Big acts. Small crowds.

Think about the last concert you went to. Did you need binoculars to see your favourite act way down on the stage below? Did you wonder whether you’d have been better off listening to their CDs at home?

Then the Festival of Small Halls may be just your ticket.

It’s a circuit of concerts in community centres and other intimate venues across Eastern Ontario, each with an average capacity of about 150 people. One of the smallest is the tiny Union Hall at a rural crossroads in Clayton, Ontario. It dates back to 1857 and accommodates just 80.

But just because the venues are small doesn’t mean the talent is meagre. Fortunate Ones, a Juno-nominated indie folk duo from St. John’s, headlined at the Union Hall in 2015. Country star Corb Lund and country-folk trio The Good Lovelies played two shows each in other small halls.

From the blizzard of applications, the festival chooses mainly country, folk and indie pop acts. The key factor? They have to be fun to watch. “We decide mostly based on their live performance,” says festival general manager Kelly Symes.

Each show includes a local opening act recommended by hall managers. And most evenings have a fundraising component for the venue, such as a bake sale or a potluck supper. It’s not unheard-of for ticket holders to find themselves noshing on casserole or butter tarts at a communal table next to the performers who will be on stage an hour later. “It’s pretty special. You’re up close with the musicians,” says Symes.

So how did this start? The people behind Ottawa’s Bluesfest licensed the Festival of Small Halls name and concept from an organization in Prince Edward Island that started a similar festival in 2008. The Eastern Ontario version began as a pilot project in three halls in 2014. The following year, it expanded to 15 concerts in 14 venues. Twelve of those 15 shows sold out, and all 14 halls reapplied to host in 2016. This year, they will all be back, plus more new venues.

The venues are scattered between the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence River. As well as the aforementioned Union Hall, there are several locations in Lanark County:

Almonte Old Town Hall
Balderson United Church
Stonefields, Beckwith
Althorpe Bolingbroke Community Hall
Maberly Hall
McDonald’s Corners Agricultural Hall
Union Hall, Mississippi Mills
Tatlock Community Hall

St. Andrew’s United Church, Pakenham


Photo by David Irvine.