There’s music in the air anywhere you go on PEI come summer, and the Island star is rising.
Here on PEI, there are almost more music festivals—and more kinds of music—than there are summertime weekends to present them.
They happen in country halls, in converted churches and open fields; they are run as non-profit ventures by cadres of dedicated volunteers, or as profit-makers by eager entrepreneurs; they have taxpayer dollars invested in their success, justified as a boost to the tourist industry. (That’s why they are all crowded into summer—because that’s when the tourists are here.)
They run the gamut of musical tastes—from traditional to country, rock to folk and Beethoven, and everything beyond and between.
In fact, the music scene in this small province is booming. The vibrant culture draws artists “from away” who come to be part of the creative scene—and who bring, along with their talents, greater opportunity for everyone in the industry.
Some festivals date back decades. Some are still settling in.
Witness the fortunes of the PEI Jazz & Blues Festival, held in Charlottetown. This year, the date coincides with Old Home Week in mid August—the organizers are betting that visitors will take time off from horse races and poultry exhibitions to experience some fine Canadian exponents of the jazz genre, including several of local origin, like Sean Ferris.
Ferris has been named the Doug Riley musician at this year’s Jazz & Blues Fest. (Riley, an iconic jazz keyboard performer and composer from Toronto, who was known during his career as “Dr. Music,” retired in rural PEI in the late ’90s, and was instrumental in getting the Island’s tribute to jazz and blues underway.)
Ferris, a fellow composer, arranger and keyboard player, will perform in concert at St. Paul’s Church; half of the program will feature his interpretations of Riley compositions, with the other half dedicated to his own arranging and compositional talents.
The headliner at this year’s Jazz and Blues Festival is Montreal’s Oliver Jones, whose musical mentor and muse was Oscar Peterson. The master remains his major influence, and you can hear him in the jazz notes Jones lays down.
It is fair game to ask what jazz music, born in the bordellos of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico, has to do with a festival set, in part, in a church on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The answer lies in the nature of music. It is an expression of a particular culture, to be sure, but also universal in appeal. The answer can also be found in two words: opportunity and exposure.
To understand why the music scene in this small province is bursting with creative energy, look back 47 years to 1964, when the province celebrated the centennial of the Charlottetown Conference by building the Confederation Centre of the Arts.
The theatre, art gallery and library complex was created as a national memorial to the Fathers of Confederation, with the purpose of developing Canadian culture—why other provinces also committed funds to the centre. But after the first season, the newly appointed board of directors found they had nothing to put in their fancy new theatre. Some people predicted that the theatre would someday make a dandy potato warehouse.
So they assigned the task of coming up with something to Mavor Moore, famed Canadian librettist, actor and author. Moore was hired as a consultant to program the initial summer offerings during the centennial celebrations.
He saw that the theatre possessed three requirements essential to starting up a new national theatrical enterprise: an exotic location that was a little difficult to get to; the potential to exploit a unique niche; and little or no competition from other entertainment enterprises.
And so he conceived the idea of a summer-long theatrical festival of national importance dedicated to the production of original indigenous Canadian musical theatre.
Mr. Moore’s concept came well in advance of the movie aphorism that “if you build it, he (or they, in this case) will come,” but so they did—locals and visitors. The Charlottetown Festival of music and laughter turned out to be a great place to take the relatives when they came home from away.
But there was an unintended consequence as well. Islanders were suddenly exposed to homegrown theatre and music on a national stage—one to which they could aspire if they wished.
The potato warehouse jokes ceased. Islanders had something besides beaches in which to take pride and participate.
Now in its 47th season, the festival endures, though it has pretty much abandoned Mavor Moore’s original vision—it now depends on well-travelled shows from elsewhere instead of developing original Canadian productions.
Time was when this festival of music and laughter was the only big summertime show in the whole province.
But, boyoboy, how things have changed.
Before the Charlottetown Festival, there wasn’t much happening on the Island’s musical scene except Don Messer and His Islanders—most of whom weren’t—and occasional local bands playing dance halls, or the vaudeville show in the infield during Old Home Week.
Through the ’60s and early ’70s, we had “Singalong Jubilee,” the television program that made Anne Murray a star along with Gene MacLellan, who had returned from Ontario to family roots on the Island and who catapulted himself and Ms. Murray to international fame with his song “Snowbird.”
MacLellan, in particular, was idolized by young Islanders with a musical bent. One Island-based musician is still playing the guitar Gene gave him to encourage his interest in music.
Those traditional musical roots continue to run deep on the Island. The love of the fiddle has been celebrated at the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival for 35 years, founded and still run by the Chaisson family at its permanent outdoor location in a natural amphitheatre near Souris, at the eastern end of the province.
There is a higher purpose to this event than three days of fine old-time fiddle music in mid July: the profits provide free fiddle lessons for children in the area all winter long.
The fiddle extravaganza has something in common with the Scottish-Irish roots of its Appalachian cousin—bluegrass. The PEI Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival is put together by devotees of bluegrass, who also use the Rollo Bay grounds for their exposition of what used to be called hillbilly music.
If the music doesn’t get you, the monikers of the bands will—Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers (all the way from Ohio) for example, or how about Larry Gillis and His Hard Driving Swampgrass Band (from Southern US). Also on the lineup: Janet McGarry and Wildwood from PEI, along with A New Shade of Blue (NB), the Mark Boutilier Band (NS) and The Bluegrass Diamonds (NB) form this year’s Maritime contingent.
Up in Tignish, at the western tip of the province, the Irish Heritage Festival breaks into song with a céilidh and concerts by the Canadian tenor John McDermott, and the Irish Descendants from Newfoundland.
The Festival of Small Halls, which just took place in June, is only three years old. Last year, the provincial government withdrew its financial support, and the small halls stayed empty. However, the rural population rose up in protest, and this year the funding was restored.
This festival, which celebrates PEI roots and folk music, kicked off the summer season with 42 events in 34 venues—small re-configured schools, churches and community halls—over 11 frenetic days of music and storytelling.
Volunteer committees make the festival work: they plan the concerts, promote them locally, set up the halls, and bring the sandwiches and sweets for the après concert lunches. Most of the talent is indigenous to PEI: storytellers like Alan Buchanan and Erskine Smith; singer-songwriters Allan Rankin and Dennis Ellsworth; current stars like Catherine MacLellan and fiddler Richard Wood. Some—like Gordie MacKeeman & His Rhythm Boys—are unknown to audiences outside their local area.
Charlottetown has its Summerfest (newly renamed from the Festival of Lights) over the July 1 weekend. The Tragically Hip, Eddie Money and Meat Loaf are this year’s headliners.
If classical music is more to your taste, the filet mignon of a musical summer on PEI would be the Indian River Festival, where an eclectic mélange of jazz, folk and especially classical music, gets its due from June to mid September. Measha Brueggergosman has been a frequent guest soloist, as have other national and international artists.
The venue is half the enjoyment: St. Mary’s Church, designed by architect William Harris and built in 1902, has the most glorious acoustics to be found anywhere. Indeed, the church has been said to be one of the top 10 acoustic halls in the world.
The Cavendish Beach Music Festival brings the stars and super-stars of country music to an outdoor stage over four days in early July and—like the other festivals—also pays homage to local performers. Fans who flock in from all over Atlantic Canada will no doubt be attracted by the likes of Nashvillians Toby Keith and Tanya Tucker, but Islanders Catherine MacLellan, Lennie Gallant and Meaghan Blanchard will have their turn in the spotlight as well.
Actually, this summer it will be hard to miss hearing the winsome Ms. Blanchard. She is equally at home with a melody whether it stems from traditional roots, country music or the jazz beat. By fall she will have sung in a Small Halls concert, at Cavendish, and at the Jazz and Blues Festival on a double bill with New Brunswick’s Meaghan Smith.
But wait—there’s more music a-comin’.
Next year could bring on the first ever Malpeque Folk Festival, put together by a group of local devotees and Mitch Podolak, the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival; Podolak has also been a key player in numerous other folk fests across the country. “Right now, the people coming out of the folk world in PEI are just fantastic,” he says.
The tradition of opportunity and exposure, with role models to admire and emulate, continues.