Drew Anderson, Swerve Magazine: Highlights of the Folk Fest

Posted by Johanna on 26 July 2011

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It’s difficult to decide what to see at a festival with so many stages and so many great acts. It’s even more difficult to actually see the bands and the workshops that make the list. There are people to see, bands to watch, beer to drink and rivers to swim in. That said, here’s my highlights from the festival (including those extras that make this one of the best festivals in the city).

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – The festival started with one of the best performances of the four days. The good Reverend and his band rocked the mainstage with a simple drum, washboard and guitar set that included said washboard being lit on fire and the crowd getting to its feet to clap, stomp and scream along.

Grit and Wisdom – This Friday workshop, with Hollow Brethren, Morgan O’Kane, the aforementioned Reverend and Ti-Coca & Wanga-Néges, was a great collaborative jam in the pouring rain. Everyone was working together and screaming at the heavens, including a demanding cry of “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”

Globish – As a prelude to the mainstage acts, The Herbaliser, Socalled and Patrick Watson shared a stage and put on an outstanding collaborative jam. Working together, this odd mix combined hip hop, big brass horns, klezmer-style clarinet and Patrick Watson’s ethereal singing style. This was the best jam of the entire festival, hands down.

David Wax Museum – They were only a “tweener” as the big acts set up, but David Wax Museum is a thoroughly entertaining blend of Mexican and American folk influences. There’s also something oddly attractive about a pretty woman playing a big donkey jaw bone.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Following a commanding performance by Matt Andersen, Bonnie “Prince” Billy brought fantastic lyrics and mellow tunes to the mainstage on Friday.

Patrick Watson – All those people that were too wimpy to brave the weather on Friday night missed out. There I said it. You missed out because you wanted to stay warm and dry. Right on the heels of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Patrick Watson put on a phenomenal show, highlighting his skills as a beautiful singer and piano player.

The Herbaliser – Yup, another highlight from Friday night. The Herbaliser’s slick beats and slicker horns got the crowd warmed up and dancing.

Vex Us – The best jam of Saturday came at stage 6, with Chic Gamine, Coeur de Pirate, David Wax Museum and The Head and the Heart playing their, er, hearts out. You really can’t go wrong when there’s an accordion and a donkey jaw bone onstage at the same time.

Punch Brothers – Every person in this band has a control over their instruments that is shocking. How do so many talented musicians find each other and decide to start a project? From straight up bluegrass jamming to more polished contemporary sounds, Punch Brothers had everyone in the crowd moving on Saturday night.

The Head and the Heart – Okay, so I didn’t actually catch this performance, but it’s my biggest regret of the festival. Listen to this band and you’ll understand why. They deserve a mention here.

Balkan Beat Box – The music can be repetitive and could use a little more depth, but this was great festival music and had throngs dancing in the mud. Catchy beats and Balkan and Arabic influences made for a great dance party.

Groove Showdown – Admittedly, Sunday started late for me. It’s hard to keep the energy and momentum going on day four of any festival. After seeing Balkan Beat Box on the mainstage the previous night, I wanted to see how they play with others. Specifically, how they played with Spiro and Inhabitants. This was a great workshop, even if there wasn’t as much collaboration as I hoped. Spiro stole the show with their odd contemporary celtic-electro mix.

Dark Dark Dark – Haunting dark folk from Minneapolis. The lead singer has a stunning voice and their sound is full and gorgeous.

No Yo Mas – This seemed like an exciting workshop, featuring Cris Derksen of Lightening Dust, Portland Cello Project, Raleigh  and Swamp Ward Orchestra. There were nine cellos onstage at once, but there was no collaboration going on, which was disappointing. So why is this on my list of favourites? Raleigh was great, and you should check them out next time they play Calgary (their hometown), but the real treat was Cris Derksen. With repetitive loops and beats blended with her deep cello sound and voice, it was a dreamy and wonderful performance.

The Bow River – Nope, not a band or a jam, I mean the Bow River, you know, that body of water that cuts through the city? On a hot day, there is nothing better and more invigorating than jumping into some cold mountain water. It’s always a highlight of the folk fest for me and I can’t figure out why more people don’t do it. Sunday was hot and the river was perfect.

The beer gardens – This is the best bar in town, bar none. While some people stay away so as not to get stuck in the gardens, I think it’s an important part of enjoying the festival. This is the place to meet friends and see familiar faces while enjoying some beer (or sangria, or wine) under a canopy of trees with the sound of live music from two different stages competing for attention.

The food vendors – Yum. Mini donuts? Sure, thanks. Indian food? Okay, I’ll take some of that. Fish tacos? Don’t mind if I do. Wood-fired pizza? Oh, wait, that one was shut down at the last minute by the city inspector because their permit was warped from the ovens. Damn.

Despite the lack of pizza and the wet, cold Friday, this was a great year for the folk fest. I’m already counting the days until the best downtown park becomes a little oasis that never quite feels like you’re in Calgary.

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