Bonnie Stiernberg, Paste: Calgary Folk Festival Recap

Posted by on 27 July 2011

I’m not accustomed to seeing my breath at a summer festival.

I imagine I’m not the only one. For most of us, “festival season” conjures up images of sweaty and sunburnt crowds, but at the Calgary Folk Festival in Alberta, Canada last weekend, I found myself enviously eyeing a woman’s mittens, clutching a hot chocolate and shivering as temperatures dipped into the 40s.

While it didn’t exactly disprove all those “frozen tundra” stereotypes we Americans have about our neighbors to the north, my maiden voyage to Canada did teach me a thing or two about that wonderful, strange land where “sorry” rhymes with “story” and gets tossed around with such ease—namely, that we’re not all that different.

As trite as it sounds, it seems music fans are music fans wherever you go, and the diehards came armed with tarps and umbrellas on Friday, braving torrential downpours and even a brief hailstorm in addition to the unseasonably cool temperatures. Some fashioned make-shift tents out of blankets and jackets, and festival volunteers carried sangria to the faithful crowd.

After a stop at my hotel to change into dry clothes, I decided to take a cue from the loyal throngs and stick it out. After all, the day had started so nicely: before the skies opened up, I was serenaded on a raft by Dan Vacon (of The Dudes) and Kris Demeanor. Vacon’s smooth voice was the perfect soundtrack for gently drifting down a river, and Demeanor entertained with a well-chosen cover of “The Rich Are Going to Move to the High Ground” and the kind of quirky, Steve Goodman-esque story songs that make you giggle one moment and ponder your place in society the next.

It was a good thing I hung around, because Bonnie “Prince” Billy managed to drive the rain away. Will Oldham and friends commanded attention with their performance, somehow managing to be passionate and subtle at the same time. Ironically, the sun began to creep out from behind the clouds toward the end of the set as Oldham—clad in all white—warbled through “I See a Darkness,” making for one of those festival moments I won’t soon forget.

Having never been to Calgary before, I was struck by a few slight differences from most other festivals I’ve been to (people’s tendency to bring lawn chairs and stay seated, for one), but ultimately the theme of the weekend seemed to be the common ground that exists between all lovers and practitioners of “folk”—whether the tunes lean towards the lush, heartfelt bluegrass of the Punch Brothers, the dreamy French-Canadian cabaret pop of Patrick Watson or the funk-infused dance music of UK underground legends The Herbaliser.

Artists that don’t normally perform together were grouped together for afternoon workshops, each centered around a loose theme. Saturday’s Mazel Tov workshop did finally get the crowd on its feet, and rightfully so, as Geoff Berner, Yemen Blues and Socalled seamlessly blended traditional klezmer music with hip hop, throwing in a little bit of soul for good measure and delivering one of the festival’s best sets.

Some of the weekend’s finest moments were ones that I expected to dislike. It’s rare when a cover song improves upon the original, and I admit, I cringed when I heard the first few bars of Imaginary Cities’ take on Cake’s “Mexico,” but their breezy version quickly became a highlight for me. Likewise, I wasn’t anticipating the emotional punch that k.d. lang’s headlining set would pack. I saw more than a few people in the silent crowd wiping away tears as the Alberta native played her rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.”

It’s fitting that I began my Calgary experience staring at my breath in the cold and finished the fest holding it with new friends, wowed by an artist I initially had little to no desire to see. I entered the country with an embarrassingly small frame of reference that didn’t extend far beyond hockey, maple syrup and Arcade Fire, but I left reassured that great music is great music and that the distance between indie rock titans from New Jersey and a reggae pioneer from Jamaica isn’t as far as you’d expect it to be—whether you measure it in miles or kilometers.

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