There were plenty of stories surrounding the lineup for the 2015 Greenbelt Harvest Picnic. Some were heartbreaking, like the story of Kathleen Edwards’ stolen 1957 Les Paul Junior. Some were triumphant, like the story of headliner Arkells’ double Juno victory. Some were even controversial, like the last-minute removal of Iron and Wine due to some sort of radius clause infringement. There was also the subsequent, last-second substitution of The Rural Alberta Advantage – who played arguably the day’s best set. But the story that carries this festival every year is that unlike the three-dozen (or so) other Ontario summer fests, this one feels like one giant family reunion.
The Greenbelt Foundation (now entering its 10th year as an organization) serves to protect and strengthen the Greenbelt, the massive, 325-km stretch from Rice Lake in Northumberland County to the Niagara River. It’s home to over 5,000 farms and is seen as a global model for planning and sustainability.
Why is this important? Because it’s what drives everyone who shows up for this festival – from the parking lot volunteers, to the vendors, to the bands themselves. While everything revolves around the name-brand value of the fest’s performers, the vendors, arts, and activities involve are what keeps the festival so prominent in hearts and minds.
As is the yearly tradition the earliest stragglers come equipped with foldable camping chairs and set up makeshift rows of seating almost all the way up to the stage – leaving a small berth for dancers and die-hard fans to crowd around the stage barrier. The day’s earliest performances featured Dinner Belles (doing double duty on the brilliantly set-up second stage later on), Martha Wainwright, and Terra Lightfoot. As the day progressed, Ontario gem Kathleen Edwards would receive a standing ovation from fans that empathize with the theft of such a rare instrument. After a few tears, the Ottawa-based singer put on a passionate, beautiful set, which is par for the course for Edwards.
Later on, Basia Bulat would bring out her autoharp for her set closer – a stomping, solo version of “It Can’t be You”. At some point, the instrument came detached from its amp. An unfazed Bulat giggled and kept singing, while the crowd filled in with claps as percussion. Bulat once again received a standing ovation for what turned out to be an incredible moment – and for generally being awesome.
The Rural Alberta Advantage, who would fill-in for the suddenly cancelled Iron and Wine, played a hyper-energetic set. The same hyper-energetic set any fan might be used to at this point. Looking around, you’d catch the older members of the crowd (there for the next act on the bill) and the youngest (under 5) dancing along. Typical.
The unofficial headliner of the day was an appearance by Canadian royalty, and elder statesman, Gordon Lightfoot. How perfect that the 76-year old troubadour would play “Sundown” at actual sundown. Lightfoot told tales of his recent struggles with vertigo, and regaled the crowd with stories of his first tours in the 1960s. There were many in attendance that very well could have caught those shows.
And as though to make a triumphant return, there was Hamilton’s own Arkells to close the night out. While banter was plentiful between frontman Max Kerman and the hyper excited crowd, it wasn’t like any other show the band played this year. It was like intimate conversation between a huge group of friends. It certainly didn’t hurt matters that they made their entire set up of songs the crowd knows off by heart anyway, including energetic tunes from their Juno-winning album High Noon.
It’s one thing to present a stacked lineup for a festival. It’s another thing to connect that lineup to the hearts of the people going. But that’s exactly what the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic is best at. There’s an impetus to go beyond partying or rocking out. It’s something that resonates with anyone who has a modicum of familiarity with the region. It’s what’ll keep people coming back every year.
Click here to see more photos from the 2015 Greenbelt Harvest Picnic.