The most beautiful place to be in the world over the weekend must have been Victoria Park.
The 2010 edition of the Home County Folk Festival pulled an overflow crowd estimated at 10,000-20,000 fans for a solo concert by Canadian icon Bruce Cockburn on Saturday night. It was a night of memories, classic songs and brilliant guitar from Cockburn, making his Home County debut.
No wonder Cockburn’s last song worked around the words, “Is it any wonder I don’t want to say goodnight?” in a series of wry ways.
Cockburn’s performance at the Kiwanis bandshell with late-set gems Wondering Where the Lions Are, If a Tree Falls and Waiting for a Miracle is certain to be the signature event for the summer. The sound of his voice and guitar — what full chords and runs he finds — wafting over the hushed, happy crowd won’t fade away.
But it wasn’t the only thing happening fest-wise in downtown London.
On the same weekend, Bluesfest London was holding down a parking lot at King and Clarence. Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie’s Country of Miracles solo project provided the Bluesfest finale.
As moving as the Cockburn-plus-crowd experience was for this reviewer, the fest’s most astounding music to me arrived on one of the fest’s smaller stages.
Both Saturday and Sunday afternoons were lofted by performances for the ages from Andrew Downing’s Canada Council Project at the South Stage. A collaboration between former Londoner Downing, a bassist and composer, and fest artistic director Catherine McInnes, the project won a $10,000 council grant. That was a fest first.
Downing then arranged two songs from four fest performers. They are Lynn Miles, Ron Hynes, Old Man Luedecke and Chris Coole — who sang and played them in these settings. McInnes sang two songs by Cockburn.
“It’s very humbling, to say the least,” said Hynes of the experience on Sunday. Later, he closed the fest.
Anyone who there for the project’s first voyage on Saturday couldn’t help being a bit overwhelmed when Cockburn, who had been quietly standing to one side, greeted McInnes warmly after she finished the first of his songs. “No pressure,” she had said.
Downing’s fabulous ensemble included Orchestra London associate concertmaster Mary-Elizabeth Brown and trombonist David Pell and London cellist Lac-Hong Phi, who also performs with the orchestra. All three sounded smashing as did their Toronto bandmates under Downing’s direction.
The glorious sounds, including original compositions, combined elements of chamber music, klezmer, jazz, country and Downing’s own lovely sense of swing under the trees across Dufferin from London Life.
As an admirer of Downing’s work, I knew it would be good, very good.
Surpassing those high expectations were Miles’s Time to Let the Sun Have Its Day, a new work, and a Hynes classic, Dry, about battling the demons of substance abuse. Those songs, and others, moved me and others to near-tears.
This remarkable artistic achievement was informally recorded. Now, there’s talk of applying for another grant to make a studio recording and share this London-born, world-class music with a bigger audience. Hooray.
Home County had really started on Thursday. Hip-hopper Buck 65 rocking Aeolian Hall in a pre-fest show when he danced, sampled beats and told hilariously disgusting stories about visits to dentists and doctors. Blessed with good weather, it boasted a splendid opening night headlining set by Great Lake Swimmers on Friday. Then, Cockburn provided Saturday’s summer peak.
On Sunday afternoon, fest joys included Toronto guitar hero Kevin Breit singing an eerie, inner space version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ and former Londoner Meaghan Smith covering Summertime at a workshop with singer-songwriters Royal Wood.
Breit, Smith’s husband and bandmate Jason Mingo, and Toronto’s David Occhipinti, playing alongside Downing, gave the fest three guitar aces all being heard around Victoria Park at the same time.
Halifax-based Smith could jest about the success she’s found after her savings bankrolled her debut album, The Cricket’s Orchestra, a critical hit that has Smith and Mingo on the road.
“The record was picked up by Warner which was a great opportunity for Jason to quit his job and for me to hire him. This song is about our bank account,” she said.
The song is called Poor — which provides a neat segue to remind us that Home County is free, but your donations are needed to keep it that way.
This year’s bill, with Cockburn, Miles, Jason Collett, kids’s shows and many London-area performers, is proof your money is going to a good place.
The admission-charging Bluesfest London had its own moments on Sunday.
U.S. guitarist Scott Holt, who played the first Bluesfest in 2000 and has been back many times, was sharp on guitar and stage on Sunday.
“Y’all get to drink Canadian beer all the time. You ought to be singing at the top of your lungs,” Holt said after enjoying a brew break during a set when he was in blazing form.
Downie is touring to support his third solo album, The Grand Bounce (Universal).
The Grand Bounce was produced and mixed by Chris Walla, guitarist for the American band Death Cab for Cutie.
“I thought that Chris might like working with the Miracles and they him,” said Downie. “I thought this would be the best way to serve the songs. These were some of the hunches that brought us together for two weeks last August, me and Chris and the Country of Miracles.”
The Country of Miracles are Josh Finlayson (bass), Dave Clark (drums), Julie Doiron (vocals), Dale Morningstar (guitar) and John Press (keyboards).
Clark is fondly remembered here for his tub-thumping set at Home County a few years ago, backing up fellow Guelph star Tannis Slimmon.
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Fest fun facts
A few numbers compiled over the weekend at the 2010 editions of Home County Folk Festival and Bluesfest London.
70,000: biggest number among many estimates for the size of the crowd at the Bruce Cockburn concert. No official count was immediately available (we’re going with 10,000-20,000), but it was agreed to be the biggest at the fest in years. Maybe ever.
250: apple-cinnamon cones ($3.75) sold at Huron House’s Bluesfest booth
58: dancers as dozens of audience members joined an aboriginal group’s “round dance” at Home County workshop Sunday. “Beautiful, powerful energy,” group leader Dennis Whiteye of London told the crowd. (The number is approximate. It’s difficult counting people circling in a round dance.)
45: Royal Wood CDs sold at Home County tent
50: Home County artistic director Catherine McInnes turned the big 5-oh on Saturday. Nice party.
37: editions of Home County
18: motorcycles at Bluesfest’s “show and shine” event, organized by London Harley Owners Group. The display raised about $360 for Women’s Community House. Next year’s target is 50 bikes.
11: editions of Bluesfest London
10: bicycles parked in the city-provided space at Victoria Park on Saturday afternoon
8: hours between Bluesfest’s Sunday, 11 p.m., finale and when it’s back in business as a parking lot at King and Clarence
4: “young guys in T-shirts” who showed up at the Kiwanis bandshell and Home County on Saturday, said they were Foghat (the venerable Brit-U.S. band headlining Bluesfest that night) and asked when they were supposed to go on. C’mon. We’ve all seen This is Spinal Tap.
1: Welcome salute to motto displayed on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.” The always useful slogan is printed on guitar hero Kevin Breit’s amp.
THE SOUNDS OF SUMMER
LONDON FESTS: Bluesfest London and Home County Folk Festival create musical magic
By JAMES REANEY, The London Free Press