Written by Bob Mersereau.
Another Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival has finished, the 27th Fredericton has put on. I’ve seen almost all of them, including the very first, and watched it grow into one of the premier music festivals in the country. It has attracted plenty of big names over the years, certainly bringing in talent that would never play this far-flung, relatively small community normally, such as Phish mainman Trey Anastasio this year.
If you haven’t had the pleasure before, Harvest takes over most of the downtown in Fredericton for six days, using every venue available, and making venues where they ain’t. Tents huge and little are pitched in parks and parking lots, a few hundred to see Hollerado, a couple of thousand at Sloan, even more at Steve Earle and the Dukes. You can choose a local bar for a more intimate (but still crowded) evening, or snatch a coveted ticket to see Bruce Cockburn launch his national tour and new album in the soft-seat Playhouse. That’s just for starters. Then there’s all the free shows through the days and evenings, which can feature local newcomers or Juno winners such as bluesman Garrett Mason.
But I’ll argue the stars of the festival aren’t the music acts, as top-notch as they always are. It’s the crowds. I don’t mean the behaviour of the crowds, or the numbers that turn up, although these are both impressive. Crowds are made up of many individuals, and each person who attends Harvest makes their own unique experience. Each has their own story, which they are happy to share in between sets or in line. There’s the group of six women, longtime friends, who go each year together. No partners allowed, nobody getting in the way of that special bond. They take the week off work, start early in the day, and don’t let up the whole week, dancing and laughing at every show. There’s the guy who moved away long ago, has spent most of his lifetime in Ontario, but returns just for that event each year, a holiday to see whatever old friends he runs into in the tents.
Those are common stories. Babysitters long ago found out there were small fortunes to be made Harvest week, as people would go out every night early and stay out late. It’s getting to be as popular as Christmas as a holiday week, with many people requesting vacation days. There’s actually a trending meme, musical notes surrounding the phrase, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” People greet you with Happy Harvest! And they talk. They talk to people they haven’t seen in years, they talk to total strangers. They make new friends. and hang out for the night with people they just met.
After going to the Bruce Cockburn show, I was standing in the tent crowd watching the antics of The TransCanada Highwaymen, the new supergroup made up of Chris Murphy of Sloan, Steven Page (ex-BNL), Craig Northey of Odds and Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness). All hits, and lots of laughs. Next to me was a woman holding the new Cockburn album, signed from the show, and we started talking about him and the Highwaymen. It was Phyllis Grant’s first time at the festival, and she’d made the trek from Pabineau First Nation on the North Shore. Grant is an interdisciplinary artist, a filmmaker for the NFB, an animator, a rapper, a writer, and community leader. She was asked to be an official Canada 150 Ambassador this year, a tricky job for someone who is Mi’gmaq. The idea that the country is only 150 years old is a ridiculous idea for a people that has been on the land for millenia. But she accepted, so she could use the position to celebrate the resilience and achievements of First Nations people, and as a way to open up dialogue in the community. A Harvest hello led to an eye-opening conversation for me.
Another night I got a note from the musician Tommy Green Jr., in town for Harvest, asking if we could meet before the Matt Andersen show, so he could hand over his latest release. A good chat was had, and later we were joined by his father, Tommy Sr. It only took about two minutes to discover we were the same age, had attended UNB the exact same years, and knew about 50 of the same people. How we hadn’t met during all that time was a surprise, and Tommy Jr. was loving it. He confided how great it was to have his dad join him at the concert, as the above picture attests.
These are small moments, but day after day they add up at Harvest, for me and everybody else that makes up that crowd. People often talk about community spirit, but it takes special events to bring out those moments when the chemistry is just right. Of course, not everyone will take part, have positive experiences, or even enjoy a music festival like this. But when so many do, it really is a special community event, and that’s what has made the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival such a success.