Jonathan Dekel, Spinner: Calgary Folk Fest 2011 stays true to its roots

Posted by Johanna on 27 July 2011

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This year, perhaps more than any other in its three decade history, the organizers of the Calgary Folk Festival were faced with a conundrum. As acts such as Mumford and Sons,Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver enjoy an unexpected rein at the top of the charts -- a clue that indie-folk's popular revival keeps picking up steam -- folk festivals around the globe find themselves vying for these suddenly A-list headliners. But for the folks running the show in Calgary, Alberta, there was simply no way to compete against their European counterparts.

So the organizers of the Calgary Folk Fest's 2011 edition, which ran June 21-24, opted for a new game plan, one that worked better for their city, with its rich musical heritage and pride in an festival so pivotal to the community's summer calendar.

Led by longtime artistic director Kerry Clarke, the team in Calgary booked nearly exclusively Canadian headliners, most of whom had played the festival in previous years, while continuing their policy of intermingling "traditional folk" with both off-kilter and world-music artists. The festival took shape thanks to the mix of mid-level bands that represent the breadth of emotion associated with folk music, if not necessarily the aesthetics.

"I consider booking to be both art and science," Clarke tells Spinner. "The art part is starting with artists I've seen or heard of that are really interesting and I think would enhance our programming. The science part is tracking how we're doing in terms of making sure we've covered a bunch of different musical genres, new vs. old artists, women vs. men."

Though the results were mixed this year, the fact that the musical hodgepodge continues to sell-out in a city better known for cowboys than cultural diversity is telling. Clearly, the Calgary Folk Festival has cemented itself as both a stepping stone festival and a prime example that creative booking can survive and succeed in a market saturated with a folk festival circuit that has events cropping up at practically every curve in the road. (By our count, there are more than 50 folk fests in Western Canada alone during the summer months).

With domestic headliners k.d. langCity and ColourPatrick Watson and Blue Rodeo, Clarke was able to entice big crowds, while the international likes of Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Punch Brothers played as openers or else headlined smaller stages -- as was the case with Yo La Tengo (whose mostly acoustic set left many fans disappointed).

Watch City and Colour Perform at the 2011 Calgary Folk Festival

True to the fest's core values, the weekend also featured unique musical collaborations that not only encouraged artistic fusion but exposed smaller artists by mingling them with their mainstage counterparts. Though it should be noted that the biggest crowds for these "workshops" gathered when it was more or less genre specific, as with the 'Some Assembly Required' jam -- which featured Joseph Arthur, the Felice Brothers, Imaginary Cities and Yo La Tengo -- and 'Mazal Tov!' which paired Canadian Jewish artists Geoff Berner and Socalled with Israelies Yemen Blues to create a cross-national and culturally rich genre interplay that impressed more than a few.

A performance by Polaris Prize Short-Listers, and former Calgarians, Braids also underpinned the festival's diverse programming. The group got their first taste of success (and first official gig) while auditioning for the Calgary Folk Fest four years ago. "Our drummer's parents always go to Folk Fest, so he's been here a ton," bassist Taylor Smith told Spinner after his band, now relocated to Montreal, played a rain-soaked set. "For the most part, every time we've played here, we've grown and it's stayed the same."

It's that consistency which drives the locals to the festival. Despite heavy rain, some Calgarians camped out overnight at the festival gate to get prime spots for Bonnie "Prince" Billy, British electronic hip-hop hybrids the Hebaliser and Polaris Prize-winner Patrick Watson, who cooed over syncopated rhythms while surreptitiously downing whisky during his set as the muddy crowd gave him their full attention and support.

Watch Bonnie "Prince" Billy Perform at the 2011 Calgary Folk Festival
It's moments like this that have come to define the Calgary Folk Festival. While Mumford and Sons and Bon Iver would have undoubtedly raised both ticket prices and international visibility, organizers instead leveraged a Canadian-heavy lineup that still inspired the city and the artists to show their support.

"The festival seems to have captured the public's attention, so we've found the right blend of music with a vibe and feel that works," says Clarke. "We've been selling-out individual days over the last five years before the gates open; this year was the fastest we've sold out."

"But," she adds, "we never make assumptions."