Festival off to running start: Opening night a relief to those who once feared disaster, Calgary Herald July 22, 2005

Posted by on 7 August 2005

By Heath McCoy

Call it the folk festival that nearly wasn't.

Les Siemieniuk, longtime general manager of the Calgary Folk Music Festival always feels a certain sense of gratification that first day of the annual festival, when fans burst through the gates to stake out that prime piece of grassy real estate in front of the stage at Prince's Island Park.

It's been called the running of the folkies -- even though, as they're not permitted by festival crews to run, the fans sort of scoot along at a brisk pace -- and it's become a folk festival tradition.

This year, thanks to torrential rains in late June that flooded the Bow, the beloved festival, now in its 26th year, was almost washed away.

The floods knocked out a key access road to the island, along with sewage and water lines, and it would have spelled disaster for the folk fest had the city not stepped up to the plate, building a temporary causeway so equipment could be transported onto the island.

Yes, this year during the running of the folkies, ol' Les breathed a sigh of relief borne out of sheer salvation.

"It was completely stressful," Siemieniuk said Thursday. "Four weeks ago we thought: 'Sixty feet of open water! It might as well be 10 miles. We can't get our stuff on the island.'"

And, contrary to what some city council members suggested, the Calgary festival never considered finding another venue, according to Siemieniuk.

"There's no other venue for the festival," he says. "But once the city dealt with all the people that had their houses flooded . . . we all sat down and agreed it had to be fixed, and (the city) did it. . . . "

"We were thankful and amazed at how they moved heaven and a whole bunch of earth (to build the temporary causeway) to make this happen," said Siemieniuk.

"It's a sort of relief to know the city does value our contribution to Calgary culture. They could have blown us off

. . . but we were a priority. That does our hearts good."

And so, crisis averted, the musical aspect of the festival went off relatively hitch-free at press time on Thursday. The Nordic folk of Instinkt was more than shrill than enjoyable to these ears, despite the Danish band's compelling rhythms. But India's colourful, highly percussive Kawa Brass Band made for a fine opener, given the festival's multiple world beat flavours.

But the evening's real delight was ex-pat Canuck Buck 65, the country/hip-hop artist, or hick-hop, as it's been dubbed, from Halifax, who now resides in Paris.

Dressed up like a sailor -- the captain of his ship, no less -- Buck, armed with only a mixing board and his turntables, played an incredibly cool set that featured his sharp, talking-blues rap-style, that's as much derived from the beat-poet era as from the hip-hop world.

Buck seemed to puzzle some of the audience, taken aback by his hip-hop tools and his manic, quick-witted persona (think a sober Hunter S. Thompson), but most his sounds were folk-friendly all the way, from the surreal, saloon-boogie, trucker-jive of Rough House Blues to the Woody Guthrie-inspired Drunk Without Drinking.

At press time alt-country artist Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, often referred to as the Radiohead of the alt-country world, had yet to hit the stage, but Toronto's Hawksley Workman had the audience under his spell.

Looking characteristically glamorous in tight jeans, a bright pink shirt, and a plush, black dress jacket, Workman, a rocker with a Bowie-esque dramatic flair, was venting his folkie side with a set of beautifully rendered acoustic numbers, highlighted by his emotive, powerful pipes. These included a haunting, piano ballad take of his lusty rocker, Striptease.

It was a strong opening night for the most part and the folk festival's got its work cut out for it to live up to Thursday's offerings.