Inverness County native Natalie MacMaster and her husband Donnell Leahy are among the headliners for Summer Fest 2023 in Antigonish.

ANTIGONISH: The founder of a local music festival says being able to announce the third installment of performers for their downtown Antigonish summer concert is nothing short of sweet.

Ray Mattie, the founder and CEO of Nova Scotia Summer Fest, told The Reporter in an interview that getting to year three is exciting as they now have some momentum, they’re getting more support and the awareness has increased.

“It feels really great because each year, you go, you work hard and hope you have the ability to do another one, and that was a worry of course after year one, because of the COVID shutdown,” Mattie said. “And then doing a Kitchen Party tour, which was nominated for an ECMA, was great; but it wasn’t the same thing.”

Last summer, the full-fledged, two day concert series made its debut at Columbus Field, which he suggested was a major success.

“Now that we’ve got one at Columbus under our belt, I won’t be as run off my feet,” Mattie said. “Now, you have all those little things, the hiccups and odds and ends figured out.”

The lineup for the Aug. 18 and 19 festival, was announced on Jan. 17, with the opening night including Matt Anderson, Dave Sampson, the Fortunate Ones, Irish Mythen, and Elyse Aeryn with the second night featuring Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy, Jimmy Rankin, Ocean Playground, the Ennis Sisters, Gordie MacKeeman & His Rhythm Boys, Alicia Toner, and the Silver Wolf Band.

“The headliner for Friday Aug. 18 is Matt Anderson and the Big Bottle of Joy. Most people know Matt for sure, I don’t know if they know his band Big Bottle of Joy, but it’s an eight-piece group and it’s got a big sound,” Mattie said. “I guess kind of the co-headliner on Saturday is Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy with their full band, their great Celtic band; so it gives you the full band aspect for what she does, which is really intricate and amazing.”

Within the 2023 lineup, which features returning acts in Jimmy Rankin along with the Ennis Sisters, the festival’s founder indicated, there is representation from every region in Atlantic Canada, along with Cape Breton; highlighting the Silver Wolf Band, is a First Nations group from Labrador.

One difference this summer, is the festival won’t include a songwriters showcase, like it has its first two, but something new to the table this year, will be the Nova Scotia Summer Fest Cookout, which will take place on Aug. 17, the night before the festival officially opens, said Mattie.

While no live music will be performed during the Cookout, Mattie said pre-recorded music and music videos will be played in the background on their sound system and video screens.

“The focus on Aug. 17 is on our amazing food and beverage vendors from Antigonish and across Nova Scotia. I’m thrilled about it because I always pride myself in trying to find good vendors,” Mattie said. “This situation came about because of a couple of smaller, high-quality vendors such as Cabot Oysters combining with Nova Scotia Spirit Co. to do their oyster bar; that in itself, a lot of people flocked to that on site.”

When you look at the Nova Scotia Summer Fest logo, he said, there’s a wine glass, a lobster claw and a music note because their long-term goal is to create a food aspect that is on par with the music.

“Because sometimes you go to a music festival and the food is just there to the side, because it has to be, and I’ve been to a food festival and the music is just there to the side, because it has to be,” Mattie said. “So I want to see if we can get those to an equal level of a draw, the two go hand-in-hand, and we’re also, right now, in a wonderful mindset of buy local.”

He suggested the Buy Local provincial program approached him to see if Nova Scotia Summer Fest wanted to elevate the food aspect they already had established.

“Right now, we have five or six booked that were from last year, but we’re going to expand that and there is going to be a lot more,” Mattie said. “We want to focus on people coming in and really getting to know the food vendors, and learning about their businesses. There will be vendors from Antigonish but there is an outreach effort through a couple of associations to try and bring some in from right across the province.”

In addition to Cabot Oysters and Nova Scotia Spirit Co., Back East Seafood, Just Us! Coffee, Avondale Sky Winery, and Stand & Stuff Your Face are the original festival food vendors participating in the Cookout.

As for the success of last summer’s event, it was good enough that the festival could continue, Mattie said with a chuckle.

“We were nervous I think every festival programmer in 2022 was nervous, some that I spoke to in Canada and the United States,” he said. “Because you didn’t know if people were comfortable going out to an event of that scale yet, and we did well and I think this year, we’ll do better because that comfort level seems to be back to where it was pre-COVID.”

From an attendance standpoint, Mattie explained they had ticket sales from every single province, with the highest concentration of ticket sales coming from Ottawa, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and Fredericton.

“Having Walk Off The Earth played a major role in that, because anyone that came internationally, came to see them,” he said. “Two people from France came here who have never been to Canada before to see Walk Off The Earth in Antigonish; that’s pretty neat.”

When asked about where the festival is at approaching its third official year, its founder said he feels it’s more on par.

“The key is, is that, we are a festival that’s talked about in the tourism circles and the music industry circles and that happened quicker than I thought,” Mattie said. “A lot of that has to do with, making sure your branding is on par; so far we’re in the game and we’ll keep plugging.”

If they keep doing what they’re doing, he said, within the next five years, he can see Nova Scotia Summer Fest becoming a strong staple in the Maritimes for music festivals.

Tickets for full weekend passes or day passes are now available online at: www.novascotiasummerfest.ca/tickets.

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Drake Lowthers has been a community journalist for The Reporter since July, 2018. His coverage of the suspicious death of Cassidy Bernard garnered him a 2018 Atlantic Journalism Award and a 2019 Better Newspaper Competition Award; while his extensive coverage of the Lionel Desmond Fatality Inquiry received a second place finish nationally in the 2020 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards for Best Feature Series. A Nova Scotia native, who has called Antigonish home for the past decade, Lowthers has a strong passion in telling people’s stories in a creative, yet thought-provoking way. He graduated from the journalism program at Holland College in 2016, where he played varsity football with the Hurricanes. His simple pleasures in life include his two children, photography, live music and the local sports scene.