How to make swamp magic

At the end of a typical Sackville summer—the kind where you end up doing the same three or four things with the same three or four friends—the sheer quantity of people that flock to a tiny New Brunswick town, just to see one weekend of music, is awe-inspiring. Yet, no matter how large the crowds get, the artists are always right there, delivering unfiltered live music in an intimate setting. The emotional resonance of SappyFest with festival-goers can be attributed to this intimacy. This closeness between audience and performer that is so rare at other music festivals makes each year’s SappyFest special. 

Sappy brings artists of amazing calibre to venues so tiny that they can literally be touched. SappyFest 8 went about this by adding a spiritual element to performer-audience relations. On Sunday night, Naomi Shelton was a conduit for her decades of experience of singing gospel, an experience pre-empted by experimental violinist Sarah Neufeld’s euphoric and personal show in the university chapel that afternoon. Due to their psychedelic and jazz influences, the Underachievers, a Brooklyn, NY hip hop duo, had a particularly spiritual set as well.

“Art is about opening minds but politics is about the opposite,” said Michel Levasseur, co-founder of Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville, at “Why Nowhere?”, the small town music conference hosted by SappyFest. At many music festivals there is so much money in the air that the politics of taste inevitably deny closeness between artist and audience. When big names are grouped together and sold wholesale, the ethos driving almost all major music festivals, a personal connection between the audience, artists, and curators is not felt: the star power overshadows all else. The amount of people, the stages, and the shortened sets are not conducive to bringing artist and audience together. Even the front row at such jamborees cannot truly get one close to the stage’s occupant because of physical barricades, which embody this detachment. While the thrill associated with these large productions would be the energy given off by the crowd, that energy is also available in small rooms where a positive shift in the attitude of a crowd can be triggered by just one person moved to dance. 

Emotion in shows is created through intimacy. The impromptu dance parties at the Legion’s punk shows would be a strange sight to see at an Osheaga set, yet they are almost mundane at Sappy. During the Naomi Shelton set on the final night, the crowd moved in a way that required more effort to keep still than to bend to the will of the music, the lights, and the crowd and give in to “SappyFever.” It’s not because the music was any more or less accessible but rather because its size and curation lead to a kind of intimacy unmatched by contemporary Canadian music festivals.

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