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"Being at camp was always so fully engaging" - Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp set for August 12th - 16th

Updated: May 20

by Scott Roos

photos by Scott and Deanna Roos as marked

Jaxon Lalonde on stage with fellow Bluegrass Camp instructor Justin Vilchez in 2022. The pair, alongside Elliot Dillabough and Ethan Peters formed a band called The Local Group (photo by Deanna Roos)

“It's good and fun and joyful and fast paced. It's the excitement of how high energy it is and dynamic in terms of the show aspect of it that Jake puts on. It’s pretty fun to be a part of it,” explains banjo picker Jaxon Lalonde of why he thinks his band Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys is in such high demand.

Currently wrapping up their very first U.K. tour, Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys (SRB), believe it or not, had very humble beginnings. The group’s first official show was a trio set at Jam Street Shared Arts Space in Prince Albert that included Lalonde on banjo and upright bass, Elliot Dillabough on guitar and, of course, frontman/guitarist/banjo picker Jake Vaadeland. In front of a modest crowd largely due to the restrictions at the time, with the guys donning surgical masks, songs that have since become staples of the SRB over the years were performed for the first time that day like “I Am My Father’s Son” and, of course, Vaadeland signature song “Retro Man”. 

Prior to the formation of Jake and the SRB, Vaadeland and friend Ira Amundson had been part of a more traditional bluegrass duo. NSMZ covered an outdoor concert they played in 2020. Amundson, during the pandemic, however, moved to the United States, so Vaadeland started up a solo project. 

Jake & Ira performing at an outdoor house concert in September of 2020 (photo by Deanna Roos)

“I’ve known Jaxon (Lalonde) for a long time. Ever since I started going to The Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old Tyme Music Festival/Camp, I guess…. I started getting a hold of him because Ira (Amundson) wasn’t as available as him or I would have hoped. So when Ira couldn’t do shows, I decided to start with the Sturgeon River Boys thing and, of course, he was one of the first people I thought of to be a part of it,” explained Vaadeland in a conversation with NSMZ held the morning after those inaugural Jam Street shows.

Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys at Prince Albert's EA Rawlinson Centre in 2023 (photo by Scott Roos)

With the addition of electric guitarist Joel Rohs, stand up bass wiz Stephen Williams, alongside Lalonde and Vaadeland, we all know how this story goes. The history of Vaadeland and the SRB has been well documented within the pages of our zine. But, the important common denominator to underscore in all of this is that the success MAY not have happened to the extent that it has for Vaadeland and company without the expertise and guidance provided by the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp of which Vaadeland and Lalonde were both avid attenders during their formative years.

Held yearly in  August on the Ness Creek grounds, the camp is an immersive experience into the world of Bluegrass and Old Time music. Top flight instructors of international acclaim like last year’s Martha Spencer or 2015 instructor and 2024 grammy winner Molly Tuttle are quite often the draw for students and still will be but, all the while, as the festival has slowly been growing a community of musicians that have been acquiring skill and acclaim in their own right locally, and, in the case of Vaadeland, in light of his group's first  tour across the pond, internationally as well.

Martha Spencer along with "The Wonderland Band" played three engaging sets at last year's festival. Spencer served as a clawhammer banjo instructor during camp week (photo by Deanna Roos)

“A couple of years ago a musician from a Canadian band was impressed by the number of young people who were playing and attending and he asked how we did it. I replied simply ‘We grow our own’,” Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society executive director Tanya Wagner tells NSMZ, “We are not just a camp and festival provider. We mentor young and emerging artists by giving them the opportunity to learn and develop their skills and then offering them performance venues by way of dances, concerts and festival performances. We help in building confidence with an appreciative and encouraging audience.”

This fact is confirmed by Lalonde who, this summer, will once again be an instructor at the camp teaching vocal harmony alongside Oli Guselle. 

"(The camp is) where I learned to play the banjo and where I formed my first band

That’s where I got my start in terms of playing music and performing,” says Lalonde.

“The local (Bluegrass and OldTime) scene is pretty cool now because it seems like it took a long time for everyone to develop their skills together and now is kind of paying off where it seems like we've developed our own scene in a way and we kind of have a shared repertoire as a group,” Lalonde continues.

By “paying” off ", Lalonde means that these scenesters are “paying it forward” as instructors. This year is no exception. Lalonde will be joined by Holly Gilroy who will be the “Sing Out Strong” vocal instructor this year. Gilroy’s group Gil and Wil got their start at the Bluegrass camp in 2022 when they entered a songwriting contest performing their original tune “Cowboy of the Sea”. It was a magical, memorable performance that featured the duo’s now signature close harmonies and started them on the path of “ones to watch” in the local folk scene within the province.

“It’s just such an inviting and safe community to try stuff out and play with other musicians,” Gilroy said during a 2023 interview with NSMZ.

Holly Gilroy and Aidan McRorie Wilson aka the duo known as Gil and Wil took the stage as tweeners at the 2023 edition of the Bluegrass Festival (photo by Scott Roos)

Beginner fiddle this year will be taught by rising star and 2023 NSMZ “Artist of the Year” Olivia Morelli who goes by stage name Mary Liv. Sister Emma Finch will be running the Youth Jam Class for budding musicians who are aged six through twelve. The sisters, like Gil and Wil, have been afforded lots of opportunities by the Northern Light Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society over the years to hone their craft. In the meantime, local favourite “Jack of all trades” and all around “good dude” Michael Taylor, who taught beginner Mandolin last year, will be the Raw Beginner Guitar instructor. Taylor also plays with Mary Liv and is a charter member of Five Guys Named Dave.

“I thought that (the 2023 camp) was really good in terms of accessibility for the beginners,” Taylor said during an interview last summer, “It was fun to watch them going from not knowing a ton of stuff to actively participating and dancing and getting out there. So that was really good. There was a thirst for people learning stuff here this year which was cool.”

Michael Taylor at Northern Lights BLuegrass and Old Tyme Music Festival 2023 playing with Five Guys Named Dave (photo by Scott Roos)

Other local instructors of note this year will be Metis Fiddle instructor Tristen Durocher, FingerStyle Guitar teacher Clayton Linthicum, and favourite adopted son of the Bluegrass Society, Australian Justin Vilchez, teaching beginner Mandolin. These musicians may not necessarily have been “grown” at camp but they have certainly been afforded many opportunities to shine by the society whether it be on the hallowed Ness Creek grounds or elsewhere. Thus, they are “local”, and, to the Society, that’s important. They round out a strong crop of “homegrown” instructors added to the mix of top quality instructor’s from abroad. And, it underscores just how crucial and essential this camp has been in providing opportunities and fostering a burgeoning scene. 

*Linthicum as FingerStyle guitar instructor in 2022 (left). Playing with the Salt Licks (right). Many may know Linthicum for his time in folk duo Kasey and Clayton.

“When I was a student (being at camp was) always so fully engaging…. It was five days of being fully invested and immersed in music. You're tired at the end of each day but you're satisfied. You can see the difference (in your playing). It's a really good feeling to just learn new ideas and techniques and knowledge about music. It feels good,” concludes Lalonde.  

This year’s camp will run from August 12th through 16th. Early bird registration ends on June 30th. For more information on classes and instructors click HERE. Once the camp concludes, there will be a weekend festival that will feature many of the camp’s instructors. For info on the festival lineup and ticket prices click HERE

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