The activity was spread among more than half a dozen smaller stages, a massive main stage for the headliners, and a beer tent -- which, not surprisingly, provided the most boisterous venue of all -- there was plenty of diversity and variety to choose from when it came to indulging one's musical preferences. But overall, the atmosphere was generally mellow, fueled not only by the festival's family-friendly tradition but also the idyllic locale on Lake Couchiching, which was generally hassle-free and easy to navigate.
The first evening provided an exhilarating intro. A riveting performance by Toronto-based band the Beauties set the scene, and by the time Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans took the stage, the crowd was already geared up for an electric evening. Bryson and the Weakerthans previously made their own individual music, but drawing songs largely from their recent collaboration, Falcon Lake Incident, the combination proved potent, with material divvied between bittersweet ballads and hook-heavy rockers. Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band was nothing if not mesmerizing, and his songs took on an auspicious aura that imbued a powerful sway. The set climbed from peak to peak and bathed in the multicolored hues of the spotlight. Unfortunately, a horde of bugs and mosquitoes also opted to swarm around the spotlight, prompting Ritter to lament the fact that "all the insects got in free" while vowing to keep playing "even if we end up as skeletons."
Saturday beckoned with the first full day of entertainment possibilities and some upbeat bluegrass. David Myles, a tall, lanky, good-natured singer/songwriter, hosted the genteel Katherine Wheatley and the instrumental ensemble Hard Ryde on the shady Estelle Klein Stage and got the festivities off to a boisterous start. Bryson and the Weakerthans followed, repeating their previous night's set but adding an intimacy that eludes most artists on the main stage. This being Canada, the next showcase set was devoted entirely to interpretations of Gordon Lightfoot songs from the likes of Katherine Wheatley, Reid Jamieson, and John McDermott, a former member of the Canadian Tenors whose lusty vocals and the fact that he was originally discovered during an impromptu recital of "Danny Boy" made him a somewhat obvious additive for a folk festival. The homage to Lightfoot was only natural, given the fact that he hails from Orillia and that one of his last major appearances was as last year's festival headliner. Reid's take on "Summer Side of Life" and Wheatley's "Early Morning Rain" offered impressive reminders of why Lightfoot is not only a Canadian institution but a veritable singer/songwriter phenomenon as well.
A return to the Estelle Klein Stage in late afternoon was rewarded with a double set of round-robin performances, the first featuring Amelia Curran, David Myles, a solo Jim Bryson, and a slightly more subdued Josh Ritter each trading original songs. The second starred Katherine Wheatley, Reid Jamieson, Garnet Rogers, and veteran folkie Marie-Lynn Hammond singing songs they wished they had written, or at least that's how the session was billed. Among the highlights: Jamieson's version of "Everybody's Talkin'" and Wheatley's cover of "Someday Soon" by Ian Tyson, another native son.
Our introduction to Saturday night's main-stage lineup began with 3 Gars su'l Sofa, a good-natured French Canadian combo (fortunately, none of them in man-briefs) whose jaunty, Cajun-flavored tunes helped spur the evening's energy. John McDermott followed, and his stoic presence loaned a certain austerity to the proceedings just as his renditions of "Loch Lomond" ("I'll take the high road, while you'll take the low road..."), "My Bonnie" and, of course, "Danny Boy" drew a hush from the crowd, which was clearly swayed by McDermott's reverential readings. When the so-called surprise special guest was announced afterward, few in the audience were actually surprised when Ron Sexmith ambled onstage to play a solo set. Appearing boyish and shy, despite his prolific 25-year career, Sexmith admitted he was amazed by all the anticipation. "I didn't think it would be much of a surprise," he said meekly. "You might have thought it was Bob Dylan or something." His set was typically low-key and low-gazed, leaving it to headliner Emmylou Harris to pull out the firepower.
"Sorry, I don't speak Canadian," Harris joked on taking the stage, "But I once married a Canadian." She then proceeded to entice the audience with a supple set of songs that highlighted her exquisite new album, Hard Bargain. Like the night before, the bugs swarmed as she defiantly carried on, even though she noted that several seemed to be attracted to her tea. "Good nutrition," she joked as she marveled at the infestation. Still, there was a certain solemnity to her set, particularly when she sang the album's two mournful centerpieces, "New Orleans," an ode to that devastated city, and "My Name Is Emmett Till," the tragic tale of a young black boy murdered in Mississippi by a merciless white mob. Not surprisingly, Sexsmith was brought back onstage to duet on "Hard Bargain," the track he contributed to Harris' current effort, and a beguiling version of Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World," a song that easily accommodated both artists' appreciation for tender sentiment. Harris' rousing take on the rugged gospel number "John the Baptist" and "Born to Run" wrapped the set up in style.
Sunday, we began our day early in the beer tent, which found the ever-energetic Brett Caswell & the Marquee Rose trading their rowdier numbers with the Rucksack Willies, a fiddle-fueled bluegrass outfit whose two female singers looked like half the front line from the Mamas and Papas. We then made our way to the outlying Ruth's Stage to enjoy a folksy solo set by David Myles, resplendent once again in a white suit and broad-rimmed fedora. Prefacing a cover of an Anne Murray song, he told a story about being in China and chancing into a bar with a wall of photos saluting their take on rock 'n' roll royalty. There were the usual suspects -- John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix -- and, somewhat surprisingly, Anne Murray. "I must have missed that," he remarked.
Still, the highlight of the afternoon proved to be a showcase set featuring Peter Yarrow, Murray McLauchlan, and Garnet Rogers. McLauchlan began with a pithy take on his own "Sweeping the Spotlight Away," the title track from one of his early albums, followed by a raucous rap/rant from Rogers that was charged with political venom. "Oscar Wilde once said that an artist has to suffer for his art," Rogers observed. "Now it's your turn." It was then left to the exceptionally earnest Yarrow to put the performance back to the rails, or at least induce some solemnity. Deadpanned and determined, he seemed unable -- or unwilling -- to respond in kind to Rogers' cynical sense of humor. Instead, he reminisced about Peter, Paul and Mary, recasting a version of "Stewball," one of the trio's early standards. The next round of traded tunes took a sadder turn, however, and Rogers' song about two estranged brothers found most of the crowd reduced to tears. Yarrow coaxed the crowd into a sing-along of "If I Had a Hammer" and afterward idled over to the side of the stage where he and McLauchlan greeted fans and admirers, Yarrow happily embracing each devotee like a benevolent grandfather who's been reunited with his flock.
After taking a break from the proceedings, mainly to regain our composure, finish our shopping at the merch tent, and get something to eat, we decided to end our day at the beer tent for a final set by Brett Caswell and crew. It was an excellent opportunity to see the band in its own element, and there again, it excelled. It's a rollicking and talented young outfit, adept at swapping instruments and upping the energy with songs drawn from its impressive, self-titled debut. It was a high note on which to end our festival stay and one of many exceptional moments that made Mariposa 2011 a splendid showcase for Canada's musical craft and creativity.