Sawdust City fest founder Miranda Mulholland Photo: Ivan Otis
Sawdust City fest founder Miranda Mulholland Photo: Ivan Otis

Artist-Run Festivals On The Increase

The music festival scene in Canada may well have reached a saturation point, with some well-publicised casualties recently littering the landscape.

That hasn't deterred some intrepid artists from taking matters into their own hands by creating and curating their own festivals. This summer, two new roots-oriented and artist-run festivals, Sawdust City Music Festival and Greenbridge Celtic Folk Fest, make their debut in Ontario.

Sawdust City is the brainchild of Miranda Mulholland. The singer/songwriter/fiddle player is a former member of Great Lake Swimmers and currently plays in Harrow Fair and Belle Starr, as well as running the independent record label she founded, Roaring Girl Records.

She now adds music festival producer to her resume with Sawdust City, set to take place in Gravenhurst (in the Muskokas), Aug. 4-6.

In a press release, Mulholland explains that "when I started the label, I always had a small music festival in mind - artists who could all play together - not necessarily the same genre, but who would have the ability to collaborate. "

She describes Sawdust City as "a multi-venue boutique festival that will be a roots and folk musical and cultural Muskoka celebration."

The Toronto-based Mulholland has deep family roots in this area. "I have a family cottage in Muskoka that has been in my family for over 100 years and is my very favourite place since I can remember.

In fact, my Great-Great Grandfather was Charles Mickle, who owned the big logging company that made Gravenhurst 'Sawdust City' and was elected Mayor of the town Twice. He had the beautiful opera house built on the main street that is still in operation over 115 years later. It made perfect sense to do this festival in Gravenhurst."

An impressive list of performers has been assembled for the fest that includes The Jim Cuddy Family Band, Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson from Skydiggers, Justin Rutledge, Harrow Fair, NQ Arbuckle, Jessica Mitchell, The Julian Taylor Band, Tim Moxam, and Liz Stringer.

A performer at a large number of festivals in Canada and beyond, Mulholland tells FYI that "this [experience] has certainly shown me some dos and don'ts. There are a few things that I love at festivals, and we're trying to incorporate that. One of the biggest is that the artists will receive 100% of their merch sales over the weekend. Usually, festivals take a big cut - which I certainly understand given the costs and scale of these things - but I want to make this artist friendly."

Mulholland's popularity amongst her peers has paid off with Sawdust City. "My 17 years as a professional musician have given me a good Rolodex (do kids even know what a Rolodex is anymore?)," she acknowledges.

"I have called in a few favours for sure on this one, and I'm flattered and truly grateful that musicians have wanted to play this new, untried festival."

Sawdust City was put together too late to qualify for Canada 150 funding, but Mulholland has attracted an impressive number of fest sponsors, including TD Bank and Slaight Music. "TD Bank were incredible and saw my vision and took me at my word with their unprecedented support of a first-year festival. I am thrilled," she says, while observing that having an artist-run a festival "guarantees a certain accountability."

An artist at the helm likely helps elicit public goodwill too. "It's also a matter of branding," says Mulholland. "If people like the work I've done as a musician, an actor, an artist advocate, they will more than likely like what I've put together. I'm not sure it's about being an underdog, but it has more a grassroots authenticity."

Advance interest in Sawdust City is encouraging, she reports. " Most of the shows are free with a pass the hat element, but we are almost sold out of Super VIP packages and Jim Cuddy tickets. The only thing left really are the VIP packages."

The Sawdust City programming will consist of three nights of music at the Sawdust City Brewery, an evening of music at the Opera House, a Songwriters' Workshop, a Sawdust Stripped Down acoustic series in small venues around town, and a free concert on Sunday evening as part of the Music on the Barge series (a 50+ year tradition). 

A comparatively short drive south from Gravenhurst will take you to Keene, Ontario. This small community outside Peterborough will host the first Greenbridge Celtic Folk Fest, to take place August 25 and 26. This is the creation of renowned fiddle virtuosos (and married couple) Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, residents of the area.

They have put together a lineup that includes US bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent, Dervish, The Double Cuts, Evans & Doherty, Next Generation Leahy, and, of course, MacMaster and Leahy.

Donnell Leahy told FYI yesterday that "Natalie and I  both played lots of festivals before we got married. I had an idea that I would love to run a festival and pick the entertainment. That stuck in my head for years til I said to Nat, 'we should do this,'  but babies kept getting born!"

The couple has six children, and Leahy stresses that "we want them to have that festival experience, a place the kids could come to and grow up with."

MacMaster confides that "I initially thought Donnell's idea was crazy," but she came around.

"I feel this is just the right time now as a whole bunch of things just fell into place, like the availability of the land and the musicians. We're delighted that it keeps pointing in that direction for us and our intention is to keep it going over the years."

The key to the project for MacMaster is the chance to expose the music of her home region, Cape Breton, to Ontario. "Personally I'm desperate to bring some of Cape Breton here. When I moved to here [Lakefield] from Cape Breton, there seemed to be nothing like that here.

"A lot of people here have Scottish or Celtic roots, so whenever there is an event like a square dance here,  people always say they wish there were more."

Leahy notes that the community has been very supportive of the project. "When we got all our permits from the local township, they asked if we'd consider attaching it to Canada 150, and we said sure. No funding comes with that, however."

Leahy and MacMaster have comparatively modest aims for the inaugural Greenbridge Fest, with Leahy citing a possible attendance figure in the 1,000 - 2,000 range. "We do want to keep it intimate," he says. "We're not trying to take on the world; We just want to put on a little music festival that we hope people enjoy. I know it will have great quality music."

The pair is now aware of how competitive the festival sector is now. "You don't know how many fests there are until you put one on, then see how many are on every weekend of the summer," notes MacMaster.

The peer respect the duo enjoys is an advantage.

MacMaster observes that "the one thing I've learned as we get older is the importance of the name you make for yourself, whether in showbiz or life. You want people to think of you fondly, to know you're a good person to work with. or have as friends.

"For Donnell and I over the years,  we hope we have a good name with the connections we've made. We certainly feel strong friendships amongst the musical community and so now is the time to go to these people saying 'we want you at our function.' We are getting many requests from friends saying they'd love to come."

If Mulholland, Leahy, and MacMaster are looking for an artist-run festival to use as a role model, they could certainly do worse than pay attention to Fred Eaglesmith's Charity Picnic.

This summer, the ever-touring roots troubadour from southern Ontario will host his 23rd annual fest, one that has become a summer favourite for both his musical peers and his faithful legion of fans, Fred-heads.

This year, the Picnic runs from August 18 to 20, at Springwater Park in Aylmer, ON. Eaglesmith headlines all three evenings, while other performers this year include Murder Murder, Brock Zeman, Washboard Hank, Tif Ginn, Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar, Bill Durst, Bill Poss, Tia McGraff and Layrite Boys.

The Picnic has raised over $60,000 for different charities over the years. Recent editions have benefited the Long Point Basin Land Trust, with this year's chosen beneficiary being Operation Smile, an international medical charity.

Back in 2010, Eaglesmith explained that "the Picnic started because I was always on the road. I never saw any of my friends, so I decided to invite them to a picnic. They came, we made music, and it was fun, so we kept doing it."

A couple of years later, he reaffirmed to The London Free Press that "I just started it as a little something for some friends and I would have stopped it a long time ago, except their kids have grown up with it and they're attached to it now."

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