Calgary Folk fest survives, thrives despite weather, flood issues

Posted by Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald on 29 July 2013

Artistic director Kerry Clarke calls it “the collective ‘phew!’”

Having mostly avoided bad weather over four days The Calgary Folk Music Festival rolled into its last day with temperamental clouds hovering above but a general feeling of relief. Despite the great flood of 2013 nearly washing away its home of Prince’s Island, the folk fest survived and thrived with crowds inching toward sold-out status as of Sunday afternoon.

By 2 p.m. or so, the final tickets for Day 4 were slowly but surely trickling away, leaving no doubt to the event’s success despite a troubled month.

“It feels a little more miraculous,” says Clarke, in an interview backstage Sunday. “It always is something to pull off. People are really impressed with what our volunteers do and what we’ve built. But I think it’s even more so. We look around and it’s not the pristine island that it normally is. There’s a lot of dirt where’s there’s often grass. There’s mulch where there was grass. But it still has the same great vibe.”

Thursday, Friday and Saturday all sold out. There were a couple hundred tickets available as of Sunday morning, and it was unclear at press time how many were left by the end of the day.

That means between 12,000 and 13,000 descended on the flood-ravaged island every day to get their fill of eclectic music and the festival’s patented good vibes.

It’s true, the event wasn’t unscathed by the massive flooding in late June. It was down one stage and the popular craft area had to be scrapped this year.

But, for most part, the festival gamely soldiered on with a business-as-usual attitude. And for the final day of the festival, that usually means giving the sun-soaked, possibly hungover crowd time to decompress with headliners that won’t tax them too much. With energetic performances by Thursday’s headliners Alabama Shakes, Friday’s Thievery Corporation and Saturday’s mainstage act Cat Empire (Saturday’s headliners, Steve Earle & The Dukes were solid, but “energetic” isn’t really an apt description for the Hardcore Troubadour these days), Sunday’s lineup tends to be a touch mellower. Still, it was a mixed bag in terms of generational appeal this year. Headliner Creedence Clearwater Revisited, basically a CCR tribute act minus singer-guitar-songwriter John Fogerty, was clearly aimed at the Baby Boomer contingent. But there was also 1990s UK favourites World Party, returning after a five-year break from the stage.

Meanwhile, mainstagers Kurt Vile and the Violators are relatively modern, having wowed Calgary audiences at the more alternative Sled Island Festival a few years back.

But those looking for mellow could certainly find it Sunday. Morning workshops included the obligatory gospel-tent celebration, this year called Leap of Faith. It featured the great Blind Boy Paxton taking his bluesman persona into revival preacher territory. Tea for Two found Calgary’s Clinton St. John overseeing a workshop made up of husband-and-wife teams that included Austin, Texas sweethearts Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine and Sweden’s Thus: Owls. Robison managed to add some dramatic heft to a run through Wrapped — covered successfully by George Strait — by revealing it was written during a harrowing period when he and Willis had broken up. Meanwhile, there was an endearingly dishevelled grouping later in the afternoon that featured an unhinged performance by Mary Margaret O’Hara and some decidedly freewheeling ones by World Party and Grant-Lee Phillips. As with many good workshops, this one seemed at risk of collapsing into a chaotic heap at any moment while simultaneously offering moments of beautiful clarity — Phillip’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes, for instance, and 70-year-old New York City treasure Garland Jeffreys’s heart-wrenching run through his own 1978 gem She Didn’t Lie.

By the time the main stage kicked off at 5:30 p.m., ominous looking clouds were hanging over opener Caravan Palace, France’s energetic electro, Gypsy-soul, jazz outfit. The seven-piece apparently did not get the mellow-Sunday memo, offering a cheerful and fiery opening to the evening that tempted the rain gods by encouraging much dancing, bouncing and hand-waving. It was a stunning performance of vibe and virtuosity that rivalled Friday’s Thievery Corporation for sheer, crowd-pleasing delight.

And so World Party, in fine if stripped-down form, has to rock through the rain. Backed only by a violin/mandolin player and guitarist, leader Karl Wallinger held court with self-deprecating humour, wit and an infectious grin. Sure, it would have been nice to hear bottom end on some of his great pop tunes — particularly Put the Message in the Box — but the set built steam as it went. By the time a gorgeous and soaring take on the ballad She’s the One, they were generating some serious heat on the mainstage.

Cold and rain-soaked by this point, logic might suggest that those waiting patiently for the oldies-circuit appeal of Creedence Clearwater Revisted would not have a lot of patience for Kurt Vile, who hid behind a shaggy mop of hair, material that was often stubbornly mid-tempo and squalls of feedback. But it bodes well for the future of the festival that many of his young adherents crowded the front of the stage during the performance. In power-trio form, Vile and his Violaters fared well during the Crazy Horse-inspired outro of Ghost Town or furious stomp of Freak Train.

Still, it was odd to hear Vile tell the audience to “stick around for CCR.” Yes, it was unusual programming to end the folk festival. But hey, it’s always been about variety. As of press time, Creedence Clearwater Revisited were only a few songs in. Featuring original rhythm section, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford, the act still has access to all those great songs. They are Fogerty’s songs, to be clear. But by this point, hearing reasonably reverent runs through classics such as Born on the Bayou, Who’ll Stop the Rain and Lodi — all early numbers in the set — seemed to be just what the sleepy crowd was after. They swayed. They sang. They seemed pleased.