Daniel Lanois probably isn’t Hamilton’s most famous son—that honor might belong to Tim Horton, a man who wasn’t born there but whose ubiquitous coffee and doughnut stores now dot the Canadian landscape—but he probably should be. Known around the world for his work with artists such as U2, Emmylou Harris and others the Canadian music producer was born here, and still considers it home, though he spends most of his time in Los Angeles these days.
Besides being the area where Lanois was raised and started his career, the area surrounding Hamilton is located in Ontario’s officially declared Greenbelt, an area of the province has created in an attempt to preserve the lush, verdant farm land from the seemingly unstoppable growth of the Metro Toronto area. This year Lanois decided to invite a few of his friends to a party to celebrate and highlight the farmers who live in the area and work the land.
Those friends? Emmylou Harris, Gord Downie, Ray LaMontagne and Sarah Harmer, to name just a few. The first Greenbelt Harvest Picnic presented a full day of music at a well run, well organized show that is—without a doubt—the single greatest day of music I’ve ever seen in my life.
The site itself provided a beautiful backdrop for the days events, including a freshly stocked trout pond for fishing and a beach along the lake offering solace from the sun’s heat on a clear, blue sky day. The event’s single main stage opened up at about noon with a performance by Dawn & Marra, Rocco Deluca, John Ellison and local rockers The Reason. With Lanois helming the festival the expectations for sound were naturally fairly high, and they didn’t disappoint. Neither did the performances.
In a demonstration of just one of the ways the festival was well organized, the main sound booth located in the middle of the crowd served as a second stage for Lanois and friends to play on while the main stage was being configured. The improvisational jams Lanois and friends played from the sound booth were accompanied by the Greenbelt Harvest Dancers, and I could have listened to them forever. They’d have been at home on the main stage of any show I’ve ever seen.
While the crowd growing through the afternoon the evening sets started with Sarah Harmer taking the stage at about 5:00. Harmer’s been active in Ontario environmental issues in the past and took the opportunity to highlight the plight of Ontario’s farmers and issue a touching reminder of Jack Layton’s legacy on the same topic. Harmer’s voice was clear and clean, as usual, and set that included favourites like I Am Aglow, Late Bloomer and One Match the audience was off their blankets and on their feet for most of the brilliant set.
Next to the stage was Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie with his Country of Miracles band. Downie’s stage presence is legendary. He’s famously said in the past that he’d rather “chew his right arm off than give a back performance” and the ear to ear smile on his face was a precursor to a set that included material from Downie’s solo albums all the way back to 2003’s Coke Machine Glow. A technical problem with his in ear monitor didn’t stop Downie for a minute, and the moments while a stage technician took the time to fix it while Downie was the mic were some of of the funniest of the day as he joked with the crowd and the technician before resuming his performance with Vancouver Divorce, a song I haven’t listened to in years. Lanois was an opening act on the Tragically Hip’s first ever Another Roadside Attraction tour, and it was rather nice to see Downie share the stage again.
With the last rays of the sun shining, Daniel Lanois and his band took the stage. When I last saw Lanois it was performing as Black Dub at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom and it was a night that demonstrated incredible songwriting, musicianship and stage presence. On the much larger stage here the same talent was on display. Not much of a conversationalist, Lanois focused on stellar guitar work with his bandmates with almost no between song banter. The Maker is probably Lanois’ best known song, and came early in the set. Black Dub’s Ring the Alarm closed out the set and its extended instrumental finish, which shares a bridge with Will This be Love from the Lanois produced Emmylou Harris album Wrecking Ball, left the crowd satisfied but wanting more.
As the last notes of Ring the Alarm faded into the night, Emmylou Harris glided gracefully onto the stage entering from stage right. With a wave to the suddenly raucous crow, Emmylou stepped up to the stage’s only vacant microphone and, accompanied by only a gentle drum beat and a Lanois’ quiet guitar, broke into Where Will I Be, the lead track from the Lanois produced Wrecking Ball album. Having described Sarah Harmer’s voice as ‘clear and clean’ above I’m at a loss to describe Emmylou’s without resorting to cliche. No matter: the voice filled the clear, starlit sky with sound. The crowd was silent and attentive: you could hear the crickets chirping in the pauses between songs.
Emmylou’s set consisted of much material from Wrecking Ball, but the band left the stage for her performance of Hard Bargain’s Darlin’ Kate. The brief solo numbers were one of the many highlights of a night that saw note perfect performances of material like Goin’ Back to Harlan and May This Be Love, with Lanois and his band on backup.
On an encore free day, Emmylou was the first artist compelled to come back to the stage for a finale giving “Dan a break” as she described it. Dan, of course, was setting up in the sound booth for one more performance with the Harvest Picnic Dancers while the stage was set for Ray LaMontagne.
As the final act in a lineup full of potential headliners, Lamontagne stepped up the job well. The moody melodic vocals kept a set of material from all of Lamontage’s albums moving nicely, and the crowds repeated calls for Three More Days showed that a dedicated fan base had sat through 12 hours but still wanted more. Lamontagne’s set was outstanding, and a beautiful quiet way to end the night.
The Harvest Picnic was, without a doubt, the single best day of live music I’ve seen in my life. With not a weak act in the bunch, a beautiful venue and a ticket price that I would have paid to see just one of these acts I can’t imagine improving on it. There was no sign of the audio troubles that often plagues multi-artist festivals like this, food was reasonably priced, the crowd was well behaved an—most importantly—the artists were all in top form.
I’ve been joking with friends in the days since that I think I should give up on concerts now. It’s hard to imagine anything outdoing this one. I don’t really mean it, of course. Not really. I think…
There’s talk of this becoming an annual event which, if it does, may make for an annual trip for me to the Toronto area. We’ll see. For now, I can only say that I’m glad I attended this one. It also happened to be only three days before my 40th birthday and really, I can’t imagine a better way to ring it in.
Rereading this, I realize that I’ve gone on quite long despite the fact that I tried to keep in short. In hindsight, I really could have just written a three word review and saved you a lot of time and for that I apologize. So, here it is:
Best. Concert. Ever.