If I’m ever asked that timeless question of- “If you were stranded on an island, who would you want to be with?” I can now say Harlan Pepper as one of my potential answers. I just spent a weekend on an island with over 18 bands, amazing food, artists, local Pelee Island vineyard wines, Walkerville craft brews, refreshing lake waters to swim in, tons of scenery and plenty of sunshine.
The First Annual Island Unplugged Music Festival held on August 2 and 3rd, 2014 welcomed visitors from all over Canada and the United States. Over 18 bands performed over two days. Day one consisted of Kevin Echlin, Allison Brown, Henry Adam Svec, Harrison Kennedy, Tif Ginn, Ron Leary Band, New Country Rehab and the Fred Eaglesmith Travelling Show. Day two had Island Showcase, James O-L and the Villains, Tara Watts, Prairie Siding, The Vaudevillian, The Schotts, Harlan Pepper, Devin Cuddy Band and Great Lake Swimmers.
The non for profit event was presented by Pelee Art Works and the Pelee Island Heritage Centre with support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and the Township of Pelee. In addition to showcasing some great live musical talent, the festival proved to be a catalyst for the local businesses. Over 4000 people arrived by Ferry from Kingsville, Ontario and Sandusky, Ohio. Bed and Breakfast accommodations and hotel rooms were booked to capacity Friday through Sunday. Festival organizers and volunteers did an excellent job getting the word out pre-festival to the music loving masses in regards to getting tickets online, reserving campsites, scheduling a Ferry time and advice on what to bring like a bicycle. The festival even had a shuttle bus to get you to and from the Ferry dock to the festival grounds if you did not have a bicycle or car.
On the Ferry boat ride over on Sunday, I was lucky enough to be crossing Lake Erie at the same time as The Vaudevillian, The Devin Cuddy Band and crowds of festival goers. The scene on the upper deck of the boat was lively and reminded me of other great transportation moments in music history mainly all the great scenes from the movie “Festival Express.”
Once on island, the festival stage was across the island nestled in the tree lined setting at the East Park Campground. I had a chance to chat briefly with Hamilton’s very own Harlan Pepper back stage at the campground before their set. I asked them if they had any interesting stories to share from their summer touring adventures. The whole band laughed and then Dan Edmonds explained, “Yea, well we actually have a story from today. We missed the Ferry Boat to the island today. So then we ran into a guy in town who had a speedboat and he helped us load up all our gear and we got over here in this guy’s speedboat. It was quite a rush to cross the lake, all four of us, all our gear and speeding across the lake.” Thom then added, “We kind of have been doing weird things at each festival, at Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks we went crowd surfing, at Hillside we smoked while we played with Colorado, when we played in Red Rock up in Thunder Bay one of us pretty much did not wear clothes the whole weekend and people were asking him to put some clothes back on (band laughs) and then when we played in London, Ontario, the power went out so we had to leave the stage and play acoustic. In Mariposa, we got to hangout backstage with Gordon Lightfoot, which was probably our best story this summer so far.”
With their current CD entitled “Take Out a Twenty and Live Life to the Fullest,” Harlan Pepper is touring throughout Ontario for the rest of the summer. They have a show planned at Hughes Room in Toronto in October. When asked if anything is in the songwriting pipeline Thom explained that “Dan recently bought a tape machine and tape so we are working and experimenting with tape recordings right now- it’s been kind of like the basement tapes of The Band. We are just trying out some stuff and we will see where it all goes. It’s been fun.”
As I was sitting at the table with the band, Dan started writing a set list in his signature font style and it reminded me of their video to the song “TV.” The video mixes sequences of Dan’s one of a kind artful hand writing style overlaid on film sequences. The drawings and writing in the video were done by Dan Edmonds and the video by Jimmie Hayes. While reading the set list Dan mentioned they would be playing two new songs when they hit the stage which were “Chug Along” and “Haven’t Done it Yet.” Thom mentioned that “ ’Chug Along’ is about our tour we did with Corb Lund. We went on tour in May and out to British Columbia with Corb Lund. We have also been playing the song ‘Smoggy Fountain Shakedown’ – we have been playing it for a while but it’s not on a new record yet – it’s sort of based on ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’. And, lately we’ve been closing with a traditional cover called the ‘Will The Circle be Unbroken’ it’s one the crowd can participate in and we have a lot of fun with that.”
The Kitchener born and now Hamilton based duo The Vaudevillian also had a chance to chat back stage at Island Unplugged. When asked how the band came to be, Brenden J. Stephens and Willow Walker both responded with “busking in Kitchener.” Brenden explained that he spent a lot of time travelling on the road and also in town just busking like crazy. “I would play all the time on the street and earn enough for gas to the next town or just for dinner. Originally I was busking in a place called Victoria Park in Kitchener and that is where I ran into Willow. We hit it off, moved to Hamilton and became what we are now.” Willow added, “the busking really united us and we started to get people approaching us as we played, offering us gigs and festival slots. We really appreciate playing a festival like Island Unplugged but we also have busking in our hearts and always know that is where we started from.” Brenden’s early influences from Lead Belly, New Orleans jazz, Appalachian country, Americana, Woody Guthrie, jug band music, and more, all inform his songwriting today. Their new record is entitled“Salty Dog” and will be coming out August 29 at the Homegrown Hamilton event.
Toronto’s Devin Cuddy Band did not miss the boat in their performance at Island Unplugged and it was their first time visiting the island. Just back from a tour which included playing at Dog River Days, Wild Mountain Fest, Cavendish Beach Fest in PEI and more, the band enjoyed being honored with knowing that they were now on the line-up for the first ever Pelee Island Unplugged Festival. Be sure to catch their new CD which just came out in August entitled “Kitchen Knife.”Their CD release party was August 8 at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and is now available everywhere.
The closing night ended with an amazingly long set played under the stars byGreat Lakes Swimmers. With the entire crowd dancing to “Easy Come, Easy Go” from their CD “The New Wild Everywhere,” the First ever Pelee Island Unplugged Music Festival came to a successful first year end.
To find out about next year’s Island Unplugged Music Festival check out their page soon at www.theislandunplugged.org.