Review: Energy flows at this year’s folk fest

Posted by Eric Volmers, The Calgary Herald on 28 July 2014

The audience applauds during the Torch and Twang workshop at the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Sunday.

Numbers may have been down slightly, but the sun was up and the music energetic and eclectic as the 35th Calgary Folk Music Festival drew to a close Sunday evening.

Closing out to the strains of Matt Andersen, the Leslie Feist-AroarA-Snowblink indie superband HYDRA and alt-rockers the Jayhawks, organizers were lauding the event a success, even though all four days did not sell out.

“We’ve got a good model and we’ve got a great audience,” said artistic director Kerry Clarke. “It seems like it fits with Calgary’s culture and music culture and people get it who are here. They are talking it up to people who don’t yet get it. And we want to be bigger than the number of audience members here. We want to be on people’s lips as a great festival.”

While attendance was far from dismal this year, it is rare that three of the four days did not sell out, Clarke admits.

Saturday was full to capacity and all other nights had between 500 to 1,000 tickets left over. Numbers weren’t official, but that presumably means 10,000 or so music lovers would have descended on Prince’s Island Park from Thursday to Sunday. If numbers fell slightly, Clarke says it reflects a general trend for festivals in the region this year.

“It’s unusual for the last few years,” she said. “We were about 20 per cent down leading up to the festival. People love this format but we’re not the new shiny object anymore.”

Entertainment dollars are in high demand, she said.

“It might cost people $5,000 to go to Coachella because they pay for their flights, pay for hotels and they are out of entertainment dollars.”

Sunday’s audience certainly got plenty of value for their entertainment dollars.

The main stage opened with Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali, a master on something called the ardine. While her prowess on this electric stringed instrument is impressive, what was most surprising about the act was how well rock beats and stinging guitar lines meshed with the African influences. Sometimes bluesy — and sometimes featuring a near garage-rock energy — Seymali and her backing band played with precision and passion, a mix of fired-up beats and haunting melodies.

Toronto bands AroarA and Snowblink have released two of the more exciting Canadian indie-pop albums of the last few years (In the Pines and Inner Classics, respectively). So even without the formidable canon of Calgary native Leslie Feist, “superband” collective HYDRA would have had plenty of material to draw upon for their set on Sunday. Aside from a surprise run through Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, this multi-headed beast stuck mostly to the songbooks of their three parts. More-or-less faithful takes on Feist’s The Bad in Each Other, The Undiscovered First and How Come You Never Go There may have gone over best with the crowd, but Snowblink vocalist Daniela Gesundheit shone on the beautiful Cyclone and Look at You, while AroarA’s Ariel Engel offered a soaring take on #14.

Early deadlines prevented full reviews of Sunday’s headliners, Minneapolis greats the Jayhawks and festival favourite Matt Andersen, who graduated to headline status with his backup band The Mellotones.

The Jayhawks grappled with abrasive sound early on and, depending on your point of view, the absence of group co-founder Mark Olson may eliminate a good chunk of the band’s early gems. Still, early runs through Gary Louris-penned classics such as The Man Who Loved Life, Stumbling Through the Dark, All the Right Reasons, Waiting for the Sun and Angelyne — all sung with impeccable harmonies between Louris and pianist Karen Grothberg — was a promising start.

Of course, the main stage wasn’t the only action on the island. At least some of the early afternoon concerts offered a perfect backdrop for festival dwellers to decompress. That included one by Andy Shauf, a young Regina songwriter who plays insular pop that sounds like it was put together in fits of basement soul-searching (which, according to his bio, it was). Sounding a bit like Bon Iver or a quiet side of early Bright Eyes, this is haunting, fragile stuff.

British folksinger Sam Carter was also holding court a few stages down. An expert fingerpicker who even looks a bit like Richard Thompson, he is no doubt tired of comparisons to that master songwriter and guitarist. But he shares Thompson’s knack for funny and sad folk songs. There was violence in the rollicking Yellow Sign, personal tragedy in Here in the Ground and humour in the sad-sack love song Pheasant and Lumpy’s Lullaby, an ode to Carter’s newborn nephew. While the artist is clearly influenced by old American blues and gospel, he also just seems quintessentially British (“Let’s have a bit of a sing, do you fancy that?”) and was one of this year’s great discoveries.

But 2014’s “should’ve-been-on-the-main-stage” contender (other than the Waco Brothers, who should always be on the main stage) was chanteuse Jill Barber, who played to a very large side-stage audience late Sunday afternoon. Hailing from Halifax, Barber specializes in songs that sound like they sprang from another era. Drawing heavily from her new album Fool’s Gold, she wowed the crowd with the soft smoulder of The Least She Deserves and country ache of the Careless One. So much music, so little time.

As of deadline, the Jayhawks were offering melodic beauties Save it for a Rainy Day, I’d Run Away and Blue to the crowd. That would have been a high enough note to end on all its own. But a highly anticipated set from Andersen, who is renowned for his live performances, was yet to come.