Sommo Fest's Inaugural Year in PEI Felt Like the Right Place at the Right Time

With Maggie Rogers, Allison Russell, Charlotte Cardin, Housewife, grandson, Ruby Waters, JJ Wilde and Kiwi Jr.

Photo: Al Douglas/Whitecap Entertainment

BY Oliver CrookPublished Jul 17, 2023

You're not even 10 kilometres into the drive to Cavendish, PEI, when you realize that your weekend is about to be special. The rolling pastoral landscapes, grazing animals and winding roads already feel like something pulled from a fairy tale. So many shades of green. Such unparalleled vistas. And most importantly, such great company and even better music.

Welcome to Sommo Festival. As you pull into the parking lot — next to the Anne of Green Gables house and a recreation of author Lucy Maud Montgomery's Avonlea Village — reality and childlike dreams seemingly swirl into one joyous puddle. Walking past the huge stage and through the gates feels like entering a fairytale, a world conceivably real but beyond your wildest dreams. For one glorious weekend in P.E.I., everything except music and friendship was checked at the door. This mystical field contained everything we could need: food, musical heroes, and a booth selling flower crowns to complete the wonderland vibe. 

2023 is the inaugural year of Sommo Fest, an endeavour aiming to do for rock music what Cavendish Beach Music Fest has done for country — become an annual East Coast musical destination. Piggybacking off the infrastructure already in place from the highly successful Cavendish Beach Music Festival (and organized by the same company), it was the rare combination of a first-time festival with very few kinks. Last weekend's country fest had worked out all the problems over the last decade plus, allowing this field of rock-loving nymphs and pixies to reap the benefits. 

The heat was stifling during Sommo's two days, an oppressive force that dehydrated dancers and made for endless reapplying of SPF but was still unable to kill the vibes. Liquids abounded, water hoses cooled, and the beautiful sense of being in this together powered everyone through.

Aiming to attract an older crowd than Cavendish Beach Music Festival, the nostalgia was cranked to the max. For one weekend only, in this field of make believe, we were allowed to be the twenty-something versions of ourselves, the ones who basked in the stomp-clap folk revival, who danced in clubs to ukulele songs about love. Sommo — for many East Coasters, one of the first festivals post-pandemic — gave a cathartic release. The uplifting power of singing Mumford and Sons' "Little Lion Man" with thousands of other people who grew up seeing themselves in those words; the joy of collective dancing to Tegan and Sara's validating, jubilant celebration of love in all its forms ("We're gonna play some new songs, but also lots of old songs here together in the sun," they promised — and delivered); that moment of dancing with complete strangers to Vance Joy's "Riptide" and a cover weaving together Madonna with ABBA. It all added up to an overriding, powerful sense you were in the right place at exactly the right time.

Here are the best things Exclaim! saw at Sommo Fest's first year. 

July 14


Before grandson even played a note, it was clear there was a big tone shift coming to Friday afternoon. Clad in camo pants, he approached the mic like it owed him money before attacking the stage like it had besmirched the family's name. 

"We're gonna make some family friendly rock," grandson screamed before delivering the opposite. A far cry from the preceding East Coast twee of Joel Plaskett, nu-metal's second wave had washed up on the shores of PEI, but in that oppressive summer heat it was unclear if it's what the audience wanted. At first at least. 

As guitars screeched and grandson screamed, the vibe was shifting and threatening to unravel. And then, like a seasoned pro far beyond his years, grandson worked both his setlist and the crowd to maximum effect: He brought down his band's intensity, while working the crowd into a mosh-pitting, chaotic frenzy. Meeting in the middle, the second half of his set hit a stride that made grandson stand out from the rest of the lineup. As the sweatiest mostpit in PEI's history calmed down, grandson exited, proud of the fact he had momentarily turned a chill Friday afternoon into a riot. 

Maggie Rogers

The first ever day of Sommo Fest ended as every great festival should: With a talented artist at the top of her game, giving an adoring crowd of thousands a night to remember. Part pop, part funk and all spectacle, Maggie Rogers was a behemoth. Despite headlining her first ever festival, the stage — hell the entire festival — belonged to her.  She danced, she roared, she won hearts; the few quieter moments of her set were filled with chants of "Maggie." 

With a stage covered in flowers and area rugs, she channeled the great divas of disco to put on a show that felt like childhood days spent rocking in your mom's living room, dreaming of these moments. Rogers' catalogue so far has been a mixture of genres, a costume box of styles and personas to be tried on and discarded. At Sommo Fest, we got the full Maggie Rogers, out front and herself, a woman in control and fully formed. 

Her charming demeanor and awe at the intensity of the crowd's admiration belied the swaggering confidence of her music, making her seem merely human for small chunks of time. By the time the next song started, she reminded us that she was in fact something larger. "I've never felt like such a pop star," she said with a nervous giggle and a made-for-Vogue pose. It was impossible to disagree. 

JJ Wilde

The hype is real. The first woman to win a Juno for best rock album since Alanis Morrissette's Jagged Little Pill (ever heard of it?) JJ Wilde used a sweaty Friday afternoon in PEI to lay her claim to being Canrock's newest royalty. Bodies were spilling out of the tent into the unforgiving sun, craning their burned necks to get a better look at the coronation. It's easy to imagine a world where Wilde is rocking the main stage next year.

Stalking the stage like Debbie Harry and crooning lyrics with Joan Jett's smoky intensity, Wilde was rock 'n' roll incarnate. Her magnetic presence captivated fans and strangers, while the band's distorted tenacity matched the intensity of the moment. And then the power went out. Right in the middle of this blue sky summer day, not even the power grid could handle JJ Wilde — while electricians probably know the real cause, let Sommo Fest folklore forever read that JJ Wilde blew a fuse. 

At the midpoint of the set, when she sang, "The sound of Springsteen flows right through me / I'm born to run," few people would dispute the comparison. And by the end of the set, as the band ripped through a cover of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," it felt as if the spirit of those two legends were gracing the fields of Cavendish. All hail the Queen. 

July 15

Ruby Waters

Ruby Waters is cool. Like, the old school definition: unaffected, calm and instantly commanding your attention. From the moment her tie-dye shirt caught the afternoon sun, it was clear this young woman was giving us an old soul, hippy experience. Her guitar tone was drenched in as much reverb as the front row was in sweat. Her bluesy, languid sound echoed Buddy Guy and Tom Petty, while her heartbroken croon and mischievous intentions put her more in league with Roy Orbison. And yet, somehow,  it never felt tired.

Instead, Waters offered a modern take on an ancient form; her songs call for gay love, for unity, and for cunnilingus. The flowers on her guitar strap matched the countless flower crowns in the crowd, and it was clear her work was connecting on a deeper level. As a dancing fan held up a sign that read "Ruby was my sexual awakening," Waters' importance became evident. She's an artist who can mold a melody with ease, who can convey any emotion with just two chords and a deep breath. 

And you know what else is cool? Waters not only taps into this beautiful and powerful wave, but she harnesses it, rides in that way that only the most talented of performers can handle. It fuels her music, her performance, and most cathartically, her soul. And on a sunny mainstage in July, she made it look easy. 

Allison Russell

To call Allison Russell's set merely a show would be to do it a disservice. Rather, it was a call to arms, a rhythmic ringing of the alarm, a celebration that we made it this far and a reminder that we're strong enough to go even further. It was a life-affirming deep breath out, a soul-enriching connection, a spiritual journey we were lucky to hitchhike. It was an invitation to be better: Better to ourselves, to each other and to the earth. It was also a great performance. 

The first ever Black artist — of any gender — to win a Contemporary Roots Albums at the Junos opened with an impassioned plea for unity. Introducing each band member with an admirable reverie, she welcomed each member "to the circle." "We're one half of the circle, you are the other," Russell said to the crowd with a minister's passion and poise. "Together we make one bruised, bloodied, but never broken circle." 

She then took us on a journey. Sounding like Alice Coltrane reincarnated, Russell delivered a performance that moved the soul as well as the body. Her incredibly talented band shone, accentuating the abilities of each member and taking the crowd even higher. While it's too bad that one of the only POC artists on the bill was the only one doing this much equity work, it was a magical experience to share in the collective effervescence, a feeling of floating above the trees that surround the festival grounds, eyes and clouds both lightly misty.

Charlotte Cardin

While Sommo Fest is looking to create its own culture, Charlotte Cardin's performance was the closest to Coachella vibes we got all weekend. Everything about it felt modern, a version of cool that hadn't reached the rest of us yet. The clothes, the set list, the sheer magnitude of the moment and how Cardin rose to it all felt transplanted straight out of Indio, California.

Cardin, playing a set consisting of her biggest hits and songs from her upcoming sophomore record — due out next month — put on a show that delighted diehards and drew future fans to the front. A born entertainer, Cardin knew when to belly dance, when to play guitar, and exactly what to say to keep the fans enthralled. It's hard to believe an artist with only one album out can feel so polished, yet Montreal's answer to Dua Lipa shows why she's on the way to the top. 


It's cruel to expect anybody to follow Maggie Rogers, even if 13 hours have passed. But Housewife rose to the occasion, opening day two with a lively set that clearly channeled the same inner energy that Rogers had perfected. For a festival clearly focused on gender equity, this group of young, femme-presenting rockers stood alongside JJ Wilde and Skye Wallace to show the future of Canrock is in great hands.

Throughout the set, Housewife seemed to be pulled in two directions — older, more shoegaze-indebted tracks stood alongside newer songs that showcased the more raw, rough edge that suits them so well. While unreleased track "I Lie" had this snarling quality, it was single "Fuck Around Phase" that truly highlights the band's rock potential. A sneering, self-deprecating track about coming of age, it connected with the young crowd in a way that made heads nod in agreement while bodies bounced to the beat. Across that song's three minutes, Housewife seemed capable of anything. If they can tap into that vein more often, then they'll quickly become a household name. 

Kiwi Jr.

Every festival needs new music that feels like comfortable classics — and this Sommo Fest's was provided by Kiwi Jr. Their idiosyncratic take on surf rock sounds like if Nap Eyes were fronted by Brian Wilson, offering a new take on an old sound. Their mid-afternoon set felt like a much needed palate cleanser, a chance to move your feet in the shaded Sandbar Tent before the festival's final big push on day two. 

This isn't to suggest Kiwi Jr weren't good in their own right, though: The band's slouchy indie rock lands on the part of your brain that was raised on long drives and familiar road tunes. Kiwi Jr. knew exactly who they were — and exactly what their fans wanted. In a weekend of sweaty bodies, they were the calmest guys at the party. 

Tour Dates

Latest Coverage