INTERVIEW WITH SPENCER SHEWEN & JON RALSTON BY CHRIS TIESSEN; PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN & RIVERFEST ELORA
SUMMER’S HERE – WHICH MEANS THAT FESTIVAL SEASON IS UPON US. WHILE OUR REGION PLAYS HOST TO A MYRIAD OF ARTS AND CULTURE EVENTS
ALL THROUGH THESE WARMER MONTHS, THERE’S ONE THREE-DAY PARTY THAT’S ESPECIALLY DEAR TO MY HEART: RIVERFEST ELORA. THIS YEAR’S FESTIVAL – WHICH TAKES PLACE AUGUST EIGHTEENTH THROUGH TWENTIETH AT ELORA’S BISSELL PARK AND FEATURES SUCH HEADLINERS AS METRIC, FEIST, THE REKLAWS, AND (WAY) MORE – PROMISES TO BE A TRIUMPH.
SOME TIME THIS MAY, BETWEEN FESTIVAL PLANNING MEETINGS, TWO OF RIVERFEST ELORA’S ORGANIZERS – EXECUTIVE & ARTISTIC DIRECTOR SPENCER SHEWEN AND FESTIVAL CO-OWNER JON RALSTON – FOUND TIME TO CHAT WITH ME AT ELORA BREWING COMPANY ABOUT THIS YEAR’S FESTIVAL AND ABOUT RIVERFEST LORE IN GENERAL. HERE’S A BIT OF THAT MEMORABLE CONVERSATION – CHRONICLED BETWEEN BITES:
BEFORE WE DIG INTO ALL THINGS RIVERFEST, COULD YOU LET OUR READERS KNOW HOW EACH OF YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH THE FESTIVAL? Jon: I’ve been involved with Riverfest since its inception back in 2009, when Elora local Marilyn Koop organized a fundraising music festival called ‘Riverfest’ for the Elora Centre for the Arts. Shawn Watters [Festival co-owner and current town mayor] and I agreed to help Marilyn put on that first festival: a one-evening, two-act affair that took place in the yard at the Centre. Each summer until her passing in 2012, Marilyn put on the festival with our help – moving it from the Centre to its current location of Bissell Park. Since 2012, Shawn and I have stewarded Riverfest – in Marilyn’s honour.
Spencer: I got involved with Riverfest in 2012, after meeting Jon and Shawn at The Cornerstone in Guelph – which I was managing at the time. The two of them came in to hang festival posters. I told them that we’d put some up if I could have some free passes to the festival – which took place on my birthday that year. They agreed, and I ended up cramming a bunch of people into a limousine and heading off to Elora to celebrate my birthday at my first Riverfest. In 2013 I helped with the lineup and stage managed. Since then my role at the festival has grown every year.
SPENCER, YOU’RE THE EXECUTIVE & ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF A MAJOR FESTIVAL. WHERE
DID YOU GET YOUR START IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?
Spencer: I began working in live music venues in Guelph – Trasheteria, Jimmy Jazz, eBar – when I was old enough to drink. These earliest experiences cemented my desire to work in the music business. I ended up at the Harris Institute in Toronto to learn about the industry, and honed my chops by interning for Ted Heagle who ran the Canadian arm of Rainbow Quartz Records. After a while Ted and I started our own label – Sunnylane Records – where we put out Donovan Woods’ first record, as well as music by Ride Theory, Hopewell, and a bunch of other stuff. Eventually I moved back to Guelph where I started Fortnight Music as a concert series at eBar and The Albion. Through Fortnight, we eventually helped release albums from several local singers and bands – including Alanna Gurr and Lowlands. I also sat on the Hillside Festival board for six or seven years – which provided great experience for what I do now. As Riverfest’s Executive & Artistic Director, I’m the only year- round, full-time staff. It can be quite a heavy lift, but come festival time there’s a not-so-small army of seasonal staff and volunteers who help carry the weight.
AH YES, THE VOLUNTEERS – TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE ROLE VOLUNTEERS PLAY AT RIVERFEST.
Spencer: To put it bluntly, Riverfest wouldn’t be possible without the incredible contributions of our spectacular volunteers and our local community at large. This year there will be over five hundred of them helping over festival weekend – including more than seventy lead volunteers who manage particular sections of the festival [shuttles, bar, artist hospitality, and more]. These leads pour their hearts and souls into Riverfest, and have become like extended family.
AND WHAT IS RIVERFEST ANYWAYS? HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE FESTIVAL TO SOMEONE WHO’S NEVER BEEN?
Spencer: These days, Riverfest is a three-day, family-friendly arts and music festival that takes place at Elora’s Bissell Park. This year’s festival features forty-seven performers [forty-five of whom are Canadian] across three stages. It also features artist vendors selling everything from tin-can ukuleles to jewelry, and food vendors featuring everything from Nepalese momos to Indian tacos.
Jon: And we’re locally-owned and operated, too.
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF REGIONAL ARTS & MUSIC FESTIVALS THAT VIE FOR FOLKS’ DISCRETIONAL
SPENDING EACH SUMMER – INCLUDING GUELPH’S HILLSIDE FESTIVAL, KITCHENER’S BLUESFEST, LONDON’S ROCK THE PARK AND SUNFEST, AND OTHERS. WHAT MAKES RIVERFEST UNIQUELY GREAT?
Jon: Besides the music, which is always incredible, I think that Riverfest’s success is rooted in its physical location. Most festivals take place either in an urban area or out in nature. Riverfest – situated in Bissell Park, cradled between the Grand River on one side and the town of Elora on the other – enjoys the best of both worlds. On festival weekend, both of these remarkable assets are put to good use as festival-goers enjoy the river and Elora’s fabulous gorge, on the one hand, as well as spend time in the town, which becomes a vibrant extension of the festival. We encourage festival goers to take a break from the music to explore the shops, restaurants, cafés, and bars of Elora throughout festival weekend.
And some of Riverfest’s most memorable shows actually happen in the town of Elora, away from Bissell Park, at the festival’s official afterparties.
Spencer: There are so many things that make Riverfest special. There’s the festival’s ‘Murton Woods’ that features local artist Tim Murton’s entrancing monster sculptures [that also come out during Elora’s October ‘Monster Month’]. And the live karaoke sets by The Boo Radley Project, the local band that enables festival attendees to sing their favourite tunes with live backing. This year’s festival is especially exciting for me because five of our top six headlining acts are female-fronted bands. As a festival that’s taken the Keychange Pledge – an initiative that’s working toward achieving gender balance in the global music industry – I think this is something definitely worth mentioning.
SPEAKING OF BANDS, WHAT PERFORMERS ARE YOU BOTH MOST EXCITED TO SEE AT THIS YEAR’S RIVERFEST?
Spencer: I’m pumped to see The Aggrolites – a legendary Los Angeles-based ska band that’s just one of two non-Canadian festival bands. And I’m also so excited to catch Charlotte Cardin, a totally badass Montreal-based performer.
Jon: I’m really looking forward to seeing Rêve – a Montreal-based pop artist. I also can’t wait to see Ottawa-based Talk, whose inspirations range from Freddie Mercury to Guns N Roses. And also SonReal, a wicked artist who combines hip-hop with a soulful vibe.
AND WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITE MEMORIES FROM PAST FESTIVALS?
Spencer: The Flaming Lips’ show in 2018 has to be right up there. Their stage theatrics – which included Wayne Coyne riding a giant inflatable unicorn and performing on top of the audience in a transparent balloon. Men Without Hats in 2019 was also pretty great. Watching a sea of people sing and dance along to ‘The Safety Dance’ at the more intimate Grasslands Stage was just plain awesome. Charles Bradley’s 2014 performance will always stand out in my mind. And Metric’s 2015 set was definitely epic. I’m so excited to have them back again this year – they’re the perfect festival band and will do such an awesome job closing out Saturday night.
Jon: While that Flaming Lips set is hard to top,
I really loved seeing Wolf Parade in 2018, and Bruce Cockburn in 2014. What I remember most is Bruce’s arriving in Elora in the middle of the night and waking up the next morning at 5am to go fly-fishing on the river. After fishing, he climbed out of the water and headed straight for sound check in an empty Bissell Park. I was there to see it all – it was truly magical.
THAT SOUNDS INCREDIBLE. NOW HOW CAN FOLKS WHO WANT TO COME TO THE FESTIVAL GET THERE? Jon: Riverfest attendees rely heavily on our [by donation] shuttle bus service, which runs on a loop through festival weekend from downtown Guelph, the Elora Gorge Conservation Area, the Guelph Lake Conservation Area, the racetrack in Elora, downtown Fergus, and downtown Kitchener. We also have a bicycle lockup facility at the festival grounds. We encourage carpooling for those coming from out of town.
JUST ONE MORE QUESTION – IF YOU COULD GET ANY ARTIST IN THE WORLD TO PERFORM AT RIVERFEST, WHO WOULD IT BE?
Jon: For sure I’d want to hear some iteration of Jack White or the White Stripes. Oh, and Bad Religion.
Spencer: Rancid one hundred percent – they’re my favourite band of all time.