Just call the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival the little festival that could. Since it’s inception in 1991, it has grown from an intimate event into one of the region’s most highly anticipated music festivals.
And while jazz and blues remains at its heart, previous editions of the Harvest Festival have also welcomed English rockers Bloc Party, the late Levon Helm, alt.country group The Avett Brothers and jam band favourites Gov’t Mule.
Among the big-name headliners appearing at the 2014 edition of the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival are New Orleans bluesman Dr. John, former Blood, Sweat & Tears vocalist David Clayton-Thomas, Hamilton rock band Arkells, pop buzz band Alvvays and many more.
While attracting international headliners has been a top priority for the festival, Harvest has always proudly nurtured homegrown talent as well. Joel Plaskett, David Myles, Ross Neilsen, Gypsophilia, The Stanfields and Matt Andersen are just a handful of the Maritime acts that will be performing at this year’s festival.
Brent Staeben, programmer for the festival, believes it is that grassroots approach that has helped it become the event it is today.
“What I feel is different about Harvest is that it is an experience unto itself,” Brent says. “People want to be a part of what is going on. A big part of what has helped make the festival work so well is the fact that we have four or five of our main venues located in a concentrated area downtown. It allows the city’s bars and restaurants the opportunity to get in on the festival as well.”
A big part of attracting first-time Harvesters to the festival is the significant amount of free programming that Harvest undertakes each year. While some might be shy about dishing out money for big-name headliners they might not be familiar with, the festival’s many free shows offer an opportunity to “try it out.”
“We have always believed that every world-class festival can be measured by the quality of the free shows that the festival holds,” Brent says. “We recognized years ago that we are a community event, and while paying $52 to see Dr. John might not be plausible for everyone, we want to be sure that everyone in the city and the region has access to the festival no matter what they have in their pocket.”
Estimating that upwards of 80 per cent of the acts appearing at this year’s Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival are new to festival crowds, Brent feels fortunate that their clientele trusts that organizers will bring something good to the table each year.
“That newness certainly has its own challenges, but we are just so very fortunate to be able to bring in the crème de la crème in terms of acts that have a dedicated, niche audience,” he says. “Harvest attendees have extended a certain trust to us over the last 23 years, being introduced to acts that they might not have heard of but end up falling in love with. I also think that plays a big part in why people come back year after year.”
While Fredericton blues rocker Ross Neilsen started as a Harvest attendee, he became a regular performer in 2007.
These days, his involvement with Harvest continues in the form of his Blues By Invitation show. Now entering its third year, this show affords Ross the opportunity to perform alongside handpicked artists.
“Having the opportunity to perform alongside friends like Keith Hallett and one of my heroes, Morgan Davis, brings me so much joy,” Ross says. “I think that joy that happens on stage becomes something that the crowd picks up on because they realize that they are seeing something unique that they might never see again.”
Forging those emotional connections between performer and audience is something that has been at the heart of both the Blues By Invitation shows and the festival in general.
Ross offers nothing but praise for the manner in which Brent has helped Harvest develop over the last decade. He says it is an absolute honour to be trusted to curate a show that adds a unique voice to the festival.
“I am very fortunate that Brent loves collaboration and realizes that it is that spirit that lies at heart of the festival. It has definitely helped foster a musical respect between the performers and the festival organizers.”