Greenbelt Harvest Picnic
- Christie Lake Conservation Area
- Near Dundas, Ont., on Saturday
Daniel Lanois knows his way around a recording studio like few other people on this planet, having produced career-changing records for Bob Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris and others. Outdoors, Lanois’s production record is not nearly so deep, which makes the success of his first Greenbelt Harvest Picnic all the more remarkable.
The one-day event took place on a perfect day in a perfect spot: a wide open green space surrounded by trees near Christie Lake, in a conservation area a few minutes’ drive from Lanois’s hometown of Hamilton. Lanois and his co-producer Jean-Paul Gauthier wanted the festival to celebrate the natural beauty of Steeltown’s rural backyard, to promote local food from small farm producers and to show off the talents of some of Lanois’s friends, including Emmylou Harris, Ray LaMontagne, Sarah Harmer and Gord Downie.
The music ran from noon till night, as about 5,000 people picnicked, sampled organic produce, relaxed on the grass and twined flowers through their hair (a one-day craze inspired by a posey-seller among the farm tables). At dusk, small Asian paper lanterns rose from behind the crowd high into the sky and drifted west, glowing orange over their own small, elevating fires.
Lanois’s smarts as a golden-eared studio guy were evident the second you walked on the field. This festival had the best amplified sound I’ve ever heard at an outdoor event – a clean, natural, rich sound from top to bottom. It was equally good from close-up and far away, no matter who was playing.
Lanois took the stage at around 7 p.m., with a reddish light creeping into the sky. Something about the scene, perhaps, put him into a contemplative mood, to judge from the long, ruminative guitar jam he slipped into during his very first number, and again during the bluesy lovesong, Fire. The fine-grained, high-distortion guitar sound of his recent Le Noise sessions with Neil Young was much in evidence. A turn at pedal steel brought an even more introspective feeling to his performance with bassist Jim Wilson and drummer Steve Nistor.
It was somewhat jarring, in this context, to see a couple of burlesque dancers, dressed as for the Rio carnival in string bikinis and massive coloured feathers, writhing through part of this set. They also appeared during the brief jams Lanois played between sets under a small canopy in mid-field.
His set segued straight into Harris’s, as he and his colleagues played backup to songs such as Wrecking Ball and Orphan Girl, both from the Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball album that gave Harris new prominence and a new direction in the mid-nineties. Her strong plaintive voice, the sound of a vulnerable survivor, drove straight for the heart.
Ray LaMontagne came on after night had fallen, a lone figure with an acoustic guitar, strumming and howling through a performance of Burn that really did seem to set something to aflame. This New Hampshire musician has a high-lying, husky voice that brings some of the feeling of classic soul music to his hand-hewn original folk songs. He writes hard and plays for keeps, and if some of what he did sounded like sixties folk redux – Beg Steal or Borrow could almost be a Joni Mitchell song – he made it sound fresh and even dangerous. His ferocious performance of Repo Man (like most of the set, played with his Pariah Dogs band) felt like something you might hear in a tough Chicago blues joint, not at a rural campfire.
Lanois, who also played some flavourful pedal-steel backings for LaMontagne, said from the stage that he’d like to make this festival an annual event. The food providers I spoke with seconded that motion, and the crowd seemed to agree. The Greenbelt Harvest Picnic is off to a great start, and will be even better when it solves a small lighting problem. The grounds got mighty dark after the sun went down. I sometimes had to depend on the glow of people’s cell phones to avoid stepping on anyone. In another place, with a less benign and sedentary crowd, it could have been a security nightmare.
Portions of Saturday’s show were recorded by CBC Radio, for later broadcast on Canada Live.