August 11, 2017
Last year, when I covered SappyFest XI for this very blog, I ended it by saying I was barely able to help myself from texting my ride and telling them to take off without me. Like many SappyFest attendees, I’d fallen madly in love the year before and found it even harder to leave in 2016, outlining how people would come out for the festival and wind up staying. This year, I became one of those people. I’m still here, in a Sackville, NB where the main stage tent doesn’t occupy the east end of Bridge Street and the Legion isn’t playing host to raucous shows at the end of the night. And Steve Lambke, SappyFest’s new Creative Director, was one of those people once, too. When Toronto punks Teenanger were heading back west this weekend, they stopped to let Lambke know they’d make sure they could stay an extra couple days next year. That’s how it happens, he said.
“My first SappyFest, I came for just SappyFest,” Lambke explains over samosas on Ducky’s patio. “The next year I came for an extra couple days. The next year I came for a week. The next time I came for two weeks. And then all of a sudden I lived in New Brunswick!”
So what is it about this festival—that takes place a very brief walk away from an actual swamp, hence one of many slogans, ‘SWAMP MAGIC!’—that keeps it from falling apart while other mega festivals like Pemberton can’t stay alive? The simplest explanation is money: if a festival that big has a bad year and makes no money, they just don’t do it again the next year. “But SappyFest is a not-for-profit. We’re not trying to make money. So if we have a bad year we still do it again next year,” Lambke laughs.
“It’s happening because we want it to happen.”
The actual swath of ‘we’ in this situation becomes murky as the marsh down the street. ‘We’ is, of course, Lambke, and a board of directors, a tireless team of volunteers, and the artists that play the festival. But ‘we’ is also a lot of different people from a lot of different places, who plan for Sappy weekend the same way most others plan to get home for Christmas. It is visual artists and writers and, most importantly, fans of a festival that has bigger ideas than simply planting a beer garden beside a massive stage with a GRAMMY winner on it who’ll be whisked off to another town or a barricaded hotel room the minute their set ends. ‘We’ is fans of ideas in general—specifically the idea that a festival that celebrates cultural alternatives can survive and thrive.
This year, Lambke wanted to return to some of the elements that made Sappy stand out originally. As a festival that began as one interconnected with multiple different kinds of art, as well as a celebration of ideas, Sappy’s roots don’t just lie in music. This year, Colombian born, Toronto-based Afro-Indigenous artist Lido Pimienta—who recently became the first Polaris Prize shortlister to not sing in English or French—opened an exhibition at the Sackville United Church named Trad(e)itions Tapestries and did an artist talk the next day. The Legion hosted the annual Zine & Craft Fair. Prairie musician and writer Eamon McGrath—who ate at least half of my garlic fingers over a beer on Sunday night—did a reading from his Berlin-Warszawa Express at Tidewater Books. There were poetry readings on The Golden Bus and screenings of the films that inspired Native North America Vol. 1 at the Vogue Cinema. Elder Noel Milliea hosted Respecting Mi’kmaq, a primer for settlers on unceded land. There was no shortage of options if one was looking to expand their mind beyond the usual advertiser-funded fare of a regular festival. “NO SECRETS” was this year’s slogan, “in hopes this can be a place to speak honestly and listen openly.”
And yes, I know I haven’t even gotten to the actual tunes. Friday saw the young’uns do their thing on main stage for the Kids Corner Power Jam. The Courtneys slayed and Daniel Romano rocked ‘n’ rolled, and wrapped up the night with some intense punk from Teenanger and Booji Boys over at The Legion. Saturday saw Lido Pimienta pull a righteous “girls to the front” move, that brought female-identifying, LGBTQ, POC, and underage concertgoers right to the lip of the stage, and then proceed to deliver an electrifying and charismatic set. Ancient Shapes laid ruin to a sweaty and packed house at Thunder & Lightning (the bowling alley!) while Struts Gallery hosted Golden Throats Karaoke down the street. On Sunday, Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback played some powerful folk tunes before The Highest Order got jammy on the mainstage. Big Budi Band followed with a bonkers fun set packed with soul, funk, and jazz (discovery of the festival for me), and unstoppable former locals and power pop wizards Partner capped things off with a rowdy set that kicked off with a vicious take on AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” that they brought out an actual bagpiper for (rock ‘n’ roll fans will surely be fascinated to know that on the original recording and subsequent live performances of that song, legendary singer Bon Scott was the bagpipe player. Partner also has a tune that references Bon Scott).
SappyFest’s staying power comes at least partly from its commitment to a non-hierarchical event. There are no artists given preference over others; there is attention paid to make things as accessible as possible; everyone is welcome, and it’s open to evolving and building conversations about where to take cultural happenings like this. “It’s more living and more engaged and more flexible and stimulating for the people who know how to tap into that, that are open to that dissolution of the usual boundaries,” Lambke says.
There is clearly a desire for that dissolution in the Canadian music community. And that’s one of the reasons SappyFest will keep coming back year after year. But another reason—and perhaps the simplest one (even simpler than money!)—is this: “It’s the thing we decide to do together,” Lambke says. Sappy Forever.