Calgary Folk Fest energized by exciting performances on Day 1

Posted by Gerry Krochak on 24 July 2015

Members of Ukrainian group DakhaBraka perform at the Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince's Island in Calgary, Ab., on Thursday July 23, 2015. Mike Drew/Calgary Sun/Postmedia Network

Opening Thursday is typically the night to ease into the Calgary Folk Music Festival. Call it the feeling out process, the calm before storm (or the calm after the tornado) ... Sangria testing 101, even.

But if the nearly 12,000 early-birds, hippies, tarpies, musos, punters and casual onlookers were expecting a full slate of entertainers to ease into anything, Australia’s John Butler Trio, loud Austin-based singer-songwriter Shakey Graves, Ukrainian folk quartet, DakhaBrakha, and Agadea, Niger-based guitarist, singer and songwriter, Bombino, hadn’t received the memo by the time the 2015 edition of CFMF kicked off at fabulous Prince’s Island Park late yesterday afternoon.

Butler and his cohorts have been jamming their way around the world for the past 17 years, and the heavily-bearded, bluegrass, blues, funk and reggae-infused trio would not disappoint a huge Day 1 festival crowd that had come alive by the time the clouds disappeared and the sun went down.

Drawing from six studio albums, three live full-lengths and the consistently thrilling musicianship of Butler, bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Grant Gerathy, the group’s 70-minute set featured the loud-ass electric acoustic bursts Cold Wind, Better Than and Zebra, as the crowd alternated from bouncing around near the front of the stage and listening intently.

The Trio had long-time fans in the palm of their hands, but judging by merch tent sales, they made a lot of new fans and friends in Calgary on a supposed lazy Thursday evening.

Shakey Graves was ready, willing and able to fill in for Patrick Watson who fell ill earlier this week. The roots and folk purveyor of all things Americana also made fast fans and friends with his one hour on the big stage.

A louder and more aggressive take on this music, Graves and his band leaned into tunes such as Dearly Departed and Roll The Bones, as long lineups to get into the festival subsided, while the sea of humanity grew near the front of the stage. Funny that. In any case, Shakey drew a large and boisterous throng.

Now ... DakhaBrakha might not be everyone’s plate of perogies, but there can be no debating that the combo draws a certain amount of attention when they turn up on the North American summer festival scene — last night was no different.

Rolling Stone called the Kyiv group “Best Breakout” on the 2014 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and, uh, well, singers Olena Tsibulska, Iryna Kovalenko and Nina Garenetska are, shall we say ... easy on the eyes.

Oh yes, and lone male Marko Halanevyche is no slouch either. Drawing on an experimental formula which is percussive, tuneful, entertaining and consistently exciting, DakhaBrakha drew the curious onlookers in with an intoxicating blend of soaring vocals, drums, cello and accordions from five international album’s worth of material.

Dressed in white lace, beads and tall wool hats, they were a striking sound and sight on a diverse first night.

Hitting the stage first, under threatening skies which quickly turned sunny, was North African activist and desert blues specialist, Bambino. This is a gentleman who exemplifies why music truly is the universal language.

His message of strength and peace through guitar heroics stretched the boundaries of what “folk” music can be. Hypnotic, relentless, slightly repetitive, but never boring, Bombino had the crowd near the stage dancing from the first chord at 5:30 sharp.

Beginning at 5:45, Friday’s main stage entertainment promises to be just as diverse, and is sure to keep the Calgary Folk Music Festival Faithful on their toes:

Puerto Candelaria, Frazey Ford, Hawksley Workman, Lake Street Dive and father John Misty all take the stage to start the weekend on night No. 2.

On second thought, knock off work early and catch Robyn Hitchcock on a pair of side stages beginning at 3 p.m.

See you there!