The North American festival scene is at maximum density. From coast to coast, there’s a wide range of them, complete with 2-3 days of big stars and bigger crowds. The question is: does that same formula work when it’s scaled down? Ontario’s Wolfe Island Music Festival has emphatically proven that can absolutely be the case, having become a Cancon-rich, late-summer tradition for 17 years running.
WIMF (as the kids call it) has all the things that make festivals tick: the great outdoors, camping, plenty of involvement from the local community and of course a killer, increasingly diverse lineup. What it pointedly does not have are the sprawling crowds (this year’s attendance was about 2,000 – up about 500 from previous years), the grueling, arduous journey to the festival grounds, the lecherous food and beverage prices, the throngs of bros and I’m very pleased to announce: exactly zero Native headdresses.
Located on the largest of the Thousand Islands, WIMF traditionally features a main stage in the baseball diamond of its community centre (which the money from the festival has helped build) and smaller stages throughout the town’s bars, restaurants and hotels. The lineup usually consists of about a dozen, up-and-coming acts and 4-5 established ones. Main stage favourites have included Sarah Harmer (and former band Weeping Tile), Sam Roberts Band, July Talk, The Sadies, and The Rheostatics.
Considering that, it’s fair to say that this year’s lineup was stacked. Headliners included JUNO winner and Grammy nominee K-OS, Polaris shortlister Shad, Young Galaxy and Rural Alberta Advantage, who headlined the mainstage on Friday night. Other acts on the bill included Polaris longlisters PUP and Bry Webb and the Providers, as well as buzzworthy acts like Alvvays. This was the festival’s first year using an outdoor stage on both Friday and Saturday – a sure sign of the festival’s conservative growth through the years.
Friday night’s stage was the festival’s official welcome with mellow, evening sets under the stars from Vancouver’s Reuben Degroot, Hamilton’s Harlan Pepper and the Rural Alberta Advantage. And in the style of SXSW, festival-goers were also able to take in sets from Grey Lands, Wilderness of Manitoba and PUP at the Island Grill, General Wolfe Hotel and St. Margaret Hall.
Saturday was all about the main stage, with sets starting at noon. With the day’s intense heat, the crowd started out sparse, but local favourites Will Hunter Band, along with Edmonton’s Zerbin, Montreal’s Thus Owls and Etiquette, a new side project from Sarah Harmer keyboardist, Julie Fader treated those who braved the temperatures to energetic sets. As the evening drew nearer, Nova Scotia’s Alvvays hit the stage. The band’s set consisted of songs that were almost exclusively from their excellent new self-titled record with a Juliana Hatfield-by-way-of-Sonic Youth sound that drew sunbathers and loungers alike to the front for the first of the day’s dance parties.
Up next (and in stark contrast) came Bry Webb & the Providers. Originally of the Constantines, Webb’s sound resonates somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Uncle Tupelo, with mesmerizing, country-tinged tunes that perfectly suited the festival’s golden hour. And while that same crowd who flanked the stage for Alvvays may have returned to their blankets and foldout chairs, they sat with rapt attention at the band’s haunting melodies. And to get the crowd used to the high energy the rest of the day would provide came Halifax’s Cousins. The band ripped through tunes from their latest album The Halls of Wickwire (produced by Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh), which brought the crowd back to its feet. Any of the bands that played up till that point could easily return in the coming years as headliners.
As the sun took its parting bows, Paper Bag Records dream-pop dynamos Young Galaxy took the stage, playing a set that was mostly comprised of songs from their acclaimed 2013 album Ultramarine. The band’s sweeping, synth-heavy sound has adapted beautifully to larger venues and was perfect for a festival setting, with powerhouse vocals from singer Catherine McCandless. Dialogue between songs was short and snappy, in favour of packing their 40-minute set time with as many songs as possible, which kept the now-energized crowd on their feet and moving.
And on their feet was where the crowd stayed, because they knew that the day’s dying light signaled the imminent arrival of the fest’s now prodigal son, Shad. Rocking the festival for the third time (he was a last-minute replacement for Buck 65 in 2011), Shad brought whatever it is that trumps an A-game with fist-pumping, hands-in-the-air hits that spanned his career. Shad’s energy and storied bond with the Wolfe Island crowd never once relented, as fans howled (pun intended) with approval for tracks from his brilliant, next-level, Polaris prize shortlisted album, Flying Colours. Most notable was an explosive rendition of “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” – a celebration of the hardships and triumphs of immigrant families (his own included) in Canada. It’s that unabashed pride in his past, astounding musical talent and Shad’s now unanimous reputation for being possibly the planet’s nicest guy that have fleshed him out as an emcee. Exhibit A: few emcees bear an ear-to-ear smile for the entirety of their set. Exhibit B: Even fewer emcees can rap WHILE strumming an electric guitar, but Shad most certainly did for his old hit “Rock to It”, before closing with an epic rendition of “Remember to Remember”.
So ripped up was the crowd after Shad’s set, that it was almost cruel for headliner K-OS to have to follow it. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t up for the task; K-OS is one of Canada’s most enduring hip hop vets, with a back catalog full of genre-bending hits to trot out. The Toronto emcee kept the energy high, kicking in the infamous club-banging sample from “Forgot About Dre” to do his own “Forgot about K”. He peppered newer material into tracks from his debut, Exit and 2006’s underrated Atlantis: Hymns for Disco. But the set would not have been complete without dancefloor-shakingtracks from his endlessly praised and awarded hit factory, Joyful Rebellion. All K-OS had to do for the choruses of “Crabbukkit” and “Man I Used to Be” was point his mic at the night sky and let the crowd fill in the words. It was a beautiful end to an incredibly successful festival.
The Wolfe Island Music Festival is hardly about surprise appearances by artists like Daft Punk or Kanye West, celeb sightings or what people are wearing. Rather, it’s about creating an experience that the crowd, artists and host community can equally share in. Call it a hidden gem if you must, but understand that despite smaller numbers and a more modest lineup, WIMF is a music festival in its most ideal form.