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Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp and Festival 2023: Epilogue

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

by Scott Roos

photos by Scott and Deanna Roos

Siblings Sarah and Patrick Hamilton delighted their audiences as members of Happy Trails, Prospector (photo by Scott Roos)

“We all will split our own ways. We all have different groups (we're in)…. We’ve kind of come to the consensus that we have so much stuff going on if we can meet up a couple times a year and just get to hang out…”

Happy Trails, Prospector bass slapper Nico Humby is explaining his band’s next steps. They’ve just had an emotional moment together huddled backstage after his band’s last set of the weekend. They were formed at this festival and camp a few years back where they all met as instructors. They've played a few shows together since then but this time around there’s a sense of finality to the proceedings. In the world of music you can never say never, though. So who knows…

“ and get to hang out and play some really good music together. That’s good enough. Sell a few hats (Laughs),” adds fiddle player Nathan Smith completing Humby’s sentence.

“We weren’t forming a band to make money. We formed as a band because we were friends,” says Humby.

The collective that is Happy Trails, Prospector, made up of the aforementioned Humby and Smith alongside Miles Zurawell (banjo/dobro), Sarah Hamilton (fiddle) and Patrick Hamilton (guitar) have been the darlings of the camp and festival this year there’s no denying. They are a bundle of fun energy when they play together probably because the essence of their collective musical existence is built upon that foundation of fun. The three guys in front of me, Zurawell, Humby and Smith, essentially all voice this fact in their own ways. They’re an “all for one, one for all” mentality in the band and it shows in the band’s unique sonics and captivating stage presence.

“Everyone is bringing something different to the table,” continues Smith, “There’s a lot of different personalities in the band and a lot of different musical tastes. That kinda creates this sort of mosaic within the band where we’re able to do a bunch of different things that maybe we wouldn’t decide to do on our own but somebody else (in this band) has brought forward and we’re all like ‘Yeah that’s a great idea. Let’s push that to its fullest extent and party in that particular way’.”

Happy Trails, Prospector photo by Deanna Roos

It’s been a great week and getting in this brief chat with the guys has given me some new perspectives. When you’re a “trained” musician like I am it’s easy sometimes to take yourself too seriously and that can inhibit creativity and growth. Imposter syndrome can creep in. Sure you need talent, and a measure of skill, a lot of hard work, but basically music, in the end, needs to feel fun or why even bother? Happy Trails, Prospector were all educators at the music camp again this year. They are good, hell even great, at the “playing” component for sure. In essence, though, their greatest “lesson” they’ve shown us this camp and festival season, as all the performers have shown us for those past few days, is to just sit back and enjoy the ride that music can take you on. The journey is more important than the destination or maybe better put, the journey IS the destination if that makes any sense.

With this interview, my festival and camp week has come to an end. Talking with these guys was definitely worth the wait and I have since been contacted by one of them saying they WILL play together again. That’s awesome. Hopefully I can be in the crowd when they play a show next.

It may have been cold outside Saturday night but Happy Trails, Prospector kept us warm in the JMC with a rousing plugged in set of more traditional country tunes. The dance floor was packed! (Photo by Deanna Roos)

Other randomness about the festival:

*Apart from just the “performances” there’s also great workshops that go on in the Jack Millikin Centre and a “jam shack” out where the campsites are. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating: If you want the full immersive experience, make sure you do as much as you can while you are there.

*The Well Drinkers leading the jam session (left) Sarah Hamilton teaching a workshop on two-stepping (Right)

*Martha Spencer and the Wonderland band brought a lot to the table to the 2023 camp and festival. First of all, she can pretty much play any instrument and shred in the process. Her voice is unique and her music is very authentic. Her presence at the festival brought an air of legitimacy to everything in terms of her band’s overall vibe. Her band made up of guest artist Australian singer-songwriter Archer Shepherd and the flat footin’ dancer Mason Winfree (the dude also sings and plays the autoharp) plus the more permanent fixtures of Jamie Collins (stand up bass/vocals) and Trevor McKenzie (banjo/fiddle/vocals) brought a lot of variety to the table. It was neat to see how Spencer was not afraid to just stand back and allow different members of her band to be featured. At times seeming to be just as content to strum along whilst someone else was in the spotlight. She conducts herself with a lot of humility and grace. She taught a workshop on flatfoot dancing too. The whole Martha Spencer experience is like a veritable old school variety show of awesome.

*all photos in this collage by Deanna Roos except the initial photo of Jamie Collins and Martha Spencer which is by Scott Roos

Archer Shepherd (L) sings a heartfelt duet with Martha Spencer (R) (Photo by Scott Roos)

*The Well Drinkers were amazing. They were essentially like a bluegrass jam band. During their songs they are just as likely to play at breakneck speeds as they are to settle into a medium tempo groove and just vibe along for 5-7 minutes with various members of the band taking solo turns. Jeremy Rilko’s Bob Dylan-esque vocal nuance is a cool feature whilst Jake Bachman’s high tenor voice along with his equally adept mandolin strumming adds variety. They lead a session in the jam shack too which is very admirable.

*The Well Drinkers photos by Deanna Roos

*Steph Cameron… Wow. What a voice! Great songwriting too. She said during the festival that she was getting ready to get back into the swing of things after taking some time off to be with her young son. There’s allegedly an entire album in the can. I’m looking forward to hearing from her more in the future.. Additionally, Eliza Doyle was phenomenal backing Cameron up. Wow!

Steph Cameron (photo by Deanna Roos)

*photos of the "dream team" Eliza Doyle and Steph Cameron by Deanna Roos

*The Barrelmen did not disappoint. Their "dad-folk" vibes were a nice change of pace from some of the more traditional bluegrass offerings. Looking forward to when I can see them play again. Solid.

The Barrelmen from side stage. (photo by Scott Roos)

Thanks again to the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society for having NSMZ out to your event again this year. Hopefully, with our new perspectives gleaned from being there a second year it will turn even more people onto an event that is truly remarkable and special.

On the last day of camp, volunteer coordinator Aiden McCrorie-Wilson rallied the troops and made sure this awesome wooden dance floor was installed in front of the stage. Here's some folks getting their groove on to The Bix Mix Boys (photo by Scott Roos)

*The man, myth and legend himself JJ Guy (left) alongside Cathy Sproule (piano) and other guests including guitarist Elliott Dillabough (pictured alongside Sproule) play two dance sets indoors at the JMC and were featured on the main stage once.

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