Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)

SappyFest: Sackville Challenges Urban Centres For Culture

I close my eyes and the thrum of Daniel Romano’s guitar begins to vibrate in my blood, like a primordial engine, revving before it launches into the full extent of its propulsion. We, my fellow festival goers and I, are suspended in the dense, sonic coda that inevitably precedes a concert, communally hanging on a breath, awaiting both the familiar and the unexpected —keen to be transported in the ethereal slipstream of live music. Sackville is the place and Sappyfest is the occasion, the small and brilliant festival that takes place here every summer.

In this cloud of shared expectation, I find myself secretly hoping that somewhere in the set, I will hear a song from Sleep Beneath the Willow, one of my favourite albums. I first discovered it when I delicately and hesitantly placed it on the turntable at Thunder and Lightning, one of the main watering holes and principle cultural hubs of the town. Their taxidermy and neon interior unexpectedly hides a bowling alley and concert stage, like a passage in a boozy, underground take on Alice in Wonderland.

Now however, in a moment too quick to capture, Romano raises his guitar in just the right manner to signify that we are ready and before anyone can truly register this, we are launched into a blistering set of electric country-rock. This is a repeat experience during the festival – the expectation, the nerves, the communal energy and yes, elation.

Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Daniel Romano (Ben Dickey/The East)
Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Jon Mckiel (Ben Dickey/The East)

Sappyfest is a three-day gathering that pulls people from across the country, promising always, a diverse bill of music, performance, art and revelry. Indeed, very few festivals are like this. Artists and attendees walk together on the street nodding and conversing, children safely find their way to the front of the stage. At one point I see an elderly man with a cane can jokingly moshing with local teenagers and at another I stand front stage, beside a friend, his son on his shoulders, tossing a neon ball and flashing a thumbs up to the crowd.

One of the beautiful sentiments of Sackville, is that it often feels like a perennial home to those who have experienced it, a large portion for whom Sappyfest has been the gateway. People return year after year, some having come even for all twelve Sappies — but why?

Ultimately, nothing recalls memory as candidly as new experience, and while five of my greatest years were spent here, the year I have been away has made it appear unsettlingly new. It’s like finding a family photograph you have somehow been erased from.

Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Lido Pimienta (Ben Dickey/The East)
Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Weaves (Ben Dickey/The East)

The light is softer here, seemingly, perennially stuck in pre-dusk extravagance. There are children running about, screaming in delight. Fresh smells circulate the air as names are called across distances and friends embrace in reunion. It feels like the very platform of nowhereness and simultaneously like the epicentre of a universe unto its own — a brilliant and unlikely constellation. In this way, I immediately become nostalgic for this place I have not left yet, a familiar geography remapped in the surreal ignition of recollection and memory. This is part of the magic of this community and of this event, whose fleetingness is bound inextricably with its great joy.

Sappyfest exerts a secret and profound influence on the Canadian music scene, having been a platform for what are now some of Canada’s largest artists, and this year, hosting two of the Polaris Prize shortlist nominees, Lido Pimiento and Weaves. Sappy and Sackville, not only challenge the notion of urban centres as exclusive proprietors of culture, but also the traditional hierarchy of the art world, placing community before exclusivity, shared creation before individual title.

This year’s line up was movingly political. It confronting both, in the choice of the line up and the performances of the artists, issues of gender inequality, sexual discrimination, colonialism and racial injustice. Willie Thrasher’s high octane folk spoke of repairing the past in the maintenance of tradition, identity and friendship, Fiver’s new concept album, Audible Songs from Rockwood sought to give voice to the sexism and hardship faced by women in early Canada, long buried by a one-sided history, Lido Pimienta’s energized and empowering performance attacked patriarchal notions of ownership and racialized ideas of exclusivity, while the upbeat and incendiary rock of local heroes, Partner, sung a poignant message of self-acceptance and love.

Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Partner (Ben Dickey/The East)
Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Partner (Ben Dickey/The East)

Throughout the festival, whether it was the laid back ambience of Bernice, the undeniably groovy numbers of The Magic, the searing post-rock of Weaves, the exuberant funk of the Big Budi Band, or any other of the great performances I had the privilege of seeing, the spirit of community was never lost. Mainstage acts, late night punk and variety shows, after parties and DJ dance sets all bubbled forth into a stream of unforgettable ebullience.

It is the morning after Sappyfest and I wake up, peeling myself from the mat on the floor of my friend’s apartment that I have called my bed for the past three nights. I swell with pride and thankfulness to see two of my best friends still asleep, in similarly improvised positions beside me.

Almost all signs of Sappyfest have vanished save for a closed box office booth and the last of the porta-johns being graciously carted away. The streets are almost deserted, but for one of last nights performers who asks me where he can get some food and a few children helping festival volunteers and organizers sweep up what little garbage was likely left. I return and all my friends have woken up, a reciprocal light in their eyes — gratitude for the small intertwining of our lives and for the chance to have shared the sadness and ecstasy of this short lived event.

And so, I leave here, ears still ringing, with a mind too full to calculate or marshal, thankful for all the experiences I have shared, all the friends I have met and all the love that has entered me. However, like any good story of resurrection or return, I have learnt that in Sappyfest there are traces of oneself everywhere like a network of histories hidden in secret symbologies and spaces, backyards once full of stars, dances once had, words once whispered. It turns out Sappyfest never forgets you — you are the one who has forgotten it, never entirely, or completely, but just enough to relive it the next time.

Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)
Sappyfest (Ben Dickey/The East)

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