Multicultural acts light up folk fest's Day 1, Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald, July 24, 2009

Posted by on 24 July 2009

Umalali brightens tone after Franti calls in sick

Perhaps it was the bummer news that Michael Franti had called in sick as headliner of the opening-night festivities. Or perhaps it's because the once-raucous "running of the tarpies," which in years past found revellers galloping onto freshly opened festival grounds to secure a spot in front of the stage, has been downgraded to a less-exciting "brisk walk of the tarpies" due to safety concerns. But Mexico's cheery Los Misioneros del Norte seemed to have their work cut out for them as the opening act of the Calgary Folk Music Festival's 30th anniversary celebrations Thursday night. The evening climaxed with a decidedly mellow set by American alt-country act Iron and Wine, but it was the six-piece Misioneros who started things on Prince's Island with an energetic, if brief, set for a sleepy early evening crowd.

Give programmers credit, the black-hatted family band gamely threw a dance party, even if no one really showed up. Their crisp, tempo-shifting set--based on the Mexican, working-class traditions called Norteno -- blended solid musicianship and soaring harmonies, but the dance area stayed empty.

Perhaps it's not that surprising. Folk festivals tend to be slow-burning affairs and there was little fanfare to open this particular milestone.

But second act Justin Rutledge seemed to better match the mood of the crowd. The gifted Toronto songwriter is a solid tunesmith and is backed by a first-rate band that includes Blue Rodeo bassist Bazil Donovan and pedal-steel player Burke Carroll, even if his country-folk tunes never pass a soft shuffle in pace. So it was up to Umalali, a colourful Central American act, to flick the switch on this party. Brightly dressed and possessing an infectious energy, this group is fronted by the voices of the Garifuna Women's Project. The complicated rhythms and combination of voices was both powerful and haunting, and helped give the festival an early, multicultural hue.

That continued with last-minute fill-ins, The Woodchoppers Association and Jah Youssouf, who mixed improvisational modern jazz styles with the sounds of Mali. They were a brave choice by the festival--or perhaps the only act that could fill in at the last moment. The Woodchoppers Association are a Toronto collective with a free jazz spirit, which can result in both frenzied creativity and cheerful self-indulgence, But combined with Youssouf, who was reportedly playing a stringed instrument known as the kamel ngoni, this act sizzled more often than not. While about as far from the mainstream as you could get, they held the attention of the crowd and kept the dance floor full.

Promoted to headliner status, Iron and Wine--a. k. a. Sam Beam --ended the night with a solo set for a largely partisan crowd. He returned the audience's peaceful vibe with a set made up mostly of molasses-slow ballads, albeit sung with passion and grace. Beam's relaxed performance -- filled with new songs, friendly chatter and at least one false start --was folk at its most pure. But even he seemed to notice the audience was in deep mellow mode.

"You guys are so well-behaved," the American songwriter said. "Is this like a Canadian riot?"

It was a quiet opening to this year's festivities, but adventurous nonetheless.