While taking in a late-afternoon set by Lowell, a black dog weaved its way through my legs. The little guy seemed to always know exactly where he was headed and trotted freely among hundreds of music fans, vendors and artists. It was the perfect snapshot and the perfect metaphor for the Wolfe Island Music Festival.
Now in its 18th year, 2015’s iteration of the festival welcomed yet another stacked lineup of local (and national) heroes, including the reunited Constantines, Operators, Elliott Brood, Hayden, Limblifter, The Elwins, Moonface, and more. As word of this festival reaches further and further across the country, the crowd size swells a little bit every year. And despite that, ticket prices remain reasonable, concessions remain inexpensive, and the grounds accommodate anyone – from adults to kids and yes – even their pets.
Founder and organizer Virginia Clark says she and a small team personally curate the lineup every year. “Every year, I put together a wish list and this year – I got them all!” she says proudly. Once again, island businesses proudly transformed into venues, hosting NXNE-style showcases from Dine Alone Records and Flying V (Clark’s own promotions company). Friday arrivals would have had to choose between Limblifter’s set at the 155 year-old General Wolfe Hotel, and Toronto’s Brendan Phillip at the Island Grill. Both happily presented at midnight.
Kicking off Saturday’s lineup was Kingston’s own Lost Cousins – themselves just having played a set at Wayhome. The band helped offset the early day’s dreariness with sunny, upbeat tunes kissed by piano and saxophone. As the day wore on (and cleared up), Toronto’s Taylor Knox treated the growing crowd to songs from his latest EP Lines, which carries a power-pop sound that’s wonderfully reminiscent of The Weakerthans or Eric’s Trip.
As the evening approached, Calgary’s Lowell – an explosion of a dance/rock act – seemingly could not resist bringing the party into the crowd for songs like “The Bells”. If the festival were a competition (it is not), then one of the contenders for top moment would have been Keswick’s The Elwins. The band launched into a brilliant rendition of Beyonce’s “Countdown”. Already way into The Elwins’ material, the crowd roared with approval, before the band finished things up with their hit single “So Down Low”.
Perfectly booked against the dusk, Thornhill’s Hayden (now part of Arts & Crafts) played bittersweet cuts from his recent release Hey Love, his beautiful, Polaris-nominated album Us Alone, and of course, his 1995 classic Everything I Long For.And while Hayden’s catalog bares a somber tone, his last song, a killer cover of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” proved that even Hayden was game for the party at hand.
By the time the stars came out to play, Dan Boeckner, (possibly the most well-dressed man on Wolfe Island) brought Operators, his newest project, to the stage. As with Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs and Divine Fits, Boeckner’s genius lies in his uncanny ability to create upbeat, synth-laden tunes that are just a tad sinister. It worked for Joy Division. It works for Interpol. It damn sure worked for the festival crowd, as they were either dancing almost violently, rapt at attention, or both.
Now here’s how you know a festival is successful: the crowd (all of whom were on their feet) shifted from wild applause for Operators’ scorching set, to a steady stream of howls (pardon the pun) in anticipation of the day’s headliners: Constantines. Prior to taking the stage, frontman Bry Webb noted that he has a special place in his heart for Wolfe Island. “Just look at this place. Who wouldn’t want to play out here?” he beamed. Indeed, Webb is no stranger to the festival, having played last year with his own project (Bry Webb and the Providers) and 7 years ago with Constantines. The band’s love for this festival was reciprocated one hundred fold, as they played a career spanning set with a berzerk energy about them. After a huge rendition of “Young Offenders”, Webb remarked “three songs in and two broken guitar strings. Cheers.” This was an explosive set – even by Constantines standards.
There aren’t VIP tickets for this festival, but there aren’t lineups for the bathrooms, either. Only at Wolfe Island Music Festival can you watch your heroes play, and then celebrate with them after they’re done. No matter who’s playing, Wolfe Island has built itself into a quintessential summer experience for any Canadian music fan.
Click here to check out our photos from the 2015 Wolfe Island Music Festival.