Calgary folk festival weathers Dylan threat, Globe and Mail July 26, 2005

Posted by on 27 July 2005

By Robert Everett-Green, Page R3

Calgary Folk Music Festival

At Prince's Island Park

In Calgary on Sunday


In 26 years, it has faced heat, rain, flood and almost every other challenge the natural world can offer an open-air music event. But the Calgary Folk Music Festival wasn't expecting to have to go up against Bob Dylan.


Just a few weeks before the gates opened at Prince's Island Park, organizers discovered that the House of Blues had booked Dylan into the Saddledome for a show on the festival's closing day. The multinational music promoter hadn't noticed the conflict with an event that had been over a year in the making.


"I tried to buy the show from them, but it didn't work out," said Terry Wickham, the festival's producer. To add to the pain, the festival had approached Dylan's agent months before, looking for a booking of its own, and had been told that he wouldn't be available.


But apparently it takes more than a living legend to break Calgary's folk festival habit, even for a day. Sunday's closing sessions brought in 7,600 paying customers, only a few hundred less than expected, and nothing out of the ordinary for a day that began in cold and rain.


The sun only appeared as Steve Earle launched into the political part of his midday set on the main stage. Rich Man's War magically broke the clouds, moments after Earle had warned that "you don't have a Trudeau in power, and it may not be easy as you think for you to stay out of our war. . . . It will be up to you to decide whether you want to be Canadian or just a far northern part of the United States."


Earle wasn't the only one at this festival to evoke folk's protest tradition. K'naan's afternoon performance included several of his vivid rap depictions of life in the danger zones of Somalia, delivered over the discordantly jaunty sounds spilling in from a Celtic set at the next tent.


At such times, this wooded urban park seemed a little too intimate for comfort. But for the most part, the festival's final day was all that it should have been, with a wide span of high-quality music on seven different stages.


I took the browser's tour, wandering from one stage to another, and caught wonderful things at each one. Mary Gauthier sang a terrific song about the sugar cane harvest in her native Louisiana (reprised, with much else, during her smouldering evening set). Britain's Thea Gilmore delivered a great moody love song (Razor Valentine). And sometime Calgary busker Chad Van Gaalen sang a tortured, utterly distinctive number from his forthcoming debut on SubPop Records. Danny Michel performed a clever song about prison heartbreak, with support from the Weakerthans; and Justin Rutledge wowed a large gathering with his slow-burning songs and haunted tenor voice.


There was Dona Rosa, another former street performer from Portugal, singing fado with a constrained, keening technique that seemed almost medieval. There was Allison Moorer, singing desolate songs about family that resonated uncomfortably with the murder-suicide of her own parents. Moorer's sister, Shelby Lynne, appeared for one of those tunes, Is Heaven Good Enough for You?, and Steve Earle, Moorer's fiancé, strummed mandolin for another.


"That will not be her name the next time you see her," Earle told the crowd, after she joined him for a duet on the main stage.


The evening show began with Waterson:Carthy, a blue-ribbon folk-music family from England whose intricate instrumental performances made a perfect marriage of tradition and invention. Norma Waterson sang Bay of Biscayne with the kind of asymmetrical natural rhythm that the advent of the drum machine has somehow failed to eradicate from a few corners of popular music.

Gauthier's set, with a band that included guitarist and producer Gurf Morlix, was almost unbelievably good. Gauthier, who began recording after she was 35, offered a bounty of slow-ticking songs full of wisdom and humour, and a wry vocal style that brought them vividly alive.


Shelby Lynne can be almost frighteningly intense in a club setting, but on the big open stage her performance was mostly potential energy, waiting for a moment to break out. It never came during her performances of songs from her latest CD, in spite of a nice western-swing groove in The Man. Only when she put a hard country twist on the Rolling Stones's Dead Flowers did she and her band rouse themselves to full fury. Moorer and Earle both appeared for this extended finale, the latter looking thoroughly uncomfortable until Lynne passed him her guitar.


The closer was the Calgary-based Chilean guitar virtuoso Oscar Lopez, whose band had previously rocked an afternoon set with Bill Frisell and C.J. Chenier. Lopez's supple fusion of flamenco, rock and Andean music might seem slick, if he weren't so intent on playing from the guts. He addressed his nylon-string guitar with a mixture of tenderness and violence that gave me no reason to wish I were listening to Dylan at the Saddledome.


The festive lanterns that bobbed around the field as the show ended are a Calgary tradition (albeit imported from Edmonton). With about $1-million in audience revenue (including concession sales) and another year ended in the black, this festival had a lot to celebrate, and no doubt much to look forward to next year.