FFWd Weekly: Calgary Folk Fest day four

Posted by on 30 July 2012

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You could start off your days in worse ways than watching Jon Langford and Jim White trade songs, and that’s how Sunday started at the Alternate Universes workshop.

It lived up to its name, too, with White telling numerous stories about growing up in the Bible-thumping South and Langford singing about the behind-the-scenes partying on the set of Moby Dick. Then it was off the see Three Metre Day, a gorgeous chamber-pop act led by Michelle Willis’s smoky barroom vocals, alongside her pump organ, Don Rooke’s slide guitar and Hugh Marsh’s violin. Three Metre Day was my annual “I’m going to see this band because of their name” band, and I left thinking about much more than their name.

All of this was followed by one of the weekend’s busiest workshops, Waiting For My Man, featuring Eve Hell & The Razors, Jon Langford, Reuben and The Dark and Justin Townes Earle. Reuben Bullock more than held his own against the international talent, but Earle proved himself to be one of the premier songwriters at the festival — something that would be confirmed during his mainstage set later in the evening.

As the Folk Fest wound down for another year, Randy Newman proved to be a popular penultimate act. He played a number of iconic songs (“You’ve Got A Friend”, “I Love L.A.”) and delighted the crowd by saying that the first time he saw Toy Story, he didn’t realize it was animated.

The festival closed with Iron & Wine following up his solo set of a few years ago with a half-band this time around. While the set was sadly much shorter than expected, he blazed through fan favourites like “The Trapeze Swinger” and “Naked As We Came.”

Overall, 2012 was a strong but chill year for the Calgary Folk Fest. At least for someone who skipped Rural Alberta Advantage to watch Gillian Welch on Saturday. Not a lot of dancing was done, but I honestly can’t think of one band I saw that I didn’t like. Jon Langford stands out as someone I didn’t really know that really got my attention, while reliable and familiar acts like Whitehorse and Dan Mangan delivered as usual.

Until next year, then.

— NATHAN ATNIKOV

 

Yesterday, I mentioned that the 2012 Folk Fest experience was on the verge of memorability but just not reaching the advertised potential. Sunday pushed it over the line. It was a close call, with the evening mainstage acts paling in comparison to the morning's workshops, but the day ultimately reached its crescendo — prominent, anticipated and an event worthy of attention.

 I rolled out of bed in time to catch the Game, Set & Match workshop at 12:50 p.m. which brilliantly combined the all-Canadian line-up of Jeff Stuart & the Hearts, Leeroy Stagger & the Wildflowers, Little Scream and Dan Mangan. After pointing out that the number of amps on stage must match the circa-2005 Broken Social Scene's average, Lethbridge's Leeroy Stagger requested that all of the musicians to play on his first track — resulting in one of the best combos of the festival, a well-balanced track despite the over-saturation of guitars. Mangan's perfect performance of "Oh Fortune" also stood out during the hour-long session, but each song showed the beauty of impromptu synchronism. It was relaxed, fun and one of the best workshops of the four days 

The panel discussion that followed at the Apache Talk Tent with Leeroy Stagger, Dan Mangan, Bettysoo and Doug Cox, Richard Flohil and Lisa Knapp (who arrived late after understandably being distracted by coffee) was interesting. Each of the panelists reminisced about touring, with subjects ranging from bad food experiences on the road to horrendous tales about managers and gigs. It was hilarious. The highlight, by far, was Mangan's retelling of his experience at Glastonbury Festival when he hung out with Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg in a tour bus — apparently, the two legends discussed creating a film that they would both star in titled Father and Son that would never overtly point out the differences between the country star and weed rapper. The hour was a comedy club of sorts, giving me more appreciation for the effort that each performer puts into bringing us their fabulous tunes. Mangan's story about listening to In Rainbows with the bassist of Radiohead was also a stunner of a tale.

 Although I had planned to join my family for a picnic at Reuben & the Dark's next workshop, I heard Shad playing the lick to "Rock to It" at Stage 3 and automatically abandoned all prior plans in order to attend the workshop's opening. It was the best decision of the day. I've heard that particular song performed live four times, with each time obviously impressing me. But this 10-minute rendition blew me away — every musician on stage contributed a part, leading to a raucous, percussion-driven version of a song that is usually noted for a stripped-down, alt-rock feel. Shad rapped, perfectly as always, while the Hungarian Besh o droM led the eclectic instrumentation. It was truly an honour to witness. Unfortunately, my stomach was ignoring my mind's satisfaction, so I rejoined the family on the grass overlooking Stage 5 to eat while listening to a Reuben & the Dark revision of "Like a Rolling Stone."

By that point, the most innovative and intriguing parts of the day had been seen. It's not as if the remainder wasn't interesting — it just wasn't as interesting as what had preceded. The Maple Music workshop, again showcasing Leeroy Stagger & the Wildflowers and Dan Mangan while adding Joe Nolan and Ian Tamblyn, was flat-out boring. None of them collaborated. Most played chill, folky stuff, which translates to napping music for me, especially at four in the afternoon. Plus, the set-up at Stage 6 sucks beyond anything I've seen at an outdoor festival, forcing most to imagine what's going on within the narrow confines of the shaded tent. I wandered to The Breakmen show from there, but not much improved despite the addition of a banjo and three-part harmonies. It sounded all the same by that point. The Phil & Sebastian cappuccino and a few IPAs in the beer garden made up for all that, preparing me for a wild mainstage show.

Well, the sets on the mainstage didn't end up being wild, although they were obviously important to most Folk Fest-goers. Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postzisos sounded funky from the beer garden. Justin Town Earle was classically folky: the 30-year-old made some funny faces during his show, which was about the most interesting part of it all. However, with that said, Earle decided to showcase a gruff low vocal delivery in his last song, which was by far his best (why he didn't present that prior is sort of beyond me). Randy Newman proved why he's

The Man in every aspect — after soundtracking basically every important animated film in the past few decades and being nominated for 20 Academy Awards, it was pretty wonderful to see the legend live. His subtle political awareness shone: he sang about American foreign policy and tacitly noted the recent newsroom cuts to the Herald while miraculously maintaing a sense of sonic buoyancy. An hour was a tad over-the-top for me, personally, although I'm sure a performance of "Rednecks" would've changed my mind. Hearing "You've Got a Friend in Me" made my evening.

And then there was Iron & Wine, the classic folk fest closer act who also rejected requests for interviews and photos. Most know my opinions on festival artists who maintain that sort of attitude, so there's no need to explain (but it really is the most pretentious, silly thing out there). Sam Beam's beard was nice. His music, not so much. Nothing about the performance stood out with the exception of the image of his press photo with a peacock in the festival program. His sax/flute player sucked, resorting to an elementary delivery. Beam's voice was refined and mellow, but nothing remotely unique. I understand why the Folk Fest programmers brought the artist to wrap up the festival — he's safe, pretty and inoffensive. But I suppose I hoped for more, perhaps an artist that expanded the artistic expectations of the audience while simultaneously including them in a way that the Jeff Mangum set absolutely did not. Obviously, that's no easy feat, but I have enough faith in the wonderful Folk Fest that something excellent can happen in the future.

This year's Folk Fest was a blast. It wasn't artistically innovative, with the exception of perhaps Little Scream, but the musicians that the four-day-long party attracted were undoubtedly interesting. Shad, Dan Mangan, Shakura S'Aida and Reuben & the Dark shone. Randy Newman was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although I probably wouldn't pay money to see him if he came to town again. Many lessons — such as hiring sound people who are half-decent and booking a Friday night musician that isn't bizarrely esoteric — have likely been learned. Hopefully, next year's Folk Fest will capitalize on the fun times of this year, and bring even more creativity to the island. Suggestions for possible un-folked Canadian candidates for 2013: Colin Stetson, The Joe, Drawn Ship and Fucked Up. But until next year's schedule is announced, that will hopefully feature one of the four mentioned, we'll all be eagerly waiting to see who will be gracing the stages next year. It's been a cool year.

— JAMES WILT