Saturday's Calgary Folk Music Festival filled with joy, darkness and more than a few great songs

Posted by Eric Volmers on 30 October 2017

Maryanne Balczer fans herself while watching the band River Whyless on Festival Hall Stage 1 in the afternoon as thousands of fans take in the Calgary Folk Music Festival in Prince's Island Park on Saturday, July 29, 2017 in Calgary, Alta. BRITTON LEDINGHAM/POSTMEDIA NETW


It seemed a willful move by John K. Samson to begin his set Saturday night at the Calgary Folk Music Festival with Select All Delete, a poetic but cynical downer that opens his most recent solo record Winter Wheat.

As the sun was finally setting on a sweaty sold-out Saturday at Prince’s Island Park, Samson countered the pure jubilance of the acts that preceded him on the main stage with the ballad that begins with the funny but no-so-uplifting lyric:“That hashtag wants me dead, but I don’t mind.”

Of course, no one ever accused John K. Samson of being jubilant. With a nervous smirk on his face throughout, Samson offered a set Saturday that showcased his formidable songwriting skills, sense of humour and stubborn streak of anti-careerism. Introducing himself as a “leftist soft-rock band from Winnipeg,” Samson would go on to perform a handful of gems from his solo discs and favourites from his former band the Weakerthans, including the Pamphleteer, Sun in an Empty Room, One Great City!, Reconstruction Site and a rollicking Plea From a Cat Named Virtute. He also played the juicily unflattering Vampire Alberta Blues and suggested people go to another stage to take in Tanya Tagaq’s set rather than his own.

It seemed to fit nicely into the mainstage festivities on Saturday, which included Americana-punk icons Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin + the Guilty Ones and closed with goofy pop-rock stalwarts The Barenaked Ladies.

In general, Saturday night offered a nice sampling of folk music in all its many shades, both the light and the dark.

 The celebratory vibe started early on the mainstage, with the Congolese band Mbongwana Star offering a fiery set that mixed the vocals of founders Yakala  (Coco) Ngambali and Nsituvuidi (Theo) Nzonza with dazzling prog-metal riffs from guitarist Jean-Claude Kamina Mulodi. While the band’s sound is reportedly rooted in a revolutionary fervour and desire to escape poverty and corruption in its home city of Kinshasa, it was joyful, rhythmic music that quickly filled the dance space to the right of the stage. Which was a good place to be for Baracutanga, an American outfit steeped in the musical traditions of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. As a last-minute fill-in for Sidestepper, who were apparently unable to attend due to visa issues, the seven-piece band easily won over the crowd with blazing brass, danceable rhythms and the charisma of vocalist Jackie Zamora.  

Following Samson, the Alvin brothers sounded like vintage cowpunkers, even when covering James Brown’s Please, Please, Please. With an raw mix of electrified country swing and double-guitar crunch, the band gave added urgency to Big Bill Broonzy’s Trucking Little Woman and Dave Alvin’s own blistering true-crime story song Johnny Ace is Dead. The brothers also dipped into their own impressive history, offering a sampling of classic tunes such as Marie, Marie, which was first recorded by The Blasters, the punk-charged Americana pioneers Dave and Phil formed in the the late 1970s; and 4th of July, a melodic rocker Dave Alvin gave to punk-rockers X when he briefly played with them in the late 1980s.

If not exactly jubilant, headliners Barenaked Ladies were certainly breezy, particularly on lilting opening numbers Light Up My Room and Old Apartment. Brian Wilson, One Week, Odds Are and Pinch Me all became standard sing-a-longs Saturday night, a reminder that the Ladies have stockpiled a number of sturdy hits that hold up remarkably well. There was a serviceable”Calgary rap,” a few jokes about getting old and even one about diarrhea, but the four-piece seems to have dialled down the goofiness over the years. This isn’t a bad thing. As with many mildly amusing Canadian institutions, like maple-cream cookies or Corner Gas reruns, a little of the Ladies gentle humour goes a long way. 

Those who were after a darker shade of folk could certainly find samples earlier in the day.

”I don’t usually play that song this early in the morning,” said Jonathan Linaberry, aka The Bones of J.R. Jones, during an early side-stage performance. By this point, it had already passed noon, but the sentiment fit.The New York artist opened with a stomping, soul-shaking blues number that referenced cocaine and curses and death and other things probably best suited for dark nights in a dark club. The fact this was a sunny (early) afternoon at Prince’s Island, didn’t stop Bones from giving a mesmerizing, one-man-band performance.

Calgary’s Ghostkeeper, who played even earlier Saturday, overcame some technical gremlins to put in an equally intense performance at 10:30 a.m.. The intensity springs naturally from the band’s excellent but apocalyptic concept album Sheer Blouse Buffalo Knocks, which the band drew on for most of the set. That included shape-shifting, complex genre-hybrids such as Muskeekee and EEE, which mix noisy kitchen-sink arrangements reminiscent of Beck with traditional strains from the Metis heritage of couple Sarah Houle and Shane Ghostkeeper.  The seamless blending of cultures continued into the afternoon, particularly during a bluesy workshop called Let Your Backbone Slide. Toronto’s Diane Taylor & The Backsliderz offered a sin-and-redemption original called Beer and a Bible, while guitarist Faris offered a hypnotic blend of North African Touareg music and blistering blues. Workshop host Terra Lightfoot, a gifted guitarist herself,  kicked things off with a cover of Hank Williams’ You Win Again.

In fact, those who made it to Prince’s Island early would have heard a number of interesting covers, which is a hallmark of the multi-artist workshop. In one titled Lock, Stock and Bear All, Toronto singer-songwriter Jeffery Straker play a soulful version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now; followed by Edmonton’s Moshin Zaman, who tackled Bruce Springsteen’s  I’m On Fire with a hymn-like reverence; followed by a suitably raucous run through Merle Haggard’s Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down by expat Whitney Rose.

During the Canada Far and Wide workshop, Basia Bulat delivered a heart-melting, communal-hug performance of Neil Young’s Helpless followed by a stomping Barrett’s Privateers by Barney Bentall.

But Saturday’s should’ve-been-on-the-main-stage award went to Nashville’s McCrary Sisters, who played a soul-stirring version of Amazing Grace and exuberant and funky gospel originals such as Help Me and Let it Go, giving the mellow side-stage a sudden tent-revival feel in the hot afternoon sun.

The Calgary Folk Festival runs until Sunday at Prince’s Island Park.