The Gathering: A kindred social creative conclave
Fire, Food, Music and Comedy at The Gathering in Burlington, Newfoundland
The Gathering is a fire, food and music festival located in rural Central Newfoundland where painting-inspired scenes make it difficult for artists to capture as the setting continuously changes—it’s an area that must be witnessed first-hand to appreciate the beauty bestowed.
Visitors will see fog-filled bays, and brightly colored fishing shacks set against a rugged coastline where crystal clear water turns waves into whitecaps as they jostle over the shoreline. Massive mammals breach the surface of the water to navigate enormous icebergs that slowly weave through waterways, brushing up against landmasses. Blue skies reveal details that may have been missed moments earlier. The landscape is like a watercolor being painted by Mother Nature, and the paint never dries because the artist is working on a masterpiece that showcases Earth in all her glory.
While rural, and some may say rundown, the site of The Gathering has something that few other festival venues have…stunning scenery. And an intangible mystic.
I flew from Phoenix to Gander, Newfoundland where I rented a car and drove northwest to Burlington, which is ground zero for The Gathering. My ‘ome for the next few days would be on a grassy knoll near the beach at Tent City overlooking a bay and flanked by two babbling brooks. After getting situated it was time to head down the street to Middle Arm (a small community not far from Tent City) for the Jiggs Supper (a traditional Newfoundland meal) along with some folksy cultural entertainment.
Next on the schedule was a comedy show at the local school gymnasium. With bellies full it was now time to bust a gut, and laugh we did! The line-up of comedians was second-to-none; some were Canada’s top comics. Actor/comedian/host/emcee and founder of The Gathering, Shaun Majumder, got things started. Impersonator Mark Critch had two sketches, one as Newfoundland and Labrador provincial Premier Dwight Ball, which had all the locals roaring with laughter. Unfortunately, as an American, I didn’t get many of the localized jokes. Just before the end of Mark’s sketch, there was a huge surprise…Premier Ball himself took to the stage. After the shock wore off, the audience found that the Premier was actually quite funny himself and a really good sport about the joking insults Mark had thrown. Another comedian, Matt Wright, took the stage in between Mark’s sketches as he prepared for his next act. This one, I knew all too well; it was Donald Trump. I’ll tell ya, Mark knocked it out of the park…the Trump mannerisms were spot on. Once again, he had the audience in stitches.
The headliner, Ron James, then took the stage. Ron is probably Canada’s most popular comic. I couldn’t help but be impressed by how Shaun was able to secure such well-known talent to such a small festival. Ron was absolutely suburb in his story telling and delivery. I was captivated with Ron’s fluid pace, and his physical comedy just added to the punch lines. All the comedians were extremely funny and every person who left the venue was exhausted by laughter.
Buses took everyone back to parking lots and to Tent City, where most of us disembarked and walked to camp, either to nestle up in tents, or hang out by The Gathering fire pit for some libations and socializing.
The next morning I headed in the opposite direction of Middle Arm to the town hall in Burlington for a community breakfast, which was pretty awful and not very plentiful. Dinner the night before wasn’t great either, so I was getting fearful and curious about the food facet of the festival. Thankfully, my fears were short lived, as the chef prepared meals were delicious. I headed to The Gathering grounds where chefs were preparing the afternoon meal and musicians were getting ready to take the stage. The Gathering site is stunning; set against a large bay that offers extraordinary views for festivalgoers.
After getting a plateful of food I sat at a nearby picnic table and listened to some delightful local music. I learned that nearly all the chefs, musicians and comedians hail from Newfoundland.
During The Gathering there are a number of side excursions (note: each have a separate fee), I signed up for two of them, the Brook Picnic and the Chef’s Hike. The Brook Picnic was up next and everyone with a ticket met at the Burlington Town Hall, just up the street from The Gathering site. We strolled down the street about an eighth of a mile before veering off on a dirt road that took us to a brook and swimming hole. When we arrived there were two guitarists strumming their instruments and singing some songs as chef Murray McDondald cooked up some fresh cod tacos.
While chef McDondald and crew prepared the main meal, each of us were given a bag with all kinds of goodies to tide us over. We found comfortable spots to sit while listening to the harmonic tunes being played. In our bags was a salad of colorful Newfoundland veggies coated in pineapple weed vinaigrette inside a Mason Jar, split pea hummus and sea salt pretzels, wildberry jam jams (molasses biscuits with a jam spread) and a homemade power bar of oats, nuts and dried fruit. To drink we had wild foraged iced tea…a taste of the land.
After the Brook Picnic I headed back to The Gathering grounds for the start of the evening entertainment…and, more food. All the bands/performers were excellent, from the soulful tunes of Kim Harris, to the folksy melodies of The Once, to the lively and energetic Celtic tunes of The Navigators.
I ended up leaving The Gathering grounds a bit before the end of the last performance and hopped on a bus back to Tent City. There were just a couple of us who headed to the lower part of Tent City. As we entered, we were surprised that not a single person was in the area. Just before walking past the fire pit one of my new found friends asked if I wanted to help him get the fire going and have a beer. I was so tired that I almost said no, but was so glad I hadn’t.
The wood was a bit damp and took us a while to get the fire going, and even longer for it to become an inferno. The two of us sat by the fire drinking a couple of Iceberg beers (beer made from iceberg water) and chatting away when a few other people came by and ask if they could join us. “Of course,” we said.
It wasn’t long before several other people came by. Then, a few more. Before we knew it, there must have been 25-30 people all gathered around the fire sitting in camp chairs. Then, out of nowhere, a guy broke out a guitar. “Awesome,” I thought. This guy was so talented he could have been one of the performers, but I don’t think he was.
As others heard the singing, music and revelry, more gathered ‘round. It wasn’t long and there must have been nearly 100 people around our campfire. I occasionally stoked the flames making sure to keep it ablaze while our entertainer wowed the crowed. A mystical thing was happening and everyone there could feel the energy—the bond that was being formed…if only for a moment in time. Many people in the crowd started to contribute to the entertainment. One guy next to me took an empty beer can and put some sand and rocks inside and began shaking it to the beat. Another person broke out a tambourine, while another took turns at the guitar. Others were clapping in unison, while some picked up the harmonies. This was, The Gathering, a group of strangers coming together to share a moment in time that none of us will ever forget. There was laughter, cheering, emotions shared. It was magical!
If was after 2:00am by the time I made it back to my tent, but the merriment lasted another hour before the rain came and faded the moment into a memory. The rain lasted until mid-morning. As it tapered off, everyone began to rise from their tents. I packed up my belongings and took them to the car, as it was my last evening at The Gathering, even though there was another night of festivities. I did however have one more side excursion to attend, the Chef’s Hike.
Around 1:00pm near Tent City Shaun arrived to a waiting crowd ready for the hike and some gourmet grub. As we left Tent City we crossed one of the babbling brooks that flanked the campgrounds and worked our way up the bluff and through a forested area. Half an hour later, we descended to a beautiful grassy knoll nestled within a private cove looking out onto the bay. Come to find out, this was Shaun’s hide-a-way. He has a little cabin, a stage and a large grassy area above the beach with loads of picnic tables. Chef Jeremy Charles was preparing lunch, and in The Gathering fashion, live music was being performed as we walked into the setting.
It was a little overcast when we arrived, which was perfect for the hike, but shortly thereafter the skies cleared and it was a stunning conclusion to The Gathering, my first, and I hope not my last.
After lunch I actually had some one-on-one time with Shaun (which is very difficult to come by) and an opportunity to interview him (see the video above around the 7 minute mark). As you’ll see in the interview, I asked Shaun to tell me how The Gathering got started and to describe what it’s all about for those who’ve never been. It’s a great interview, so I hope you’ll watch.
If you’re looking for a truly unique festival experience, you must put The Gathering 2017 (late August) on your calendar. The festival still has a lot of refinement to go through, but given the meager budget and size of the community, it’s quite impressive what they’ve been able to accomplish. From the chefs, musicians, comedians to the artisans, the talent is top-notch. An added bonus to The Gathering festival is the opportunity to meet and mingle with the people of Newfoundland, who are quite special…so incredibly kind-hearted, generous and friendly. I was blown away by the amazing people I met, and the connections I’ll never forget.
If you’ve ever been to The Gathering in Burlington, Newfoundland, please leave a comment below and share your experience. Click the following link if you’d like to see more of my photos from Central Newfoundland.