No Secrets in Sackville: Sappyfest XII17 August 2017 / by Jennifer Hyc (author)
“Looks Like We’ve Made It”, the first of a few archival banners I spot on day one of Sappyfest weekend. I feel as if congratulations are in order for my patience over the last 365 days or so. Five more steps and I see another, “Swamp Magic.” In that moment you could find me (us) in the small university town of Sackville, New Brunswick, Sappyfest’s marshy hub every year for the past twelve years. “This Is Nowhere” and we are perfectly happy if others can’t find us, at least for three days with a few of our favourite people. It’s a space like this where discussions are held, visions are shared and connections strengthened. This year’s banner and Sappyfest motto is “No Secrets,” and the stage is set for just that.
Sappyfest is a not-for-profit music and arts festival held each year in Sackville, New Brunswick, home to Mount Allison University students and a few thousand permanent residents. The secret behind the festival’s magic comes down to a few things, one of which being its devoted community. Many of those people have been attending Sappy since it started 12 years ago. Take some fervent believers, a handful of homegrown talent and some maritime charm and you have an experience that can only really be explained once you set foot on Bridge Street (the prime location for the festival’s events).
In collaboration with Sackville’s devoted community of residents, volunteers and artists from all around, Sappyfest 12 provided a platform that was diverse in more ways than one. Lido Pimienta, the first non-English or French performing artist to be short-listed for the Polaris Prize, hosted an installation of her Trad(e)itions Tapestries at the Sackville United Church throughout the weekend, with an artist talk and an empowering stage performance on Saturday night to match. A concerted effort was made to acknowledge the land that these events were taking place on, namely on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. The Vogue Cinema hosted a series of films that inspired the Grammy-nominated Native North America Volume 1, and Sunday afternoon in the Sackville Commons offered a session on respecting Mi’kmaq people and culture, led by Elder Noel Milliea.
Friday’s main stage activities kicked off with the Kid’s Corner Power Jam. The day camp runs for a week leading up to Sappyfest weekend, and is a space where kids are taught how to write their own songs, create their own merch, and record demos under the guidance of Sackville-based artists and musicians. This year’s graduates, The Ghost Hunters, were nothing short of impressive and left a lasting impression on those who were lucky enough to witness it. They howled, they screeched, they wore creepy face paint, and each of them had their own stage personas. Why not start Sappyfest with the future headliners of Sappyfest? Later on the mainstage, The Courtneys maimed their audience with propulsive drums and catchy guitar riffs. There can’t be a single person who doesn’t love a lead singer who doubles as the drummer as well. If the excitement was already high in the mainstage tent, then the anticipation for Friday’s headliner, Daniel Romano, could have been felt from a mile away. Romano rocked the audience well into midnight, playing songs largely from his latest release, Modern Pressure. After the night’s main festivities, many Sappygoers headed towards The Legion for some late night, sweaty moshing with Teenanger and Booji Boys. Before Teenanger had even finished their set, there was a substantial lineup outside the venue, for those hoping to get in on the action.
Saturday morning saw the return of a beloved Sappyfest tradition, Sappy Softball. If you had survived the night before, even by just a hair, you may have found it worth rolling out of bed for. Whatever late night adventures may have been hours before certainly didn’t stop some twenty or so people from showing up, the largest turnout in recent years, I overheard. The relaxed atmosphere of the festival continued well into the afternoon. The Legion hosted the annual Zine & Craft Fair, which showcased artwork from local talents of all ages. Comic books, posters, pins and jewellery were available, and it was hard to leave without picking up a few gems for yourself.
In continuation of Saturday’s relaxed approach (and in preparation for a much more raucous evening), I parked myself in one of the cozy chairs in the Vogue Cinema for a few hours of ethereal sound and mood lighting. Intimacy in space and between audience and performer are synonymous with Sappyfest, and the Vogue Cinema as a setting served its purpose well. Lit by several lamps set on the stage, Myriam Gendron sang with heartfelt and delicate grace, while Kirsten Olivia belted and poured her soul into every corner of the space, bringing everyone to their feet. Although the room slowly but surely began to swelter with heat, no one could leave their seats before Beverly Glenn Copeland took the stage. Actually, you weren’t given much of an option—if you left your seat before Copeland took the stage, it would be given to someone from the Sackville community. For some context, the Sackville local has been awarded by the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, has spent 25 years on the cast of the Mr. Dress-Up Show, and is a pretty fabulous multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. His performance was unlike anything I had seen before. Between his eccentric personality, touching personal stories and captivating works which redefined cultural contexts, I couldn’t imagine giving up my seat even in desert-like conditions.
Saturday night at the mainstage saw a gradual build and climax, hosting some of the most heavily anticipated performers of the weekend. Lido Pimienta took up as much space as humanly possible, making it known to everyone who was within hearing distance of her talent. She pulled the classic “all girls to the front” move, followed by “all racialized girls to the front”, then children, and those who did not identify as able-bodied. Pimienta’s soulful dancing and themes of female empowerment, body positivity, and intersectionality pulsed through those in attendance. Her words matched her actions, finalizing her performance by celebrating black women by pulling them all onto the stage to dance with her. To close off the night, Toronto art-pop heroes Weaves delivered as good of a set as they always do. Jasmyn Burke’s stage presence and stare grabs your attention easily and effortlessly, while the band literally weave frenetic and intricate melodic lines at a dizzying pace.
If Sappygoers were exhausted on Saturday morning, then Sunday was a haze. The haziness of Sunday morning fortunately coincides with one of the more peaceful Sappyfest traditions, Universal Dawn. The poetry reading at the Vogue Cinema featured feminist author and academic Erin Wunker, and a performance from Fiver, who performed songs from her album Audible Songs from Rockwood. The folk album is inspired by different case files from the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The concept alone is enough to grab attention, but Simone Schmidt’s eloquent songwriting and lyricism brought us to new heights. The stripped back sound was perfectly suited in the setting as her audience was easily drawn in.
Sunday at the mainstage is bittersweet. The end of the festival slowly becomes more of a reality, but that only calls for as strong of a finale as possible. Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback connected with the audience and with the surrounding environment on a different, more spiritual level than we had seen that weekend, while The Highest Order shredded and pummelled with their all-star lineup. Big Budi Band featuring Aquakulture turned out to be one of the best musical discoveries that weekend, with Nick Dourado becoming the unexpected star of the festival (it seemed as if he was popping up in everyone’s performances). The performance was wildly fun and infectious, the kind of soundtrack that could carry you well into the morning.
If you are at all familiar with Sackville’s music scene or have paid even a little bit of attention to Canada’s up-and-coming bands, you are likely familiar with Partner. The band formed in Sackville, and while their performances are almost always pretty wild, hometown shows are on another level. When I witnessed Partner perform at Sappyfest last year, it felt emotional and exhilarating, and that was largely due to the audience’s response to the band. My face may have also melted off from all of the guitar solos, but that has since been dealt with. What was going to be this year’s weapon as they closed the festival? Bagpipes. Partner opened up with some ACDC, and from the intense smoke emerged a Sackville local playing bagpipes, kilt and all. If I thought that there was an impressive amount of crowd surfing last year, then this year must have had the help of some swamp magic.
Whether Sappygoers danced the night away at the Legion, supported friends at Thunder & Lightning’s Variety Show, or simply made the most of Sappy’s final night in their own way, some kind of magic happened. That same magic is what brings people to Sappyfest every year, and it will keep Sappy going for the foreseeable future. The flashes and snapshots in my head from this weekend connect with the ones I have from the year before, until everything eventually melds into one feeling, pinpointed by one location and by one community. This festival has taken its hold on me, and I am forever grateful. See you at Sappy 13.