Folking in the rain : Highlights of the Calgary Folk Music Festival

Posted by on 31 July 2008

Garth Paulson, FFWD Weekly, July 31, 2008


Riley Brandt

For more photos of the folk fest experience, click here.


Dragonflies looping through the air, ducks frolicking in the river, children learning to hula hoop, heat exhaustion and rain. All of these were part of the experience at this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival, but none were as important as the sweet music emanating from Prince’s Island Park.

Though the lineup was strong, things didn’t start off with a bang on Thursday. Festival perennials The Weakerthans finally graduated to the mainstage, but, unfortunately, the most engaging moment of the night was when lead singer and guitarist John K. Samson flubbed a note.

Luckily, Friday night immediately made up for the slow start with The Carolina Chocolate Drops mixing violins, banjos and a jug to create their unique pre-Appalachian sound. Later on the Twilight Stage, Bill Callahan, the man formerly known as Smog, delivered dark, slow-burning folk-rock that was a favourite of audiences and musicians alike.

“He was really the first thing at the festival that I was looking forward to,” Winnipeg singer-songwriter Greg MacPherson said of Callahan. “I have most of his records, and I just really love his esthetic.”

After Callahan, fans rushed back to the mainstage to watch Andrew Bird demonstrate his considerable whistling and looping skills. Bird won over more than a few new fans.

The afternoon workshops on Saturday provided some of the best moments of the entire weekend and were far more interesting than the lacklustre mainstage. Early risers were treated to a thrilling collaboration between Bird, Eastern European folksters A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a Moroccan band with a 4,000-year history.

“They don’t play as individuals,” A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes said about the Master Musicians. “They’re kind of an organic, gigantic ensemble, and when they come in everybody comes in.”

Barnes was part of another stellar collaboration involving Calexico, Callahan and Bird, which worked so well it was difficult to believe the incredibly textured songs were improvised. Throughout the day, Montreal post-rock trio Torngat’s ever-shifting instrumental music left some onlookers and collaborators scratching their heads and others picking up their jaws. “People are always surprised to hear what we do, but in the end it works out,” Torngat member Mathieu Charboneau remarked.

“We’re the accepted black sheep [of the festival],” Julien Poissant added.

Sunday also offered some strong daytime performances. Claire Jenkins charmed audiences with her unflappable enthusiasm and adorable props, Julie Doiron delivered a delightfully scrappy performance and Basia Bulat came off best when she was at her most delicate.

The highlight of the day came when the Cape May’s Clinton St. John surprised everyone by rapping during a Kara Keith song. Without the festival’s willingness to promote and include local acts, this off-the-cuff moment wouldn’t have happened.

“It’s really good to see Calgary represented,” said fellow Calgarian and festival performer Matt Bayliff of Beija Flor. “Not only is it very diverse in terms of genre, there’s also veteran Calgarians playing as well as brand new bands. There’s a very nice, broad section of Calgary at the festival.”

On the mainstage, Sparrow Quartet won over many new fans with their Chinese-influenced folk before Bright Eyes leader and indie sex symbol Conor Oberst took the stage along with his Mystic Valley Band. Though the set gave a taste of Oberst’s forthcoming solo album, it lacked songs from his vast back catalogue, leaving his many fans nothing recognizable to latch onto.

As Ani Difranco closed the festival, the light began to fall and so, too, did the rain. The audience trudged out soon after with bleary eyes, stiff joints and sun-weathered skin. Despite the rain, most of them also sported a smile after another successful sabbatical amongst the trees, ducks and dragonflies at Prince’s Island Park.