Kazoo! Fest asks: What does an accessible festival look like?

In its 9th edition, the Guelph music festival aimed for physical accessibility, financial accessibility, and diverse programming that appeals to its multi-faceted community.

- Apr 14, 2016
All photos by Tom Beedham.

Walk down Macdonell Street eight months out of 12, and you’ll find sidewalks littered with 20-somethings dressed for the club, unwanted fast food, and vomit. Guelph's club thoroughfare and the centre of its late-night fast food offerings, September through April, this is an undergrad's playground.

Just 100 km west of Toronto, Guelph is smaller than other cities in the province, but it also balances multiple personalities. Variably recognized as a hippie town, a farm town, a university town, and Ontario’s Portlandia, it also has something of an identity crisis. With University of Guelph residents accounting for nearly 19% of the overall population, the cultural makeup of the city is thrown for a loop each spring as the winter semester comes to a close and brings with it a mass exodus of students returning to their hometowns.

But for one week every April, with exams in full sway, local concert presenter Kazoo! reclaims the space for its namesake festival Kazoo! Fest and sends audiences on an inter-arts event crawl that is a potent reminder of how vibrant, vital, innovative, and inclusive Guelph’s permanent residents can be.

Macdonell Street

Guelph's Macdonnel Street

Guelph isn’t an easy place to make things like this happen; it just happens to be somewhere that cares about making sure they do.

For its 9th annual festival, Kazoo! has programmed a diverse five days between concert sets from acts like Julie Doiron, Chad VanGaalen, Cris Derksen, Yonatan Gat, Fiver, Sandro Perri, Nap Eyes, Bonjay, and Partner, gallery exhibits and multimedia installations, film screenings, interdisciplinary performances, a flea market, and the festival’s annual print expo. Centred in the small downtown core, each day radiates outward into the surrounding residential neighbourhoods and still manages to be completely walkable. After securing myself a festival “Crony” pass, I plan this year’s visit around the variety on offer, hop on a Greyhound on Wednesday opening night, and dig my feet in for as much as I can take.

Starting my festival at Silence – a DIY venue for experimental music operating out of the space of a volunteer-renovated, former mechanic’s shop – itself a vibrant testament to the collaborative, collective spirit of Guelph’s music and arts scenes, I immediately find the festival’s spirit manifested in a multimedia presentation that’s sandwiched between the second world premiere of Chad VanGaalen’s animated short Tarboz and a performance from pop Theremin virtuoso Clara Venice (joined here by “live” video band).

Clara Venice at Silence

Clara Venice

Know Your Neighbours is the collaborative audio-visual enterprise of Devon Kerslake, Jenny Mitchell, Scott Haynes and Curtis Walker – a project colliding guitar, bass, Omnichords, keyboards, live drawing, and collage projections with recordings of interviews conducted with residents of Guelph’s St. Patrick’s Ward (a.k.a. the Ward) about their neighbourhood. Brought to life on money from Kazoo! and Ed Video Media Arts Centre’s Look Hear micro-grant, it’s a project that likely would have never existed without this presenting body – a multi-generational regional cross-section of a rapidly changing community.

Speaking with Mitchell, the mobile studio coordinator for CFRU, after the performance, I learn just how deep the project’s roots in community go as she explains the concept’s origin as an icebreaker activity that began after she and Haynes connected with Kerslake and Walker through mutual friends. “It’s sort of an ‘old Guelph meets new Guelph’ framed around the question, ‘Who is better suited to meet the neighbours? A brand new perspective coming in from a fresh town, or people who have been here for a really long time?’”

Kazoo! and projects like Know Your Neighbourhood and the All Over the Map community tour that resulted in a PS Guelph-published cassette/zine documenting it prove that Guelph’s music scene values and evaluates its relationship to the area and histories that surround them, and in turn, they play an important role in a community that’s often defined by transience.

Bonjay at eBar


Guelph isn’t an easy place to make things like this happen; it just happens to be somewhere that cares about making sure they do. When I track down Kazoo! founder Brad McInerney at the festival’s annual Sunday morning pancake breakfast closing ceremonies, I get a better idea of some of the work that goes into making it all work.

“Guelph has a very big issue,” McInerney says. “We’ve hit a certain point, and there’s only a few venues that are accessible above 200 people.”

When he says “accessible” here, he’s using it to mean physical accessibility, financial accessibility, and diversity in programming. "I think for us it’s just always to remember that we’re not speaking to this one audience.”

Because Guelph’s downtown is old, aspiring venue owners often settle on what they can get, and this has mostly resulted in “proper” concert venues that are makeshift, inherited spaces that require audiences to climb one or more floors of stairs to attend an event.

Chad VanGaalen

Chad VanGaalen

It’s these criteria that send Kazoo! searching for alternative spaces every year, instead opting mainly to support physically accessible spaces and local businesses willing to open their doors to event-goers for free or pay-what-you-can rates. After five days spent venue hopping between a boxing gym, cafes, a church, vintage shops, a dance studios, and yes, even some “proper” concert venues, too, McInerney barely grumbles over the decaf he mistakenly poured into his mug. They've been looking into spaces that would solve these problems since August. “We had a list two pages long of venues that we went through,” McInerney says.

Just a sample of what made the cut: Kazoo! treated audiences to sets from Simone Schmidt’s Fiver project in the Dublin Street United Church; Yonatan Gat and Keita Juma rumbled through the TNT Boxing Academy; Cris Derksen and Anamai played a mixed arts venue operated by the Guelph Black Heritage Society; Constantines frontman Bry Webb and Kid Millions participated in an improvised collaboration with Montreal dance artists Leanne Dyer and Katie Ward at dance studio Movement 42; Elaquent and Partner entertained midday audiences in humble cafés. Meanwhile, audiences seeking a trinket from Ryan Cassidy’s Trinketron 6750 installation had to visit the city’s farmer’s market before noon on Saturday.

Elaquent at Planet Bean


Of course, without regular venue staff on hand, it takes a lot of volunteer hours to pull off an event of this scale.

As the owner and operator of the Golden Bus, a school bus-turned-mobile-event-space she will later park in the middle of St. George’s Square for a series of film screenings on Saturday, Mitchell knows firsthand what it takes to make all this transpire, but she sums up the epic balancing act that’s at play here in simple terms that almost downplay the work involved.

“Kazoo! Fest to me is like the festival where we all take all of our various far-reaching endeavours and put on the same hats to make one thing go really well, so there’s a lot of double duty, triple duty, quadruple duty, a lot of sound people who are bartending another night and then are in a band,” Mitchell says. Over the course of the week, she will also MC some of the festival’s events and even open her home to Julie Doiron as part of the festival’s billeting program.

Partner at Making Box Theatre comedy bar


While many event organizers are willing to call their festivals community-activating events only to spend a weekend herding wristbanded audiences between a fistful of concert halls, Kazoo! Fest engages audiences and convinces them to interact with the wider Guelph community in meaningful ways that are manifested well beyond a collaboration with the local microbrewery’s contribution of a small batch festival-brand IPA.

Mitchell sums it up: “Carving out spaces that fit a specific kind of environment that hasn’t existed before, you can open up opportunities for these shows that wouldn’t exist anywhere else."

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