Calgary Folk Music Festival wraps up another peaceful year with a sunny Sunday night

Posted by on 25 July 2016

Felix Riebl, left, and Harry James Angus perform with The Cat Empire on the main stage at the Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince's Island in Calgary, Ab., on Sunday July 24, 2016. Mike Drew/Postmedia MIKE DREW / MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

It’s Sunday morning, just approaching noon, and Debbi Salmonsen has something of a happily resigned air about her.

Maybe resigned is not the proper term. Perhaps relaxed. Or content. Or free.

As the executive director of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, her work is virtually done, save for being on call to put out any of the minor figurative fires that can and often do spark up over the course of the four-day celebration.

But for now, those are just possibilities, and she’s sitting in the lazily filling expanded beer gardens taking stock of the weekend that already was.

“This has been a really peaceful and kind of happy year on site,” Salmonsen says.

“Honestly, it’s a bit less crowded but that’s OK because it actually gives a better audience experience. There’s a bit better flow, you can move to the workshops.”

Fans enjoy the music of The Cat Empire on the main stage

Fans enjoy the music of The Cat Empire on the main stage at the Calgary Folk Music Festival Sunday. MIKE DREW / MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

And while, yes, it can be viewed optimistically, it also brings up perhaps the only cloud that has been hovering over Prince’s Island since Thursday, which is the spectre of smaller crowds and none of the sellouts that the festival has become accustomed to and counted on over the past, say, decade-and-a-half.

Opening night attendance was drastically lower than normal, almost half of the 12,500 capacity, with only 6,500 or so festivalgoers taking in a lineup that featured headliners Marty Stuart, The New Pornographers and The Tallest Man on Earth.

“But in happy news,” Salmonsen says, “we were also very pleasantly surprised (in that) all three days so far we’ve had really good walk-ups.

“So we’ve narrowed the gap and today is still young and we’re hoping that people will come down because one of the awesome things this year … that you can never predict in Calgary is that we were graced by Mother Nature this year — knock wood.”

The one storm that nobody has been able to outrun or find shelter from, though, has been the one hammering Alberta, by way of the low price of oil and the Canadian dollar. Again, while that may have contributed to the metaphorical cloud that kept locals from leaving their homes, Salmonsen certainly isn’t going to complain.

Kids enjoying the "folk" sign

A near constant stream of people getting their pictures taken with the “folk” sign at the Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince’s Island on Sunday. MIKE DREW / MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

“I’m just really grateful for the people that found some money to come just for a day, for a night, for the weekend, (and) to the sponsors who still managed to help us out and come forward — just the goodwill towards us,” she says.

“I think in a year where people should be helping the people from Fort McMurray and sharing the love amongst all of Calgary’s arts and music organizations, I’m really happy with the attendance that we have this year, all things considered.”

Musically, Salmonsen thinks they’re well positioned to do that, praising longtime artistic director Kerry Clarke “her usual eclectic” lineup where she’d booked “something for everyone.”

“Maybe not death metal fans,” the executive director says and laughs. “But pretty close.”

But as to whether or not there were enough bigger-name Mainstagers to get those sitting on the fences through the gates — Stuart, Corb Lund and Kathleen Edwards, being perhaps those with the greatest mainstream reach — Salmonsen defers, noting how subjective that is while also noting that the dollar in no way affected the acts they booked, the artistic budget remaining the same as last year.

“Being within it’s really hard to say what people from without really want,” she says.

“Certainly we welcome feedback … We welcome people’s thoughtful and considered feedback as the year goes on.”

Well, as for immediate feedback, specifically when it comes to Sunday on the island, it was another remarkably rich and eclectic day, with absolutely zero clouds or storms on any horizon — something just over 12,000 folks took advantage of.

Kickoff act on the Mainstage on the final night was U.K.-based Ethiopian act Krar Collective, who were a rhythmic and rather gently rocking display of world music. As they said early into their set, they play songs about love and all of the beautiful places in their homeland, and in the 45 minutes they were given they did their best to vividly, colourfully bring that travelogue to life.

Life, or rather liveliness, is something Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) could certainly infuse into her sets when they’re in larger spaces, with bigger crowds. True, there’s a great deal of emotion in what it is she does — puddles and puddles, actually — but it doesn’t translate well in such an environment. Solo, moving between her guitar and piano, mumbling stuff, it was a dour, dark and rather depressing performance, as the Atlanta artist electric sheepily moved through tracks such as Fool and Hate (with the always buoyant line “I hate myself and I want to die.”) Good? Sure. Lovely? In another space. But when you literally watch a mother rock her child to sleep by it, perhaps in the 6:30 p.m. slot on the Mainstage might not be the right context.

cat power performs at the calgary folk music festival at pri

Cat Power performs at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. MIKE DREW / MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

And for those who may have been confused by the back-to-back pairing of Cat Power and The Cat Empire — as in which was which — that was cleared up almost as soon as the Aussie collective took to the stage and shook Prince’s Island a few metres further into the Bow. The had the crown up and on its feet immediately, much to the consternation of those diehard tarpies who view such things — i.e. people having unfettered fun — as an infringement on their own estimation of the same.

But, said as someone who wouldn’t dance even if the order came followed by a “varmint,” and the sound of gunfire, it was impossible not to feel the rhythm and joy of the reggae, jazz, pop, ska, Afro and jam band as they swung, banged, sung and blew through a set of up and upper tempo songs such as Wolves, Creature and In My Pocket.

It was glorious and infectious and should have been anyone’s idea of fun.

Mainstage and folk fest 2016 wrapped up with the return of prodigal southern AB son, Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, whose populist, shucks and twang was actually a pretty great ease down.

Early into his set he showed his understanding of the mood on the Island and in his home province, by hitting his backup trio’s namesake song, while adding a little Stompin’ Tom’s Hockey Song into it — crowd-pleasing, for sure. As was fan fave Truck Got Stuck.

But it was when he and his crew cut into new songs from his latest effort Things That Can’t Be Undone such as Goodbye Colorado and Run This Town did he and they show there was some meat with that corn.

Still, no matter your diet, as with any Calgary Folk Music Festival, you no doubt went home satiated, satisfied, free.