Report and photos by Mark Morris

The little town of Mulhurst, overlooking the rather idyllic Pigeon Lake, is probably best known to Edmontonians for its lakeside cottages. What is less well-known is that it is home to a very successful festival, the Pigeon Lake Music Festival, which concentrates on rock and country music, with entirely Canadian line-ups. It has been running since 2017, but came into its own in 2022, when it was the first festival in Alberta after Covid restrictions were lifted. This year’s Festival runs from August 2 to 4.

However, for 2024 the promoters also added a teaser as a festival in itself, the Pigeon Lake Summer Showcase, which took place on the weekend of June 29 and 30. All the elements of the Festival’s success were there. The venue is the large and quite wooded Hilah Ayers RV park to the north of the town, which has over 500 festival camping lots – clearly part of the attraction is the ability to camp with one’s family and take in the music. The organization is excellent, with free parking, golf cart shuttles from the car park and the camping sites to the main arena, food and merchandise areas, and very friendly and helpful volunteer staff. The food concessions ranged from Thai to pizzas, cooked on the spot with some flamboyance in a wood-fired oven, and there was a licensed bar. Tickets were $120 for a whole day, or $216 for the whole weekend pass, and a major draw was that children under 12 got in free.

The music area has the feel of an intimate gathering. It’s not too large, ringed on two sides by concessions stalls and a generous line of porta-potties, and on the other two by a thick backdrop of trees. In front of one of these is a smallish stage under a wooden canopy, flanked by two towers of speakers, with a limited mosh pit in front of it. Near the back of the area is a group of picnic tables under cover, but otherwise it was standing room only – or rather, bring your own seating, which almost everyone did. There was a big screen in the centre of the area, with its own speakers, but that was a bonus rather than a necessity, since the stage was not that far from any point in the area.

The audience, at least for the Sunday I attended, was decidedly family-oriented – lots in their 30s, 40s, and 50s – and a very different clientele from an Edmonton festival concert. It was, I suspect, predominately a prairie audience, mostly white (though I surmised that this was because urban minorities simply didn’t known that the festival was on), and I was reminded strongly of an over-sized prairie family gathering at a camp site. How oversized? Think of a very very large outdoor wedding, and you are about there, and if you wandered around for five or seven minutes you would probably have seen every one. It was an enthusiastic audience, too, if not an especially demonstrative one; the woman from Fort Saskatchewan sitting beside me had not been to a Pigeon Lake festival before, and told me, with some awe in her voice,”It’s like a miniature Big Valley Jamboree”.

Saturday had included the Calgary rock band Loverboy and singer-songwriter Jamie Fine, and I missed Canadian actor and comedian Shaun Majumbder’s set on Sunday afternoon. There was a suggestion of rain in the afternoon air as the Canadian-American country music singer and multi-genre songwriter Tebey took the stage with his up-beat country music, fresh from his hit cover of the Weekend’s ‘Blinding Lights’. His set had a heavier sound than his studio work, not always to the advantage of his always interesting lyrics, but invigorating the afternoon audience.

During it, the drizzle started – umbrellas went up, ponchos of a multitude of varieties were pulled over heads, and the loudspeakers were lowered on their masts to be wrapped. It was also getting quite cold, and as the weather radar suggested it would be clear later in the evening (very accurately, as it turned out), I decamped for some dry warmth and a very good and reasonably priced pub meal at the Chef N Pigeon Lake at Pigeon Lake Village.

Alas, I missed Serena Ryder’s set – the rain came down heavily as I munched my burger, and she had to cut her set short. I was sorry that I had missed her, as the three final acts were all Canadian icons that had spanned generations of audiences. Ryder herself released her first full length CD in 1999, and the band that followed as the rain ceased and the sun attempted to come out split up in 2013. Lead singer Dallas Smith had already started a solo career, scoring a string of number 1 country hits. Default reformed in 2018, and have continued to have a strong following for their brand of hard rock.

This was Default’s first show of 2024, which is the 25th anniversary of their first ever concert in Vancouver. They certainly got the crowd in the mosh pit going, while smoke from bbq fires wafted over the backdrop of pine trees. Their high energy – and high decibels, once the speakers had been hoisted up again, blew away the rain, and the song from their 2005 album One thing Remains could hardly have been more apposite. My neighbour sang along:

And the rain comes and goes
And all is forgiven
Can we learn to let go?
So all is forgiven…

The final act of the night, and the main headliner of the Showcase, was the ever-popular Tom Cochrane. At 71, he has lost none of his energy or his charisma. It was noticeable that as soon as he came on stage, the atmosphere changed, both in the audience and on stage – to put it simply, here was a professionalism, a live excitement, that eclipsed what had come before. Having Red Rider as the backing group added to the energy, especially with Bill Bell on guitar. It was the first concert in the five Cochrane is giving in Canada this summer, with Calgary next on July 12.

It is a measure of the quality of the Pigeon Lake Festival that the main August Festival, which includes April Wine, Doug and the Slugs, Trooper, Sloan, Doc Walker, and Edmonton’s Cab’Ral, is completely sold out. I do hope the Festival organizers repeat the Summer Showcase next year, to give yet more the chance to experience this special venue.