The Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival: six days of music and buskers in the streets, of boozy Frederictonians stumbling home after performances that seem too good to have happened in not-so-small-town New Brunswick. Despite ‘be[ing] in this place’ all my life, it was my first time taking in Harvest.
The first time can be terrifying—you don’t know what to expect exactly. Your friends tell you stories, “It’s nothing like you’ve ever experienced” or “Sometimes it hurts.” All you know is it’s going to happen and your expectations are high. It is a right of passage after all.
The buzz around the festival was palpable throughout Fredericton, taking up my Newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter. It came up in casual conversation with cabbies, professors.
I started off my Harvest experience taking in Justin Townes Earle at the Playhouse—a respectable venue. Seats. Air conditioning. Proper washrooms. A tame introduction to what I would take in the rest of the week.
Fredericton’s own Keith Hallett opened for Earle with a set saturated in old-timey blues. Hallett’s songs harken back to the past aesthetically, but the musician’s wailin’ timbre tells stories of gamblers and wanderers and drunks very much present now.
A theme for this year’s Harvest seemed to be prodigal sons; Justin Townes Earle and Lukas Nelson and the Promise of The Real being two of the names promoted with particular fervour by Harvest Jazz & Blues, and with good reason.
Headliner Justin Townes Earle is an artist that is on another level live, his iconic picking and strumming style something that should be seen as well as heard. Earle satiated the crowd with a few new tunes, one of which about a champagne Corolla was a particular hit. As most musicians experience, members of the audience shouted out their favourite songs expectantly. In the case of ‘Mama’s Eyes’, Earle obliged; also playing a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold’.
The benefit of the Playhouse as a venue was Earle’s ability to engage with the audience, often exchanging playful banter with locals. A favourite moment came as Earle said “Shit” and apologized, alluding to the Playhouse as a church. A fan responded with “Shit all you want” to the singer, who advised us not to say the same to the Drive By Truckers or they might take us up on it. Collecting his dog Gunner from backstage, Earle wasn’t long in Fredericton before returning state-side to continue his tour.
Hometown hero Ross Neilsen served up big-band sound in the Moose Light Blues Tent prior to Lukas Nelson, the high-energy performance balanced out with a few subdued ballads before amping the crowd back up for the headliner. Neilsen released his new album Elemental just in time for the festival, where new tracks were well-received by locals. Mid-show, Neilsen addressed the crowd as “You heathens,” gesturing to the well-hydrated masses drunk on a Wednesday night.
Concert-goers were then left soaking after Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real’s performance—and not because of the rain. Nelson enticed the crowd with a guitar solo executed with his mouth. Yes, his mouth. What’s more is that Nelson sounded good, teeth plucking the strings as deftly as fingers. There was no question that Nelson’s performance was, let’s put it this way, satisfying. I couldn’t tear myself away from the stage. Highlights from the set include Nelson and POTR’s cover of Roger Miller’s classic ‘King of the Road’, the refrain “I ain’t got no cigarettes” echoed by the audience with such vigour it could be heard on the North Side.
Thursday featured the Vogue Dots and Walrus leading into Maritime darlings Wintersleep at the Stingray Music Barracks Tent. Vogue Dots has a way of making you move involuntarily, coaxing arms and hips to swing with Babette Hayward’s sultry lyrics and Tynan Dunfield’s ethereal beats. They are one of those bands that are often taken for granted, a group that should be featured more prominently at festivals such as Harvest. Halifax’s Walrus served up surfer vibes, their sound reminiscent of the Beatles with upbeat guitar riffs.
Wintersleep proceeded to take the stage, featuring many songs off their most recent album The Great Detachment. ‘Amerika’ had throngs of sweatered hipsters bobbing their heads in unison, wiggling closer to the stage to be that much closer to Paul Murphy and company. After the set, the audience demanded an encore, the communal voice overpowering that of the unwitting radio host encouraging us to stick around for the next act. Shouts of “one more song” went unanswered, insatiate Wintersleep fans refilling their drinks and quickly forgetting the incident. It wasn’t that Wintersleep didn’t want to fulfill the call more of course, but merely a tight schedule at a festival that offers up so many phenomenal artists within such sparse time.
Over at the TD Mojo Tent, David Myles, another Frederictonian who just so happens to look like Bill Nye’s son (I have since discovered his father is a biology teacher, coincidence?) got nostalgic—sending a shout out to Connaught Elementary and harkening back to a 50s era doo-wop accompanied by backup singers and sisters Mahalia and Reeny Smith. Myles reminded the crowd that “It don’t matter,” we were there together and having a good time. I didn’t catch much of Classified, other than to perceive an enthusiastic crowd more apt in rapping than myself, keeping up with the rapper word for word.
Friday was a climax of sorts. I’d gotten used to the port-a-potties, the inebriated concert-goers who were immediate friends.
Fredericton, I bonded with your people over height, over cigarette breaks and spilt Moose Light. I locked eyes with strangers, eyes bright and lips mouthing lyrics to songs I knew, others I didn’t.
The sense of community was elevated when Stars appeared, glittering, under blue lights that cast a night sky over them. Singer Amy Millan announced her pregnancy to fans ecstatically, going on to perform in the way only a woman who knows she will soon be taking a hiatus could. Torquil Campbell coaxed the crowd into rhythm, suit soaked in sweat and generating heat that challenged the brisk fall evening. There was no doubt that Stars are long time friends of Metric, as their musical styles complimented each other seamlessly. ‘Trap Door’ was a personal favourite, though ‘Your Ex-Lover is Dead’, what Campbell dubbed their Montreal song, was evidently a must for the eager crowd. If you weren’t dancing, Campbell called you out—remaining prostrate not an option amid the sensual songs about sex. For what some would consider middle-aged pop stars, the band was one of the most energetic and captivating performers featured at Harvest and have cemented themselves as a band I would go out of my way to see again.
Disclaimer: I’m a bad Canadian. I knew very few Metric songs other than their radio hits going into their show. They were talked up, rightfully so, as a must-see headliner of Harvest 2016 and the packed Moose Light Blues Tent attested to their popularity. With Emily Haines poised over fluffy white keyboards, Metric put on a show that left my ears aching for a week. We were all black sheep, herded together under blue light and white canvas and lifted up by Haines’ coos.
I didn’t get away from Harvest unscathed. After an ill-devised decision to wear heels in order to see a little better at busier shows, a pothole in the middle of Queen took me down and scratched up my knees. I’d been bloodied up, had a battle scar from a week of exceptional music and community in a city I’d only started to get to know.
I struggle to walk down Queen Street now, wanting to stroll into the middle of the road that is no longer barricaded off. I feel the need to get lost in a crowd, to hear my own voice harmonize with countless others and become something unrecognizable.
Post-Harvest, my knees are pink with new skin, my iTunes full of the music that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since the festival’s end. Harvest posters still colour the windows of small businesses downtown. Festival supporters don their Harvest merch proudly, holding onto the last tenuous hold they have on September. There is a first time for everything. Having experienced the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, there is one thing I know for sure: it will not be my last.
For more information visit www.harvestjazzandblues.com.