FFWD Weekly 2003-07-31 Sun, song and serenade by Mary-Lynn McEwen

Posted by on 10 May 2004

The year of the chicks versus the folk fascists

There was the good. There was the bad. There was not too much of the ugly.

The good was Daniel Lanois, Old Reliable, Ricky Skaggs, Blue Rodeo, Sarah Harmer, The Backstabbers and almost everything else going at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. The bad was Al Stewart on the mainstage, alone save for a guitar and a ghost of a minor career. The ugly was hard to find among the smiles and sunshine, which were as abundant as the songs were over the four days.

Calgary’s Kris Demeanor and his Crack Band set the tone Thursday night, their seamless musical interplay spinning songs that travelled from sweet and deep to mocking and challenging.

Listeners seemed divided over whether Skaggs or musical chameleon Elvis Costello stole Thursday’s show. Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder delivered hand-tooled bluegrass that went down smoothly and coolly hot like fine bourbon, while Costello and keyboard legend Steve Nieve played a connoisseur’s mix of hits and gems. Although Costello is renowned as a songwriter, this sometimes-sleepy set highlighted him as a vocalist who’s gained ground over the years.

Despite a bill loaded with every kind of contortion on the musical map, Canadian Daniel Lanois stole the show Friday night – not an easy feat considering the impressive 1930s pure country sound of The Backstabbers. Michelle Shocked intrigued listeners during her set, and guitar maestro Alpha Yaya Diallo splintered off notes that tumbled into the air with gorgeous random precision. But it was Lanois, with uncharacteristically dense guitar work, who owned the night and possibly the weekend. His passion for sound and feeling was intoxicating, especially when he sat at his pedal steel guitar and set music free into the darkening summer sky.

As usual, it was the sidestage gigs that provided the most intimacy, surprise and inspiration to artists and audience alike. Moments of magic seemed to happen anywhere poetic singer Pieta Brown and her musical partner Bo Ramsey turned up, especially when mixed first thing in the morning with the likes of Ann Vriend, Kathleen Edwards and low-key local songwriter Chantal Vitalis, who showed she can lend a song or a riff that holds its own. Local heroes Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir proved the same thing when trading licks with Kelly Joe Phelps and The Lee Boys, who, like Lanois and Ruthie Foster, turned every stage they touched into gold. The oddly balanced mix of Lorrie Matheson pushing the limits by lambasting a "fat old ex-alcoholic named Ralph Klein," instrumental geniuses Friends of Dean Martinez and the love- and mythology-fueled sounds of Son de Madera had audience members laughing, dancing and weeping by turns. The Weapons of Fast Deduction set was outstanding because Demeanor somehow convinced rapper Buck 65, wispy warbler Jane Siberry and Friends of Dean Martinez to play together instead of in rotating turns. During their final rap-trapped number, they meshed so smoothly that they nearly achieved liftoff.

Anyone lucky enough to catch the set by Edmonton’s Old Reliable won’t soon shake off the memory, especially if they got swept into the slow-moving tornado that was the band’s first three numbers. The members traded vocals and that pulled listeners along in the manner of a well-written novel.

If you were under 25, blessed with two X chromosomes and at Saturday’s set, you were there to see Ani DiFranco. Although she was re-christened "Yawny" by relics too old to crave a spokesperson, it was awesome to see the field come alive with the gyrating bodies of young women in a musically induced trance, pissing off folk fascists by actually standing up and shaking their thangs/thongs ’til all their ya-yas were out. Sunday evening wrapped things up with more unbeatable artists, from the cool musical sparring of Kelly Joe Phelps with Zubot and Dawson to the return of the smooth sound of the Waifs, to Sarah Harmer, whose clear voice and well-projected tunes earned her the musical princess crown for the festival. She, and most everything before her, were tough acts to follow. But damned if feisty old fart Ian Tyson didn’t just go on and show ’em all up, his smooth voice, like Costello’s, getting better with every year.