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July Buzz – Festival of Small Halls

As my first crop of lettuce was coming up in my garden, the first feelings of summer were washing over the island. Beautiful, warm, sun-filled days, music-filled evenings and appearances of friends not seen since last summer. Yes, the busy season has begun.
In PEI, we started it off right with the Festival of Small Halls. For those of you who missed it, this is one of the nicest festivals I’ve been a part of. A music and dance festival held over 10 days in twenty-five different rural community halls, it focussed on bringing island musicians to the fore as well as highlighting some amazing “from-away” folk such as Newfoundland’s The Once and Frank Ferrell of Maine.
Frank is celebrated in these parts for writing well-known fiddle tunes, and is regarded as one of the finest North American fiddlers performing today. He performed at the opening night of the festival in New London, regaling the audience with stories and tunes with such ease and obvious joy.
The lineup for that event also included songwriter John Connolly, the folk-bluegrass Saddle River String Band, traditional fiddler and pianist Troy MacGillivray, storyteller David Weale and my own band.
As you walked through the doors of the New London Community Complex, the sounds of a trio of musicians from the College of Piping were lilting through the air. It was an oversold event, and the place was buzzing. People had come from all over the island as well as Ontario, Maine and who knows where else for this festival.
The Saddle River String Band opened the show with their rollicking old-timey sounds and I had a moment of nostalgia for the days when I had played with them. Back then we were mostly playing old folk tunes, but now Saddle River has endless amounts of brilliantly crafted original songs, some of which can be heard on their self-titled debut album.
After Frank Ferrell, I closed the opening half with my band – Reg Ballagh on drums, Remi Arensault on bass, Chris Gauthier on guitar and my daughter Isabel as dance queen and band leader. Isabel had decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to watch from the audience but would try her hand at being on stage. I was a bit worried that she would get nervous and want to go back to her grandmother, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; Isabel stole the show. She danced to every song and at one point became a bit of an exhibitionist, which I noticed too late with shock as her dress was suddenly over her head.
To open the second set, John Connolly got on stage and sang some of the nicest folk songs I’ve heard in quite some time. He had just returned from several trips, one to the Banff Centre for the Arts where he had a writing residency and another to Nashville where he recorded his upcoming album with producer Brian Ahern. Look for that in September.
I have to admit that, at that point, Isabel’s stage high really took control and I ended up chasing her around the building. I missed most of David Weale’s stories and Troy MacGillivray’s prowess on his instruments, but the whole event was a seamless success and those who attended really got their money’s worth.
As busy and crazy as summertime on PEI can be, it is really what we wait for all winter long. We’ll have to start building up our stamina to get through yet another hectic season. The Festival of Small Halls gave us a good head start and I’m looking forward to a long, eventful summer.

(Originally published in the July edition of PEI’s entertainment monthly, The Buzz.)