Canadian Music Festivals Remember the Standout Performances That Defined Them

From inclement weather to surprise appearances from music legends, festivals share some of their favourite stories

Photo: Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival by Colin Smith

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Jun 14, 2022

There are so many long-running music festivals all over Canada, and none of them would be possible without the dedicated teams of staff and volunteers who put in the effort year after year. Some of the people behind the country's best festivals — and, in a few cases, notable past artists — shared the performances that make all the hard work worth it.

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Bass Coast
Merritt, BC

2022 details: July 8–11 featuring Claude Vonstroke, Jacques Greene, Rochelle Jordan

Zebra Katz's captivating 2015 main stage performance stands out as a pivotal moment in Bass Coast history. Zebra Katz was just emerging onto the international circuit, and this was his first performance in Western Canada, and his first-ever camping festival! His forward-thinking music and wildly charismatic stage presence won over the entire crowd. The set was energetic, complete with champagne being sprayed over the audience, who couldn't get enough! It was world-class music combined with fashion and theatrics. Zebra Katz opened the door for performance art to take more of a prominent role in the following years. And, to top it off, he and his DJ embraced the BC festival experience and seemed like they were right at home swimming in the river and exploring the festival. It was great to see!
Andrea Graham, Co-Founder and Music Director

Beaches International Jazz Festival
Toronto, ON

2022 details: July 2–24

I have been going to the Beaches Jazz Festival for as long as I can remember — it is a Beaches institution and summer staple. As I got older, I started attending StreetFest, which was a huge highlight of every summer. My friends and I would hop from band to band, order Tiny Tom Donuts and roasted corn, and make our way from Woodbine Avenue all the way to Beech Avenue and back. I specifically remember a couple nights one summer in 2013 when the band God Made Me Funky would attract a huge crowd of people dancing and singing, and they were always the perfect band to end off the night with a bang. I can't wait to feel the same energy again this summer!
Evangeline Fitz, Marketing Coordinator

Boots and Hearts
Oro-Medonte, ON

2022 details: August 4–7 featuring Shania Twain, Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt

We're so thankful to share career highlights with artists and celebrate their special moments on stage. In 2018, Thomas Rhett's performance was on his daughter Willa Gray's birthday, so we wanted to do something special. We surprised him with a birthday cake so that 40,000 fans would sing "Happy Birthday" to his daughter. Teary-eyed and full of love, he shared with the crowd that Boots and Hearts was "the best festival on the planet" and the crowd went wild. A moment shared with one of country music's biggest stars that we will never forget!
Eva Dunford, Founding Partner

Photo courtesy of Boots and Hearts

Electric Eclectics
Meaford, ON

2022 details: July 29–30 featuring Edwin van der Heide, Laura Ortman, Shelley Hirsch

On the third day of our annual summer festival in 2015, the skies grew black and an intense thunderstorm blew through from Georgian Bay, forcing us to cancel our live performances, pack up our stage equipment and send a large number of our audience fleeing back home. After a few hours of thunder and rain, the weather began to let up a bit, and we had the idea to set up a small sound system in Laura Kikauka's private studio at the EE festival site. We sent the word out that Silver Apples would perform, and all remaining festival-goers — probably about 150 still remained onsite — were welcomed into Laura's studio for a private loft concert by the late, great Simeon Coxe, who played a mind-blowing set using his vintage sine tone oscillators and drum machine. He also took requests from the audience!
Gordon Monahan, Director

Photo by Laura Kikauka

Le Festif!
Baie-Saint-Paul, QC

2022 details: July 21–24 featuring Death from Above 1979, the Halluci Nation, Lisa LeBlanc

For seven years, I was trying to get Gogol Bordello to our festival. Finally, for our 10th anniversary in 2019, I confirmed the band. The day before, they had to fly from New York but a big storm made the trip risky. So, less than 24 hours before the concert, we thought the band would not make it on time. Finally, the band found another flight and came a few hours before the show. Thirty minutes before the start, a big thundercloud came close to the outdoor venue. We thought we would have to cancel, but the cloud stayed in the same place for 15 minutes with the lightning inside. Gogol Bordello started the show, and it was one of those moments that you can only experience at a festival.
Clément Turgeon, General and Artistic Director

Photo by Jay Kearney

Field Trip
Toronto, ON

2022 details: July 9 featuring Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Lucy Dacus, Peach Pit

My favourite moment is from 2016 — we had to shut down due to a storm. People left because of the weather, and those who didn't leave before we had to lock the gates had to stay onsite, indoors, which was really bizarre. We weren't sure if we were going to have to shut the whole thing down, or if we could keep going. And the beauty of it was that we could keep going. The next act that was on the main stage was going to be Charles Bradley. We put it out on our social media feeds, like, "Hey, we're opening up again, everybody come back." And as they did, the sun came out, and this gigantic, beautiful man with a heart so huge came out with his band. It will always be a favourite memory to me because he's gone now. But seeing the sun come out, everyone's coming back and Charles Bradley is giving it. That's probably my favourite moment. 
Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), Performer

Folk on the Rocks
Yellowknife, NT

2022 details: July 15–17 featuring Joel Plaskett, Haviah Mighty, Pantayo

Last year's festival was special on its own, as so few places around the world got to have a festival, and everyone was already just so happy to be back at the festival site. The Jerry Cans closed down the festival on our main stage on Sunday evening, and for their final song, the Dene Drummers joined them and the entire crowd just lit up. People were holding each other, dancing with their loved ones, and it was very clear that this was a magical moment that topped off a weekend of a community reunited.
Carly McFadden, Executive and Artistic Director

Photo courtesy of Folk on the Rocks

Hamilton, ON

2022 details: June 17–18 featuring YAO, Céleste Lévis, DJ Unpier

One of my favourite FrancoFEST memories was back in 2015 when LGS (Le Groupe Swing) came to Hamilton. It had been an amazing sunny day at Gage Park, and when LGS came on stage that evening as the closing band, the energy was electrifying! Their songs had everyone getting up to dance — adults, children, teens, even seniors. Toward the end of the show, a group of young anglophone teens who heard the music in the park came and asked for an encore. They were saying how much they liked French music and didn't want the night to end. The feeling of a Francophile community party was amazing!
Joanne Bouchard, Volunteer and Steering Committee Member

Lawnya Vawnya
St. John's, NL

2022 details: June 8–11 featuring Status/Non-Status, BAMBII, Nap Eyes

A particularly special moment for me happened last year at Lawnya Vawnya 11. Our festival headliner Backxwash performed in a super intimate black box-style venue in downtown St. John's. From the moment Ashanti hit the stage, it felt like I was transported into an alternate reality. The intensity and artistry of her performance was next-level. Halfway through the set, she came down from the stage and performed in the middle of a moshing crowd. It felt like a real coming back to live music in the most cathartic way.
Chrissy Dicks, Executive Director

M for Montreal
Montreal, QC

2022 details: November 16–19

Mac DeMarco was practically unknown when he first showcased at M for Montreal in 2012. We had over 150 international delegates and most were stone-faced and all knew that something was in the air. Win Butler from Arcade Fire was in the audience and he left after he heard Mac burp into the mic. This was a major pivotal moment in Mac's career, and he said it best: "Ever since I showcased at M, it felt like I never had a day off."
Mikey B. Rishwain, Programming Director

Mariposa Folk Festival
Orillia, ON 

2022 details: July 8–10 featuring Mavis Staples, the Weather Station, Kathleen Edwards

In 2010, Mariposa was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Gordon Lightfoot was closing out the festival. That afternoon, Gord went to visit his good friend Bob Dylan, who was playing at Casino Rama. In the evening, Gord took the stage to play his set just as a thunderstorm was rolling in. The rain was pelting down, there was pitchfork lightning lighting up the sky, and Gord was singing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The crowd was mesmerized. Just then, a white stretch limo pulled into the site. Bob Dylan was in the back. One look at the downpour and they pulled away without exiting the car. Truth or myth? I know who I saw that night. You never know who will show up at Mariposa.
Pam Carter, President and Festival Organizer

In 1972, I went to the Mariposa Folk Festival when it was on Toronto Island. I was hoping to see Murray McLauchlan at an afternoon concert. I sat very close to the stage. Murray came on and said, "I won't be playing this afternoon." I groaned in disappointment. Then he went on, "My friend Joni Mitchell is here and she's going to do a few songs instead." The small crowd at the small side stage went wild. Joni played about five songs. It was the only time I ever saw her in concert. The next day, Bruce Cockburn did the same thing. He gave up his concert so that Neil Young could do an unexpected visit. Standing off to the side were Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot, who'd arrived unexpectedly as well. I call it the year that "folk royalty" visited Mariposa.
Mike Hill, Former Artistic Director

People have collected so many beautiful Mariposa memories. One snapshot moment I have is watching the audience as the sun set over the lake near the end of a blissful weekend in 2018. All generations were gathered shoulder to shoulder, being taken on a powerful and emotional journey by the magical Buffy Sainte-Marie. It was transcendent. Experiencing live music outdoors is communal, unifying, healing. Bring on Mariposa 2022!
Liz Scott, Artistic Director 

Northern Lights Festival Boréal
Sudbury, ON

2022 details: July 7–10 featuring the Weather Station, Born Ruffians, Bombino

In 2014, Toronto Balkan klezmer party-punk super-band Lemon Bucket Orkestra were the talk of the festival. I remember them crammed into the after-hours venue for a sweaty, explosive performance. Then, they started to climb up on the bar to play and the servers looked concerned. A few minutes later, they led the entire crowd into the street, Pied Piper-style, and played for another hour while we directed traffic around the crowd. It was magical.
Max Merrifield, Artistic Director

RBC Bluesfest
Ottawa, ON

2022 details: July 7–17 featuring Rage Against the Machine, Alanis Morissette, the National

There have been so many great moments since we launched the Ottawa Bluesfest in 1994 — close to 30 years' worth. But one of my most cherished memories is when the Tragically Hip played their last show at the festival in 2015. It was pouring rain, but there was still a huge crowd — the Hip were always a big draw for the fest.

Throughout the day, our main concern was whether or not we'd be able to move forward with the concert later that evening — it would have been such a shame to cancel with so many fans clamouring to see their Canadian heroes. Fortunately, the rain let up enough for the show to go on, and Gord and company rewarded the faithful with one of their most memorable Bluesfest performances ever. To this day, when anyone asks about favourite Bluesfest memories, this one always ranks as one of my fondest.
Mark Monahan, Executive and Artistic Director

Sackville, NB

2022 details: July 29–31 featuring Cedric Noel, Kelly McMichael, Circuit des Yeux

In 2010, the first time my band Apollo Ghosts played Sappyfest, our roadie, driver and friend Darren took off his shirt high on energy drinks and slapped Chad VanGaalen's back with such gusto. I met my hero Julie Doiron backstage and anxiously took a picture with her like a total creep. Played in front of what seemed like thousands of people, and it worked, holy shit. Friendships for life. Key to the city — or at least Mel's Diner. 
Adrian Teacher (Apollo Ghosts), Performer

Sled Island
Calgary, AB

2022 details: June 22–26 featuring Sudan Archives, Built to Spill, Teebs

A fun memory that comes to mind has to be when Japanese Breakfast played her first-ever show in Calgary for Sled Island 2019. After an unforgettable sold-out show, the next day she tweeted, "Everyone in Calgary is hot and nice." 
Kurtis Gregor, Marketing and Communications Manager
Suoni Per Il Popolo
Montreal, QC

2022 details: June 3–29 featuring the Besnard Lakes, R.A.P. Ferreira, Thus Owls

I have many a story to tell about all the amazing beautiful geniuses that have come through Suoni (and venues Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa) over the 22 years we have been doing this. And there are many: that time Milford Graves changed lives just by being himself; cooking dinner for Kim Gordon and Myriam Gendron and family; Suicide at Sala when Chloë Sevigny showed up for the show and made all the staff double starstruck; interviewing Backxwash for her first time on CKUT, all cute and nerves and badass; the sublime energy and connection of Elle Barbara's first Vogue Ball; Francisco Lopez blowing people's minds in a tent in the dark as we all lay on the floor; hanging with Sunny Murray in the Casa basement; watching a solo Roscoe Mitchell scare and entrance the crowd at the same time; some of Arcade Fire or Les Georges Leningrad's first shows.

But the tale that best illustrates what makes Suoni per il Popolo uniquely itself is actually one of the first shows we ever put on. We had just signed the lease on the storefront that would become Casa del Popolo and had inherited some of the shows from Artichaut (the previous speakeasy). We were renovating during the week and having the shows on the weekends with a BYOB situation. This was the first show where we were gonna sell the beer ourselves and had not built the bar yet. My friend Lea showed up to help me bartend and my partner at the time, Mauro [Pezzente of Godspeed You! Black Emperor], did the sound. We just had a hutch from our kitchen my dad's neighbour in Gore's Landing had given to me when I left for university and an Ikea shelf as the back bar. We put out a lot of candles to make it sexy.

Choeur Maha was the act, a local 20-plus-member feminist women's choir. It was June or July of 2000. It was a warm night and we could have the backdoor open to the lush overgrown patio in the back. The choir was undoubtedly awesome and revelatory, and we were so enraptured with them that we didn't notice that Lea had leaned back against the shelf. I turned around to give her a thumbs-up and her luscious curly locks were a halo of fire around her face! I screamed. She didn't even feel it, it happened so fast. In a quick second, we put out the flames and she had only actually singed the outside of her hair. The choir sang on. More than one lesson was learned and we couldn't stop belly laughing.

From that show, we met Danette Mackay, who would go on to host Kiss My Cabaret, a monthly showcase of local entertainers and rabble rousers at Sala for many years, and her daughter who was a child at that show would later be one of Casa's bartenders. We also met local legendary vocalist Kathy Kennedy, who has taught generations how to use their voice. And I think Miriam Ginestier was there too, who would go on to host the Meow Mix queer dance party. As well as a host of others. This is the organic, interconnected, intergenerational and community-based way Suoni per il Popolo / Casa del Popolo has grown over the years. People coming in saying, "Hey, I make something, what can we do together?" or us saying, "What you make is amazing! Can we do something together?" Making relationships and networks that have lasted and continue to grow through space and time and heartbreak and trauma. The anticipation of getting to connect again in real life is palpable. 
Kiva Tanya Stimac, Co-Founder

TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
Vancouver, BC

2022 details: June 24–July 3 featuring Buddy Guy, Dawn Pemberton, Adria Kain

The Jazz Festival is all about presenting world class music, building relationships and making memories. I have been involved with Coastal Jazz since 1994, when I moved here from Montreal. I first started as a production volunteer, and one of my very first shifts was for a Dave Brubeck show at the Vogue Theatre. He was one of my favourite jazz legends, so while I was excited, I was equally nervous being new to Vancouver and a green stagehand. The stage manager, who has since become a very close friend of mine, likely saw my trepidation and assigned me a very unique role for the evening — I was to be Dave Brubeck's personal assistant. If anyone knows the Vogue Theatre at all, they know the stairs from the green rooms to the stage are very steep. My job was to hold Mr. Brubeck's arm every time he walked up and down the stairs. Naturally, in this role I got to be around Mr Brubeck all night. He was such a nice man — inquisitive, respectful and totally gracious with me.

The night was amazing. Brubeck and his band put on an unbelievable performance that I got to watch [from] side stage. Luckily, he also got out of the venue without any broken bones, which I am taking full credit for. The one regret I had from this night was that I had forgotten to bring my collection of Brubeck vinyl records to get signed, and I mentioned this to him at some point. He was already quite old, and everyone thought this could very well be his last show in Vancouver, so with a smirk on his face, he said to me, "Don't worry, I'll sign your records the next time I come to town."

Fast forward some 13 years to 2008, I was now the Production Manager for the Jazz Festival, and we were presenting Dave Brubeck once again, but this time at the Orpheum Theatre. I still had my unsigned Brubeck vinyl, and I wasn't going to miss my chance this time around. I got the all clear that I could go to his dressing room after the show. I knocked on the door that was partly ajar, and I heard his voice asking me to come in. I walked into the room and he was sitting on the couch next to his wife Iola. Dave said to me, "Hello there, it's been a while, and I see you brought your records with you this time." I couldn't believe it — such a beautiful, talented man remembering the small things, like a volunteer who held his arm up and down a staircase so many years ago. But again, this is what the Jazz Festival is all about: world class music, building relationships and making memories. 
Eduardo Ottoni, Operations Director

Together Again Outdoor Concert Series
Edmonton, AB

2022 details: August 19–21 featuring Barenaked Ladies, Burton Cummings, Sam Roberts Band

When Alan Doyle and his band walked out to join Blue Rodeo for "Lost Together" during last year's inaugural event, it was pure magic. Two years of pent-up energy was released both on stage and in the crowd, who joined in as the strongest backup singers in the land. People were on their feet, hands in the air and losing their voices to be part of the moment. Literally defined Together Again! 

Another awesome moment was when the Trews sang "Highway of Heroes." I swear the whole world stopped. The ominous fog hung just over the band's heads as they led the crowd in a mostly a cappella chorus led by a simple snare drum. There were thousands of lights from phones in the audience and one of the best singalongs of the summer. I'd be lying if I said I didn't shed a tear or two, and I don't think I was the only one.

Dean Brody singing "I Can Bring Down the House" in the absolute pouring rain to a crowd full of poncho-wearing country fans was a reminder of the resiliency of festival concert-goers. When the rain started, they suited up for the long haul. Don't think we lost a single person in the crowd to the rain. It was as much fun as a bunch of kids splashing in the puddles! So glad I was there for it!
Carmen Choney, Stage Manager

Vancouver Folk Music Festival
Vancouver, BC

2022 details: July 15–17 featuring the New Pornographers, Allison Russell, Haley Heynderickx

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival holds many memories and great tales of music and mayhem over the years. A great musical memory I have from our last "in-person" year in 2019 is when David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, who was playing the main stage, surprised locals Tom and Kalissa Landa of Locarno for their short "tweener" set and played wonderfully along with them, as he liked their music. One of the cool things about our festival is this unexpected and wonderful artist collaboration that happens each year with international and local musicians.
Debbi Salmonsen, Artistic/Executive Director

Venus Fest
Toronto, ON

2022 details: mentorship program from June 6–July 29 including Meg Remy, Kaia Kater, Rae Spoon; festival information to come

In 2017, our first year, Grouper headlined the festival, and she was very clear before the show that she wanted us to quiet as much background noise as possible during her set, and invite the audience to sit down and enter a receptive listening state. I was ready to get on stage and suggest this to the audience, but before I could, the whole venue quieted itself and everyone sat down, waiting patiently and in total silence for the next 20 minutes while she set up her gear. I realized her fans already knew the vibe, and I have never seen a whole venue so attentive during a set. Later that night, I also spent an hour backstage talking with Madame Gandhi about astrology. 
​Aerin Fogel, Founder and Artistic Director 

Photo collage by Danielle Aphrodite

Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival
Victoria, BC

2022 details: June 22–26 featuring King Yellowman, Bedouin Soundclash, Five Alarm Funk

The last time we were able to get together, in 2019, we hosted ska legends Less than Jake for what we knew was going to be a pretty unforgettable performance on our main stage right in the middle of Victoria's Inner Harbour. At one point during their Saturday night performance, a man in a wheelchair had his friends lift him into the air for some crowd surfing. A frenzy formed around and under him as he glided atop the crowd towards the stage where Less Than Jake were rocking. When he reached the front, the band happily welcomed to him to the stage. Already an unforgettable moment, the gentleman took his chair to the back of the stage, in front of the drum kit, and hurried himself to the front, where he launched himself into the crowd for the wildest stage dive I think most people in the crowd had ever seen. And at a festival that doesn't normally encourage or allow stage dives!
Blake Morneau, Publicist and Media Relations Manager

Toronto, ON

2022 details: August 26–27 featuring Backxwash, Absolutely Free, Magi Merlin

It had been a glorious weekend on Toronto Island for Camp Wavelength 2016, and we were nearing the last set of the festival. Campers were dazed and enthused. It had been a beautiful weekend in every sense, and except for an overnight show on Friday, the weather had cooperated. A light drizzle passed through during Bruce Peninsula's set, but it only added a sheen of sweet melancholy, as no one wanted to go home. The word went out over the PA system that the dance performance by Open Fortress would be happening down on the beach. A few hundred festival-goers shuffled over from the main stage, just in time to catch two dancers clad in sparkly silver fabric moving on the old abandoned pier. A double rainbow burst into life behind them. We were all living in a "mind-blown" meme. Then came the last set of the fest: Montreal's Young Galaxy. The electropop band put on a powerful performance, as ever. The generator-powered PA had been working hard all weekend, but then, during the second-last song, it decided to give out. Undeterred, vocalist Catherine McCandless continued on a cappella. At the very moment she hit her last note, the sound and lights came back to life. That, my friends, is a magic moment.
Jonny Dovercourt, Co-Founder and Artistic Director

Photo courtesy of Wavelength

Winnipeg Folk Music Festival
Winnipeg, MB

2022 details: July 7–10 featuring Lido Pimienta, Japanese Breakfast, Cadence Weapon

One of my most lasting and favourite moments at the festival was in 2005, my first year programming it. It was Sunday night and Emmylou Harris was closing the main stage and Daniel Lanois was playing before her. Since the two were close friends and Daniel had produced her groundbreaking and award-winning record Wrecking Ball, I had asked for him to guest on a song. Of course, he did, and when he started into "The Maker," the wind hit about 70 km/h and Emmylou raised her arms up and the wind blew through her hair and it was epic. Mother Nature, "The Maker" and a couple of great music icons doing their thing to end a great weekend of music.
Chris Frayer, Artistic Director 

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