New folks, Mike Bell, Calgary Herald, July 22, 2009

Posted by on 23 July 2009

Latest crop of festival acts defy traditional definition



The Calgary Folk Music Festival runs Thursday through Sunday at Prince's Island Park.


To know where you're going, you have to know where you began.

It's an axiom apropos to much in life, elements that are as large as identity and as small as actual directions.

Take, for example, the Calgary Folk Music Festival, this year celebrating its 30th anniversary. For much of the latter half of that history, there has been an effort to remember the origins of the event by including artists who fall under what many people would traditionally consider folk, while at the same time broadening that definition with the inclusion of everything from hip-hop and turntablism to funk, rock and soul. This year, specifically, the artists range from Ferron and Sarah Harmer to Arrested Development, Kid Koala and Gomez.

But take a closer look at some of the acts at the 30th anniversary and you'll see a healthy handful whose careers and styles personify the folk fest's attitude--acts such as The Mekons, Iron and Wine, Mirah, Chad Van Gaalen, The Decemberists and Akron/Family, who utilize elements of, or are rooted in, the traditional while taking it places that are unexpected. In doing so, they may have, consciously or not, helped change the perception of what folk music really is.

"That was something that was considered quite early in the Mekons' career--that maybe all music's folk music," says Jon Langford.

On its face, that's an odd comment to attribute to Langford, considering his band the Mekons came out of the U. K. punk scene of the mid-'70s. But less so when you take into account the Mekons three-and-a-half decade career, which has seen it embrace, to varying degrees and at different times, everything from straight-up country music to alternative pop and, yes, traditional folk.

"Music's very cyclical," says Langford, who, after relocating to the U. S. years ago is now an important fixture on the Chicago music scene. "That's one of the joys of my career, suddenly I'll be discovering some type of music that I hadn't really thought of before or maybe even something I thought was bad, realizing that it was actually good or there were good elements of it. That's what happened with us and country music.

"And I knew nothing about traditional British folk music, but there was the huge thing going on in the '60s with Fairport Convention and people like that--and that seems to be very hip at the moment.

"I do a radio show in Chicago . . . and Colin (Meloy) from The Decemberists came in and it was this lovefest about very obscure British folk acts on rock radio."

Not hard to understand why. Meloy's Portland-based pastoral pop band, which joins Langford's Mekons on the fest's bill, draws heavy inspiration from the folk revival of that period, especially on their latest release The Hazards of Love, which Meloy has called "the apotheosis of my obsession with British folk songs."

The album's title, itself, was borrowed from an EP by noted revivalist Anne Biggs and the 17 tracks, which tell a complete, intricate and fantastical tale, seem to be chasing ghosts from long ago.

"The British folk revival was, in my opinion, a pretty creative moment, a pretty prolifically creative moment in music history where you have all of these young people influenced by western music--there was a push to rediscovering older music," says Meloy. "The British had a great resource in the Cecil Sharp House (home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society), they probably had more resources available to them for source material than the American revivalists did."

Meloy is quick to note that at the beginning stages of that British movement, there were strict unspoken rules which meant you couldn't perform original material, only offer your arrangements of unearthed folk songs. Only later was the idea of writing your own songs in that style embraced by the musicians and audiences.

"That's interesting to me and exciting to me, writing in that voice. I'm actually not a very good arranger of old folks songs because my vocal range is such that I can't really do that many songs," he says with a laugh. "I like taking the spirit of that revival and putting it into our music."

On the opposite end of the spectrum is where you'll find New York trio Akron/Family. While admitting he and his bandmates definitely love traditional music, multi-instrumentalist Dana Janssen is quick to point out that it's merely one element and one influence. Suggestions that their sound is rooted in folk are quickly dismissed. In fact, Janssen says if there's one element of folk music Akron/Family draw on most it's that he considers and defines it as "the people's music."

"It's meant to be inclusive, all-inclusive--everybody's welcome, in the folk tradition," he says. "I feel like that's the spirit --everybody's welcome. If you want to come please, join."

Musically, that seems to be the case with the band, as well. The group's latest album Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free lives up to its name, with material that seems to sprout from somewhere organic before exploding into everything from space rock to funk to classical ambient. But that, he says, is less about expanding definitions than it is about keeping things interesting for the band and its fans.

"If you want to hear the same record from (your) band over and over and over again--then, what are you doing? You're not changing the status quo by any means, you're not even challenging yourself," he says.

"In terms of mixing it up and keeping it fresh, it's much more in line with the spirit of us and our records, to kind of constantly challenge listeners and ourselves to create something new, to develop a new space."

Langford's attitude is similar to Janssen's, with him wanting the Mekons only to continue defining themselves by continuing to defy definitions.

"I just think the most interesting music is the music that occurs at the borders, you know?" he says. "Between genres or where people build walls or where people think there's no cross-pollination or no traffic--that's where it's interesting. We've always been very open to lots of different types of music as we've moved along and discovered things but we've never been copyists. . . . I love that melting pot idea, cultures clashing into each other that's always the music I really enjoy."

As for The Decemberists, well, despite throwing themselves fully down a folk path and producing a distinctly folk album, they've found themselves in an odd situation: being asked not to play it in what one would assume is the perfect venue for it.

"We're doing a handful of folk festivals and interestingly enough they're asking us to not do the electric thing, which is such a bummer," says Meloy, explaining that they've been performing The Hazards of Love as it's meant to be, from beginning to end.

"Even though there's big guitars on it, I firmly believe that it's the folkiest material that we've done. I think there's a misconception of what folk music is.

"It was a music of the folk, of the common people. Along the line, after 80 years, it has slowly become the moniker for any kind of music that features an acoustic guitar centrally. It's baffling to me as to why that is.

"I kind of take exception with the fact that some of these folk festivals that are insisting we play the acoustic material, because some of our material that features an acoustic guitar is much less folky by the traditional sense of the term than some of the material with the big metal guitar on it."

Needless to say, that's not the case at the Calgary Folk Music Festival--where it knows where it's going, because it knows where it's been.