The Arts

The Sounds of Summer: Music Festival Season Is Here

Gerry Blackwell
Written by Gerry Blackwell

Music festival season is here. Send up a cheer. Sunfest, Home County, Rock The Park. And one we sometimes take for granted but shouldn’t: Stratford Summer Music.

SSM, now in its 19th year, runs at indoor and outdoor venues around the city from July 15 to August 25 — 100 events in total. Under new artistic director Mark Fewer, it covers the waterfront — jazz, classical, avant garde, singer-songwriter, funk, cabaret. Etcetera.

“We have so much to look forward to this summer that to say we’re excited would be an understatement,” Fewer says. “As well as the greatest variety of any summer music festival in the country and the most free programming, we have new initiatives that focus on youth, music and health — and original productions you won’t hear anywhere else.”

For a full run-down, see the SSM website: stratfordsummermusic.ca. In the meantime, here’s some of the coolest stuff. Let’s look first at some interesting food and drink tie-ins. 

The Prune restaurant, doyenne of upscale Stratford eateries, hosts 11 a.m. Saturday brunches with musical entertainment from July 20 to August 24. The first, with cellist Stéphane Tétreault playing Bach, is sold out, and some others were close to selling out at time of writing. So don’t dawdle.

The theme this year is deep strings. Performers include London-born Andrew Downing on double bass (August 17), two more solo bassists — Joseph Phillips (August 3) and Clark Schaufele, who also sings (August 10) — and cellist Thomas Wiebe (August 24). For something less stringy, there’s percussionist Graham Hargrove (July 27).

Revival House, formerly the Church Restaurant, has its Friday Night Live jazz series starting July 19, 9 p.m. As usual with Revival House, you can take in the music only or have dinner too for a package price.

Performers include innovative pianist-composer Stephen Prutsman (July 19), Duane Andrews playing his surprising blend of Celtic and gypsy jazz (July 26), the Phil Dwyer Trio, led by the 11-time Juno winning saxophonist (August 2), and jazz vocals with Newfoundland’s Heather Bambrick backed by the Jodi Proznick Trio (August 9). 

Bohemians in Brooklyn

One of the more intriguing events in the series — and at SSM 2019 — is Bohemians in Brooklyn, a cabaret with Tom Allen & Co. It tells the story, in music and words, of the Brooklyn NY house where a fascinating and eclectic crew of artists lived in the 1940s. 

The Friday Night Live closer (August 23) is Rhapsody in Blue/Brazilian Jazz, featuring an all-star band with John Novacek (piano), James Campbell (clarinet), Graham Campbell (guitar) and Mark Fewer (violin).

SSM is the only festival (we know of) that has its own special craft brew: Saison 19 from Stratford’s Herald Haus Brewing Company. Sample it at the brewery or The Hub Pub & Patio.

Laila Biali

SSM has big-name concerts too. Laila Biali, 2019 Juno winner for jazz, is there. The raven-haired chanteuse plays The Avondale on Wednesday July 31 at 7 p.m.

On Wednesday, July 24 (7 p.m.), two original Barenaked Ladies, Andy and Jim Creeggan, bring the family duo, the Brothers Creeggan to The Avondale. They’re joined by guests: CBC Radio 2 announcer Tom Allen on trombone, Robert Carli on saxophone and SSM artistic director Mark Fewer on violin. Expect eclectic.

Ben Heppner

Canadian opera superstar (and CBC broadcaster) Ben Heppner appears in O Happy Day!, a rousing afternoon of gospel — one of Hepner’s earliest influences — featuring The Toronto Mass Choir. That’s on Saturday, July 27, 3 p.m. at The Avondale.

More festivals? 

Sunfest, July 4 to 7 at Victoria Park, will likely be done and dusted by the time you read this. But just in case, look for popular returning Canadian world music stars like Lazo, Five Alarm Funk and London’s own Light of the East Ensemble. 

Lots of exciting visitors from distant parts too: kicky Latin jazz combo CaboCubaJazz from Cape Verde, Russia’s Namgar, a four-piece group playing traditional Mongolian music — bet you haven’t heard that before — and The Turbans from Britain, a big group, in every way, blending music from…all over. That’s three of 25, chosen almost at random. There’s lots more. So go.

Old Dominion

Rock the Park — officially start.ca Rocks the Park — runs July 10 to 13 at Harris Park. As usual, there’s something for everyone. 

Wednesday is country music night. Hot breaking band Old Dominion, winner of the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association Vocal Group of the Year award in 2018, headlines. James Barker Band, another hot one, and Canadian too, is there. How hot? JBB boasts 48 million online streams, and counting.

Thursday is rock night. Expect edges. Unlikely multi-platinum chart-topping hard-rockers Five Finger Death Punch are coming — and no doubt will play material from their latest (2018) release And Justice For None. In This Moment “unearth a furious and focused feminine fire from a cauldron of jagged heavy metal, hypnotic alternative, and smoky voodoo blues” — to quote the appropriately purple prose of their promotional material. 

Shaggy

Friday and Saturday are mostly about rap and hip-hop. The big name: multi-award winner Snoop Dogg, who has a mere 35 million albums sold to his credit. Grammy- and Juno-winner Shaggy is also coming. Ma$e, the pastor, rapper and frequent come-back artist is here. He released a new album in 2018, Don’t Need Security, his first since 2004. So he’s back, again.

Home County Art and Music Festival, the 46th edition, is at Victoria Park July 19 to 21. The lineup wasn’t finalized at the time of writing. Ex-Barenaked Lady Steven Page is back for sure. Page has a new album, Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II, which dropped September 2018. 

Ageless children’s entertainer Fred Penner will be there. (Actually, he’s 72.) Fans of his 1985-1997 TV show — Fred-heads — are now in their twenties and thirties. Their kids will love him. Dynamite Americana duo The Small Glories from Winnipeg — banjoist Cara Luft, a founding member of The Wailin’ Jennies, and guitarist JD Edwards — bring their Appalachian-tinged harmonies. 

Toronto’s House of David Gang should have the crowd up and dancing with classic 1970s–’80s reggae. Delhi2Dublin will be there with a strange and wonderful mash-up of Indian Bhangra music, Celtic fiddling, and a few other flavours thrown in for good measure. The list goes on. Check homecounty.ca for updates.

Not the festive type? 

For fairly comprehensive local live music listings, go to ontariolivemusic.ca (plug in “London,” “Stratford” or any other location and your desired dates), or the Tourism London music page: bit.ly/2JZJ6Rr.   

 

About the author

Gerry Blackwell

Gerry Blackwell

Gerry Blackwell is a London-based freelance writer.