Island fest is a little home grown

After a decade of sweet and relaxing music, Wolfe Island Music Festival proves bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better

Halifax-based Wintersleep return to Wolfe Island Music Fest to headline
Image supplied by: Supplied
Halifax-based Wintersleep return to Wolfe Island Music Fest to headline

From friends gathering for an afternoon on the docks to a full slate of national indie acts rocking out for two nights and an afternoon, the Wolfe Island Music Festival has grown in the 10 years since its inception—all the while remaining probably the least pretentious music festival in Canada. Founded by Sarah McDermot in 1998, the festival is far from another corporate-sponsored, overcrowded, mega-event that too often plagues the summer months with overpriced merchandise. Known for its small town heart and knack for reeling in top artists—CBC radio 3 ranked it one of its top 10 music festivals of 2008—the two-day chill-out music fest is a feast for the ears as well as a community fundraiser. All proceeds go towards developing the community centre on the island.

This year will continue the 10-year legacy of raising funds while providing the community with a relaxing summer weekend in the presence of the best music from near and away. Last year the festival raised $10,000, which helped get running water into the centre. Now sights are set on building an ice rink. Saturday boasts the stellar bill of Jason Collett, Wintersleep, Land of Talk and Cadence Weapon—to name a few—rivalled only by the intimacy that Friday night’s 19-plus show promises as local heroes Magic Jordon open for Montreal-based Sub Poppers The Handsome Furs at the General Wolfe Hotel. Of course, the festival wouldn’t be complete without the all-ages Friday night Hootenanny featuring the loved and lovely Jenny Whiteley and Luther Wright and their friends in front of town hall.

Just a twenty-minute ferry ride and a quick stroll through Marysville will take you right to the baseball diamond-turned-stage that is the site of the community centre and the Saturday portion of the festival. With the Wolfe Island Music festival, everything is a little bit home grown. Local bands play alongside nationally acclaimed musicians, vendors from the area sell their crafts and fare and organizers work their guts out making everything run smoothly.

Virginia Clark, who has been with the festival for the past five years, is the artistic director. Clark plays a major role in handpicking the acts for the festival. As the manager of the Grad Club, Clark is constantly scouting out bands and bringing them to town, which helps when it comes to choosing bands for the festival. As a Wolfe Island resident, Clark witnesses the direct impact of the festival as well as depends on her neighbours to support it.

“We literally depend on local sponsors to keep us going. We knock on our neighbours’ doors to ask if they’ll support us,” she said.

Without government grants or corporate sponsors, the festival relies on the local sponsors and an army of volunteers from the community to keep it afloat. But ticket prices remain relatively inexpensive, despite the calibre of the shows. Festival passes are a steal for the two nights and afternoon’s worth of concert, costing $50 per person and free for children under 12.

With more and more artists participating and the word spreading like wild fire, the festival has changed over the years. Already this year, the Friday night has ballooned into two events. But despite its increasingly less-secret reputation and growing popularity, the festival will most likely retain its smaller roots as it continues.

“It’s never going to be a really big festival. It’s limited with the access to the festival. With the commuting it’s always going to be a small festival,” Clark said.

“It keeps that intimacy vibe. You’re not just shuffled into a big arena. It’s a little secret we have.”

The serene ride across the lake, the lack of big scary bodyguards roughly patting you down, humanely priced food and drink and an open field to sit and take in sun and music all contribute to the weekend’s low-key feel. This vibe is exactly what attracts audiences and bands alike. Halifax boys Wintersleep are no strangers to the festival. They’ve played it before and are returning this year to headline Saturday night.

“I think it’s just still a small festival with a cool community vibe. You go over to the island and everyone there’s having a good time,” Tim D’eon, guitarist and keyboardist for the East Coast quintet, told the Journal.

Wintersleep have been a hot ticket lately, gracing the stages of many larger-scale festivals from Toronto’s Virgin Festival to Brighton’s The Great Escape. But the small island’s music fest has left an impression. “Wolfe Island, it’s kind of different thing,” D’eon said. “It’s more grassroots and the volunteers actually want to be there. I think it just runs a lot smoother.”

“[Virginia]’s just so nice to the bands when they come [to Kingston]. It’s kind of our way of paying her back.”

As awesome as the line-up is, at the end of the day it’s still all about Wolfe Island, the people putting it together and the centre getting on its way with help from some friends.

“It’s definitely for the local people, and if other people come that’s even better,” Clark said.

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