Westfest All-Star Fundraiser Packs Orange Gallery With Music, Art and Support

All photos by Andre Gagne

“Don’t make me cry now,” said Elaina Martin, founder and producer of Westfest, as she took the stage in the Orange Gallery to thunderous applause from those gathered Sunday evening at what was touted as an All-Star Fundraiser for the summer festival.

A sold out crowd made up of artists, fans, volunteers and musicians came to show support to a festival that, only months ago, sparked worry over whether it would continue at all. This night, however, the statement was clear: Westfest wasn’t going anywhere except maybe to its new green digs down the road in Laroche Park.

“Thank you Elaina,” said Caroline Addison of local blues trio River City Junction during their electric set that brought the crowd to their feet to dance anywhere they could find room to in the packed gallery. “Without support from people like you we’d be nowhere. We’d be in our basement.”

It was a sentiment echoed throughout the evening by many for Martin and a festival that has always promoted a community based atmosphere with diverse programming for all. Westfest began in 2004 with Jane Siberry headlining and one year later expanded into a two-day event, then a three and then five incorporating aspects of a block party that expanded down Richmond Road to include vendors, smaller stages and family entertainment. Steven Page, Biff Naked, Kathleen Edwards and folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie have all graced the main stage over the years along with dozens of local artists that attracted crowds of well over 100, 000 to the Westboro area. However, in a surprising move last year, the Westboro BIA voted to utilize an opt-out clause in a two year contract with the festival siting a want to follow “other initiatives”. Effectively, this removed a subsidy of $125,000 and, some feared, cut the legs out from a festival that costs near half a million to produce.

“We were shocked by the news,” said Martin. “It honestly took me a couple weeks to awaken from that nightmare. But then I did, pulled my big girl pants up and found our new home at Laroche Park. I found new sponsors and a new focus for our festival which is remaining true to our mandate like never before: more inclusive, more diverse, working hard to ensure that everyone feels equal and that the festival remains free.”

Frantic to find a new space to house the festival, Martin was helped out by Jeff Leiper, councillor for the Kitchissippi Ward,  who secured the park in Mechanicsville. Though the street party element may not be present, Martin ensures the atmosphere of the fest will remain the same, if not better. She highlights the positive aspect of not being on pavement all day and sees patrons relaxing with lawn chairs, blankets and pets on the festival’s new green grounds. Along with the planned over 150 artists, community and youth acts appearing on the new Thom Fountain Team Main Stage, this year’s festival will also include an Indigenous Pavilion, a Food Truck Zone, an extended Kid Zone and an Artisan and Business Park with more than 40 local businesses taking part.

With the hitch in needing a new venue solved, Martin turned towards finding a way to make up for the loss of funding. She decided to try something she’d never done before and turned toward the community the festival helps foster and a little help from her friends.

“I’ve never asked anyone in 14 years for a cent, not for me, not for Westfest. Now we need it so it made sense that now I should ask for help,” she says. “I sent out an email to 20 artists and within an hour they had all gotten back to me with a resounding yes!”

The line-up of All Stars was hosted by Leiper and included sets by local musicians John Allaire, Cody Coyote, Lynne Hanson and Juno winner Lynn Miles.

“I played Westfest when it was besides the Mac’s Milk back in the 50s,” joked Miles. “Before you had Westfest nobody went there. I think it raised the property values.”

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The 5-hour event which also included an art auction sold out early and it didn’t take long for the performers to energize the crowd. Ojibwe Hip-Hop artists Cody Coyote’s set included a charged Frazer Lee Whiteduck in full First Nations regalia performing traditional dance from the crowd.

“When I say justice you say freedom,” shouted Coyote extending his microphone out to those gathered to a resounding cry of “Freedom!” from the crowd.

Juno winning singer-songwriter Holly McNarland continued to fuel the vibe in the gallery with a stunning, stripped down version of her 1997 hit “Numb”. The lyric “heal what you have” took on a new meaning on a day about celebrating change and looking towards the future.

Mi’kmaq artist, actor and musician Thomas “Starwalker” Clair may have ignited the biggest frenzy of the night. Also in full regalia, Clair stormed into the room in a blur of color to dance with a crowd up out of their seats again amidst hoots, hollers, applause and stamping feet. He then took the stage to snarl out blues that shook the gallery causing one patron to exclaim that the event should go on all night long.

Martin herself took to the stage to thank all those who not only helped make the event a success but also helped support the festival. Though she dropped no hints on who might be headlining come the summer -the official announcement will take place on the 24th– she ensured 2016’s festival, running from June 3-5 and, as always, free, would be one not to miss.

“It’s going to be a Westfest to remember this year!”