Timing is everything with Sappyfest and over the years I’ve realized that you just have to let the magic happen. Two days after the festival I was driving back to Wolfville from Fredericton and stopped for a coffee at the Black Duck before hitting the road again and as I walked down the street, Paul (festival director) was taking down the Sappyfest 8 flag from the festival office. So appropriate, random, and unlikely that it really sums up what the whole festival feels like. It feels right. Feels like home.
If it is the first weekend in August there is a very high likelihood that I’ll be in Sackville, New Brunswick on Bridge Street listening to music at Sappyfest. This was the 8th time and it was wonderful again. What started small has grown a bit, but the spirit is the same. It’s a weekend for nice people to share beautiful music with each other in a lovely place. One of the great things about Sappyfest is that it is small and doesn’t take itself seriously. But appearances can be deceiving as there is a lot crammed into three days and every year there are magical moments and lots of new music to discover.
There’s a casual vibe to the whole weekend, but things generally run on time with a refreshing lack of technical problems and ego. It feels like a party where all sorts of talented people have shown up to play music. But it’s a lot of work with a dedicated crew, volunteers, and an amazing leader in Paul Henderson. The coordination is mind boggling with about 40 bands playing over 2 1/2 days. This year was smaller than last year which was nice as it meant the choices were simpler and it was possible to share more with everyone else.
The slogan this year was “don’t get your hopes up” — a clever deconstruction of the wild rumours that seemed to dominate last year of a secret show with a big name band. Sappyfest has never been about that and it’s good to keep the focus on the music and bands that are there. It’s a sustainable music ecosystem that has reached equilibrium. It doesn’t have to constantly expand. This is the right size and it surprises and inspires me like a friend who always knows just the right thing to say.
The festival is embraced by the town of Sackville and Bridge Street is blocked with two tents set up for the main venue for Sappyfest. The lower tent has the stage with a fenced-in open part of the street and another tent where the merchandise, beer from Picaroons, and artisanal gin are located. There is also a table where you can get clothes mended (but not hearts, that’s what the music is for). At the top of the street are carts, tables with food, and other merchandise. There are restaurants and bars and this year The Food Wolf came up from Halifax to share their delicious food with the crowd. Lots of people come up from Nova Scotia every year and I think the hipper places in Halifax and Dartmouth must be a bit empty on Sappyfest weekend.
In addition to the affordable residence rooms at Mount Alison, there was an official tent city this year for camping. As usual, I chose the comfort of the residence. For food you have many options. Highlights for me were the grilled cheeses from Cinnabunny, the wraps from the Bridge Street Cafe, the ginger tofu taco from The Food Wolf, a great egg, cheese, and green onion bagel from The Black Duck, and a veggie burger from Pickles. There is great coffee all around from The Cackling Goose, to the Bridge Street Cafe, to the General (set up in the front seat of the Food Wolf), to my new favourite, The Black Duck. The newly renovated and relocated Ducky’s Bar is right on Bridge Street with Picaroons on tap (at great prices) with a nice patio out front along with taps, so the beer is right there. It’s easy to move from the tent to get food and drink at almost any time.
One tradition that I have is wearing a series of Sappyfest t-shirts. Every year there are lots of neat t-shirts connected with the festival. It started with the first one and has continued on and I keep buying them and wearing them. One year I got a hoodie instead of a t-shirt. It has a drawing of a bear saying “Sappy?” on it. Since they festival happens over three days and I came with 6 t-shirts and a hoodie I had to make a few wardrobe changes to cycle through them.
Chain & the Gang
I arrived Friday around 5 which gave me time to check in to the residence, unwind and get down to Bridge Street for some food before the Joel Plaskett Emergency started playing. I hadn’t seen Joel Plaskett perform live before, but kicking things off with a band that usually would be the headliner at the end of the night was perfect. It drew people in to the tent and put smiles on faces. Next up on the stage was Pat Jordache followed by the trippy Doldrums as the festival was fully underway. The last band in the tent on day one was the fun and semi-ironic Chain & the Gang who put on a great show with some politically-infused lyrics and banter. Then it was time to head back to the residence after a long day to before the full day of music that Saturday is usually filled with.
The biggest day of the festival is Saturday with things kicking off around noon and going until 2 am or later, so it’s important to pace yourself. The farmers market happens Saturday morning on Bridge Street and there are more vendors and food than other days, so it’s a nice way to ease into the day before the music and other events start. Taking it easy, I took a short bike ride and got coffee from The General in the front of The Food Wolf truck and then wandered around the farmers market before going in to the tent for the jazzy sounds of Eucalyptus who provided a lovely soundtrack to the beautiful day outside. The mysterious Tasseomancy drew more people into the tent with their haunting harmonies.
Games at Sappyfest
After a tasty veggie burger from Pickles inside Ducky’s, I wandered across the street for my first show in the Vogue Theatre and saw Alex Lukashevsky do a nice set along with two of the members of Snowblink. It’s great how you see bands reconfigure and see the same people doing different things in bands. The styles shift and you see other aspects of the talents that are shared on the stage. Before Sappyfest I don’t usually do much research as it’s good to be find new things in the program. Snowblink was one of those surprises and they did a cover of “I Want to Dance With Somebody” that was unexpectedly beautiful.
Then it was out into the late afternoon sun for another grilled cheese from Cinnabunny and some spicy Chinese noodles from the Food Wolf before going in to the tent for some Picaroons beer. After walking around and relaxing a bit in the residence room it was time to get back to the tent which started for me with the Magic followed by the triumphant return of Shotgun Jimmie who thrilled the crowd with his band.
Eclectic is a good word to describe the programming of Sappyfest, but it somehow always seems to work and I never thought that a couple of young rappers from Brooklyn would be on the stage, but there they were, the Underachievers, and it was great. Following their energetic set they mingled with the crowd as Chad VanGaalen did another one of his surprisingly full and evocative solo performances. Hard to believe how many sounds and emotions can come out of one person.
Construction & Destruction
After standing for a few hours it was good to get into the Vogue Theatre just after midnight to see Construction & Destruction again. Personal, fragile, and humble, it was neat to see the duo play and change instruments multiple times through their songs. The next day I picked up the digital download of their new album with a cool flashlight. Finally in the Vogue as the lights were dimmed were AroarA with a spellbinding selection of songs based on poems by Alice Notley.
It’s great to bring your bike to Sappyfest and be able to explore around Sackville on two wheels, so after a coffee and toast at the Cackling Goose, it was out along the coast for a few hours of bike riding (57 kms of distance). I tried to carefully time it so I would be back in time to be back at the tent to see the Pictish Trail, and I was happy to get back to the tent to see his show which was a lot of self-deprecating fun. Following that, it was in to the Vogue Theatre to see the world premiere of Ian Svenonius’ short film “What is a Group?” which was a clever Marxist deconstruction of the music industry.
Then more food and some walking around and catching up online resting a bit in the residence room before walking down for the mainstage finale in the tent which started with Jon Mckiel. Then Colin Stetson took the stage with a saxophone and he started to play and it was one of the most unique and beautiful things that I saw. With combination of feedback and playing he created strangely oscillating waves of sound that washed over the transfixed crowd. Then eclectic rock band the Luyas made some beautiful music. Finally Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens took the stage for some powerful gospel and soul. With tired legs and beautiful music in my ears I made my way back to the residence for a lovely sleep as Sappyfest ended for another year.
Sappyfest cofounder Jon Claytor is creating a book and rescue mission for Sappyfest on IndieGoGo. You can remember the past and contribute to the future by being one of the 250 people who get to make sure that more people get to have this amazing experience.