There was no better place to be, Globe and Mail July 23, 2005

Posted by on 9 August 2005

By Robert Everett-Green, Page R11

Calgary Folk Festival

At Prince's Island Park

In Calgary on Thursday

Tokens of love come in many forms. For this year's Calgary Folk Festival, love's most telling symbol is the temporary causeway the city threw across the narrow slip of the Bow River that separates Prince's Island from the downtown area. Without that quick rescue action, the heap of rubble and sand left when floodwaters washed out the island's main supply route might have been the festival's burial mound.


Till the waters came, the festival was looking like fortune's darling. It had $300,000 in the bank, plans to build a new office and performance centre in Calgary's Inglewood neighbourhood and a solid core of fans who regard the festival's days of song as the antidote to the city's annual Stampede hangover.


This year's 26th edition broke even on ticket sales before anyone had played a note. That represents over $1-million in advance sales, for an event whose budget ($1.8-million) has tripled over the past decade.


It would be hard to imagine a prettier setting for an urban festival. Prince's Island is a tiny woodland park, whose mature trees screen out much of the sounds and sight of the city core, just a few blocks away.


But this is an urban festival, by disposition as well as venue. Kerry Clarke, who programs the event with Terry Wickham (who also produces the Edmonton Folk Festival), has a background in college radio, and it shows in some of this year's choices. The Chicago post-rock collective Tortoise is here, along with alt-rock star Jeff Tweedy, hip-hop survivor Buck 65, cabaret rocker Hawksley Workman and Somali rapper K'naan. Like all the Western folk festivals, Calgary takes a broad view of the folk paradigm.


"People expect this festival to be a little edgy," Clarke said. "We were the first to have Buck 65, the Weakerthans and Giant Sand."


This year's list also includes Steve Earle, the Del McCoury Band, Sarah Harmer, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Shelby Lynne and the Holmes Brothers. There's a bit of jazz, blues and even Balkan hip-hop, though a scan across the field of 8,050 paying customers at Thursday's opening concert proved that the program diversity hasn't yet changed the event's largely white following.


Clarke's intention to alter that blared forth at the start of the show, in a jubilant set by India's Kawa Brass Band. The group's wild modal unisons and intricate drumming could be heard from the far end of the park's concession row, where one could eat Indian food imported all the way from Winnipeg.


"If there is no brass band, there is no wedding in India," one of the Kawa players said, before introducing a tune called No Wife Without Rice. A little girl near me danced on her Mickey Mouse blanket with almost as much intensity as the costumed woman performing a "gypsy dance" on stage.


After that postcolonial start, Buck 65 appeared in what the last rulers of the Raj would have recognized as a gentleman's yachting costume. It must be tough to follow a brass band with a box of recorded accompaniments, and the start of his set felt a bit diffuse, as if he missed the containing energies of a club. His new wife, Claire, appeared for a few numbers, looking ill at ease and sounding indistinct, though she was indispensable for the "dirty love song" the pair did in French and English. The closer was an inspired mash-up of Wicked and Wild with Clarence Ashley's finger-picking ditty The Coo-Coo Bird.


The Danish group Instinkt played a Euro-medieval roots mélange, heavy on fiddle and hurdy-gurdy. They also yielded the stage briefly to Chirgilchin, a Tuvan throat-singing trio they met at a festival in the Yukon. Too bad the festival's calendar was already filled: Chirgilchin's whistling, rumbling, otherworldly singing was a show-stopper.


Hawksley Workman took a few minutes to establish an early lead in the undeclared race to be the festival's most eccentric performer, and perhaps its best showman. His high-flying vocals and free-associative patter gave the impression of someone willing to soar on any updraft of mood or sensation. After a wayward, extended version of Strip Tease, he took a turn on drums, and the set morphed into a woolly rock jam, with Wyatt Burton wailing on electric guitar as no folk musician ever has.


Jeff Tweedy followed, looking sober and reflective, and sounding that way too, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He opened with one of his Mermaid Avenue songs with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, abruptly yanking the festival back to its folk roots.


Unlike Kawa and Hawksley, who played out to the crowd, Tweedy's music invited us to gather in close, for a series of searching tunes played in a homey style. Without effort or pretension, he got himself connected to the real thing, the honest expression of plain truths that is the lasting inheritance of the folk tradition. Please Tell My Brother, from his Golden Smog days, and I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, from his better-known Wilco period, seemed to look beyond the wreckage of experience toward something like wisdom, or at least the faith that wisdom could exist. The sun hung low by the horizon, the cool air lay still and there was no better place to be.