Workin' It at the Folk Fest
Calgary Herald (2003-07-23) - Heath McCoy

Posted by on 10 May 2004

People are drawn to the Calgary Folk Music Festival by the big names who perform on the mainstage: Elvis Costello and Ani DiFranco, who are among the most respected singer-songwriters of their time; or superstar producer Daniel Lanois; or Ricky Skaggs, Ian Tyson or Blue Rodeo.

People are drawn to the Calgary Folk Music Festival by the big names who perform on the mainstage: Elvis Costello and Ani DiFranco, who are among the most respected singer-songwriters of their time; or superstar producer Daniel Lanois; or Ricky Skaggs, Ian Tyson or Blue Rodeo. But some of the most exciting music happens in a smaller venue: on the workshop stages, where a special chemistry starts cooking between artists, says festival associate producer Kerry Clarke.


But some of the most exciting music happens in a smaller venue: on the workshop stages, where a special chemistry starts cooking between artists, says festival associate producer Kerry Clarke. The heart and soul of the festival resides in the six workshop stages spread across Prince's Island Park on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. This is where the true folk-fest voodoo kicks in, as artists from varying cultural and musical backgrounds meet onstage to blend their respective sounds. Or, sometimes, to clash awkwardly. Either way, the music creates a tangible sense of excitement and discovery.


To Clarke, there is no single folk festival star. The workshops are the star. "They really are special," said the busy producer, who was up to her neck in last-minute planning in the days leading up to the 24th annual event, held Thursday through Sunday. "The workshops are what people talk about most excitedly when they leave the festival. 'Did you hear what happened when so-and-so played with so-and-so?!' "


Clarke recalls the 2001 festival when David Byrne, Gord Downie, Tom Cochrane and the Cowboy Junkies performed on the mainstage. They were all blown away, says Clarke (and this reporter, too, who saw it with his own eyes), by a Sunday workshop that featured Vancouver indie-artist Bocephus King, Montreal's cajun-flavoured Robert David and the Mighty Mardi Gras, and an all-woman Australian folk-rock group called Stiff Gins. Most people in attendance had never heard of these acts. With a "soul train" theme to the workshop, this odd group tore into a number of R&B classics, ending the set with an infectious high-energy version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. The crowd was overjoyed.


"People are still raving about it," Clarke says. "It was magical." As the person who has painstakingly programmed the festival's workshops for the last 10 years, magic is what Clarke strives to conjure up. It's a highly rewarding job, but it's also a difficult one. "Some of it's art and some of it's brass tacks," Clarke says. "You try to come up with loose themes for each workshop and figure out who you want to pair up with who. You can't just throw artists together randomly. . . . Then you have to make sure schedules don't conflict. It's kind of a laborious process."


Not all workshops go smoothly, either. Clarke remembers one disaster where she had arranged to have alt-country band Bad Livers in a number of workshops with Jon Langford and Sally Timms, former members of country-leaning punk band The Mekons. But according to local singer-songwriter Kris Demeanor, who's performing at this year's folk fest, it's that sort of improvisational spirit that makes the workshops so compelling. Nobody knows what sort of chemistry musicians will have with one another, until the moment of truth onstage. The workshops can be wonderful, but they can also yield spectacular crashes, Demeanor explains, and that kind of tension puts everybody on their toes, musicians and fans alike. Demeanor is looking forward to a Sunday afternoon workshop he'll be in with Jane Siberry, Buck 65 and Friends of Dean Martinez, called Weapons of Fast Deduction.


"I'm looking forward to bringing a page of new lyrics that I haven't done anything with yet, and hopefully the band can pick a tempo and we'll do something really spontaneous and improvised with those lyrics," Demeanor says. "Sometimes, you'll present something like that to a bunch of guys with acoustic guitars and they'll totally freeze up. But I think this workshop will be a good setting for this kind of experimentation. I'm thinking this is one where people will want to let loose, and that's when the workshops are the most exciting. "The best ones are the ones where nothing is predictable."