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Lights, music, action: The craftiness and craziness of a St. John’s festival weekend


Celtic punk rock group the Dropkick Murphys play George Street Festival

St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, is in its annual prime. The city is on creative wheels. There are so many events, festivals and theatrics going on it’s quite a panic trying to figure out what things you can possibly bear to miss in order to see the things you absolutely can’t.

Take this past weekend. In the space of just a few days, I wanted to catch Shakespeare By the Sea (there are five different plays currently showing), the Lantern Festival, the George Street Festival, and several standalone musical performances downtown. It’s a bit of a challenge for a lightweight who can’t manage much more than two nights out back to back.

A friend of mine had convinced me a few weeks ago to start making a lantern for the Lantern Festival – which I’ve never been to before. The festival is a fundraiser for Victoria Park in St. John’s historic west end, and it runs for one day on the last full weekend in July every year. Being not overly crafty, I was dubious about attending one of the free (donations encouraged) lantern-making workshops that run twice a week for two months before the big day.

At my first workshop at the old pool hall in Victoria Park on a wet Tuesday, there were piles of adults and kids, busily bending bamboo and firing heated glue guns at colourful tissue-papered creations. They all looked alarmingly capable. The organizers were really nice, and they basically let us play and figure things out on our own (interspersing our creative musings “How easy would it be to make a turtle?!” with sage advice). My friend (much craftier than me) was all about the turtle. I settled on making some jellybean row houses (about as easy as it gets because you’re talking a basic rectangle).

It took me two workshops to complete my masterpiece, which upon my second visit I discovered had been tagged with the ponderous declaration: ‘Profound structural issues.’ Yikes. I set about haphazardly reinforcing it. I was sceptical it would make it into the final installation.

The installation (

On the night of the festival, Saturday, July 30th, I arrived at the park after sunset, to enjoy the full-on effect of hundreds of lit lanterns, in all shapes, sizes and colours, spanning the grassy expanses, peaking with the main, beautiful installation on the crest of the hill. After wandering around the food stands and watching a musical performance that featured both belly dancers and stoic marching members of the Signal Hill Tattoo (interesting combo), I clambered along beside the musical procession of lights up the hill. I began searching for my little, 'profoundly' flawed row houses , while allowing myself to be distracted by an impressive, fire-wielding performance of dragons and phoenixes.

After oohing and ahhing for a full lap of the installation (there were all kinds of lanterns, from puffins to globes… even a lantern shaped like the oil rig Hibernia… and my friend’s giant green turtle!) I finally spotted my jellybean row. Glowing profoundly as it nestled in the middle of a heck of a lot of top-notch lantern action. It had achieved its ultimate lantern destiny after all.

Turtle!  (Jessica Penney)

A slightly blurry image of my lantern fulfilling its destiny...

From the warm and fuzzies of lantern making to a sweaty, joyous mosh up. Yes, I’m talking the George Street Festival, which runs every year for the six days leading up to the first Wednesday in August – which is Regatta Day, a civic holiday here, and another festival of sorts. (I know, like I said. Summer. St. John’s. On wheels.)

George Street, with the most bars and pubs square capita of any strip in North America, is famous across the continent. It’s been a draw for big name musicians for decades and the George Street Festival is the prime time to catch them. The street opens up, welcomes you in and then closes itself off from the outside world for the night. There are outdoor performances each of the six evenings and after the headline act has wrapped, patrons have every bar on the street at their disposal to wander in and out of. And the live music doesn’t stop at the outdoor stage – it continues inside the many establishments all through the night. Just some of the performers this year included Great Big Sea, Elliott Brood, The Masterless Men, the Dropkick Murphys and Hey Rosetta! (the exclamation mark is part of the name, not just because I’m excitable).

My plan was to catch the Dropkicks and local mega favourites Hey Rosetta!, because, as previously discussed, I can only be expected to manage two nights at a time.

The Dropkick Murphys, from Massachusetts, are quite possibly the most perfect band I could ever imagine playing George Street. St. John’s, and all Newfoundland and Labrador, has a strong culture of traditional, Celtic-style music. But the capital city is also being perceived more recently as the cool, contemporary place to be in Canada. The Dropkicks, with their ACDC-style Celtic punk rock, is a trad/punk conundrum that somehow works here exactly. Which is why, when I rolled up a tad late (9:30pm-ish), the street was already heaving in waves of mad melodious revelry. I had to batter my way through the throngs just to even see the stage, but everyone was having such a crazy good time I didn’t even mind that my feet were occasionally stomped on (I had thought ahead and worn boots) and more than one drink slithered down my new  dress (it was dark, no one would notice). Mostly I just grinned the whole time, because, well, you couldn’t not.

Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys rousing the crowd (Jeff Parsons) 

I got a kick out of one guy, who, as the last strains of the second encore died away, booted it out of the crowd, spun round and announced in a panic: “I’ve got to go study for a test tomorrow!!” as if trying to explain to me, a total stranger, why he simply had to sprint away and leave the rest of the night’s fun behind.

After the show, I headed to Bridie Molloys for beer, more dancing and then later I went to the Rock House where At Ships End, the band that opened for the Dropkicks, were playing. Which was fortuitous because I’d missed their earlier performance and they were actually pretty good. By this time (around 1am), the lead singer was forgetting some of the words to the songs - but he pulled it off anyway. And nobody minded. He’d been working hard all night. And along with everyone else, he’d clearly been having a George Street time.

Tim Baker of Hey Rosetta! (Jeff Parsons)

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict on my part, I didn’t get to catch Hey Rosetta! the following night. But I heard they were as brilliant as ever. They also played to a sell-out crowd. Allbeit a slightly more music-as-opposed-to-madness-oriented one. And I think there was slightly less crowd surfing. Only slightly. If you’ve never heard of them, head to their website immediately! (Exclamation mark.)

So I didn’t make it to Shakespeare by the Sea in the end, but that runs all summer long… I’ll definitely get there. And what’s up next on my agenda in this festival headspin of a time known as summer in St. John’s? The ever popular and – between you and me – probably my favourite, the annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. It starts this evening with Canadian folk star Sarah Harmer headlining. Stay tuned. I might even make it out for more than two nights in a row...