New Traditions Festival

Photo: Elena Gritzan

by Elena Gritzan

The goal of this weekend’s New Traditions festival was to “celebrate contemporary takes on traditional folk music and art, as well as emerging forms of community building”.

Taking place on Artscape Gibralter Point on Toronto Island, the festival was an immersive day-long adventure in musical discovery, beach-side relaxing, and forest dance parties.  Despite being the first year of the program, tickets quickly sold out based on the strength of the line-up and the concept of the day.  Taking the ferry across Lake Ontario to visit the Island is a classic summer experience, so to be able to tie that together with another summer mainstay, live music, was rather wonderful.

The location of the festival added a lot to the community-based mindset of the event.  Art installations were placed between trees and on the beach, with stages in both locations (allowing patrons to swim or lie in the grass while listening to the bands all day).  There was a bit of a struggle with fire ants, but overall the outdoor setting completely made the festival.  Although an event that includes wandering clowns (with whom the children present quickly fell in love with) and frolicking dogs would likely have an electric atmosphere wherever it took place.

The first set I saw was from charming indie pop rock band The Elwins.  I have only ever seen them perform in unorthodox locations (to a packed crowd in Soundscapes on Record Store Day, and on a sidewalk during NXNE), and I guess the wooden stage fitted with reflective silver foil fits in with that.  There is something classically fresh to their songs: they feel a bit old-timey while simultaneously making you want to dance and burst from optimism.  They taught us a fox dance and covered Beyonce, what more could you ever want?

A number of the bands playing the festival are associated with one of the organizing groups, the Fedora Upside Down collective.  The two I witnessed were Freeman Dre and the Kitchen Party, and Lemon Bucket Orkestra (“Toronto’s only balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band”).  Both bands feature a lot of members, with instruments as varied as clarinet, violin and a lot of percussion represented.  Watching the number of people on stage exceed double digits really brought to mind the community aspect of making music, and they were certainly having fun doing it together.  The end of Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s evening klezmer punk dance party ended with them trailing into the audience with their instruments and leading a jiving crowd down to the beach.  It was a kind of moment that could only happen at a festival like this.

The best picture I could get of the clam-singer. Believe me, it was weird and wonderful.

There was also programming that you would never see anywhere else – a post-dinner puppet slam was an intriguing prospect that turned into a hilarious highlight of the day.  The first act involved an elaborate stage with giant lips (controlled by the motion of two guys lying underneath it) and clam that opened to reveal a blue face paint covered, vocally distorted singer.  Techno music started, with the clam-man singing and a giant pink tongue emerging from the lips and dancing spastically (at one point he moved into the audience and licked my foot).  Audience members crawled through the giant lips into the mesh stage and moved around.  It was all very Mighty Boosh and absolutely amazing.  More puppetry continued with jokes about etiquette for puppets (take note, it’s disconcerting to remove your eye while at dinner), the poor memory of flies and what would happen if Steven Hawking had a comedy show.  All of this was absolutely not what I was expecting to see at a music festival, but fit right into the amazing atmosphere at New Traditions.

The straight forward festival musical experiences were great too – an introspective set from Olenka and the Autumn Lovers was captivating, and a high energy performance from The Wilderness of Manitoba reminded me why I go to festivals in the first place (they played mostly new material, as full of enchanting harmonies and stellar melodies as the rest of their discography).

Doldrums. Photo: Elena Gritzan

The final event of the night before the 11:45 ferry back to the city (those dedicated enough could take a specially chartered ferry back at 1am after taking in campfire sets and a beach party) was a set by Doldrums.  This was a highly anticipated event for me (I have wanted to see Airick Woodhead’s sample heavy dance music project for a long time now, especially after having missed his multiple NXNE performances), and he actually far exceeded any expectations I had.  The night took a tribal feel: the sun had set and a few large torches were handed out.  A giant costumed man jumped on stage (part of the puppet slam from earlier) to complete the weird dance party.  Moving crazily in the middle of a forest with a bunch of new friends really capped off the night.

I left the island feeling euphoric and completely grateful I had taken a risk on this first year festival.  Yes, I’m going to make the obvious pun: hopefully the New Traditions festival will become a tradition in its own right, drawing open and fun-loving people to the Island every summer for its unique blend of music and experience.

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