Music History

10 Pioneering Canadian Music Festivals

With only a few short months of adequate weather, Canadians go nuts for the outdoors between the May long weekend and Labour Day. If we’re lucky and not too locked down with work and school, we can maybe extend things until Thanksgiving. Maybe.

This could be why we weren’t much of a music festival-going national until fairly recently. Sure, there were outliers—the Winnipeg Folk Festival, for example, which has been running since 1974—but these large outdoor shows were something best left to the British and Europeans did. They knew how do to it. We didn’t.

Today, though, there’s barely a summer weekend—is there one?—that doesn’t feature some kind of gigantic music event. Even with the casualties of the past year—Bestival, Riot Fest, Pemberton, to name a few—we still have Field Trip, Wayhome, Hillside, Ottawa Bluesfest, Osheaga, Festival d’été de Québec (est. 1968!), Montebello Rockfest, Sound of Music Festival, Vedlt, Boots and Hearts, The Big Feastival and a series of jazz and folk events.

But none of these shows would be possible if it hadn’t been for brave pioneers who did their best to bring music festival culture to Canada.


1.The Freak-Out Festival (1969-1971)

Trying to capitalize on the success of Monterey and Woodstock, the Freak-Out Festival was held at Rockhill Park near Orangeville, Ontario. The first (July 1969) featured the Guess Who and Lighthouse as headliners while the following years were scaled-down affairs. Willie Nelson returned to play a show in 1980 for about 80,000 people. By 1985, though, the locals had had enough and all festivals at Rockhill Park came to an end.


2. Festival Express (1970)

Someone thought it was a good idea to stuff The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Flying Burrito Brothers and Delaney and Bonnie on a train pointed west, stopping along the way to play festivals in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. Oddly, it was a success. They even made a movie about it.


3.Man-Pop Festival (1970)

Led Zeppelin played Winnipeg? Yep. They headlined the Man-Pop bill that was supposed to happen at the old Winnipeg Stadium, but a summer storm blew the stage down, so everything had to be moved across the street into the old Winnipeg Arena. Those who managed to get in also saw Chilliwack, Iron Butterfly, the Youngbloods and a bunch more. Those who didn’t—the capacity of the arena was smaller than the stadium—staged a near-riot outside and kicked in a bunch of glass doors.


4.Heatwave (1980)

In hindsight, the timing of Heatwave was perfect because so many of the acts booked for this show at Mosport near Bowmanville, Ontario, were just breaking through by the time the date rolled around. The Talking Heads, Pretenders, Elvis Costello and The B-52’s were among the performers. The Clash was advertised as appearing but never showed up. Did they cancel or run into problems at the border? We never really found out.


5.The Police Picnic (1981-83)

In a 70-acre field known as The Grove (basically the northwest corner of Trafalgar and Dundas) in Oakville, at least 25,000 people came tosee the first Police Picnic featuring the Police (of course), Nash the Slash, the Payola$, Iggy Pop, The Go-Go’s and The Specials. Logistics, security and traffic were a nightmare, so the event most to CNE for ’82 and ’83 before it folded.


6.The CFNY Canada Day Party/Edgefest (1987-2006)

We at CFNY-FM (now 102.1 the Edge) had never heard of Molson Park in Barrie. Our initial reaction was “No one is gonna want to drive all the way up there.” But we were wrong. What was supposed to be a one-time-only thing celebrating the station’s 10th anniversary turned into an annual event that extended through the 90s. At one point, Edgefest was even a touring concert caravan not unlike Lollapalooza. Speaking of which…


7.Lollapalooza (1991-97)

People were so skeptical of the whole Lollapalooza concept that was handed stacks and stacks of tickets to give to anyone who would take them. The first-ever Toronto stop was in the sterile confines of old CNE Stadium. But for the next five years, it moved to Molson Park. People still talk about the legendary ’92 show which featured mainstage performers the Chili Peppers, Ministry, Pearl Jam AND Soundgarden, Lush, Ice Cube and the Jesus Mary Chain. Meanwhile, the side stage featured some weird band called Tool. The concept ran out of steam after 1997 and although Lollapalooza has been revived, it’s no longer a touring festival.


8.Another Roadside Attraction (1993, 1995, 1997)

Lollapalooza proved that traveling music festivals could do good business, so the Tragically Hip decided to get in on the act. The inaugural tour featured The Hip, Midnight Oil, Hothouse Flowers, Crash Vegas and Daniel Lanois while later years included everyone from Sheryl Crow to Blues Traveler to Matthew Sweet to Ziggy Marley.  The Hip might have mounted another tour in 1999, but they’d just finished being on the road promoting their Phantom Power album and didn’t have the energy to get it done. 


9. Edenfest (1996)

The middle 90s saw an explosion of music festivals: Lollapalooza, Warped, Summersault (an Our Lady Peace touring project), Edgefest (remember the touring edition), Another Roadside Attraction (the Hip’s tragically circus) and a few more. All did rather well–except one: Edenfest. Over 70,000 tickets were sold to the three-day weekend at Mosport—and another 20,000 breached security and broke in. While the crowd at a good time, promoter Mark Drost lost his shirt and ended up going to jail in a bizarre FBI case. Read the whole sad story here.


10. Summersault (1998, 2000)

Don’t confuse this one with the Australian event of the same name. When Our Lady Peace saw what the Hip had done with Another Roadside Attraction, they thought “Right! We can do that, too!” So they did. The first time around, they tapped bands like Sloan, Moist, I Mother Earth and Treble Charger to hit the road with them. After sitting out 1999, Summersault returned with guests the Foo Fighters, Sum 41, A Perfect Circle, Catherine Wheel, Treble Charger (again) and the Smashing Pumpkins. And speaking of OLP…


BONUS: Woodbine Racetrack (2016-17)

 Outside of Downsview Park—which can be a logistical nightmare because it’s controlled by three levels of government and has a working airport on-site—the best place for a festival-type event in Toronto is Woodbine Racetrack. About ten years ago, I was involved some discussions about turning over the acres of farmland on the west side of the track into a festival venue, but nothing ever came of that.  But Woodbine Entertainment, the owners of the property were always very keen to add music to their horseracing and gaming options.

Last July 3rd before the running of the 157th annual Queen’s Plate, Matthew Good, Hedley and the Strumbellas played for the grandstand. This year–running number 158–Our Lady Peace (July 1) and the Goo Goo Dolls (July 2) are booked for post-race concerts. And for $30, you get admission to both racing and the gigs.  More details can be found here.

Any other Canadian music festivals you’d like to add to the list? Got any comments about the ones on this list? Leave ‘em below.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37808 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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