Fans treated to magic touch - Workshops heart and soul of gorgeous day

Posted by on 17 August 2004

Review, Heath McCoy, Sunday July 25, The Calgary Herald

Chemistry? Voodoo? Nature taking its course? What is it about the workshops at the Calgary Folk Music Festival that makes them so special? What is the magic ingredient? Why are they, in so many ways, the heart and soul of this annual event?

As is the ritual, weekend afternoons at the folk fest are dominated by the workshops: six stages spread across the park where the artists, the stars of the event, share the spotlight and play together. They’re reflective of – as Bob Marley put it – the “let’s get together and feel all right” vibes the festival strives for.

As is sometimes the case with such love-ins, there’s not always a connection. Some of the workshops can be downright awkward. But when the artists bond and the sparks fly , it’s a beautiful thing.

That uncertainty, the spontaneity of the whole thing is part of the fun.

Of course, when a summer day is as gorgeous as it was on Saturday, it makes these musical discoveries particularly enjoyable.

Soulful hip-hop artist and political activist Michael Franti was the king of the island on this day. Not only was he the headliner on the mainstage he was soul brother No. 1 on the workshop stages. From the heated beats of the New world Order stage , where he and his band Spearhead jammed with Mexico’s Los de Abaho, to the politically charged session with the powerful “slam poets” Saul Williams and D’Bi Young, Franti brought an infectious spirit wherever he went.

In the later workshop, Spearhead’s funky dance grooves accentuated the sharp spoken-word jabs of Williams, who spat his graphic verses, rapid-fire, in riveting blasts.

It was tough pulling one’s self away from this one, but it was worth it to have attended the This land is Our Land workshop where a group of Alberta’s finest roots-country musicians, Corb Lund, Rae Spoon, Steve Coffey and John Wort Hannam, jammed on each others songs. Technical difficulties frustrated the musicians, but the quality of their songs shined through the bumpy spots.

There were a few disappointments. Your Folk Fetish workshop with Spirit of the West, the Rankin Sisters and Celtic guitarist Tony McManus moved along sluggishly. And it was a shame the North Mississippi Allstars, who stole the show Friday night, couldn’t add their blues-rock stomp to the Mule Bone set, with Corey Harris, Ruthie Foster and a member of Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir. Even without the Allstars, though, the workshop was a bluesy, gospel sweetened treat.

The Mainstage, meanwhile, wasn’t without its charms.

The Rankin Sisters offered up a set of maritimes-flavoured folk in the afternoon, rich with the pretty three-part harmonies of the siblings.

As for the evening’s Mainstage acts, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage brought the hickory-smoked taste of bluegrass to the day’s dish. That flavour became more potent still when 80-year-old banjo demon Earle Scruggs played his set, his lightening fingers burning up the frets.

Los de Abajo (translation: the Underdogs) were outstanding, revving up the crowd with a burning mix of latino rythmes, modern dance beats and general Mariachi-flavoured madness. The band’s showmanship proved to be impressive too, as, at one point, they donned colourful masks and Calgary Flames shirts and danced wildly.

The popular Vancouver group Spirit of the West played second to last. Spirit’s set had its moments to be sure, the rowdy Home For A Rest was a highlight, as ever and bringing Calgary’s Oscar Lopez on stage for a hot slice of guitar was a nice touch. But overall, the band’s usual energy supply seemed to be a little low.

Perhaps they were saving their energy for Michael Franti and Spearhead. At press time, Franti had just taken the stage, but if the workshops were any indication, the crowd was in for one grande finale to its festival day.