Folk fest talent runs deep, Mike Bell, Calgary Herald, July 27, 2009

Posted by on 27 July 2009

It's safe to say, once again, the title of Most Hated Human Being on Prince's Island Park for yet another folk fest weekend belonged to one Ms. Kerry Clarke.


It is to her many curses were directed. In her direction many epithets were hurled. And at her many deservedly aimed their anger and derision.

Yes, as the 30th anniversary of Calgary's annual music extravaganza came to a close Sunday evening, Clarke and the irresponsibly exceptional job she continues to do as artistic director of the event remains as laudable as it is frustrating.

The reason?

Well, for all the moments of wonder and aural awakenings she's responsible for in booking and programming the four days of music, there are just as many missed opportunities and regrets for those attempting to take in all the good stuff.

Sunday workshops--the pairing of seemingly disparate or easily connected acts and artists under one theme--provided yet another diabolical exercise in time management, as there was so much wonderful music taking place spread out over six stages any attempt to pause and appreciate meant losing out on something just as good or possibly better.

Take the early afternoon time slot of 12:50 to 2ish, for example. Perhaps you wanted to settle into the Sunday psilocybin sunshine of Rock, Stocks and Two Smoking Carols featuring locals Jay Crocker, Ramblin' Ambassadors and Chad Van Gaalen with woodsy weirdos Akron/Family--a delightfully out-there and captivating collaboration that provided some sonic vitamin C for the many already musically (and otherwise) hungover. Well, that meant you had to miss out on or catch only a whiff of a pair of great sidestage concerts by Hayes Carll, who won over many this fest with his vivid country grit, and nice, pop experimentalist Emily Wells.

Soon after came another Sophie's Choice by way of a concert by great roots rock act The Acorn, workshops featuring friends and acquaintances of talented West Coast artist, producer and performer Steve Dawson (Deep Dark Woods, Ebony Hillbillies and The Sojourners), or a stacked stage hosting acts under the Cooking with Brass umbrella. The latter was another superb example of the collaborative magic at work, featuring altfolk waif Mirah teaming with Jon Boden&Jon Spiers, and members of Bell Orchestre and Tarhana as they oscillated wildly between horn-fuelled Gypsy skronk and Celtic second line.

Despite the refreshing cloud cover, things were just heating up. Next came the pull of the joyous Lost In Cyburbia, which united the positive vibes of Justin Rutledge, Carolyn Mark, Mark Berube and the Patriotic Few, and Calgary good guy Michael Bernard Fitzgerald, and the raucous guitar fest Streaming Consciousness, which featured a cooking jam session led by Tom Wilson (from LeE HARVeY OsMOND) and Alejandro Escovedo. The cover of the Velvet Underground's I Can't Stand it --pure perfection.

Time to relax and reflect after that? Hardly. Next came the decision between: Mirah's lovely, lilting side concert; the contemplative folk of the Freshly Picked workshop, featuring Dawson and the subtle, sweet Laura Ashley country pop of Sarah Harmer; or the hip-hopstravaganza Starting From Scratch. For many, the third choice obviously proved the charm, as the audience in front of the tent hosting Arrested Development, Mutabaruka, turntablist Kid Koala and local duo Dragon Fli Empire was perhaps the largest any side stage had hosted in the history of the fest. The positivity of songs such as AD's People Everyday and the genuine good feelings of all the acts raised so many hands in the air, it was impossible to have a care.

Except, of course, what you may have missed.

That problem was taken care of as the workshops wound down and focus returned to the main stage, first inhabited by the interesting concoction brewed by Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and Vasen. Part jazz, part roots, part (insert style here), the menagerie were a smooth, rustic lead-in to an evening that soon turned to something a little less earthbound and a whole lot more heavenly.

The back-to-back pairing of gospel act The Sojourners and soul legend Mavis Staples was inspired to say the least. The Sojourners' classic style and harmonies were pure redemption in song form. When they were joined onstage for their final song by Steve Dawson, it was hard to imagine coming closer to God.

That was until She came out in the form of Staples. Wow. A voice carved from a redwood, a presence just as immense, the 70-year-old singer and her slick, classy backup band owned the whole outdoors. Her raspy and rapturous version of the Band's The Weight was one more memory that every person should have.

Closing out the evening was headliner Loreena McKennitt, whose new age Celtic tapestries were an autopilot landing for the entire weekend--a calm, smooth, tasteful mesh of a half-dozen sounds and genres. Not wow. But it wrapped things up in a fitting and fanciful bow.

That said, the damage was done.

And Kerry Clarke was still the Most Hated Human Being On Prince's Island Park.

For yet another year.