Mike Bell, Calgary Herald: Calgary Folk Music Festival had island hopping Friday night
And so it is. The choosing has begun.
The annual Highlander-like whittling down of folk fest performances to see — “There can be only one . . . at a time” — kicked off in earnest Friday, with multi-stages going, overlapping artist shows and workshops, and ultimately those live-with-it decisions that we all have to make and, perhaps, regret or boast about when we hear or read what was missed.
Again, once the bane of Saturday and Sunday afternoons only, it’s now a fact of life for three-quarters of the four-day weekend, and it’s certainly not something one could complain about.
Especially when Friday started off the way it did. Well, on paper, anyway. Marked, personally, as perhaps one of the most stacked workshops of the entire weekend, the day kicked off at 3 p.m. with a stage filled with a handful of some of the smartest singer-songwriters these past few decades have produced: punk pioneers Jon Langford of the Mekons and co-founder of L.A.’s legendary X John Doe; southern gothic artist Jim White; and veteran Calgary producer-musician Lorrie Matheson.
Sadly, while each artist is a unique talent, there was very little of that collaborative magic that any music-lover should have been hoping for. Granted, there were a few memorable moments, including White introducing his fabulously cynical and sardonic country tune God Was Drunk When He Made Me as the track he performed the last time he was at the fest, 10 years ago, that got him in trouble. But there was also the continuation of the technical difficulty and delays theme from the previous evening, this time Matheson — who was hosting the workshop, which he described as making him feel like a kid in a candy store — being left with his dead mic hanging out as he attempted to get things underway.
As a choice, it was a hard one to regret, but as a show, it wasn’t difficult to walk away from, especially knowing that each of those musicians had their own showcase concert this weekend.
Good thing there were other options, including another workshop that was a little more about playing well with others, a great team that included local pop band The Magnetic North, Thursday night openers The Barr Brothers, fellow Montreal performer, the stunning Little Scream (a.k.a. Laurel Sprengelmeyer) and Serena Ryder’s backup band for the fest The Beauties. They (cue angels’ trumpets) played together, and made some pretty beautiful noise with one another, all, seemingly, on the same page. So much so that it was cheekily suggested they would now call themselves “Old and Broken Scene.”
The next swath of workshops, despite featuring many names that would challenge most casual program perusers, was actually much more impressive, and provided an opportunity to hop among the three active stages and see something satisfying.
Of course, like the previous evening there was more waiting involved, with yet another 30-minute delay preceding a fantastic funk and hip-hop workshop, which featured Shakura S’Aida, Melvin Gibbs’ Elevated Entity, Shad and Blitz the Ambassador.
Frustrating as it was, though, that wait, allowed a quick wander over to sample the other two stages, which housed the soulful Cold Specks performing her own showcase and an odd and quirky and fun collective of world musicians, that were like a bat mitzvah band whose instruments had been sucking on helium.
Again, whichever one you chose, it was hard to argue for or against.
That, though, led into the mainstage portion of the evening, which, right off the bat, wasn’t really an inspired choice, housing fest veterans Shooglenifty, the Scottish act who filled the requisite Celtic portion of the program. Fine musicians, fine sound, but it was hard not to glaze over at how predictable it soon became.
Luckily, there was still another option, as the Twilight Stage was up and running until 10 p.m. with the stellar, concrete jungle grooves of Gibbs and his band, and later, single shows by rappers Shad and Blitz the Ambassador.
The latter two were ones that, while enticing, proved unnecessary for many, especially with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings landing with a noisy, ramshackle and rocking thud back on the big stage. The southern roots groove of the snappily-dressed Canadian supergroup, featuring Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing, made the beautiful, sunny blue skies — residual Chris Isaak? — open that much wider and brought a natural joy, brought a natural uplifting air to the environment, that literally brought the early evening crowd up off their tarps.
Their moods, at least, could only have been elevated further by the return to the fest of singer Bettye LaVette. Wow. Just. Wow. The singer is a less flashy, but no less soulful version of Thursday night highlight Charles Bradley. Her band, too, wasn’t the collection of showstoppers in Bradley’s entourage, but they still laid down an unbelievably smokey base for powerhouse LaVette to lay out her sexy, simmering and Tina Turneresque empowering set of songs, such as Joy, with the smack attack of, “You took my joy, I want it back.”
Canadian artist Dan Mangan kept the energy up, possibly surprisingly to some. The cerebral singer-songwriter put on an extroverted set with his band of merry musicians matching his brooding, building, dark, dreamlike croon with a full, boisterous sound. From the fevered Sold, which features the opening line, “I thought the suits had come for me,” to the gorgeous, cloudy pop song Oh Fortune, Mangan and men, were one of the day’s more upbeat and elevating acts.
Precious flower Jeff Mangum, known and apparently revered by, dozens, for his work in the ’90s under the moniker of Neutral Milk Hotel, closed the night with a solo acoustic set that could have been delivered by anyone, in any corner pub, and rightfully been ignored for Sportscentre or UFC highlights or World Championship Poker or whatever else was playing on the big screens. Speaking of which, apparently so fragile of a China doll is Mr. Mangum that there could be no video projection of his genius, no pictures — camera phone or other — no anything that could possibly frighten the tender faun as he strummed his songs of forgettable alt folk.
That was his choice.
Leaving was another. And probably the best.
Friday night of the Calgary Folk Music Festival featured Jeff Mangum, Dan Mangan and others. Attendance: Sold out. The festival continues today and tomorrow. Check calgaryfolkfest.com for details.