Friday night and Father John Misty at the Calgary folk fest leave a lasting impression

Posted by Mike Bell on 25 July 2015

Introductions and first impressions.

They set the tone, they are the initial and usually the lasting impression.

Met a guy, guy smelled, guy looked funny, guy was kinda boring — so long guy.

Or, conversely and more to our particular experience: Met a guy, guy smelled nice, guy quite attractive and well dressed, and guy very entertaining — please, please do tell me more, guy.

So. Guy that is Friday night’s Calgary Folk Music Festival: What you got going on? How you smelling? How you looking? How you sounding?

Well, walking through the gates early in the afternoon, prior to any actual scheduled shows — be they the handful of workshops, side stage concerts or the evening Mainstage and Twilight Stage performances that were to come — there was an impression. An immediate one. A lasting one. A wonderful one.

Evening closer Father John Misty and his band were on the Mainstage, just about to get started on their sound check as the tarpies laid claim to their sad, square territory of turf in front, and as everyone else filed in and began to get into the mindset of Friday folk night — perhaps a beer, maybe some nosh, meet up with those who you were planning on spending the rest of the evening with.

It happens. And usually that guy or girl or band or whoever is ignored as everyone goes about their lives.

And, well, then the show began. That show being Father John (a.k.a. Joshua Tillman) being the showman he is and was booked to be at the end of the evening.

He engaged those who were laying down their blankets, setting up their lawn chairs, pulling out their baggies of Arrowroot biscuits and goldfish crackers, and getting ready for the night ahead.

Frazey Ford sings some soul on the main stage at the Folk Festival in Calgary, on July 24, 2015.

He joked about being un-used to headlining at 2:30 in the afternoon, he ran through a gorgeous first half of the title track from his album of 2015, I Love You, Honeybear, he joked about performing an encore, and, after leaving the stage, even retweeted a local website that didn’t get the joke and praised his afternoon “set,” with him adding a thanks for coming and see you next time, Calgary. (Since, apparently, deleted by he or they.)

He charmed the hell out of those who were there, who weren’t even ready for the second night of the fest to begin.

He made that first impression. He set the tone.

And it was one that brilliant, veteran English folk-pop writer and eccentric Robyn Hitchcock was more than willing and capable of carrying further, with his afternoon-starting side-stage showcase.

Hitchcock, who began his career with influential ’70s act the Soft Boys, could also not have been more charming, more entertaining, more delightful.

Black Joe Lewis electrifies the National at the Folk Festival in Calgary, on July 24, 2015.

His set, which featured such wonders from his solo life as My Wife and Dead Wife, Madonna of the Wasps, Saturday Groovers and Nietzsche’ Way, and late accompaniment by Australian vocalist Emma Swift, was a wry smile made incarnate.

He joked with his soundman about making him sound “ enjoyable in some way,” he cracked that his songs, being from his homeland, were damp, and introduced a remarkably superb version of Queen Elvis by noting that it certainly wasn’t written about “Britain’s most famous damp citizen, Morrissey,” but don’t tell him, as he would be disappointed.

For those who were suitably charmed — and difficult to imagine they numbered any — Hitchcock was happy to point out that he’d be everywhere this weekend, “like a sort of chronic condition.”

His simplexic infestation actually continued soon after he left the stage, as he joined one of the early afternoon workshops with locals SAVK and Reuben and the Dark, with host Hawksley Workman.

It was OK, although the type of side-stage show that makes you pine for a little collaboration between acts, with each artist merely and ably delivering one of their own after the others — SAVK’s Do Mi Ti Fa Re, Reuben’s Rolling Stone showcased the previous night, Hitchcock’s exceptional Don’t Talk To Me About Gene Hackman and Workman’s They Decided Not to Like Us, from the soundtrack to his theatrical production The God That Comes.

Sure, it was all nice and well and good, but the impressions were singular and fleeting, not necessarily collective and enduring.

The same could be said for Mainstage opener Puerto Candelaria. The Colombian six-piece were entertaining, but fairly lightweight and forgettable, thanks to a reliance on cheeky, winky covers such as Can’t Touch This, Rock Lobster and Istanbul (Not Constantinople).

Hawksley Workman shares his flamboyant presence on the Main Stage at the Folk Festival in Calgary, on July 24, 2015.

Yes, it showed off the jazzy act’s musicianship, but it did so with schtick and not something that sticks.

Over on the Twilight Stage, well, New York collective The Budos Band were sticky and gooey and icky and funky and out there and wow. Like Thursday night’s Bombino, they weaved a groove and dared you not to get swallowed inside, not to move and sway or flat-out let it all hang out.

And before you could reel it back in and fasten it back down, Austin’s Black Joe Lewis followed them up and brought the hot damn and the honky tonk. Like a more stateside take on The Heavy, they funked and souled to a setting sun and an audience set to howl at the moon.

They were, that stage was, a dance party (one that was later capped off by Canadian turntablist extraordinaire Kid Koala), and you could walk away with a skip and song propelling you forward, filling your soul.

If it wasn’t then, it was topped off to the point of overflowing with Mainstager Frazey Ford.

The West Coaster’s stylishly sublime set was heavy on material from her latest release Indian Ocean — an album that found the former Be Good Tanya down Memphis way, recording with Al Green’s backup band, and bringing back a sound that could best be described as cosmo-folk.

She was fantastic, that voice pulling you in, her band keeping you there, and making the night just about entirely, utterly right for the 11,454 on the Island.

Canadian cabaret popster Hawksley Workman and Boston’s country jazz band Lake Street Dive continued that vibe, kept the moods up and the good times going.

He with such a personable and entirely personality-heavy set, one that, yes, rocked, but also one that made everyone comfortable, and that was entirely inviting to those who wanted to dance and those sitting steeped in their grins.

And they with almost as much folk-soul as Ford, vocalist Rachael Price showcasing a set of pipes that the heavens already have dibs on.

As for closer Father John Misty? Did that first, early afternoon impression last? Did he make another that was less? Or did he build upon it and leave the audience with something greater, something more?

And then some.

Misty’s set was arguably the single best performance at a Calgary folk fest in its long, history. And that’s something said with full knowledge of k.d. lang’s last Hallelujah and so, so Heaven-ly appearance and The Head and the Heart’s side-stage showstopper, and well aware that still to come is Sunday’s closing Mainstage this year, which is, on paper, the best lineup possibly ever assembled for one evening of the event (Steep Canyon Rangers, Rhiannon Giddens, Lucinda Williams and The Mavericks).

Father John Misty was that good, that magical, that memorable.

It was a set that offered a mix of performance art, vaudeville, standup and rock show, with the singer and his band tearing through much of the material from that latest album, a meditation, lamentation and celebration of love, which is, again, without hyperbole, the best album released this year.

And he was charming as hell while doing it, funny and theatrical with just the right amount of irony and showmanship. From a long invented tale about his days growing up on a farm in Maryland all to poke a little fun at the fest’s logo on the banner behind hind him featuring a bovine with a guitar to his comment that, upon looking into the masses, “there were a lot of hot dudes out there,” one “who thinks Chris Isaak is up here — too bad he went metal and doesn’t qualify for the folk festival any more,” he was kidding but never mocking or disrespectful in his banter and interaction with the audience and the fest.

Musically, the songs sounded lush and fuller, clearer, better and more heart and soul than even their recorded form — tunes such as a full, fabulous take of that title cut, a gorgeous versions of Chateau Lobby 4 (In C for Two Virgins), the wonderfully cynical singalong The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment and, of course, Bored In the USA, complete with laugh track and carried into the night by the 11,000-strong other voices in attendance.

And when he closed with a cacophonous, bylaw-challenging The Ideal Husband, he and his band didn’t just light up the stage and the island, they razed it, doused the debris in kerosene, set fire to it, and danced on top the burning embers, far too cool to feel the lick of the flames that seared the surrounding topography.

Even then, when it came to a screeching, squealing end, nobody wanted to leave, nobody wanted to let go, nobody wanted to chance that there wouldn’t be more.

There wasn’t. Sadly. But it was enough.

It was a set that will be hard to top in the next 36 years of the festival, one that will be impossible to forget and the standard by which all others will be judged.

How’s that for an impression?