Mid-winter in the downtown core of Fredericton has a capricious disposition: the windchill flickers between pacific and caustic, the sidewalks are littered with icy pitfalls, and and our doses of heavy snowstorm seem wildly irregular. In spite of all this, the weather held at a moderate breeze over the weekend, and the temperature seemed to rise a few degrees for those of us who took in this year’s Shivering Songs festival.
Continuing in the tradition of past years, the festival took over downtown Fredericton and filled its spaces with local and East Coast talent. Setting it apart from other big-ticket festivals on the East Coast, its dual focus on song and story facilitated a weekend that appealed to diverse crowds, providing a flurry of intimate showcases and interactions between artist and audience.
As great as the music was (and it was, but first, a moment), two of the festival’s more profound moments happened between the notes. The festival’s opening event , Songs of the City, brought five compelling speakers to the TNB Mainstage to share their lived experiences of addiction, abuse, hardship, and homelessness, delivering stories of how their lives have benefited from the community’s ongoing support. Sponsored by the United Way Endowment Fund, the evening paired speakers with musicians such as Keith Hallett and Jessica Rhaye to transform their narratives into song. These stories were deeply human and bravely personal, and highlighted just how crucial our community programs are for those who need them the most. It was an affecting moment that gave everyone in the audience a meaningful takeaway.
Shane Koyczan‘s spoken-word performance the following evening was riveting and thunderous, the product of a wordsmith who knows his audiences well. His banter would have fit just as comfortably on stage at Just For Laughs, while his poetry weaved rhythm and pause, autobiography and absurdity into a howl of philosophy and recollection. The audience was treated to a number of his classics as well as new material, including a first performance of a poem on what it takes to be a writer (hint: ‘a lot’ might be an understatement). Particularly, for those who hadn’t caught Shane the last time he was in town, his engaging persona and rhythmic spirit was bright enough to shake a bear out of its winter slumber.
That on its own would have made for a full weekend, but the festival’s main draw has always been its ability to host high-end musical performances. The towering walls of the Wilmot United Church played host to another year of confessional acoustic performances. Saturday afternoon brought the spectacular Songwriters and Storytellers event, once again showcasing East Coast musical talents and pairing them with a literary moderator. This year’s choice of storyteller, Sheree Fitch, was a perfect fit in terms of chemistry; alongside a cast of humble, soft-spoken artists, her infectious presence and adventurous banter opened up the stage, culminating into some of the festival’s most colourful moments. Mathias Kom‘s songwriting provided a dose of realism and humour to the event, while Cedric Noel‘s haunting, reverberating minimalism echoed to the ceilings as though it had been designed for this very stage. A spontaneous poetry reading set to improvised music capped off the event in a magical moment of creativity.
The evening performance at Wilmot brought back our favourite son Joel Plaskett, this time with his favourite father Bill. Watching father and son share the stage was a unique treat, as Bill reached twenty years back into the vault to bring out a string of powerful duets. Jenn Grant provided a warm and conversational opening set, later joining Joel on stage for an upbeat performance of Nowhere With You. The Plaskett‘s set was stripped down, entrancing us with pin-drop moments before transitioning into a sequence of laughs, claps, stomps, and singalongs. For those looking for vintage Joel Plaskett strumming an acoustic guitar, or a flawless performance of Face of the Earth, this was it.
All roads eventually led to The Capital, bringing three consecutive nights of escapades spanning two floors. A flood of familiar faces and out of town show-goers shuffled, up and down the Complex stairs, through packed stage-fronts, and out into the parking lot for fresh air. Whether it was the Hypochondriacs and a slew of guests bringing the Grand Ole Opry to the Wilser’s Room, or the chorus to Telephones being shouted back to an acoustic Mo Kenney, almost everyone I’d spoke to had a ‘moment’ they were glad they didn’t miss.
This doesn’t even begin to encompass what Shivering Songs achieved over the weekend. Les Hay Babies made the mob at Boyce’s Farmers Market drunkenly roar. Michael Feuerstack ran a songwriting workshop and brought us seven great musicians with seven great new songs. The Weather Station crammed us all into a tiny room and floored us into awe. I even bought a customized cup at the Handmade Market that perfectly captures how elusive happiness can be, especially in the bleakness of January, but as long as we’re going to keep chasing it, Shivering Songs is probably a good bet.