LITTLE CURRENT – This past weekend saw the return of live music to the Flat Rock Entertainment Centre grounds down Harbour View Road. Although Manitoulin Country Fest 2021 had to be cancelled, as was the 2020 edition, due to the pandemic restrictions, the smaller event billed as the August Long Country Jam promised some outstanding country music entertainment—and delivered it in spades.
The concert was opened by country singer Kelsi Mayne, fresh from the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 as she had taken time off from her burgeoning music career to put her nursing degree to work.
“I want to the thank my fans for their patience during these trying times,” Ms. Mayne said, promising her fans that “meaningful, new music is coming; but the pandemic has made the process more deliberate.”
As she stepped onstage it was clear that her hiatus had not deposited any rust on the vocal chords that had brought her to main-stage performances at Boots and Hearts and Alberta’s Big Valley Jamboree, as well as high-profile gigs like singing the national anthems for Toronto Blue Jays games. The title track of her debut album, ‘As I Go’ (produced and edited by the multi-dimensional artist), has generated more than four million views on TikTok, securing Ms. Mayne the title of that platform’s most popular Canadian country performer.
It was clear from the audience’s reaction, that title is well deserved.
Next up on stage were the popular River Town Saints, whose perseverance and talent have guided them through challenges over the last couple of years that would have broken a lesser crew. This group delivered the kind of high energy performance that has brought them a top 10 hit with their single, ‘Bonfire,’ Canadian Country Music Association nominations, Country Music Association of Ontario and Canadian Radio Music Awards as well as tours with Tim Hicks, Kip Moore and large-scale festivals.
As the clear evening sky faded to black the evening’s headliner, the incomparable Jason McCoy (frontman for The Road Hammers), launched a crowd capturing show that not only won the hearts and cheers of the audience, but made one young man’s birthday dream come true.
After a number of light-hearted back and forth banters with Ryan Goddard of Little Current, who along with his group of friends enthusiastically cheered and danced through the evening, Mr. McCoy asked if Ryan sang one of the songs that he was requesting. Ryan replied that he played guitar, to which the musician responded by inviting him up on stage.
The stage’s height proved a bit of a barrier until Ryan’s friends provided a boost. Ryan at first appeared completely awestruck under the lights, but once handed a Dobro guitar by Mr. McCoy’s road manager he immediately laid into a riff that clearly impressed the members of the band. After a bit of teasing from Mr. McCoy (“is that how we are playing it?”), Ryan buckled down like he was born under the stage lights. It was soon clear why Mr. McCoy has proven such a crowd favourite at concerts and festivals across the continent.
“This isn’t my first time on Manitoulin and I am thankful for that because it is like a second home,” he told The Expositor prior to mounting the stage. “It’s beautiful, obviously, the landscape is beautiful, but the people are always great—big country fans here. You know what? We can’t thank KT and Craig (Timmermans, owners of Country 103 and the promotors of Manitoulin Country Fest and the August Long Country Jam) enough for spinning our records, not only my music and The Road Hammers, but all Canadian music.”
The past couple of years have been very challenging for artists and, despite the hard core loyalty of their fan base, country musicians have not been immune to the impacts of the pandemic restrictions. Those impacts are not going away any time soon, as evidenced by the disappointing crowd that attended the event.
Although the concert was a drive-in event and protocols were well in place to provide a safe environment, the ongoing strike at Sudbury’s Vale coupled with some confusion over the cancellation of the larger Manitoulin Country Fest likely played a part.
“It’s a bit discouraging,” admitted Mr. Timmermans, “but we will have Manitoulin Country Fest back again next year—we have to.” The financial impact of the low turnout coming on the heels of two years of cancellations for Flat Rock Entertainment ground’s signature events, including Rockin’ the Rock and the aforementioned Manitoulin Country Fest, have left the couple reeling, but the support of country music fans and artists continues to sustain them.
It doesn’t help that the province has kicked in financial support for the larger festival venues, backing cancellation refunds and maintaining infrastructure, while leaving small to mid-sized events like Manitoulin Country Fest twisting in the wind. Live music was among the first of industries to be hammered by the pandemic, and industry insiders posit that it will likely be among the last to fully recover.
But the irrepressible couple soldier on.
“Look out there in the audience,” said Ms. Timmermans. “Everyone is having such a good time. That’s really what this is all about.”