What the Folk? The Eclectic Calgary Fest
Shain Shapiro, JamBase Canada http://www.jambase.com
Calgary Folk Festival :: 07.21 - 7.24 :: Calgary, AB
If I could survive the winter, I would consider a move to Calgary. It is North America's cleanest city, hands down. Garbage is Calgary's liberal republican. You know it exists, but for some reason you never come across it. Tack on enough green space to get permanently lost within and close proximity to the Canadian Rockies, and Calgary appears to be paradise. Unfortunately, the mid-sized Albertan city is not at the top of most touring schedules, and highly prized acts often skip Calgary in order to develop a market in Vancouver, nearly 600 miles west. Even though Alberta is Canada's richest province, basking in the financial security of living close to oil sands, as immaculate as it is, the city lacks excitement.
From July 21st through July 24th, that all changed. The Calgary Folk Festival, a four-day party on the banks of the Bow River, gave the city all the excitement it needs for the year. This is no ordinary folk festival. From post-rock to Celtic and hip-hop, any amalgamation of music loosely linked to folk was represented, and over 10,000 fans armed with lawn chairs and tarps buoyantly lapped up the hoopla. In addition, local organic food and homemade crafts dotted the festival fairway, and local brewery Big Rock supplied the much-needed booze. In addition, bio-friendliness was strictly enforced, including the use of wind turbines to supply power and reusable plates and cups.
Let us put aside the ambience and focus on the most important element of the event. Not only were there five headliners each night on the main stage for four straight evenings, but also, both Saturday and Sunday were dotted with workshops. Six small stages spread across the festival grounds were home to various collaborations, where scores of artists collaborated for an hour, from early in the morning till the main event began at 5:30 p.m. While the Del McCoury Band, along with Bill Frisell's multi-instrumentalist Danny Barnes and bluegrass quintet Hungry Hill played an hour's worth of brilliant standards, Buck 65 and Tortoise fiddled through their new record Secret House against the World with the help of Hawksley Workman. The workshop stages also hosted complete concerts by bands that were not scheduled on the main stage including Tortoise, The Wailin' Jennys, and The Weakerthans.
So here begins the best day-by-day description of the insanity, including both the main stage and the workshops. No trash here, it is Calgary.
THURSDAY, JULY 21st
No workshops today. Those are reserved for the weekend. Still, folk conventions were being demolished, reconfigured, and rebuilt on the main stage all evening by a slew of artists that are anything but traditional.
A Buck Sixty-Five to get the Tweedy Workman.
Richard Terfry has been experimenting in the far-reaching limits of hip-hop since 1996, and Thursday evening on the main stage was no different. Armed with a set of turntables, one microphone, and his Parisian girlfriend Clare on back-up vocals, Buck 65 proved that uppers are still being injected into mature, highly inventive hip-hop. Essentially an experiment in garrulous poetry with beats attached, Buck 65's raspy vocals were enthralling, mixing older tunes like the ode-to-small-town dirge "Highway 101" and the talking blues pastiche "Wicked and Weird" with more recent work from his latest Tortoise-backed release. A true new-folk ambassador, Buck 65 exemplified the belief that he embodies the same forward-thinking aesthetic as the festival.
Following Buck 65 was Hawksley Workman, arguably one of Canada's finest singer/songwriters. Combining simple folk, Northern soul, and the power of a fantastic, luscious voice, Workman ran through a portion of his back catalogue including "Anger is Beauty" and the stunning "Jealous of your Cigarette." With high-pitched vocals drenched in the soul of Francois Hardy doing the tango with Rufus Wainwright, Workman's eccentric, festive blend of folk-rich classical cabaret cleansed the palate after Buck 65's upbeat twang. Imaginative, accomplished, and oh so sweet, Workman exhibited how beautiful a confident voice and a backdrop of folk sensibilities can complement a simple love song.
To cap off the evening in fine form, Jeff Tweedy treated the sold-out crowd to an hour's worth of bare-bones, acoustic Americana. In a rare solo appearance, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era Wilco and new material took centre stage, blinding the sold out crowd with an hour's worth of mellow, honest songs. Tweedy's own frailty, strewn across a dozen fragile, tender ballads, revealed a unique side of the songwriter that is hidden behind Wilco's collective virtuosity. Incorporating just as much silence as strumming, Tweedy's calm, restrictive demeanor exhibited a fragile soul, focused on releasing its demons through gorgeous songwriting. Both "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "I'm The Man Who Loves You" appeared in their embryonic states, contradictory messages and all, showcasing a songwriter trying to expel demons from both angles. What a sight it was.
FRIDAY, JULY 22nd
One more day till the workshops began, so I kicked up my heels, commandeered a spot on the lawn, and let another slew of diverse artists melt any pre-conceived notions of what folk music actually is.
Rudd, Classic Blues and The Indigo Girls
Xavier Rudd is the aboriginal one-man band for eclectic-weary college rockers. Rudd plays lap steel, didgeridoo, and percussion at the same time, all while lecturing his crowd with socially conscious lyrics that originate from the Australian Outback. This is folk music in the truest sense - habitual, grounded in indigenous history, and created using time-tested, local instruments. Rudd, however, mixes in digital looping, drum machines, and electric guitars; elements that would not have been welcome in Newport forty years ago. The result was an hour of pure musical creativity, reinvigorating acoustic melodies with peculiar arrangements, multiple instrumentation, and energetic audience interaction. While Rudd's output bears little difference from the brilliant work of either Ben Harper or Guster, his energy and how he reverberates it throughout the audience consequently made his blend climactic and incontestably fun.
Sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle followed with a bilingual set of rich, contextual Canadiana. Both sisters have been singing and playing various instruments since the 1960's, and their hour-long escapade into down-home folk was an ode to old times. Writing about lost love, failed love, and geographic love (of their hometown Montreal), the influential McGarrigle sisters traded turns on banjo, piano, guitar, and bass whilst harmonizing their voices effortlessly. Despite looking tired and grey, the McGarrigle's musical spread is thick enough to break toast, dripping with the history of a music they helped create.
Calgary Folk Fest by Shain Shapiro
The musical legend theme continued long into the night, as Chicago songstress Koko Taylor strutted her musical stuff to the tune of classic, Chicago-style blues. Taylor, the self proclaimed "Queen of the Blues," has won more W.C. Handy Awards than any other artist in history and has sung with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon amidst a venerable who's who of modern blues icons. With quite the resume to live up to, Taylor jumped on stage after a lengthy, James Brown-style introduction and proceeded to teach a spirited lesson on how to properly sing the Chicago blues. Racy, sexy, and feverishly upbeat, the queen of the blues romped through "Big Boss Man" and "Wang Dang Doodle," as well as a dozen other blues standards. An absolute treat from start to finish, Taylor sings and commands the stage like no other, truly exhibiting why she is the best in the business.
Finally, the Indigo Girls capped off the evening with one of the best performances of the festival. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been performing together since 1989 and have mastered the art of harmony in the process. The two sing together like no other, and their set under the stars in Calgary exemplified their vocal proficiency. Combining newer material off their most recent political statement All That We Let In with older, fan-favorite numbers like "Closer To Fine," "Galileo," and "Power of Two," the duo was utterly engrossing, merging their insurmountable vocal abilities with tenacious strumming and the power of hard-hitting, socially motivated lyrics. A true testament to the power of folk, the Indigo Girls had the bulk of the sell-out crowd on their feet, twirling up a storm to the strum of two acoustic guitars.
SATURDAY, JULY 23rd
Thirteen hours of straight music await, beginning early in the morning and lasting well into the night. All on a hot, dehydrating day. So let us continue.
This is the first music festival I have ever been to that has not only encouraged collaboration, but also scheduled it into the event, pairing groups of musicians together to noodle, experiment, and trade licks. Six stages devoted hour-long slots from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for collaboration, and a musical feast ensued.
Friends with Benefits
Buck 65, Tortoise, and Hawksley Workman. Together. Playing songs off their aforementioned new release Secret House against the World with Hawksley adding percussion, the triage of genre-bending musicians almost created a new genre on their own; soulful, hip-hop-spiked post rock. With Buck 65 handling vocal duties, Workman was able to showcase his impressive drumming ability while Tortoise backed up the dually talented troubadours. Simply brilliant.
Next was Arrested Development backing up the Holmes Brothers. Atlanta's Holmes Brothers is another legendary act that has been successfully combining Southern blues and soul since the early 1970's. With members of the newly invigorated Arrested Development adding hip-hop and funk to the mix, a unique supergroup was born. The result was wondrous - honest and traditional, while progressive and contemporary. After they redefined "Amazing Grace" was redefined for the collective, it was apparent that Sunday had definitely arrived a day early.
Afternoon Headliner: The Del McCoury Band
Fresh from receiving his unprecedented eighth Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year award in Nashville, Del McCoury and his bluegrass boys flew up to Calgary for an hour of world class, virtuosic bluegrass. Del McCoury is on the board of directors in bluegrass. He begun singing with Bill Monroe in the 1960's and has since churned a progressive-meets-traditional hybrid of Monroe's vision, combining Southern bluegrass professionalism with an ideology that is anything but time-honored. Del has played with Phish and Steve Earle, all while staying true to the one microphone, suit-clad acoustic alchemy that governs traditional bluegrass. Brandishing a cluster of new songs like "She Can't Burn Me Now" from the recent The Company We Keep as well as old standards "Working on a Mountain" and "It's Just the Night," The Del McCoury Band was fantastic, demonstrating that bluegrass has soul, mined just as much from the back roads that envelop the Appalachians as the river that winds through downtown Calgary.
A Good Old Fashioned Hoedown
Immediately following their headlining set on the main stage, Del and the boys switched into casual attire and joined Bill Frisell's banjoist Danny Barnes and Canadian bluegrass quintet Hungry Hill for a set of back porch standards. The ultimate festival highlight, Del McCoury led eleven musicians through "Beauty of my Dreams," "I Saw the Light," "Polka on the Banjo," and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," amongst a dozen collective standards. With four banjos, three mandolins, and two basses trading solos throughout the hour, Del held back, openly overtaken by the talent surrounding him and the expression of awe shared by each musician while playing in front of such an iconic figure. While Del and Hungry Hill's vocalist Jenny Lester alternated vocal duties, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and banjoist Danny Barnes led the fiery communal hoedown, magnified by the intimacy of the festival stage.
A true testament to the truism surrounding the Calgary Folk Festival, the Del McCoury/Hungry Hill collaboration celebrated the spirit of pure folk. Hungry Hill, an up-and-coming Yukon Territory-based act was starstruck in being able to share the stage with the McCoury family, and Del was more than happy to be a part of another musical evolution. It was an hour of amenable, freewheeling exploration. It was folk at its finest.
Tortoise finished off the workshops on Saturday with their fierce hybrid of edgy post-rock, electronica, and kraut-rock. Although they started late, the band was in fine form, running through complicated percussion arrangements, call-and-response improvisation with electric and acoustic bells, and dominant electric guitar work. A definite surprise band to be featured at a folk festival, the Chicago quintet exhibited that beneath their musical behemoth, folk influences drive the sound as much as any other, putting as much emphasis on songwriting as instrumentation. After forty minutes of genre-bridging mush, the side stages quieted, giving way to another night of almost-folk under the stars.
The Final Curtain
Bill Frisell opened up the main stage by playing a short set of progressive folk, surrounded by his quartet of acoustic, classically trained musicians. Exploring dark, foreboding territory usually skipped over in mainstream folk, Frisell crafted a gothic stew of all things folk, garnished at the seams with free jazz and ambient pop. With a unique, metal-laced arrangement of "Pretty Polly," Frisell's moody mindfuck exhibited why he is one of the most sought-after guitarists around, regardless of genre.
Mainstream folk diva Sarah Harmer followed suit with a relaxing set of downcast folk, showcasing her radio hits along with a few environmental gibes aimed at politicians passing bills to pave green space in Ontario. Leading with her Canadian top-ten single "Basement Apartment" and political barb "Escarpment Blues," Harmer's pleasing, tranquil tone was welcome, especially whilst fighting the day's exhaustion brought on by the Calgary heat. Yet, Harmer's songs are nothing special. Battling with the typical, female singer/songwriter syndrome, Harmer relies more on folk and country influences to differentiate herself from the masses. Elements did appear, but nothing that Erin McKeown or Kathleen Edwards have yet to experiment with, leaving the set feeling ultimately uninspired and musically homogenous.
The final surprise of the festival was hip-hop legends Arrested Development, seemingly reformed and on a sort of reunion tour. With four vocalists (two male/two female), bass, DJ, and drummer/guitarist, the Atlanta collective breezed through a strong set of conventional hip-hop (with all the audience interaction) and older, hilariously recognizable hits including "Mr. Wendell." While Arrested Development may be a decade past their prime, conscious, funky hip-hop never goes out of style.
FAREWELL HOME ON THE RANGE
While another full day of workshops and main stage performances followed on Sunday, weather, exhaustion, and other work commitments forced an early goodbye late Saturday night. Regardless, the Calgary Folk Festival was an experience that will not dissipate any time soon. The openness to collaboration, relaxed attitude, waterfront location, and environmentally friendly work ethic translated into a family-friendly, laid-back music festival laced with all things folk and/or folk-related. This annual celebration should be circled as a mainstay on any alternative music fan's summer checklist because it personifies the imagination and socially conscious ideology embedded within all of us, only with more dancing and less trash.