Record crowds pack Folk Fest

Posted by on 1 August 2006

Stephen Hunt, Calgary Herald, Monday, July 31, 2006


Who knew that a folk festival in July could ever be as hot a ticket as a Flames game in January?


That was the scenario this weekend as the 27th Annual Calgary Folk Music Festival reaped the bounty of a succession of warm midsummer evenings -- apart from a chilly, rainy closing night -- as more than 50,000, the largest attendance in the festival's history, hiked, cycled, skated and sprinted through the festival gates on Prince's Island to listen to live music performed by musicians from every corner of the globe. Aside from 150 unsold tickets to the Thursday night concert, there wasn't a spare piece of grass in the house.


"My favourite story is the one about the couple standing outside the Westin that said, 'Please sell us tickets for Saturday so we can stop arguing about who forgot to buy them," said Folk Fest Artistic Director Kerry Clarke, looking happy and weary on the concluding afternoon of a festival that, by most accounts, more than lived up to its billing (assigned to it by a certain national newspaper) as one ofthe seven musical wonders of the world.


Sunday evening on the mainstage, Ani DiFranco headlined the closing night show that was cheered on by what appeared to be the vast majority of the sellout crowd of 13,000, determined to wring everylast note out of the weekend, before heading off Prince's Island backinto reality. "I took the ballad-be-gone to the set list," DiFranco said. "I figured if you could get through that chilly weather, the least I could do is keep you moving."


The festival woke to glorious weather for most of the day Sunday, until a gale blew in late in the afternoon, chilling the bones of sundrenched festival-goers and even knocking over a tree. In the beergarden, a branch toppled, grazing the face of a woman and narrowly missing a baby lying in a stroller. (The beer garden was closedbriefly, but reopened in time for a wet happy hour.)


One complaint heard periodically was from those diehard folkies who felt that some of the programming -- particularly Thursday night mainstage concert which featured Feist and Broken Social Scene -- weren't really what could be called folk acts.

"Thursday nights have been a little more geared towards younger people," Clarke admitted. However, she pointed out that she schedulessuch bands later in the evening so that if someone doesn't want to watch them, they can leave without missing anything else. "We're still thinking that we're a folk festival and not trying to go overboard,'' Clarke said.


She also pointed out that the festival's demographic is somewhat unique: from two years of age to 75, so you're bound to book an act that annoys someone. "This year we've had dub music, which went over very well,'' she said. "We had hip-hop last year and we didn't really have hip-hop this year, except one dub poet. It kind of works that way, and I think that's fine. Especially during the day, if somebody isn't into dub, they can go to see traditional francophone.


"If everybody liked every act we book, we'd be elevator music,'' she said.


On the mainstage, Dar Williams, a New York singer songwriter praised all the parents who exposed their kids to the folk festival experience.


"For those of you braving the weather and bringing kids, they will never forget these weekends," she said. "Particularly something like Calgary, which is such a gem of a festival."


Later, France's Daby Toure warmed the crowd up by playing world-beat music that felt as if it would bring a tropical breeze in a cold, driving rainstorm only a worldbeat-loving penguin could enjoy. The afternoon workshops, where various artists sit in with other other artists in impromptu jam sessions in a half dozen different locations around the festival grounds also frequently provide special moments when the unique chemistry of playing with someone you don't know suddenly turns into a mythical experience.

Sunday afternoon, during one workshop called World Pups, Ndidi Onukwulu appeared to be channeling the spirit of Billie Holiday as she did an African-style dance and caused a thousand drowsy folkies to dance and roar like it was some sort of Game 7 overtime victory.


You could almost say Onukwulu, who is half-Nigerian and wholly amazing, channeled the spirit of 17th Avenue along with Billie Holiday.


"Some artists like workshops, others don't," Clarke said. "We try to book artists (for workshops) who play well with others. I call them arranged marriages, and like arranged marriages, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't."