Calgary Folk Music Festival Day 3: Song and groove battle it out with Bruce Cockburn, Patty Griffin, Jason Isbell, Arto Lindsay and Seun Kuti
It was during one of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s obligatory celebration-of-song workshops on a sunny Saturday afternoon when singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier turned to Jon Langford and his assembling Waco Brothers and asked “Does it have to be loud?”
Apparently, it does. Or at least the appeared to be The Wacos’ position, answering Gauthier’s sly acoustic run of I Drink with a blistering, high-kicking stomp of Johnny Cash’s Big River. It was a balance both the workshop — dubbed Highway 61, presumably in reference to Bob Dylan, but perhaps also a nod to that Bruce McDonald film that participant Art Bergmann appeared in — and the festival in general maintained amid gorgeous weather and a sold-out crowd: quiet reflection and full-roar abandon. That extended to the main stage festivities Saturday evening, which pitted the straight-up, largely unvarnished presentations of song by masters such as Bruce Cockburn, Patty Griffin and Jason Isbell against the heady, No Wave guitar-noise of Arto Lindsay and joyful afrobeat marathons of Nigerian superstar Seun Kuti.
The rollicking and chill afternoon side stages
On Highway 61, songs eventually prevailed, with Bergmann covering Gram Parsons (a fragile, haunting version of Sin City), Gauthier covering Fred Eaglesmith (Cigarette Machine) and the Wacos paying tribute to Dylan himself (It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It takes a Train to Cry.)
But if you left that workshop early enough, you could have wandered into the appropriately named Party at Ground Zero.
Funk-punk aficionados Fishbone, who offered a wonderfully fiery set the night before, were holding court over their second workshop of the day. This time they were with Arto Lindsay’s fleet-fingered bassist Melvin Gibbs, Ethiopian-pop army the Debo Band and the soul revivalists St. Paul & The Broken Bones. At least, I think that’s who it was. By the second half, things had basic morphed into sets of exhilarating, fearfully loud, endurance-testing jams, where any semblance of a groove held on for dear life amid the cacophony.
On the other hand, sunny side stages couldn’t have a better soundtrack on a lazySaturday afternoon than the one provided by Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods, one of Canada’s more authentic torchbearers of the Band’s classic songwriting and mid-tempo shuffle. With baseball cap and dark glasses and mumbling through his beard, lead singer Ryan Boldt conveys the perfect anti rock star vibe as the band knocks out killer track after killer track. On Saturday, that included buoyant take on the gospel-hued Glory Hallelujah and an pleasingly rambling Two-Time Loser. The gently chugging My Baby’s Gotta Pay the Rent and Charlie’s (Is Coming Down) gave the Deep Dark Wood’s secret weapon, pianist and organist Geoff Hilhorst, a chance to shine. But the highlight was likely the one-two punch to end the set, a rollicking run through Dylan’s Absolutely Sweet Marie and suitably haunting Winter Hours.
The Lone Bellow: Salty and soulful
By the evening, Brooklyn’s The Lone Bellow kicked things off on the main stage with the sort of eye-opening introduction you always hope for at the folk festival. Yes, on the surface the three-piece roots act (they also played with a rhythm section Saturday) seem to follow a rule-book not all that different from other alt-country acts: the carefully constructed songs, the gorgeous three-part harmonies and plenty of throw-back lyrics about love-gone-bad. But The Lone Bellow’s go-for-broke performance also contained a good deal of soul and energy that made the sun-soaked audience snap to attention, not the easiest of feats for main-stage openers. The salty back-and-forth on the twangy You Don’t Love Me Like You Used between Zach Williams and Kanene Doheney Pipkin and guitarist Brian Elmquist’s razor-sharp, rockabilly fuelled If Heaven Don’t Call Me Home, Georgia Will were highlights.
Arto Lindsay: Polite confusion
If The Lone Bellow represented the easy crowd-pleasing side of the festival, then experimental guitarist and singer-songwriter Arto Lindsay inhabits a more challenging wing of the eclectic programming. “Where are all these people who are supposed to be sitting there?” Lindsay asked, tongue-in-cheek, about the empty lawn chairs in front of him. Offering a bilingual (multi-lingual?) set that covered repetitive groove with blankets of harsh guitar squalls, the soft-spoken Lindsay pummeled the audience with a sonic experience that may have required more attention than some were willing to give. Still, while some seemed to regard it with polite confusion, others seemed enraptured, as if overtaken by a strange fever dream.
Patty Griffin: Mournful mode
Following Lindsay with Patty Griffin – who took an earlier set because Jason Isbell was delayed due border problems – was another case of balancing challenging with deceptively simply beauty.
Unbelievably, this was the golden-voiced veteran’s first trip to the Calgary Folk Festival. On the other hand, it was good timing. Griffin’s American Kid, released last year, features the singer-songwriter at the top of her game, penning personal and heartbreaking songs that make excellent use of that wonderfully sad soprano.. At one point, Griffin sat at the piano and introduced her only “happy song,” — an ode to her mother called Bergundy Shoes.
It’s a testament to that voice that Griffin can make a happy song sound so soul-crushingly sad. This is not to say the performance was one-note. There was Get Ready Marie, a funny and catchy singalong about her grandparents, and the tough blues of Flaming Red. But it’s hard to beat Griffin when she is in mournful mode – such as on American Kids’ haunting, soon-to-be-classics Ohio and Go Wherever You Want to Go.
Jason Isbell: Tough but tender
Like a latter-day Steve Earle, to whom he is often compared, Alabama songwriter Jason Isbell is not the showiest of showmen.
On Saturday, he offered a solid set that built in intensity even if most songs didn’t speed past a mid-tempo shuffle. Ah, but those songs. A former member of the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell has earned his place in a select group of younger writers that have perfected that tough-and-tender balance in country-roots. The band caught fire with the bitter-sweet Codeine and added guitar crunch to Flying Over Water. Isbell’s vocals soared on the rueful Cover Me Up and hit a peak with the angry Truckers epic Decoration Day.
Bruce Cockburn: National treasure for a reason
Which led to an impassioned solo set by gentleman folk singer and national treasure Bruce Cockburn, who nevertheless looked a bit like a gunslinger in his long coat. After all these years, there is not denying the power of his political songwriting. While he may politely introduce each number with a quiet voice and often self-deprecating sense of humour, he can still spit out political songs such as If I Had A Rocket Launcher, Stolen Land and They Call it Democracy with a righteous anger. Lovers in a Dangerous Time and Wondering Where the Lions are still resonate as impossibly melodic classics, while the sly When You Give it Away almost seemed playful. Still, the often under-appreciated aspect of seeing Cockburn play a solo set is to watch his mastery on acoustic guitar. It was in full glory — often sounding like two or three guitars playing perfectly in harmony together — on the instrumental Bohemian 3-Step and anguished closer Put It In Your Heart.
Seun Kuti: Expert back-up band
As if to counter the stripped-down nature of Cockburn and Griffin, Seun Kuti closed the festival’s Saturday night with a blast of full-power, sweaty afrobeat full of rhythm, dancing and expertly wrought groove. Most of this came courtesy of his 12-piece backing band, but Kuti – son of pioneering Nigerian bandleader Fela– is a commanding presence on stage and fiery showman. His set was colourful, energetic and danceable, offering a nice balance to an evening of earnest singer-songwriters. Afterall, variety is the spice of life . . . now bring on Day 4.