pick up their tickets soon. Tickets can be purchased online by e-transfer at uppercanadafolkfest.ca.