Folkfest Friday: Choice and wanting more

Posted by Mike Bell, The Calgary Herald on 26 July 2014

A wise man once told me: More is better and there's no such thing as too much OK. Wise man might be something of a stretch when referencing a ponytailed sexagenarian who's spent the better part of 40 years in kabuki makeup, Spandex, studded codpiece and platform shoes while playing bass, spitting blood, blowing fire, extending his tongue and singing songs about having a medical degree in getting it on, but there is a certain amount of knowledge to be gained by the words of one Chaim Witz.

Even if it was in justifying the sale of Kiss-themed coasters, coffee books and, yes, coffins, his point was one that we can learn from.

More is better. There's no such thing as too much.

Let's bring this into a real world situation, one that's more relevant to those of us who can't license our likeness to Todd McFarlane or wrestling promoters. Let's bring it a little closer to home, to an event that's current and relevant to 15,000 or so Calgarians at this time of the year.

Oh, say, let's put it in a folk festival context. More precisely, let's put it in how the event rolls out over its four days on Prince's Island.

Thursday was good. Those of us who were there can all agree upon that (and if we can't, then, no, no lady, we weren't at the same festival). Two stages, eight across-the-board sensational acts - that was a pretty excellent night.

Friday? Friday means more. It means those five stages, it means many more bands, it means workshops, it means extended hours and a longer night.

It means better. And, at times, it also means too much. Or, more importantly, it means having to make choices, it means having to decide what you can and want to take in, and the extra you have to ignore, sometimes, at the detriment to your own fulfilment.

Take the 3 p.m. kickoff, which saw the need to make a decision between two insanely different artistic conglomerates, or a concert by one sweet singular entity, Toronto trio The Good Lovelies.

On a purely selfish level - and, hey, isn't that what more is about? - after witnessing the previous night's show, it was difficult not to want a second helping of that evening's all-stars via the workshop featuring It Couple, Doug Paisley and Basia Bulat, and popsters Hey Rosetta! with newcomer Tiny Ruins. It was much the same as Thursday, in that it was much wonderful - pretty, melodic and pleasing - and more wonderful.

And it was only added to as the afternoon bled into the evening with everything satisfying even in lesser samplings such as: A get-upand-dance stage, hosted by local poet and hip-hop artist Wakefield Brewster (who got bonus facetime as the Mainstage emcee) and featuring aboriginal artists Roger Knox, Frank Yamma and DJ act A Tribe Called Red; and a showcase of Jadea Kelly, a less heartbroken and Canadian Sharon Van Etten, who literally had the effect of having one stop in one's tracks, and return for just one more song.

There was also the highlight of the pre-Mainstage and Twilight festivities, which was a workshop also featuring opening night highlights, Valerie June and the amazing Andrew Bird, along with world music act Noura Mint Seymali and local boy Chad VanGaalen. Prior to taking the stage, VanGaalen confided that he assumed it was more of a songwriter crew that meant collaboration was probably not on tap and he had to keep his weirdness at bay. It was. He didn't. And it was pretty great, with all of the artists making magic together on everything from a whacked-out improv track to a final jam on Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You.

That was a nice note to send the night offinto a more focused direction, perhaps providing enough of more to make you want to have just enough. Or, to put it more clearly, make a decision between taking in all of one stage instead of greedily gobbling bits of both.

That meant, despite the call of A Tribe Called Red and the remarkably brave programming choice of art-rock oddities Yamantaka //Sonic Titan, sticking with the big stage and bigger names, and, possibly, a different lesson in the idea of more is better.

Toronto's Great Lake Swimmers are a lovely roots act. Truly. Harmonies, melodies and instrumentation that are as refreshing as a quick dip on a summer day, and they were, like Thursday openers Trampled By Turtles a good way to ease into things. But. Unlike the act that came 24 hours before, fifteen or 20 minutes into their set and, well, it was enough. Perhaps, again, that's a case of wanting more - different tempos, a little more diversity in the sonics - but there was a point when it was easy to say you'd had your fill and you didn't need to go any further with it.

Brooklyn outfit Lee Fields & The Expressions, on the other hand, couldn't have met any limit had they stayed onstage until the sun came up. In keeping with the folk fest's recent history of bringing in funk and soul showstoppers, veteran vocalist Fields and his powerhouse backup band were the perfect act to, as he promised, get the party started. Their sound so full, their stage presence so large, they will be one of the biggest discoveries most of the audience will walk away with seeking out more.

As for Canadian artist Rufus Wainwright, it was a stripped-down and lesser version of the artist that folk festers were given: He, his piano, his guitar, his voice, his charm, and his contemporary, candelabra pop songbook. Again, this was another case that called out for more. In an auditorium setting it's more than enough, but on the island with many distractions, much space to fill, it didn't even come close, begging for the full band treatment.

And, as one final display of not quite enough, we can point to Wainwright's version of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah, which, while pretty great in its own right, could not touch that of the last performer who sang it on Prince's Island's Mainstage, kd lang. That was perfection. His? Not even close.

Wrapping up the evening were performances by Philly folk and soulster Amos Lee and the big, big, big sound and spectacle of Los Angeles funk and punk pioneers Fishbone, who put a capper on night No. 2 and closed it all down.

Then again, if that wasn't enough, there's always Saturday and Sunday.

There's always even more.