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NLFB @ 50: A truly northern festival that defies definition

‘Commercial advertisers were sometimes frustrated that we couldn’t fit neatly into a single box. That was the goal: be defined by the limitless possibilities of the whole world of music,’ says former artistic director Paul Loewenberg, reflecting on five decades of Northern Lights Festival Boréa;

The Northern Lights Festival Boréal is turning 50. For half a century, a dedicated group of volunteers and small staff have put together a big summer festival and events through the year that continue to give a glimpse of the possibilities of our cultural community.  

I have been privileged to work for the festival for many of those years as a volunteer, including 17 years as the artistic director.  

The festival was an ambitious collective dream of a few dedicated people who said, “We need music in our community.  We need a gathering of artistic expression that will represent the cultural fabric of the Near North. We need to challenge our community to grow a mighty tree of music and art, paintings and poetry, traditions and futures.”

When you grow a mighty tree, you care for the roots in addition to caring for the top to encourage healthy growth.

We proudly presented traditional folk singers, blues, swing and jazz. We brought together punk pioneers with traditional music of the Andes. Indigenous hip-hop was played on the same night as Eastern European political dance music.  Moroccan beats and gospel singers … and even a 30-piece Australian ska orchestra paired with Bruce Cockburn. We just wanted to push boundaries and create a mix of spices that extended beyond borders, beyond popular culture and beyond simple definition. 

Biodiversity is good for growth. Commercial advertisers were sometimes frustrated that we couldn’t fit neatly into a single box. That was the goal: be defined by the limitless possibilities of the whole world of music.

My fondest memories of the festival are numerous. I wish we had footage of it all. Like the time the Punch and Judy show brought the puppets out to dance with Sheesham and Lotus at the General Store.

Or the time Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards joined Jackie Washington, Ken Whitely and Mose Scarlett on stage, and Jackie turns to Healey and says, “Do you know, ‘I Get The Blues When it Rains’?” and Jeff quips back, “I’m sorry to hear that, Jackie, what song do you want to play?” 

After the Melbourne Ska Orchestra shook the roof, Bruce Cockburn came on stage by himself and said, “Well I’m not going to try and top that,” and then proceeded to play 75 minutes of music so powerful and emotional that the crowd had truly visited two different planets that evening.

It was like the Rolling Stones following James Brown on the TAMI show — it shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and people got twice the value.

There are big moments each year, but you have to look for the small intimate memories as well. There will be those moments that will be shared by only a few that will define you for life. 

Watching Jackie Washington jam with other festival musicians at the after-hours pub at the Laurentian residence is a treasured memory. Moments like the time Blackie and the Rodeo Kings got rained out and did an impromptu show at The Townehouse for about 150 lucky people crammed in the small space, steamed by the rains and the humidity coming off our wet shirts and shoes. 

When we brought blues great Guy Davis to St. Andrew’s Place, I was to pick him up in the morning at the hotel and take him to breakfast, only to find him and Sudbury musician Paul Dunn sitting in the lobby, trading banjo licks and laughing from having jammed the whole night.  

When we brought Jowi Taylor and the Six String Nation guitar to town and were treated to a concert featuring Paul and Brian Dunn, Gary and Paul DiSalle and Robert and Steph Paquette … three pairs representing two generations of music, two languages and united by original poems from Robert Dixon to unite the evening, one of his last works before passing away. 

There was a moment that evening where I came down to the Green Room to check on the musicians who were getting to rehearse with The Voyaguer (the guitar made of Canada’s history; please look it up and I found four of the musicians on the floor on hands and knees. 

I asked, “What happened?” Gary DiSalle reported honestly that they were changing strings on the guitar and one of the pegs popped out. No big deal, right? Wrong.  This is the guitar built of Canada’s history.  The missing peg was, in fact, carved from the hockey stick used by Paul Henderson in the 1972 Summit Series.  Thankfully, we found it, and the guitar does live on with six strings.

I’ve always been proud of the local musicians stepping up to share stages with the greats. Watching Dwayne Trudeau play a Mississippi John Hurt workshop with Colin Linden and Peter Case and seeing Dwayne so fearless and matching these masters in every pace. When we had Jamie Dupuis open for J.P. Cormier, J.P. said, “Hey let’s go into the corner and work something up that we can do for an encore.” Ten minutes later they come back and J.P. Cormier quietly came up to me, wiped his brow, and said, “Whoa, that boy can play!” 

Watching Little Sir Echo do a Link Wray workshop with The Sadies was a highlight that had our local players, Jeff Houle and Mitch Houle, Matt Foy and Ryan Levecque with grins on their faces for the whole day. 

Any time we have had guitar wizard Kevin Breit return to the North has been a mind-blowing highlight.

The NLFB is a well-worn quilt that gets a new patch every year.  I hope the community will treasure it for many years to come. 

Like a quilt, it is not just important to be passed on to a new generation, but it is also important that the new generation that inherits the festival will know how to repair it when stitches fall out … you must maintain the foundation as well as knowing how and where to place a new patch that will continue to redefine the festival for future years.

Edition 50 of the Northern Lights Festival Boréal returns to Bell Park on July 7, 8, 9 and 10 featuring St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Judy Collins, The New Pornographers, The Born Ruffians and The Paul Collins Band. 

I’ll be there, tending to the General Store stage with Sheesham and Lotus and a bunch of ‘olde timey’ friends. See you there. Bring your friends, bring your parents, bring the kids.

For ticketing and event information, visit Northern Lights Festival Boréal website,

Paul Loewenberg is a past Northern Lights Festival artistic director, board chair, and 2022 performing artist with Northern Memphis Revival. He has been an active concert programmer, event creator, musician and community builder in the North for over three decades.