Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald: Despite some Calgary Folk Festival hiccups, varied musical line up carries the day

Posted by on 30 July 2012

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There couldn't have been a more perfect picture to reflect the mellowed-out, peaceful vibe of Sunday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

After a long hot day in the sun, thousands swayed back and forth while singing along to Randy Newman's gentle Disney song You've Got a Friend in Me.

It was a low-key moment as the festival neared its end on a sunny, lazy Sunday evening at Prince's Island

Gorgeous weather and a solid, diverse lineup helped the festival sell out all four days this year. Each day saw roughly 13,000 people descend on Prince's Island for the festivities.

Technical glitches with ticket scanners and sound on Day 1 heated a few tempers and caused delays. But even that was an indirect reflection of the festival's success, said artistic director Kerry Clarke. Tradition-ally Thursdays attracted less people. That's not the case anymore.

"The gates were a bit slow and we are going to work on fixing that in the future," Clarke said. "A lot of it was just the reality of a lot of people coming in and having to wristband and all that stuff."

It was likely all forgot-ten by Sunday, which is traditionally the night for revellers to wind down and when the lineup stays closest to the festival's folkie roots. In that spirit, headliners included Randy New-man, Justin Townes Earle and indie-folk artist Iron & Wine.

But the festival paid tribute to its roots early Sunday, with a workshop honouring the godfather of all folkies, Woody Guthrie. Walking Woody's Road featured like-minded songwriters Jimmy LaFave, BettySoo and Doug Cox, Ellis Paul and Sam Baker, who ran through a number of the old master's tunes.

The space between songs was dedicated to Woody's words and covered some heady ground: workers' rights, politics, God and hope.

The players traversed some complex emotions as well. You could hear the anger in BettySoo's take on the chilling Vigilante Man; sadness in golden-voiced LaFave's heart-wrenching Plane Wreck at Los Gatos; defiance in Baker's Goin' Down The Road; and nostalgia in Paul's childhood snapshot, Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key.

But the overriding feeling was one of gratitude and reverence. By the time the folkie staple This Land is Your Land rolled out as a gorgeous, sing-along, it sounded anything but cliche and brought the crowd to its feet.

If the stirring Guthrie tribute represented the folk fest at its most reverent, then the joyful jam across the park represented the outer fringes of folk fest. The cheerfully titled Invasion of the Booty Snatchers brought supernaturally gifted guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Melvin Gibbs together with hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador and Mozambique singer Wazimbo for a dynamic series of extended jams in the blistering sun.

There were other high-lights before the main stage action began, of course.

Toronto-born singer Lindi Ortega has mastered that proud country tradition of making darkness sound celebratory. She plays songs that cover cheating, murder, heart-break, drugs and sorrow with a winking sense of humour and plenty of attitude. A powerhouse vocalist with a deep understanding of classic-country composition, Ortega may have been this year's "should a-been-on-the-main-stage" per-former.

Offering a rollicking set late Sunday afternoon that drew largely from her impossibly catchy 2011 disc Little Red Boots (yes, she was wearing them), the diminutive singer's voice soared over her stripped-down arrangements. A sultry run through the title track, giddy take on Bluebird and sprinkling of presumably new material kept heads bobbing. But the highlight may have been her set-ending charge through Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues.

While Sunday's main-stage lineup was dedicated to more traditional singer-songwriter fare, the some-what thankless job of opening the evening was left to groove-based Marc Ribot Y Cos Cubanos Postizos.

Ribot, a session player who has put in time with both Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, reinterprets the delicate compositions of Arsenio Rodriguez with a fiery virtuosity. It should have filled the festival's dance area, but the crowds were only slowly ambling back at that point.

Justin Townes Earle took the stage next and proved two things: one, he has inherited the songwriting prowess of his father, Steve Earle, and, two, even the most no-frills of stage set-ups can hit glitches (if your pickup falls into your guitar mid-song, for instance).

 Earle has a sweeter voice than father Steve, but shares his dad's penchant for short, impromptu onstage lectures. Sunday night, the topic was what was wrong with country music. (It has lost its blues, apparently.)

But there was no denying Earle's growth as a song-writer and performer. It was on clear display in the soulful Memphis in the Rain, the wistful Christchurch Woman and slowed-down dreamy versions of both his own Harlem River Blues and the Replacements' Can't Hardly Wait.

Randy Newman, mean-while, was even more low-key than Earle. Strolling out to the grand piano, he played alone and mixed a conversational rapport with the audience with a healthy sampling of his most famous songs.

Starting out with the relatively rollicking Mama Told Me Not to Come, Newman plowed through songs that captured his many colours as a writer. There was the sharp satire of Sail Away and Political Science, the tender loves songs such as I Miss You and an early-set run through his most famous joke song, Short People. He even dedicated Laugh and Be Happy to Herald writer Stephen Hunt.

While perhaps not the livliest of headliners, his set nevertheless was a re-minder of the sheer number of classics he has penned.

As of press time, brooding folkie Iron & Wine was set to close things on an appropriately, mellow note

evolmers@calgaryherald.com

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