Toronto-area music fests return to outdoor live shows after 18-month pandemic pause

Toronto-area artists, musicians and directors are excited about performing in this weekend's music festivals, including MixTO and Carassauga, after a year and a half without live entertainment because of the pandemic.

'It's so great to be able to hear people sing and play without the Zoom delay,' says musician

Donna Garner, shown playing the accordion, is artistic director for Garner Theatre Productions, which is hosting a series of performances this weekend at Monarch Park. (CBC)

The heat won't stop the music this weekend in the Greater Toronto Area.

After more than a year of virtual performances and Zoom calls, some in the city's musical community are beyond excited to finally host live performances outdoors.

Local artists, musicians, actors, directors and performers are back on the scene in several festivals this weekend. With the hot weather, and loosened public health restrictions — especially outdoors — it's welcome relief, they say.

"This is our first public performance since the pandemic started," said Donna Garner, artistic director of Garner Theatre Productions. The company began hosting a free live concert at Monarch Park on Saturday, and there will be another one Sunday starting at 2:15 p.m. ET.

We have to do what we can to keep people engaged in something other than a screen in their face.- Donna Garner, artistic director, Garner Theatre Productions

Garner's lineup consists of professional actor-musicians who've performed across North America, Japan, and Austria. The show also invites audience members to participate by providing lyrics and chords to either sing or play along with their own instruments.

Garner Theatre Productions is performing a 'jam concert' this weekend at Monarch Park, where audience members can join in by singing or playing along with a musical instrument. (Jessica Ng/CBC)

"I've been planning this one for over a year," Garner said. "We have to do what we can to keep people engaged in something other than a screen in their face."

It's an important event for Garner, as music carried her, and her co-musicians, through the pandemic.

"Expressing myself in music, in text, as an actor, has really fuelled my growth as a human being," she said. 

One of the guitarists at her show says despite the hot weather, it's "such a joy" to be playing outdoors, in front of a live audience again.

"It's so great to be able to hear people sing and play without the Zoom delay," Hanuel Yi said. 

In another corner of the city — at Lynx Music on Emerson Avenue — the MixTO Festival is back for 2021 after its 2019 start. Running through this weekend, it offers an eclectic mix of artists highlighting the diverse musical talents and cultural origins of the city. A full festival, it also features food vendors, children's activities, and custom visual art installations in addition to multiple musical performances by bands, DJs and artists.

Alexander Bordokas, artistic director of Uma Nota Music and Productions, says the festival is following municipal and provincial public health guidelines as MixTO returns for 2021. (CBC)

"We're really happy to be back for a in-person festival," said Alexander Bordokas, artistic director of Uma Nota Music and Production. "But it's a hybrid event. Everything we learned last year, we're applying that as much as possible this year."

He's referring to the Zoom calls, online content production, and public health restrictions in the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've had to learn how to become TV producers," he added, noting the pandemic had driven musicians online.

As a result, MixTO 2021 is streaming online, with additional content available.

The festival closes Sunday night with a reggae performance.

"It's about good music, expression, being around each other, outside," Bordokas said.

In Mississauga at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre, annual festival Carassauga returns as a drive-in live concert this weekend. In Markham, the TD Markham Jazz Festival is hosting a series of virtual concerts with the goal of returning to in-person performances next year.