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Cold comfort 

With its future hanging in the balance, The Khyber Club hosts In the Dead of the Winter. Sue Carter Flinn warms up to it.

As the season of discontent rolls through town, there is a bright spot—one that’s created not by a SAD therapy lamp, but through the sweet sound of voices. The In the Dead of Winter festival, running from February 17 to 19 at The Khyber Club, joins 18 artists who refuse to be bullied by one of the crappiest months of the year.

Organized by local musicians Jill Barber, Amelia Curran, Rose Cousins and Jenn Grant with Khyber Club manager Heather Gibson, the festival risked being overshadowed by HRM Real Property and Asset Management Service’s decision to close the club on February 4, instead of the original agreed-upon date of February 20. After a quick mobilization of the arts community to protect the club and the festival, the city changed its tune and the festival will remain at The Khyber, although news about the club’s ultimate fate is about as reliable as a Magic 8-ball.

All the more reason to wrap yourself in The Khyber’s warm red walls and listen to music by Cousins, Curran and Grant, along with Al Tuck, Gabe Minnikin, Andrea Curry, Meaghan Smith and Petunia, among many others.

Although most of these musicians perform frequently in the city, there hasn’t been a festival intended to showcase their wide range of talent. “It’s an experiment because there just aren’t that many music festivals in Halifax,” Cousins says. “There’s the Pop Explosion and Music Week, and stuff that happens during the film festival, but there isn’t really a Halifax music festival. It might be mostly folky, but it spans, so we’re calling it a music festival instead of a folk festival.”

Experimentation continues in the festival’s form. Each night is divided into solo slots for individual musicians or bands, as well as songwriter’s circles where groups of three musicians collect on stage and take turns performing. Cousins, who suggested the format based on The Cutting Edge Campfire Festival in Boston, is eager to see how Halifax responds.

“I’m looking forward to seeing this format that I’ve been part of for the last couple of years in Boston move into Halifax. I’ve been telling people how amazing it is for people to be put into a round with a few people that aren’t necessarily experienced in being in that format, but then stage magic happens—it’s pretty cool,” she says. “People start noodling on other people’s songs or sometimes we hook people up beforehand on email if they want to prepare something. It’s a neat way to meet musicians away from their bands.”

Toronto-based singer-songwriter Royal Wood, frequently compared to Ron Sexsmith in the songwriting department, understands the draw. “It becomes more of a storytelling circle—you talk about what you’re playing, what it meant, and you tend to share more in a circle with an audience than you tend to do with your own performance.”

It’s also a chance to test out new material; in Wood’s case, from his upcoming album, due out in April. For his solo slot on Friday night, Wood will be backed by In-Flight Safety, who performed with him on the same stage at last year’s Pop Explosion. “I love playing the Khyber—it’s such a nice, intimate venue,” he says. “It’s pretty much what you expect from Halifax—it’s a musician’s town and they seem to respect music.”

Cousins hopes that this respect for music filters through to the ears of city council. As a board member of the recently formed Khyber Performing Arts Society, she emotes practical optimism over its future. “It’s really exciting to see people in the arts community pull together and show their support for this venue that’s been so important in so many of our lives. I certainly hope that the crowd will be big anyway, but if this somehow increases it, it will do a couple of things: One, it will show the city that there is support for something like this and two, hopefully it will make the festival a success,” she says. “There’s lot of things at stake: A festival that wants to keep going and a music community that wants to keep a venue.”

In the Dead of Winter, February 17-19 at The Khyber Club, 1588 Barrington, 5pm onward, $10/day, $25/weekend, www.inthedeadofwinter.com

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