The Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival made a triumphant return to Bannerman Park on July 8, 2022.
In 2020, the 44th Annual Folk Festival went fully digital, featuring content via Facebook and YouTube. In 2021, a scaled down version of the 45th Festival took place at the First Light Performance Center on Cochrane Street. In 2022, the Folk Arts Society finally returned to the park, on the main stage and at full capacity. Many were delighted to return to the beer garden, toasting with friends and family Quidi Vidi’s specialty, Folk Fest ‘Folk’d Up’ beer.
Friday night’s slate of events kicked off with a traditional session, with musicians Billy Sutton, Brad Klucowicz, Duane Andrews, Rob Brown, Michelle Brophy and Paddy Mackey getting the crowds pumping for a great summer night full of music and dance.
For the official opening ceremonies, Eastern Owl’s Rebecca Sharr and Natasha Blackwood teamed up to perform traditional Indigenous songs and dances, since we were “allowed to dance this year,” Sharr joked.
Dressed in gorgeous brown, red, orange and yellow regalia, Sharr danced on stage before jumping into the crowd to lead a “snake dance”. Imagine a conga line and you have the right idea. Resting their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, the dancers writhed in front of the stage as Blackwood sang. It was the first time I had seen such closeness in a group of strangers in a long time, and my heart was and was not ready for such a wonderful sight.
All around Bannerman Park there was a sort of magical feeling. Standing at the back of the crowd, I watched as people huddled on blankets, lined up in rows of camping chairs, sharing Ziggy Peelgood’s fries and Fatima’s Indian food. Kids were running around, comparing makeup jobs and blowing bubbles. While we are still in the midst of a pandemic, it feels good to rediscover for a moment the lost pleasures of a pre-pandemic world.
That magic continued as young singer Julia Penney sang ‘Ode to Newfoundland’, provocatively billed as a ‘national anthem’ instead of a provincial anthem, which probably baffled everyone. Come-From-Aways present. I looked down at my old school “Newfoundland Liberation Army” shirt, then at the adjacent colonial building, and laughed to myself.
Mama’s Broke was next to hit the stage – the first of only two non-local acts on the Friday night bill. Musicians Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler told the crowd how excited they were to perform at Folk Fest, marking a long-awaited return to the island. 2019 was the duo’s first time performing in Newfoundland, opening for Rube & Rake at the Ship Pub before embarking on a tour of Newfoundland.
I attended this ship show and at the time wrote the following about their set: “My expectations were quickly exceeded by their immense talent and how well their unique voices complement each other at wonder.” In 2022, I was still amazed by their raw talent. The well-traveled band met on the road and still find a lot of inspiration in their adventures, like, say, picking up a Spanish song in Ireland and bringing that song back to North American audiences.
Maria and Keeler played a number of selections from their latest album, narrow line, released in May 2022, but it was a song from their 2014 self-titled EP that really caught my eye. “Black Rock Beach” gives a fictional take on a piece of Nova Scotia’s dark history, creating a story of what might have been the scene where the hangings once took place. This area in N.S. is now ironically called “Point Pleasant Park”.
Twin Flames were next, taking the stage around a quarter to nine – the second of two non-local acts. Ontario-based husband and wife duo Jaaji and Chelsey June had wanted to perform at the Folk Festival since 2019. Accompanied by drummer Jason Watts, the Junes played guitar, hand drum and spirit flute, the latter being particularly captivating as the band performed “So Qaigit (Come with Me)”, from their 2017 album, Traffic light.
Between songs, the band talked about their First Nations and Inuit ties and history, also taking time to teach the crowd a few Inuktitut words. The duo have interestingly indigenized popular TikTok song “Savage Daughter,” adding additional lyrics about “savage” sons, and the power to reclaim words like “savage,” historically used as a slur.
The band played a few more songs, getting young and old to get up and dance. As toddlers bounced to the front of the stage, an older couple waltzed off to the side, proving that Folk Fest really is fun for all ages.
Twin Flames ended their set with another indigenized cover, performing The Tragically Hip’s “Grace, Too” with incredible throat singing.
The Sherry Ryan Band kicked off their set around a quarter to ten. With Sherry Ryan at the helm, his band consists of a slew of heavyweight musicians: Brian Cherwick, Andrea Monro, Chris Donnelly and Brad Power.
I first met Ryan in 2012. I was a Green reporter on my third assignment, a story about Ryan’s upcoming Lucinda Williams tribute show. It is not surprising that Up Magazine called Ryan “St. John’s answer to Lucinda Williams. The two singers could be long-lost siblings due to their equally powerful vocals and country twang.
Fans of Gillian Welch and Joni Mitchell would have deeply enjoyed Ryan’s Folk Fest set, which bounced around her discography and showcased Ryan’s diverse catalog of work, from piano-heavy ballads to stomping ditties.
We rocked together for a more tender track, “One of These Amazing Nights”, from Ryan’s 2005 debut album, Deep in a heart, and got boogie for her latest single, a fun and funky little number called “Roll it Out.”
The set ended with “Stop the Trains”, a locally beloved song about famous “human weather vane” “Lockie” MacDougall, taken from his 2018 album, wreck. His telling of the story of this legendary West Coast man in song was so well received that now people think the St. John’s singer actually comes from the Wreckhouse area.
In 2022, Ryan will release his fifth album, scream for more. By the end of his set, the crowd was doing just that.
Friday night’s Folk Fest session ended with The Kubasonics, “the best Ukrainian band in Newfoundland,” K-Rock emcee Chris Batstone repeatedly joked.
Brian Cherwick had ditched the white cowboy outfit he donned when performing with the Sherry Ryan Band and entered the stage wearing a giant fuzzy suit, blowing an alphorn – a very long horn in wood traditionally played by alpine shepherds.
The “family band” includes dad Brian Cherwick on tsymbaly (the Ukrainian version of a hammered dulcimer) and myriad other rad Ukrainian instruments, daughter Maria Cherwick on violin and son Jacob Cherwick on drums – with Matt Hender on bass and Darren Browne on guitar.
When the set started, I had laid down a blanket to sit and watch. By the second song, I had to move, because the crowd dancing in front of the stage had become so dense so quickly that my view was completely obscured. When I got up, I noticed something that blew me away.
While the Kubasonics always wow me with their dizzying Ukrainian speedfolk, I was exceptionally stunned this time after noticing Jacob was performing with a broken leg.
The band performed an assortment of songs from their extensive discography, including numbers from 2017 kubfunland and their new album 2022, Kubasongs.
“Buckwheat,” a fun folk song about baking “beautiful buckwheat buns,” got the crowd moving very quickly, but it was the performance of “Pana” that really stirred things up.
It tells the story of a young laborer who worked hard on a farm for seven years, slowly amassing cattle with his annual salary. Each animal on the farm has its own dance move, which Brian demonstrated to the crowd as he told the story of the song.
After seven years, the worker finally had enough money to take a girl on a date. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well, and “the poor guy was left alone to party with all the animals,” Brian explained, with a mischievous laugh.
From the beer tent I watched throughout the play as the audience tried to keep up with Brian’s dance moves as he named the animals in Ukrainian, the crowd frantically moving from duck to goose to goat And so on.
It was a sight to behold – toddlers and people in the beer tent understood at about the same rate.
A few songs later, people were running out of the tent onto the dance floor. Crowd members shook hands and moved rhythmically in a circle, in and out in an impromptu group dance. Another truly amazing sight to see.
Watching a park teeming with dancers holding hands and doing explosive moves as a beloved local band closed the night, I was once again overwhelmed with that magical feeling. He lingered later that night. Mark Bragg and the Butchers played the official after party show where the Folk Fest crowd ‘baptized’ the new ship’s deck with beers and cheers as the summer festival season returned to St. John’s.
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