How WayHome Landed Neil Young And Plans To Create A New Festival Experience

“Neil was at the top of our wish list from day one — we knew we wanted him for WayHome. We just didn’t know if it was possible.”

Photo: Takahiro Kyono

For the Ontario-born music legend who once wrote “On The Way Home”, a featured spot on the WayHome lineup seems perfect. But Neil Young’s headlining homecoming to WayHome Music & Arts Festival this July might not have happened if not for a persistent pursuit — and, like any great festival booking — a lingering distaste for a billion-dollar agrochemical corporation.

Last fall, AC Entertainment and Republic Live partnered to launch WayHome Music & Arts. The goal was ambitious: create a premiere music and arts camping festival at Burl’s Creek, an hour north of Toronto. Nothing like it had ever been attempted in Ontario, and if it was going to work, they needed top-tier talent. Neil Young was the first artist they targeted.

“Neil was at the top of our wish list from day one,” Shannon McNevan, Executive Director of Republic Live explains. “Whether it was solo, with Crazy Horse, with anyone, we knew we wanted him for WayHome. We just didn’t know if it was possible.”

Immediately after sealing the partnership with Republic Live, AC Entertainment President Ashley Capps flew from Toronto to New York to meet with Neil Young’s agent. Capps wanted Neil to headline the inaugural WayHome, and Neil’s team was interested. But it was October. What would Neil even be doing the following summer? Touring? Writing a book? Hocking high-fidelity portable audio players? No one knew.

Unable to lock up Neil before February, WayHome went ahead with their initial artist announcement.

“We were thrilled with the initial lineup,” Capps says. “We knew we were going to add more artists, but we didn’t feel we needed another headliner.”

Meanwhile, Neil started recording with Willie Nelson’s sons and their band, Promise of the Real.

Ashley Capps and Shannon McNevan — Photo Courtesy CNW Group Inc/Republic Live

One month after the initial lineup dropped, McNevan received a phone call. It was Capps, and Neil’s summer plans were beginning to materialize. Young now had an entire album full of songs protesting Monsanto and their genetically-modified seeds. Neil described the record as an “upbeat review of the situation” and he was taking it on the road with Promise of the Real.

“The timing was perfect,” Capps says. “When the stars aligned and we realized we could make this work, it was a no-brainer for us.” All Capps needed was more time to make it official.

With WayHome fans impatiently clamoring for artist additions, the WayHome creative team posted several cryptic clues teasing a second phase of the lineup. The quickly-expanding WayHome community struggled to decipher illustrations of icebergs, beach balls and scrambled letters.

“Icy Beach Balls and the Scramblers are playing!”

Not quite.

On the morning of 4/20 (because Neil’s team knows how to time an announcement) Neil revealed his new album The Monsanto Years and the corresponding Rebel Content tour. The trek will see the band travel through the States before closing the tour at WayHome. WayHome is currently the band’s only Canadian date — a coup for Capps, McNevan and the entire WayHome team.

Seven months after first contact with Neil, both Capps and McNevan, admittedly huge Neil Young fans, say they’re both honored and blown away to have Young returning to “a town in north Ontario” to play WayHome.

“Booking Neil Young for WayHome is a dream come true, and the fan reaction has been incredible,” McNevan says. “But for every person excited for Neil, there is a person equally excited for other additions like Amos The Transparent or The Huaraches. And some people were just excited about the clues,” McNevan laughs, admitting he was impressed by the eagerness, intelligence and creativity of the WayHome community when it came to solving their mysterious puzzles.

Having booked one of the deepest and most diverse lineups of the festival season, the WayHome focus now shifts to the on-site experience. While McNevan and the WayHome creative team enjoyed seeing how bizarre and mysterious they could make their clues, thankfully, not everything on-site will be cryptic. McNevan confirmed that attendees will not have to decode images of a man chopping wood to order a lager. But he did not rule out using Hieroglyphics and Wingdings to demarcate camping pods.

In the coming weeks, WayHome will announce what the festival plans to do environmentally, artistically and interactively. Attendees can also look forward to details of WayHome’s “seriously crazy food” and of course, the official announcement of WayHome late-night spectacles.

“We’ve got some big surprises in store both musically and dramatically for when attendees show up to the site,” McNevan says. “With any good festival, you show up expecting the moon. But only the best ones over-deliver. And we aim to do just that.”

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