The Greenbelt Harvest Picnic (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and… etc.)

Who doesn’t love a music festival? Well, me, actually. I’ve never been the energetic type, the “let’s bounce from one stage to another amid the swirling masses for like three days” type. I wish that I were, of course. You miss a lot of great stuff when you’re lazy. But even if I could get over my basic preference for standing relatively still during a performance, then there’s the whole “swirling masses” thing. Lolapolooza, Bonnaroo, Osheaga, and Coachella all attract me with their offerings but cause me to feel the gurgling jellies of anxiety every time I imagine finding myself in a sea of people, unable to escape, stretch out, find a place to take a breath. I like bars with clearly-marked exits, is what I’m saying.

But I’ve always wanted to change this, and have been looking for the right festival to ease myself into the whole thing. And, then I heard about the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic.

Small (fewer than 10,000 people, by my estimate), sponsored and supported by local non-profits and smallish businesses, and featuring a decidedly stellar lineup fronted by Feist, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris, Gord Downie & the Sadies, Mix Master Mike, and Sarah Harmer, this seemed like a worthy place to test the waters.

First thing you notice upon arrival at the venue — a grand stage set up in a lovely conservation area just outside of Hamilton, Ontario — is the beauty of the situation. Lush, green grass and trees surround the field, and a sparkling pond lies just adjacent to the rows of stalls set up by local organic farmers and craftspeople. It’s like walking into a little idyllic village, complete with beer tickets and wristbands for all. So few were the people (or so broad was the space) that my family (we brought the kids because why not share my anxiety attack with loved ones?) could spread out comfortably and still maintain a fine view of the stage. Moreover, the sound quality was stunningly true, even at a great distance. No need to be up front amid them swirling masses. Instead, we swam, munched on organic watermelon, Ethiopian fusion dishes, and wood-fired pizza, and tossed a ball around for awhile until we finally grabbed a spot in the shade of an oak tree to lay out the blanket and settle in.

By then, Sarah Harmer — one of Canada’s most extraordinary singer-songwriters — was just stepping onstage to rapturous applause. Backed by a crack band comprised of old pals and touring partners (including the superlative Chris Brown on keyboards), Harmer offered a delightful set featuring material from all of her records. Her environmentalist anthem “Escarpment Blues” — written about the plan to carve into the great rocky hills surrounding the venue — brought the crowd to its feet. Her indelible “Silver Road” carried us all away.

Gord Downie (lead singer of the Tragically Hip, among Canada’s most popular bands for some reason) was up next and, backed by Toronto’s the Sadies (arguably Canada’s best band qua band), proceeded to growl and yelp his way through a set which seemed largely lost on the folks around me. (However, they did offer up a cover of Neil Young’s “Too Far Gone” to some singalong participation about halfway through the set.) It was, ultimately, a bit too loud, too aggressive, too strident for the patchouli- and incense-scented scene.

But, then again — up next was Mix Master Mike, legendary DJ for the Beastie Boys among many other major acts, who proceeded to double down on the Gord Downie mood-confusion by completely baffling virtually all of the hippies in my general vicinity with his boisterous, high energy mashing of hard rock and hip-hop beats. Though up front a smallish crowd was really moving, hands in the air and all, suddenly the lines for beer and dinner got super long. A weird choice for such a festival, don’t you think? (Although it was pretty fun to watch my 14-month-old obediently throw his hands in the air, because why should he care?)

The highlight of the show was what happened next. Daniel Lanois, backed by local guitarist Jim Wilson and Brian Blade (who may just be the most exciting drummer active today), performed an immaculate, gorgeous soundtrack to the deepening sunset. Featuring lengthy instrumental workouts on “The Maker”, “Messenger”, and “Glide”, Lanois reminded us (again, for we do keep forgetting) that despite his reputation and legacy as a producer, he is also one hell of a songwriter and guitarist.

After about an hour, in a thrilling turn, Emmylou Harris walked onto the stage, unannounced, and the musicians broke into “Where Will I Be”, the Lanois-penned opening track to her 1995 LP Wrecking Ball (which he produced). Suddenly, it was Harris taking the lead, backed by Lanois and his band, and as the blue moon rose and darkness descended she announced that they’d be playing that beloved record in its entirety. “It brings a tear to my eye”, said a guy beside me. Out loud. Every song sounded as good as it does on that masterful record. It is hard to overstate just how majestic this set sounded, or how powerful it felt.

The final set of the night (coming after a lengthy intermission during which soft electronica music washed over the crowd, building both tension and anticipation) featured Canada’s unlikeliest of megastars: Feist. Her dark, twisty music blazing across the sea of swaying bodies the last thing I remember, we were carried home on the rhythmic pulse of her songs, the pillowy sweetness of her voice.

This is it: the Festival for people who don’t like Festivals. Mark your calendars. See you next year.