For the last two years, NDG has opened its front lawns to neighbours and residents to partake in what is one of the homiest and coolest festivals in the city. Porchfest (Balconfête) schedules performers to put on free mini concerts on the porches and front lawns of NDG. There’s even a walking tour to take you to them. It’s a joyful way to get out in No Damned Good, enjoy the spring weather, and listen to some of the local scene. Make no mistake, some of these musicians spend a better part of the year on tour, while others regularly hit Montreal stages. You also get a few basement and bedroom six stringers. Among them are Osmosis Unlimited (John Jordan of Me Mom & Morgentaler playing with Kali of Kali and Dub Inc.), Sarah Segal-Lazar, Yiddish singalong with Urban Shtetl, and Bud Rice. I spoke to organizers Sarah and Aurora, NDG residents themselves, about how they got started with Porchfest and why this festival is so important to them.
Planning for Porchfest starts in January, and unlike many other festivals, Sarah points out that the festival doesn’t have to worry about city bureaucracy to impede the process. “Musicians perform on private property and citizens occupy the public spaces they normally do,” she says.
The original concept of Porchfest comes from Ithaca, New York and a few other cities have jumped on the idea. Aurora says, “I decided to try to start one here in NDG because I though it would be an ideal place to do it. Sarah helped out a lot last year, and this year we are basically coordinating it together. It’s easy for us to work together because we both have the same understanding of what Porchfest NDG should be: simple, fun, inclusive, community-oriented, and grass-roots.” The event has grown. Last year, 60 musicians were part of the festival. This year there are 100 participating.
Music is the heart and soul of the event, though there are a few storytelling porches this year. “They are accompanied by music, so they get a pass,” says Aurora.
They find participating musicians by good old hard work. “Last year we postered the neighbourhood and reached out to the handful of local musicians we knew, and the word just spread,” says Aurora. “This year all we had to do was announce that registration was open, and by the end of the week, 50 bands had already registered!”
Participation is open to everyone. Sarah says, “We don’t do any screening of the acts that want to be part of Porchfest – that would go against the democratic-participatory spirit of the fest! Anyone can participate (we have people from out of province singing) and the only requirement is that performances happen on porches in NDG.”
What about musicians without a porch? “We also tried something new this year which was for people who had porches but no musicians to “donate” their porch and we would match them with porchless performers,” says Sarah. “We didn’t want that element (the porch) to be a structural impediment to participating.”
Sarah and Aurora show, as with so many things in Montreal, that two people can accomplish great things by putting their heart into something. There are no commercial ties or sponsorships, so I hoped there was a benefit for them as well. Sarah especially likes the fact that there is a community building aspect to the event. “Music has the ability to bring people together,” she says.
For Aurora, just seeing the fruits of her efforts was a delight. “Last year I found it hard to wrap my head around the fact that we were the ones responsible for what was transpiring,” she says. “It was fun, but also a bit like running the last lap of a marathon, so it was a bit of a blur! The best part for me came after it was all over and I had caught my breath. It was seeing all the pictures and videos everyone sent us afterwards—having that kind of tangible evidence that people were already remembering this as something special. That’s when I was finally convinced that we’d succeeded, and felt that little twinge of pride.”
Running around for two days resulted in the biggest problem of all. “The shoes I wore last year were definitely an epic fail,” says Aurora. “Blisters!
Porchfest brings together the community and music in a special way. Aurora explains, “There’s something special about discovering music that’s been in your backyard this whole time. Plus, with local music scenes, shows are generally much more intimate than shows for a touring band, and they create stronger connections between the musicians and the audience. NDG doesn’t have a lot of small music venues like Mile End or the Plateau, but the hunger for it is definitely here. So Porchfest is a nice way of giving a ton of musicians that outlet all at the same time. It’s really a celebration of music and community, not just a bunch of random concerts.”
For Sarah, the effect Porchfest has on the neighbourhood is significant. She says, “Porchfest provides a platform for the NDG community to create meaningful ties and some good ol’ memories, for musicians to do their thing and for residents to do theirs. It creates a closeness between neighbours and gets people out discovering new parts of their neighbourhood. For musicians it gives them a venue to perform beyond the bar scene and for the rest of us to appreciate all the local talent that is hidden to a large percentage of the population.”
Among other things, Porchfest also ties to other parts of the NDG community. Sarah says that the community aspect is built-into the festival in other ways. “We are helped out by Sharon Sweeney from the NDG Community Council. Ethan Rilly is the local artist that designed this year’s poster and the poster is sold at Encore Books (profits are shared between all involved parties). We have performers playing in the Food Depot’s Westhaven community garden and at the Sherbrooke Forrest housing coop, and some cash will be raised for a local music program, the Head and Hands after school music program J2K.”
Porchfest takes place May 7 and 8 (Saturday and Sunday) in NDG. The website HERE contains maps and a schedule. The event is free and runs from around 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. In case of rain, the event is scheduled for May 14.