The Gateway Festival held in Bengough, Saskatchewan is a rare breed in the ever-changing music festival landscape. Just finished its fourteenth edition, it is one of the more unique festivals one can attend in the summer circuit while also being one of the least flashy. At Gateway, there are no giant art installations or monuments to corporate benevolence, save for one lonely inflatable can of Coors Light. The refreshing lack of corporate presence stems from the fact that Gateway is put on by the not-for-profit Bengough Municipal Arts Council, as opposed to festivals put on by talent buyers which used to dominate the festival market. Their mission statement intuitively explains their programming and what makes this festival an effective and special experience that other communities should take notice of.
I should make it clear early on that this year I attended Gateway Festival as a performer, playing with Beach Body for an early afternoon Garden Stage performance and with Nick Faye and the Deputies in the late afternoon on the Main Stage. This may create a bit of a bias, but I truly think that one of Gateway’s biggest strengths is that it presents many opportunities for development of local artists. While rural Saskatchewan’s definition of local might encompass more space in comparison to southern Ontario, the population density of Saskatchewan permits the entirety of the province to root wholeheartedly for the new and developing Saskatchewan acts that appear in Bengough. Many groups are offered a significant festival experience early in their career, like the breezy songwriter Amaya Lucyk, while others open for established musical heroes, like Megan Nash inviting festival attendees close with her intimate storytelling before the headline set of Canadian indie veteran Kathleen Edwards. These opportunities position Saskatchewan artists as valid and important to the community and the Canadian music industry at large.
While Gateway is certainly guitar-centric, the festival does an admirable job of meeting its goal of “present[ing] a pan-Canadian selection of artists highlighting both national and regional cultural diversity.” Though it can’t boast demographic proportional representation, the roaring success of Terra Lightfoot’s rowdy virtuosity and the rapt attention for Juno award winner William Prince’s troubadour sermons highlight the importance diversity has played for festival attendees and programmers. While it may not be combatting structural power imbalances as directly, something as simple as the presentation of John K. Samson (former Weakerthans founder) next to Steven Page (former Barenaked Ladies founder) uniquely bridges the cultural divide from city-slicker to small-town locals as they unite to sing along. It’s one thing to have a crowd in rural southern Saskatchewan sing along with Samson; it’s a very different thing for Steven Page to sing along with “Winter Wheat” backstage, word for word, in full view of the audience through the cattle fences.
It should be noted that this festival is largely powered by volunteers, and this is because the festival works to meet its goal of “[creating] avenues which will establish revenues that can be put back into the community.” There are the obvious examples on the festival grounds, like the official Gateway merchandise and numerous food vendors, but that barely begins to cover the ways the festival brings money into the community. The Bengough Community Outdoor Pool was a popular destination in early iterations of the festival, so the organizing committee capitalized and have been programming an afternoon pool stage where songwriting circles take place next to a near-capacity pool crowd that pays directly to the community of Bengough. The community thrift shop holds a massive two-day sale where plenty of festival attendees and performers alike leave with unique items while the profits transfer to the community. Sure, while programming the Kentucky Headhunters might not earn the festival any cool points with the hipster crowd, it does an extremely effective job of drawing people like my mother-in-law from two hundred kilometres away who generally wouldn’t have attended the festival otherwise. So while it may seem odd that the backstage bartenders are not being paid, they are thrilled to be serving their community and contributing to its collective wellbeing while rocking out to Big Sugar and collecting autographs.
With a recently announced fifteenth edition, it looks like the Bengough Gateway Festival will continue rambling on for good reason as other “larger” festivals sink away. Gateway is founded on the mandate of building up the community around it. As a result, the organizers are building a sustainable festival ecosystem that is working towards including everyone. I suspect audiences and musicians will continue to flock to Bengough for years to come.