Have you ever driven along some county road and come across a hamlet with an old Legion building with a couple of shingles missing or a community hall without a crooked board in sight? Ever wondered what goes on in there? Truth is, the doors are sometimes open, but if you need a good excuse to check out a few of these back road treasures in eastern Ontario this month — and want to hear some good music, too — the third annual Ontario Festival of Small Halls is it.
From September 14 to October 2, two dozen hamlets from Lyndhurst to Spencerville and beyond will open the doors of their community halls to you and 33 musicians, many of the roots, folk and bluegrass-inspired indie persuasions.
Some of those musicians you may know — Basia Bulat or Elliott Brood, for example — but a few you probably don’t. No worries, though. The team behind Ottawa Bluesfest and Ottawa’s CityFolk Festival are organizing this one, too, and they know how to pick them.
“Really, the common denominator in how we choose bands is that they put on a very entertaining and high-energy show,” says Festival Manager Kelly Symes. “It may not be something you’ve heard before, but it’s going to be a great live show because that’s how we choose.”
You may have never heard April Verch fiddle, sing or stepdance before, but you should definitely change that. The Ottawa Valley native will hit four stages at the festival with her two bandmates, one who plays stand-up bass and clawhammer banjo and the other who plays guitar. Expect a lot of variety — old-time Americana, bluegrass, Celtic-influenced stuff, more — and expect a few stories about where they learned their tunes and why they wrote them.
If Verch had to pick a favourite type of venue to tell those stories and play those tunes, a small hall would be it. “It’s where I feel the best connection,” she says. “It’s big enough to have a buzz about it, but it’s small enough to feel like you’re really up close and connecting with people.”
It wasn’t necessarily an easy process for Kelly Symes and her team to pick those 24 halls this year, by the way. Forty halls applied, each judged on the quality of the venue, the capacity, the charm and the enthusiasm of the volunteer force.
“Those community champions were a big part of it,” says Symes. “If we had a strong and enthusiastic person come forward and say, ‘Listen, I’ve got this beautiful hall,’ and it’s within the area that we’re doing the shows, that’s mainly how we chose.”
Many of these halls aren’t just beautiful, though, but historic pillars of these communities as well. Take Chaffey’s Lock Community Hall, for instance, opened in 1932 — just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Rideau Canal — with the Chaffey’s Lock Women’s Institute at the helm. Or Delta Old Town Hall, which has served as a meeting place, courthouse, jail, community theatre, masonic lodge, municipal office and museum since 1880.
If you want to learn more about that history or just meet people from these communities, show up early or stick around after the show. A few venues will host special coinciding events like community suppers, farmers’ markets, a scavenger hunt, an architectural walk, a ceilidh, or even an arts and crafts exhibition.
Judging from last year, those special events should be a hit. And no wonder, says Symes. “You don’t leave the city and go on a road trip so that you can hang out with people from where you’re from. You go and really want to experience the culture and flavour of where you are.”
As for the shows themselves, the reasons for attending may not be so clear. Sure, you could be fascinated by the charm of these halls and the genre of music, but as April Verch suggests, music can satisfy a wide range of personal needs. “And it’s our job to get out of the way and let them take that journey,” she adds. “So when people are leaving our show at the end of the night, I hope that they’re like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t even know that’s what I needed, but that was it.’”
Click Below for the Full 2016 Lineup, Tickets, and More