Big Belle finds her jam

August 25, 2022

Blueberry Jam started in 2019 as an Outdoor Concert at Big Belle Farm, a 170 year old heritage farm owned by Paul Meagher and Adele MacInnis-Meagher on Mabou Ridge, NS. The event, formed through a collaboration between Big Belle Farm and local born musician, Rankin MacInnis, is a way to celebrate and promote both the wild blueberry industry of Cape Breton/Nova Scotia as well as the incredible music of the province.

Outdoor Concerts:

Friday, August 19th, 2022
Doors 5 p.m., Music 6 p.m.-12 a.m

Saturday, August 20th, 2022
Doors 1 p.m., Music 2 p.m.-12 a.m.

The Harvest Series

Oct 7th-9th, 2022

Regulations: 19+ to attend

Jam co-organizer Rankin MacInnis, on keys, fronts Rankin and the Broken Reeds

This may be the fourth year for the Blueberry Jam music festival, but in many ways it’s really the beginning, as the event hopes to emerge from the restrictions of the COVID pandemic.

“This is the first year we’re going to see it as we all envisioned it with the farm and the size of the crowd we wanted to have,” co-organizer Rankin MacInnis says of this year’s outdoor event, scheduled for August 20 and 21 at Big Belle Farm in Mabou.

The Jam had its genesis in 2019, when the farm hosted a one-day event with six acts, including MacInnis’ own Rankin and the Broken Reeds. In 2020, enough of the early pandemic restrictions were lifted to allow for a socially distanced crowd of 250. That same year, they added the Harvest Series, a three-day mini festival in October.

Last year, the Jam grew to a two-day event, still capped at 250 due to COVID restrictions, and with the Harvest Series also growing to include matinee shows.

This year’s event, which will feature more than 20 acts, including Lennie Gallant, is expected to also grow its audience.

“We’re trying not to grow too fast so that we’re able to anticipate any issues,” says co-organizer Paul Meagher, who purchased the farm in 2010 with his wife, Adele MacInnis-Meagher. “I would say more around 500 is what we’re budgeting for (in 2022). Beyond that would be gravy.”

“We probably sold as many (tickets) as we could have sold on the first one,” Meagher adds. “The second one and the third one were definitely limited to 250 tickets, due to COVID restrictions. And we were pretty fortunate in the timing of both (events) because restrictions generally relaxed quite a bit by the third week in August. We were between the waves (of COVID).”

He says organizing and promoting the event has changed a lot in just three years, noting that they used more “traditional avenues” to market the Jam in 2019, like local print and radio ads and erecting wooden signs in the area.

“It’s all social media and word of mouth now,” Meagher notes. “In some ways COVID was a drag in terms of limiting the number of people you could have. But on the other hand, it limited the number of events that were going on and probably created a demand for the few events that were going on.

“The other benefit was it was easier to book artists. There wasn’t as much competition for their services.”

Although COVID limited the size of crowds, MacInnis says the Jam didn’t face the same challenges as larger music festivals, many of which had to cancel.

“We’re still not developing our lineups the same as these bigger festivals (like JazzFest or Stan Rogers Folk Festival),” he explains. “They have bigger budgets and sponsorships, and grants. These artists who would fill the headline spot are not necessarily the artists that are the bigger focus at our event.”

“Every artist that we bring in is extremely good, but they might not be as known as some of the people who are household names from the East Coast,” he adds. “We’re so lucky to have so many here who can hold the stage with anybody, but not necessarily be the ones you see at every festival.”

The Blueberry Jam grew from an idea Meagher had shortly after buying the farm. He wanted to host an annual music event to celebrate the local blueberry industry and shared his idea with MacInnis, who came up with the festival’s name.

“We had the initial discussion when Rankin was organizing a St. Paddy’s Day concert at the Carleton,” Meagher recalls. “At that point I was thinking we should have a concert up there, but nothing was really prepared to do so at that point.”

“And just to see the amount of people who are coming out for something that isn’t Celtic… it just shows the wide appreciation for music we do have at home.”

“You can kind of divide the major responsibilities into two,” he says. “One being that there has to be someone to organize the musicians and promote the event through images and graphics and so on. And that was more of (MacInnis’) role.”

“And our role was to get the infrastructure in place and figure out the venue so we could hold the concert there. For us what that meant was getting the back area of the barn prepped so you could have musicians playing from there and getting the electrical set up. It required quite a bit of plug-ins so that musicians could run all the sound equipment, so we had to upgrade all the electrical to do that.

“Even last year we switched from the (electrical) feed coming from the house to the barn, to the feed coming directly to the barn on its own service. So, it’s ongoing, some of the improvements to the venue.”

Their efforts earned the Jam an East Coast Music Award nomination earlier this year for Event of the Year. MacInnis says being able to use that nomination in their marketing and in attracting artists has certainly helped.

“It’s a nod to every music lover,” he says. “But it’s a really nice nod to get within the industry in our early years, and to be able to grow with that and have that to say as we approach other artists and to expand what we’re doing, it’s pretty magnificent.”

Jah’Mila was featured during last year’s event

“Almost every artist on the East Coast goes through those nominations and sees all of their friends or people they look up to or play with being nominated. So, we would have been noticed by every artist paying attention on the East Coast.”

MacInnis will once again be doing double duty at this year’s Jam, performing with his band, as well as heading promotion and working with the featured artists. He says what has surprised him the most is how quickly the event has found an audience.

“What kind of surprised me is that as somebody who plays Celtic music, I’m used to playing so many shows in Inverness County and Cape Breton,” explains MacInnis, a native of Mabou. “And just to see the amount of people who are coming out for something that isn’t Celtic…it just shows the wide appreciation for music we do have at home.”

“I’m not surprised by the appetite. I’m just surprised by how big the appetite is.”

For Judique musician Archie Rankin, making his Blueberry Jam debut this summer offers a bit of nostalgia.

Rankin is a member of the folk group Villages, who will be headlining the Friday show at the Jam this year. He witnessed the event in 2021 for the first time as an audience member, and he says while the Jam is an exciting addition to the local music scene, it also conjures up memories of his childhood travelling to Scottish concerts with his family.

“It’s a new, exciting festival, but it’s nostalgic for me just because growing up going to the concerts in Cape Breton, all the Scottish concerts (like Judique’s Kintyre Farm or the Broad Cove concert) – you’re packing your cooler for the day, and your blankets, and you’re parking in the field.”

He says he had heard about the Jam, but none of that prepared him for what he experienced just arriving at the event.

“You drive up there (on Mabou Ridge), and you’re driving through this beautiful farmland, and you get up to this incredible farm that’s just picturesque, and it just goes on for miles – as far as the eye can see. You couldn’t get a better setting.”

Along with Rankin, who plays acoustic guitar, Villages also includes three cousins who all hail from the Whycocomagh area, including Jon Pearo, mandolin and vocals, Matthew Ellis, vocals, and Travis Ellis, electric guitar. Although they all met while going to high school in Mabou, this year’s Jam will be their first opportunity to play at home.

Villages has been on the road for much of 2022, playing the Folk Alliance festival in Kansas City in May, and touring with Matt Mays in New Brunswick and Ontario. So, the Blueberry Jam opportunity is a welcome one.

“To have this festival with kind of a built-in audience, with fans of all the different artists that are going to be playing there, it’s a win-win situation.”

“That’s what I like about it. There might be some people there to see you, or people who are there to see other bands who might not necessarily know about you. You get those (new) ears on your music and you take away some new fans.”

To have this festival with kind of a built-in audience, with fans of all the different artists that are going to be playing there, it’s a win-win situation.”

Archie Rankin