Living with music in Calgary, Globe and Mail July 25, 2005

Posted by on 27 July 2005

By Robert Everett-Green, Page R3

From gospel to zydeco to DIY folk workshops, musicians battled for the attention of an audience that was as happy reading or playing as watching the stage

Calgary Folk Festival

Prince's Island Park on Friday and Saturday

'It's one thing to get married quick, but when it comes to writing a song, I want to be sure." That was Iris DeMent, explaining how it took her five dates to find a husband and a year to write a song about him.

Her comment had a certain bitter humour, given that DeMent hasn't produced an album of original tunes in almost a decade. It also captured the contrast between intense artistic focus and casual living that typifies an event like the Calgary Folk Festival.

The 20,000 people who roamed over the festival grounds on Friday and Saturday had music on their minds -- and much else. While someone on a sidestage was straining to put a song across, the people in front might be listening, reading, sleeping, or twirling a hula hoop. I would guess that hundreds of pages of the new Harry Potter were digested while the singers sang and the banjos played.

When you're in it for 13 hours (the full span of Saturday's offerings), a live festival in the open air acquires a rhythm of its own. People find ways of taking breaks without leaving the scene. The music can feel less like a focused concert event and more like a live enactment of the way people live with music every day. Lots of us do almost every kind of activity to music, from eating breakfast to riding the bus to making love.

The thin trees and long Prairie days probably prevented anyone from trying that last option on Saturday. In any case, there were moments when it seemed as if the performers got around the crossword puzzles and cellphone calls, and lassoed everyone's attention at the same time.

Parts of DeMent's set did that. Performing with her own piano accompaniment, she sang about old worn-out couches and the pathway to the Lord in a voice that was made for truth-telling.

No doubt she's worked hard to make it sound that way: Her diction, phrasing and tone-control were on a par with that of any good singer of classical lieder. It was interesting to compare the worn-down monotone of her speech and the strong penetrating vibrancy of her singing.

The Holmes Brothers also gathered people in, with their fluent mixture of gospel and R&B, and their unpretentious way of making it seem as if the music was coming down to them from another place. And Koko Taylor's lead guitarist left nobody on the sidelines, as he launched an otherwise workaday set on Friday with an indecent talking-guitar number that had people shrieking with astonished laughter.

There were sets and workshops that had a large dedicated following, including those that featured college-radio stars such as Buck 65 and Tortoise, and those that showed off someone's instrumental skills.

The Calgary crowd has a high regard for virtuosity, to judge from the numbers that gathered for a spirited mainstage set by the Del McCoury band, a bluegrass-pickers workshop, and a sidestage set by veteran folkie David Lindley, whose collection of instruments must be like the United Nations in a cube-van.

The workshop is a concept central to the western folk festivals, though no two performers seem to understand it in the same way. Some people, put on a stage with other musicians they've never met, trade compliments and wait for their turn to play. Others try to improvise together. A few figure that since folk music is (or was) the people's music, some DIY instruction is called for.

Saturday's session with Buck 65, K'naan and Arrested Development did it all, and was entertaining to boot. Buck gave a short lecture-demonstration on why hip-hop began as folk music ("folk music is poor people using music to tell their stories"), and on how to turn a Jacques Brel sample and a few scratches into a rap groove.

K'naan ran through some of his rhymes with nothing but a hand-drum (hey, kids, you could do this!), and all three parties mixed it up with a loose but surprisingly coherent freestyle effort.

Hawksley Workman had the workshop thing down cold. The type-A manner of his solo shows vanished into a co-operative, even humble demeanour that had him playing drums for other people and treating the event the way a good record producer handles a studio session, as an occasion for bringing out other people's talents. He even had some amusing patter to cover an announced drum solo that didn't happen, during a workshop with K'naan and the Australian one-man band Xavier Rudd.

Tortoise, true to its name, bucked the fairly tight scheduling on the sidestages and started its meditative set a half-hour late, only to see some of its audience drift away for the Holmes Brothers 20 minutes later.

The Kawa Brass Band from India broke the mould entirely, showing up for wildcat performances along the dusty row of concession stands.

Every festival offers someone to discover, and for me that was Wendy McNeill, an Edmonton musician whose sharp-edged songs with accordion and guitar seemed like dispatches from a post-rock cabaret. Her high-tension singing showed some of the symptoms of a recovering Alanis Morissette follower, but the creative path she's on is her own.

Bill Frisell and band, on Saturday's mainstage, offered a set of beguiling revisions of the sounds and tunes of old-time American song. It was postmodern roots music at its finest, though not all seemed to get the humour that kept convulsing singer and banjo player Danny Barnes, who grinned broadly even through a dark old murder ballad.

Through it all, it was impressive to see the same crowd responding to such wildly different offerings as the powerhouse zydeco band of C.J. Chenier and the lily-white songs of Sarah Harmer, who came immediately after on the mainstage.

Folk music in Calgary seems to mean anything and everything -- and especially everything.