Loren Lieberman with Gord Deppe and Sandy Horne of The Spoons
Sometimes life can get boring when you become a none-event.
As Hamilton’s Festival of Friends festival sets up August 7 to August 9 to celebrate its 40th anniversary, event artistic director Loren Lieberman finds himself in the strange position of not being the catalyst of controversy with Hamilton’s city council or a moving target with that city’s Hamilton Spectator newspaper.
Four years after Lieberman pulled an event, which had been a city institution, out of Hamilton’s Gage Park and moved it to a new location in rural Ancaster amidst a wave of public criticism and political upheaval, Lieberman now admits all that uproar has now settled and he’s working on a new legacy for the festival at a thriving new location on the outskirts of Hamilton.
With this year’s attractions including an 80’s Night (Friday, August 7th) featuring Montreal bands, The Box and Men Without Hats and England’s Psychedelic Furs, a hard rock night on Saturday (August 8th) spotlighting Junkhouse and Big Wreck and a Country themed night (Sunday August 8th) with star attractions Buffy Saint-Marie, Cold Creek County and Travis Tritt, Lieberman is maintaining a tradition of providing a totally free festival at a time when rival regional festivals are ticketing at least a couple of concerts in their schedule.
Understanding that Bill Powell originally launched the festival as a low-key arts and crafts event in downtown Gage Park in 1976, Lieberman worked with Powell as a volunteer and later co-coordinator during those early years and stepped in after Powell seceded control of the event in 2001.
“The festival went through a transitional period and was in a bad state financially when I stepped in and presented a proposal to the board to basically resurrect the festival,” noted Lieberman over the phone from his Hamilton base. “This festival has been a part of my life for the past 30 years.”
Although the festival had been constructed around low-key singer-songwriter, folk artists, Lieberman realized he needed bigger names to make the festival more financially viable and was able to obtain these artists via corporate sponsorships while maintaining a free admission to the festival. Initially Hamilton’s city council was delighted by the increased tourism, the Festival of Friends event created but this impact increased attendance at the park which did not sit well with neighbourhood residents.
“The Festival of Friends Festival was an absolutely wonderful event if you could walk to the park and the site was relatively accessible by bus,” noted Lieberman. “But if you were coming from out of town by car you faced a major problem in that there was very little parking in the actual park so you had to park out on the street.”
Of course, local neighbours had something to say about that, the city responded by placing “No Parking” signs in the streets outside of the park. The organizers were also restricted from trucking generators into the park to power the concerts, and then there were issues about some trees in the vicinity of the band shell having some ecological sensitivity.
“We are in the business of entertaining people, we are not ecologists or urban planners,” responded Lieberman. “It was obvious to us that to continue, we needed to seek another home. So somewhere between us choosing to leave and the Hamilton city council kicking us out of the park, a decision was made to move to Ancaster. In reality, we could have stayed at Gage Park but the festival would have had to shrink because we couldn’t have accommodated the big shows and the big concert performers with those restrictions.”
Four years on, the move from Gage Park to Ancaster is no longer a contentious issue. “Our new location has to be more convenient,” Lieberman continues. “Not just for the city of Hamilton but for the entire surrounding region as well. There are no neighbourhoods to bother; we have this attractive, rural setting for the festival, lots of parking and we have a larger regional component to draw from. We are getting traffic from Kitchener-Waterloo, Niagara, and Brantford and of course Toronto – the Festival of Friends is no longer just a Hamilton event.”
Lieberman notes that the uniqueness of his festival is that it is not just a rock festival or a country festival or a specific music festival. “We are the ultimate dream for a music festival because we don’t cater to any one specific genre. Whatever you are looking for, you can find and if you don’t like what’s on one stage then move along to the next one (there are four stages in total). What we provide is a family event with a totally free admission. There’s lots of great shopping, great food, lots of attractions including our museum and there’s indoor pavilions in case the weather is inclement.
The generosity of corporate sponsors allows Lieberman to continue to run a free festival yet even he is aware that “this has been a summer of significant change” in that many other area festivals including Burlington’s Sound Of Music and the Kitchener Blues Festival have had to stage ticketed events to supplement their budgets when once they could do this while still offering free concerts.
He notes that the plethora of concert events in the region as well as the rest of Canada has created a cluttered year for festivals but says it is not a particular concern for him. “It comes in waves; we’ve had this particular problem in decades past and it’s always the case of the strong surviving. But I feel our theme days are unique and even our Country Day is different than say `Boots and Hearts’ with us featuring a great new band in Cold Creek County the legendary Buffy Saint-Marie and a superstar in Travis Tritt.”
The Festival of Friends event also has a reputation of promoting new talent and 2015 is no different with the inclusion of top rated roots band Current Swell, hot new country act Cold Creek County and even WWE wrestling champion Chris Jericho gets into the act with his rock band Fozzy.
“Over the years, we’ve had them all, Monster Truck, The Arkells, Glory Hounds, anyone who’s anyone has made an appearance at The Festival of Friends,” allowed Lieberman who has photos and other memorabilia of these artist’s posted in the festival’s museum that reflects the festival’s fascinating history, a popular exhibit which boasted over 7,500 guided tour customers last year.
With a reputation of never having `stiffed anybody or bounced a cheque’ and with a present relationship with Hamilton’s city council that is pleasantly cordial, Lieberman has developed his Ancaster site to such a degree that virtually nobody questions the validity of his move four years ago.
“Even the Hamilton Spectator is leaving me alone,” laughs Lieberman. “They haven’t been on my case for at least a year and a half, which suggests I am doing something right”.
Photos by Ted Van Boort.
[youtube width=”600″ height=”400″ video_id=”ALZ9xCYDTVY”]