Remembering that first summer Bernard (Bernie) Melanson (left) and Dieter Buse reminisce on the over half century of Northern Lights Festival Boreal. Both understood the potential for cultural enrichment and continue to support and attend. For many years, they participated in organizing committees and even hosted visiting artists in their homes. Here they are at the Grace Hartman Amphitheatre at NLFB 2023. Hugh Kruzel photo Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It has become the summer perennial favourite. This year’s Northern Lights Festival Boreal (NLFB) had sun, pleasant mosquito-free breezes, some cloud but not a single torrential downpour. A blessing.

There is no doubt NLFB has proven its staying power. It has fans and admirers who come for one act or stay for the full meal deal. Yes, there are some who have been attending right from year one. Their stories and perspectives are worth the listening. 

The search was on for newbies, too. They are incredibly hard to find. 

Questions to those pushing stroller or parents with toddlers should have uncovered the cohort for the next 10, 20, 50 years of the festival. Despite Sunday being a free entry, and a strong contingent of families, it proved hard to find fresh eyes and ears. One mum of a tie-dye T-shirted youngster shared this: “She has come to seven … including in utero.” 

So, even this kid is a “regular,” too.

Vickie McGauley was 15 for her first NLFB. “I’ve been attending the festival for about 48 years. Started by volunteering in the food tent that fed performers. I was introduced to the festival by a friend who was really into music, and from there I never looked back … 

“I have attended all but one festival since then. I grew into adulthood with the festival, and music has since been a big part of my life. I met my husband, Scott Merrifield – one of festival founders – through my involvement in the festival. 

“My two sons, Max and Sam, grew up attending the festival and now as adults they would both tell you that music is an integral part of their lives. In fact, Max is presently the Northern Lights Festival artistic director. Sam makes the pilgrimage to the festival every year from Toronto. 

“Needless to say, the festival and music are important to all of us. Also, now our grandchildren attend the festival.”

Lou Hayden, volunteer coordinator for NLFB, has 20 years of experience working in events. She identifies the success of NFLB being due to the 300-plus who step up to help. 

“The volunteers are what makes the festival run. That is an understatement. They are the cogs that turn the machine. Behind the scenes, so many moving parts. The set-up and tear-down teams do extraordinary labour-intensive work.”

Favourite concerts? “Oh dear, that is a tough one: over 48 years so many good concerts and musical moments,” McGauley muses. “The power of Buffy St Marie … one of the most dynamic and creative female Indigenous performers – unequivocally her own artist – supported and inspired countless Indigenous artists across Canada and the U.S. It’s an incredible feeling when an artist manages to galvanize an entire audience and particularly powerful when many in that audience had never before heard of or seen this artist.

“That is one of the main pleasures of the festival: Surprises. The lineup is filled with talent from not only Canada but from various parts of the world, as well. There are so many styles of music represented, so many cultures, so many different interpretations and so much that is new in music. 

“Many of these performers are not household names, so you really have to be open to discovering something new. The daytime workshops can be especially entertaining: a group of disparate artists often sharing the stage for the first time, sharing songs and stories often based around a theme. 

“The result is intimate both for the artists and for the audience. This winning combination of factors often make for some of the best moments of the festival.”

Festival veterans weighed in on why Northern Lights endures.

“I joined first as a volunteer and was also on the board much later on,” Dieter Buse, a Laurentian University professor, reminisces. “Rain some years made for some financial challenges. The old amphitheatre had no cover, even for the musicians. It was an amazing time because when the event ended here, the party moved to Laurentian University. We also cooked for 80 people at the winter coffee houses where the NLFB spirit was kept alive.”

“We hosted the artists and there were often impromptu concerts in our homes,” Bernie Melanson fondly. recalls “Initially, we had some funding for summer concerts in 1972 and the next year we spun it higher for year 2. Grants from then mayor of Sudbury, Joe Fabbro, got the ball rolling, but it was still a dream. I was just 19 and it was an exciting time.”

Harry Sheppard has attended most NLFBs. “I have the T-shirts. I actually stopped collecting 20 years ago. It’s more than the music … it is the people and the opportunity to meet friends I haven’t seen since last year.”

How do you articulate something so unique? McGauley does it here: “There is something incredibly special about sharing and experiencing music with other people; of sharing moments of joy and discovery with others, of being moved by a great performance or lyric, together. 

“In this crazy world filled with so much animosity, it is such a pleasure to hear people playing and singing music to one another instead of yelling at each other. For me, it is always joyful, moving and inspiring. It is human beings at their best: being creative, sharing, responding to one another, and making sure all are welcome, especially children who run and dance around the festival grounds. 

“And this festival, in its 51st year is mainly run by volunteers; people who believe in it and love the atmosphere.”

This year, for the first time, you were allowed to walk around the entire site with a Muskoka Cream Ale or Craft Lager in hand. Anywhere with Candy Corn, Shaved Ice from Kako’s Kitchen, Pogos, Blooming Onions, and freshly pressed lemonades from Da Capo is a great place to spend a summer’s day or evening.

Can’t wait for episode 52 in July 2024.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

Twitter: @SudburyStar

By Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 12, 2023 at 00:39

This item reprinted with permission from   The Sudbury Star    Sudbury, Ontario
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