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Wintersong 

In the Dead of Winter returns to bring warmth—and kickass music—to these bitter winter nights. Tara Thorne puts on her boots and heads out.

At this time last year, the dead of winter wasn’t fucking around.

Dropping into the middle of three of the coldest days of 2006, the inaugural In the Dead of Winter festival—packed full of more than 30 singing songwriters—brought out music lovers bundled to their eyes, glasses fogging in the sudden warmth of the Khyber Club, exposed skin rubbed raw and red by bitter winds, hair pulled skyward, lined with static, by doffed toques. They caught eyes with one another, the indie kids and the scene vets, and shook their heads in disbelief. A music festival. In February. In Halifax.

Audiences were modest at first but grew with each passing line-up, and on the final night, February 19, the bar was buzzing on an undercurrent of the kind of bittersweet cheer reserved for the funerals of particularly vibrant characters—patrons stoked to see rare, cheap acoustic performances from Joel Plaskett and Matt Mays, happy to purchase and set alight each hour’s new, discounted shooter special, but knowing that they would never do it in this place again.

Because the beginning of the In the Dead of Winter festival marked the end of the Khyber Club, with every last beer sold from behind the bar. The city shut it down the next day. (And it’s still empty.)

“People would sit and watch me write on the chalkboard to see what the next thing was going to be,” says Heather Gibson, who ran the Khyber in its final days and conceived of In the Dead of Winter, of that night. “There were a lot of lit things for no apparent reason, just to hopefully burn off some of the liqueur and blue Curaçao. I still have that last little bit of blue Curaçao. I don’t have the heart to throw it out.”

Though the Khyber and In the Dead of Winter have been inextricably linked for the past year—and that was an accident anyway, with the festival in the planning stages since October 2005—that changes with the sophomore edition of the festival, kicking off February 8. It has shifted to the north end and into the One World Cafe, the BusStop Theatre and, for its finale, St. George’s Round Church. The line-up’s grown by a couple musicians with close to half coming from out of town, while last year’s fest featured mostly locals. An extra day has also been added.

But still: a music festival. In February. In Halifax.

“I know from the bar business,” says Gibson, sitting with coffee and co-organizers Tanya Davis and Don Brownrigg at Alteregos, the BusStop’s neighbour on Gottingen Street, “the first few weeks of January are pretty tough in doing live music. By the time you get into February, people are starting to come out, going, you know, ‘What’s going on?’ So it seemed to make sense and I never wanted it to be a summer festival. I always wanted it to be a winter festival, I don’t know why—maybe it’s because I’m from the Prairies and I love the snow and the cold.”

“For the type of music, too, there isn’t really a place, a showcase for them other than the official showcases like the one at the ECMAs or the music weeks where they have the roots stage or songwriters’ circles,” says Brownrigg, a Halifax folk artist. “There are alternative festivals like the Pop Explosion, Shoreline, but that totally misses what’s going on here.”

The type of music is acoustic-driven and lyrically focused, of the alt-country, folk and blues varieties. There are no screaming boys, no turntables, no (on-purpose) distortion. Not that those are bad things—they’re just not In the Dead of Winter things. This year’s fest includes performances by blues artist Ndidi Onukwulu, Newfoundland’s Liz Picard and Sherry Ryan, folk master Bob Wiseman and the Olympic Symphonium from Fredericton. All the organizers will play—including Gibson, backing Davis on cello—and some from last year’s bill will return, including Al Tuck, Royal Wood, Old Man Luedecke and Yellow Jacket Avenger.

“I don’t feel like there’s a lot of my taste in music going on in the city,” says Gibson, who started the festival as a “self-indulgent” way to hear her favourite styles. “There are enough of those musicians, but they can’t get booked or they don’t get booked. And there are lots of them in the area, whether it’s in the Atlantic area or down through New England and Toronto and Montreal, but there are no venues here taking the risk to do anything. Jim Bryson”—guitarist for Kathleen Edwards, a terrific artist in his own right, who is playing the finale on February 10—“has said to us that he’s been waiting to try and play something like this, but there’s not been any kind of offer from Halifax. And he’s coming for, in my opinion, a favour.

“I always wanted it to be a musicians’ festival,” she adds, “that the public happened to like to come to.”

Friday, February 17, 2006. It’s after nine. Rose Cousins and Jenn Grant, co-organizers of the inaugural fest, are deep in the south end, singing back-up for Matt Mays at his show with Symphony Nova Scotia in the Cohn. They’re supposed to be deep in the downtown, on the Khyber stage, singing at In the Dead of Winter.

Heather Gibson takes the stage, asks the crowd if anyone has anything to read, or sing, or perform to fill the time until the musicians arrive. She coaxes a girl whose name has started to get around, but no one’s really seen her yet.

She steps in front of the mike, looking out into a mostly indifferent, chatty crowd. Then Tanya Davis opens her mouth and out comes that now-familiar, still- hypnotic cadence of hers, the confident, heart-piercing one that completely belies her unassuming everyday demeanour, filling the room, knocking it silent. Knocking it dead.

It was that kind of event.

“I was very new to Halifax,” Davis says now, “I was just starting to meet enough people that I was comfortable to go and hang out. It was a really great weekend last year.”

She has a history of festival organization in her home province of PEI, so she immediately signed on when Gibson asked her. “I moved to Halifax to do music, it was why I came here. I didn’t know a single person, I knew there was a vibrant community that I wanted to be involved in. And I feel like I’ve been getting involved as a musician and a player, and I have a lot of friends who are musicians and I feel like there’s a community of peers.”

One of those peers is Amelia Curran, the only musician from last year’s team—with Grant and Cousins, Jill Barber was the fourth—to remain with the event.

“It’s the only other thing I do,” she says in a separate conversation in the same cafe. “Which is great. Cause I have a bad habit of getting involved in way too many things and now I can say, ‘No, I have the other thing that I do. And it’s the In the Dead of Winter festival.’ It’s great timing, because it’s awards season and conference season, which is really...annoying”—she laughs with lungs made sore from a bad cold—“...and depressing.” She laughs again. “It’s the week before the ECMAs. But we can just get right in there before the ECMAs, before people are too rotted at the industry or too false-opinionated, which happens every year.”

“It’s on purpose,” says Gibson of her festival’s timing, one week before the East Coast Music Awards hit Halifax on February 15. “Because the other regional Atlantic artists are coming for the festival and staying. It happened that way with the Khyber last year—we were two weeks before. We’re gonna run into their press and into the hoopla of it, and that’s fine, but what it’s done is to bring artists here that are coming anyway. Some of them have showcases, some are doing no cases, but we wouldn’t have been able to fly eight people from Newfoundland at this stage in the festival.”

“It works for us because we don’t have the money to completely pay for travel and things like that,” says Curran, herself a two-time 2007 ECMA nominee for the stellar War Brides. “It’ll expand. This is our one-point-five year. It’s the first time out of the Khyber Club, first time working out of more than one venue. There’s still a lot of locals but we want to have locals anyway. At least half, I think. It’s the wintertime, it’s Halifax—I mean, who do you want to give a really good gig to in the wintertime? The people who are here slugging through it anyway.”

Locals on the bill include Ruth Minnikin, David Myles, Benn Ross, Ghost Bees, Jill Barber and Andy McDaniel.

“I think Halifax’s audiences need this festival,” says Curran. “Because after losing that many venues, I can’t even count, and the musicians are pointing the finger at the venues and the venues are pointing the finger at the audiences, I don’t know whose fault it is. Maybe there isn’t a fault.” She pauses. “But we’re literally in the dead of winter. It’s very accessible. You pay your 10 dollars, you sit your ass down, you have a beer and you can watch 10 different musicians at this thing. It’s so easy. It’s so easy to do. Why don’t we all do it?”

In the Dead of Winter, February 8 to 11 at the BusStop Theatre (2203 Gottingen), One World Cafe (2412 Agricola) and St. George’s Round Church (2222 Brunswick), single tickets $5-$25, passes $18-$60, www.inthedeadofwinter.ca See our music listings for more info.

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