The Cicada Music & Arts Festival, known simply as Cicada, began with backyard get-togethers and has since reached incredible heights. The brainchild of local legend Thom Lepp, the festival has continued his legacy of uniting the local community over arts and music this past weekend.
On Saturday October 13, the first iteration of Cicada since its founder’s passing took place on Henley Island. Bringing together a huge amount of popular artists with local breweries, artisans and food outlets, the event was a testament to the community of creators in St. Catharines.
The festival was organized in a small field on Henley Island, with a stage at either end and local vendors lining the main area. The stages were facing one another across the field, the idea being that as one act was playing on one stage, the next would be setting up on the other to start immediately. It’s a great idea that meant that the music never stopped. The addition of benches and chairs around provided opportunities to relax, feeding the laid-back fall festival atmosphere without compromising the high energy provided by the incredible talents that played.
The first act was Birds of Ontario, whose sense of joy and fun set a great tone for the rest of the day. The wide variety of acts followed Birds of Ontario on the day, from the soothing folk-esque tunes of Donovan Woods to the hyperactive indie-rock explosion that is James Blonde. What tied all of these acts together more than anything was their enthusiasm; despite being a new and comparatively small-scale festival, none of the acts treated this concert with anything less than passion. The acts were all there because they wanted to be and that passion went over incredibly well with the crowds. Love of music and arts united both performers and attendees in a celebration of local talent.
Personal highlights from the day include Pindles, a local act whose high energy drove a staggering setlist of indie-rock originals. They were joined on the St. Catharines stage by The Bae Beach Club, whose surf-rock jams never fail to make me swoon. The hard rocking brilliance of The Kerouacs added to the variety of the performances and many other acts contributed to make this inaugural event as breathtaking as it was.
One of the standout acts on the St. Catharines stage was Joey Landreth, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who has become very popular through his online engagement with the huge community of guitar geeks. His band The Bros. Landreth made waves after a series of UK shows in 2015, but he performed at Cicada as a trio in support of his solo career. His recorded music has incredibly full production, which is a difficult thing to replicate live with only bass, drums and a guitar. The challenge is one that Landreth handles with ludicrous ease, combining what can sometimes be as many as three guitar parts into one incredible live performance. His guitar skills have been the subject of great discussion amongst the online musical communities, but it’s a whole other thing to experience his work live and first-hand. Entirely new parts and solos come out of nowhere. The jam section tacked onto the end of ‘Made Up Mind’ was nothing short of magical.
Landreth wasn’t the only one to pull off something spectacular at the festival, not least in the guitar department. Pindles’ two guitarists boasted some sensational twin-part solos. The Bae Beach Club’s Noah Rastegar created swirling, other-worldly textures that really captured the surreal surfer’s paradise their music depicts. James Blonde’s Steph Mercier held his own with an ecstatic energy that no one else even came close to, leading the band with huge riffs and dancing around the stage with limb movements that I cannot even begin to fathom. At one point, Mercier leaped off of the stage, circled the crowd and barrel rolled back onto the stage in time for his vocal part — all without breaking from his guitar solo.
The Cicada Stage boasted a fine collection of acts throughout the day. Eleven North gave a rousing performance, full of drama and rock ‘n’ roll brilliance. They’ve been compared in the past to City and Colour, but I think that undersells them; their stage presence is its own beast that no one else comes close to. Donovan Woods provided what can only be described as a calm before the storm; their soft folksy songs were a lovely moment of softness before things took a turn for the truly spectacular. Said the Whale brought the entire arena together with their unique music, somewhere between Arcade Fire and a fairytale, with the charm of real storytellers and the showmanship of seasoned performers. It was a thrill to hear their older classics alongside an entirely new song titled ‘Shame,’ yet to be officially released. The song has a sharper edge than a lot of their back catalogue and demonstrates a huge amount of growth in the band as songwriters.
One of the unexpected highlights of the day was children’s artist Fred Penner. From the moment the doors opened, children were running around the venue followed by parents encouraging their energy, asking them how excited they were to see him. What’s more, the four-time JUNO Winner was wandering around all day, offering smiles and waves to anyone and everyone who wanted them. While he performed, the crowd was completely smitten. A huge semicircle of children at the front of the crowd sang their hearts out. What was even more impressive, though, was that this excitement was rivalled by the adults in the crowd. Penner may have been a childhood staple for several decades now, but the level of engagement with his set proves that his entertainment value spans generations with ease. There was no one in the crowd that didn’t feel the magic of the moment.
Penner might at first seem like a strange act to pick for this festival, but everyone felt like they belonged there. Even the acts that were from out of town seemed right at home, as if they were just as much part of the local community. The green room was filled with waves and hugs between what felt like old friends. Everyone had a peer that they hugely admired performing at the festival and everyone was supporting one another. What’s more, a lot of the acts would be a part of the crowd during the day, mingling with one another and enjoying the music as much as the rest of us. Said the Whale even knew about a recently married couple in the crowd, and dedicated one of their songs to them.
That sense of community is embedded into the lifeblood of Cicada. The festival is built upon foundations laid down by the late Thom Lepp, whose impact upon the St Catharines music scene is simply unparalleled. Jon Lepp, nephew to Thom and just as prevalent in the community, told me that the seeds of the Cicada Festival were planted long ago. The elder Lepp would organise a barbecue and concert in his backyard and invite his neighbours to attend for free. He would bring in bluegrass and folk musicians from far afield, including from the United States. These gatherings proved be so popular that they would grow in size with each year: at one time they were even held on the grounds that Cicada was held on. After Lepp’s passing last year, the festival itself is partly a tribute to the enduring influence he has had on St. Catharines and his commitment to bringing people together in whatever way he could. As Lepp lost his life to prostate cancer, a Movember stall was a large feature on the festival grounds as a way of raising support and spreading awareness.
Cicada also fills a musical void in the community, catering to a variety of indie musicians that haven’t had a festival to call their own since the last S.C.E.N.E music festival in 2014. Indie-focused acts began to sweep the St. Catharines musical landscape in the wake of the hardcore scene, which famously brought forward such acts as Alexisonfire. After a few hardcore concerts in the area became a little too rowdy, promoters were hesitant to book such acts at their venues. Eventually, indie acts began to rise up to fill those holes in the local scene, and it really took off. Warehouse, a relatively new venue in the area, was instrumental in helping that thrive: many artists in the area speak very highly of their experiences with the venue and its owners. The Cicada festival and its roster of artists reflect the tastes and creativity of St Catharines as it stands now.
The non-musical side of the festival was a huge success, too. Vendors from across the community came to offer their wares. Food stalls were offering everything from poutine to pizza and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) were provided by way of Muskoka Brewery. A number of local artisans were also selling everything from hand soaps to knitted ponchos. Dine Alone Records, an independent label operating in both St. Catharines and Toronto, had their ‘Wax on Wheels’ caravan at the festival, selling merch and music from many of the artists on their roster. The merch stall also hosted EPs and t-shirts for every act on the bill. The t-shirt stand was incredibly novel. Official Cicada t-shirts were being printed on-site: festival goers could either purchase a t-shirt from the stall to have the design printed onto, or bring their own t-shirt to have customized with the logo.
When the wonderful people who put this festival together meet to discuss whether or not Cicada was successful, I’m sure they’ll be talking a great deal about ticket sales and how well the vendors did and all sorts of other statistics. But for the people who simply attended the festival, its success is measured by one question alone: did everyone have a good time?
I was stood to the side of the stage as Fred Penner played his last song. Beside me was Jon Lepp, behind me were several members of The Bae Beach Club and at some point Joey Landreth and his band were stood next to me as well. We had the best seat in the house: a front row view of Penner and his guitarist doing what they do best and a panorama of the audience, a sea of smiling faces and joy. Over the evening, I saw people huddling for warmth, asking for directions and trying to figure out what band would be playing next, but I never saw a single smile drop. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the mark of a truly successful festival.
Being at Cicada Festival for its first official outing feels like I’ve taken part in a piece of history. Thom Lepp’s love of music and of bringing people together is now a cultural landmark in St. Catharines. The family and friends that he has left behind have worked incredibly hard to keep his vision alive and their work has paid off. Sure, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury might be able to get the biggest acts in the world. Sure, all the ‘cool’ kids want to hang out at Coachella. But there’s very little anyone can do that beats the atmosphere of a family barbecue and singalong. No one threw a better family barbecue than Thom Lepp, because Thom Lepp let anyone be a part of his family. Cicada was more than just a festival; it was invitation, written out by Thom and handed out by the family that survives him, for you to be a part of that family as well. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I hope you all come along next year, too.
FULL LINE UP
- Birds of Ontario
- Eleven North
- The Bae Beach Club
- Fred Penner
- The Strictly Hip
- Joey Landreth
- Donovan Woods
- James Blonde
- Said the Whale
- The Kerouacs
- Terra Lightfoot
- Said The Whale
- Dan Mangan
Birds of Ontario
Music for Animals
The Past is Through
The Bae Beach Club
The Bae Beach Club
The Cat Came Back
Still Feel Gone
Don’t Lock the Door
Said the Whale
Step Into the Darkness
Worry Like Rolling Thunder
Slick Back Kid
End of the Summer
Don’t Let the World See Your Love
A Doll’s House/Pavlovia
Cold in the Summer