The Greenbelt Harvest Picnic just celebrated its fifth year and I was happy to make this one my first. Having heard so many wonderful things about it, I now fully understand the magic of this festival. Harvest Picnic takes place at beautiful Christie Lake and partners with the Greenbelt Foundation, which just celebrated its milestone 10th anniversary. The all-day festival brings together spectacular live music, local farms and food, artisan vendors, and community groups. I’m not even a huge festival person, myself, but this event is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Walking into the park, it looked like the circus had some to Dundas – there was so much to take in. Tents of vendors were set up around the perimeter, there were two stages (the main stage and smaller Front of House stage) and Hamilton Aerial Group‘s poles and silks were ready to go. I arrived on site bright and early with Lisa Vuyk, who took the fantastic photos for this post. We made a great tag-team and it was a thrill to be in the pit during the performances and get up close to all the action. With 20 acts see, plus exploring the vendors, we had a lot of ground to cover.
I really appreciate Harvest Picnic’s mandate of celebrating the Greenbelt and all things local. As a result, the vendors aren’t your run-of-the-mill festival vendors; all were truly unique and involved in the local community. A highlight for me was The Alpacas from Eighth and Mud – they made an adorable doll out of alpaca fleece to look like previous Harvest Picnic performer, Daniel Lanois! I also really enjoyed Quills Invitations & Fine Paper who had a booth where you could write notes using typewriters. Lisa and I also enjoyed chatting with the lovely people of La Primavera Farms who helped us to create our own flower crowns. We absolutely loved rocking our crowns all day!
After getting a feel for the lay of the land, we beelined for the stage to see the first band, on sharp at noon. The Dinner Belles (who performed again later in the day on the Front of House stage) charmed all of us early-birds with their delightful blend of roots and country. They were joined by Aaron Goldstein on pedal steel (who also hopped onstage with Lee Harvey Osmond later on). The Dinner Belles are such a joy to watch – there’s nothing like the chemistry of those seven musicians.
The most pleasant surprise for me was Martha Wainwright. I knew how talented she is and I’m a fan of her brother, Rufus Wainwright, but I wasn’t too familiar with her music. Alone with just an acoustic guitar, she held the audience captive and her voice gave me chills. Hearing Martha’s emotions pour through with every word with a song like “Bleeding All Over You” was so powerful. She closed with a song that she noted she is most known for, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” joking that it was a risk having her on so early in the day! The feisty song was a highlight performance of the day, for me.
Terra Lightfoot was the star of the day, as far as I’m concerned. She performed twice with The Dinner Belles, made a cameo onstage with headliners Arkells, and of course, delivered an amazing set with her own band. Terra’s Dinner Belles’ bandmate Brad Germain was on backup vocal duties with Lisa Winn (Lisa was also on site throughout the day representing vendor Ladybird Animal Sanctuary). Terra’s voice gets me every time – it is just phenomenal. Her sophomore album Every Time My Mind Runs Wild is one of my favourites of the year and I can’t get over how fantastic the songs sound live as well. We barely hit the afternoon and the music was already off to an incredible start.
A local legend, Tom Wilson took the stage next with his band Lee Harvey Osmond. He was joined by son Thompson Wilson, formerly of Harlan Pepper, who would debut his solo material later on the Front of House stage. Collaboration was a common theme of the day – the band was also rounded out by Greg Brisco of The Dinner Belles. Tom likes to joke onstage that he’s the guy you run into at Fortino’s, but he is an absolute rockstar. It’s always such a treat to get to see him play. I dare you to find anyone cooler.
Next up, on the Front of House stage was Laura Cole and her band. Laura opened up the Picnic last year and what a year it has been for her. She cleaned up at this year’s Hamilton Music Awards with her debut album Dirty Cheat and has travelled all over with the band, all while working on new music. It’s always a pleasure to see Laura – I got to sit with her family the night before during Harvest Picnic’s opening reception and dinner. Her voice amazes me every time and I can’t wait to see what’s next. She is a superstar!
There was a lot of buzz for Kathleen Edwards. It was a more rare performance from Kathleen, who recently took a break from music and opened coffee shop Quitters in Stittsville, a suburb of Ottawa. Days before the festival, we heard the extremely unfortunate news that one of her guitars, a 1957 Les Paul Junior, had been stolen. I send all the best vibes in the world for its safe return! Kathleen was in great spirits and delivered a fantastic set, opening with “Change the Sheets.” During her set she also gave some love to fellow Picnic performer Terra Lightfoot.
Basia Bulat was one of my favourites of the day. My first introduction to Basia was three years ago when she performed here with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. That was an incredibly moving show and once again Basia delivered a fantastic set. She was a firecracker up there in her sequinned gold cape and Elton John-style shades. Basia’s stage presence is delightful and her voice is so dynamic. It gets right to my heart every time I hear her. Highlights of her set for me were “Promise Not To Think About Love,” “Run,” and even with technical difficulties at the very end, her performance of “In the Night” was so lovely. The audience was right there with her the whole time.
I unfortunately didn’t get to see all of Gregory Alan Isakov‘s set during my running around, but I know that he had a lot of dedicated fans waiting to see him. Those who were not familiar were quickly won over. It was a gentle folk set that saw the musicians going unplugged at the very end – Harvest Picnic is just that type of festival where you can do that!
The liveliest set of the day, perhaps second only to Arkells, was The Rural Alberta Advantage. The band was a last minute addition to the festival after Iron & Wine were removed, and they brought a blast of energy to the Picnic. At this festival, people opt for lawn chair seating rather than standing crammed together, but a throng of fans got as close as they could for RAA. The three-piece band is a force – they launched into their set with tracks off their latest album Mended With Gold. This was another act I wasn’t overly familiar with, other than singles heard on the radio, and I was blown away. They were another huge highlight of the day.
There were two major headliners at Harvest Picnic, each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Anticipation was high for Mr. Gordon Lightfoot. It must have been an incredible experience for those of the generation who know him well and have such strong memories and associations with his music. The crowd was rapt and attentive. For the younger crowd, what a cool experience to see such a classic.
There was a moment where I was at the very back of the field, watching the stage from afar as the sun set, when Gordan began to play “If You Could Read My Mind.” It’s a song we all know, but its lyrics hit me and I was really moved. I felt grateful for the experience of Harvest Picnic and the honour of seeing such a legendary Canadian musician, and knew it was a moment I would never have again. It was so amazing to hear that song live along with “Sundown” and “The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald.”
But we weren’t done yet! Next to take the Front of House stage was Thompson Wilson. No pressure at all, following Gordon Lightfoot. As noted, this was Thompson’s major debut solo show since Harlan Pepper’s disbanding. I got a little taste of Thompson solo when he performed at Harvest Picnic’s press conference and, man, was I ever impressed. Thompson has an exciting career ahead of him. Catch him at Mills Hardware on October 8th for his first proper venue show as a solo act.
More Front of House performers throughout the day included Matthew de Zoete (who we later spoke to later at Primavera Farms’ booth), Lindy, Hailee Rose and Dave Rave, Missy Bauman, Justin Dunlop, Tomi Swick, and Old Mush Singers.
Bahamas was just as dreamy as I, well, dreamed he would be. Afie Jurvanen and the band opened with a gorgeous rendition of “All I’ve Ever Known.” Swoon. I remember being slightly starstruck when I saw him in Hamilton earlier this year, in the media room right after he won a couple of JUNOs. So I had all of the feels, standing there in the pit, getting to hear him live for the first time. It was a full set including highlights “I Got You Babe,” “Caught Me Thinkin,” and “Stronger Than That.” It was dark outside by the time they took the stage, and the band sounded pretty romantic and smooth under the late summer night sky.
After a full day of music, I was losing steam, but I knocked back a glass of wine and soldiered on! No rest yet – it was time for headliners Arkells. If you’ve seen them live, you know they’re the best. Not only are the guys some of Hamilton’s loudest and proudest champions, they are the most genuine people, and as musicians, just so damn good. The crowd erupted when they began playing. Down in the pit I was almost, quite literally, blown away by the force of the sound as the band launched into “Come To Light.”
There is no filler at an Arkells show – with a solid three-album discography, every song is gold. I still get so excited to hear songs off Jackson Square like “Oh, The Boss is Coming!” and “Pulling Punches.”
Another cool thing – the band arrived at Harvest Picnic looking even more dapper than usual. Dressed in suits, they had just come from one of their good friend’s wedding. Total pros that they are, they rocked the Picnic, brought the house down, and promptly went back to party at the wedding’s reception. Rockstars.
With five years of the festival under their Greenbelt, there is still a lot of room for Harvest Picnic to grow. I’m very happy to have had the Harvest Picnic experience and hope to continue this summer tradition!
Disclaimer: I attended Harvest Picnic as a member of the September Seventh Entertainment staff and we also covered the event as press, but all thoughts about the event are my own.