by Andrea Cordonier

A few days on, I’m still feeling buzzy about Sunday’s Festival of Small Halls concert at the Burritt’s Rapids Community Hall. Two years ago I stumbled across a Small Halls brochure and read with eyes as big as saucers: Community! Historic halls! Rural villages! Road trips! Church dinners! Music! I had the nearest thing to a religious conversion right there on that sidewalk. If it delivered what it promised, Small Halls would embody my idea of The Perfect Community Event.

A week later I spied Mark Monahan, mastermind behind Bluesfest, CityFolk and the Festival of Small Halls, at another arts and culture event. I pitched the Burritt’s Rapids Community Hall as a venue, gave him my card and called his office regularly for six months until he said yes.

Expanding from an initial three concerts in 2014 to more than 30 in 2017, Ontario’s Festival of Small Halls takes it cue from successful small halls festivals in Prince Edward Island and Australia. It’s a “formula” that works brilliantly: Small Halls brings the musicians (Canadian and international) and sells the tickets online and the small hall partner promotes the concert, recommends local openers, preps the hall and offers up pre-or-post-concert dinners and refreshments and other complimentary activities such as markets and art installations. Together, every show becomes a unique work of “musical magic,” with a portion of the proceeds returned to the host venue.

In 2016, our thematic was Newfoundland as we hosted the charming Sherman Downey and Matthew Byrne and our local food partner, The Crusty Bakers, provided an amazing tapas dinner, serving up creative variations on iconic Newfoundland favourites. We offered bottles of Screech as door prizes. The concert sold out in a handful of days and we wondered how we could possibly top it this year.

For 2017, Manager of Small Halls, Kelly Symes, musically offered up “Birds of Chicago,” with teenage powerhouse Mia Kelly as the opener. The Crustys, Jon and Jamie, took the band’s name as their muse, producing another round of stunning plates including “4&20 Blackbirds”, the “Unladen Swallow,” and “Fowl Ball,” each more delicious than the next. Once again, tickets flew out the door.

“Birds” is a musical collective, centred around Allison Russell and JT Nero (she from Vancouver, he from Chicago), that expands or contracts according to each venue. For this show, they paired with Toronto-based musician Joel Schwartz to bring “beautiful words and music that…tap deep veins of emotion (through) stark, elemental imagery that feels like scripture, or a lost folk song recovered.” They keened and exalted, implored and whispered their way through an extended set that married their brilliant, harmonious voices with, by turns, a clarinet, guitar and banjo accompaniment. I highly recommend you check them out online.

Age may just be a number, but 14 year-old up-and-coming singer and musician Mia Kelly’s jaw-dropping vocals are rich, powerful and all grown-up, akin to Amy Winehouse. Everybody fell in love with her sweet charm and glowing talent. Based in Gatineau, I already have a plan to bring to her out again soon.

So, after two years, do I think the Festival of Small Halls is The Perfect Community Event? I do. I think it’s a powerful idea that’s perfect for our beloved small places, like Burritt’s Rapids, particularly those without a lot of resources and/or competing entertainment options. It suits places with a little bit of space and a whole lotta heart. Here’s to next year’s show!

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