Mike Bell, Calgary Herald: Calgary Folk Music Festival off to glowing start despite hiccips

Posted by on 27 July 2012


Yes, it’s a dangerous thought, a jinx of a wish, and one best kept unspoken or unwritten.

But. The idea that Chris Isaak should be in charge of bringing the sun — musically and weather-wise — to this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival is one that we can, after Thursday’s opening night, cling to.

The American classic country rocker, who’s touring an album featuring covers of Sun Records hits titled Beyond the Sun, took the Mainstage late Thursday night — thanks to some early evening hiccups — under gorgeous, dark blue skies and lit things up with his reverential take on the roots of rock ’n’ roll, and a sunny, starry, amiable demeanour that was as bright as it was entertaining.

Isaak and his fantastic band were on fire, blistering under the night sky, he in a red, Gram Parson-like suit, and firing lighting with a voice that is as smooth and pure as it is electric. On their feet from the first note, the crowd basked in his glow, as he coolly cruised through material including his biggest hit Wicked Game and his Johnny Cash cover of Ring of Fire and Elvis’s It’s Now or Never from that latest record. You could see why the festival was willing to incur the wrath — and, presumably fines — from bylaw officers by allowing his set to continue until 11 p.m., long after the lights should have been extinguished.

Leading into Isaak, beautifully it should be said, was Beirut, the folk-pop project of New Mexico native Zach Condon, who, as a frontman, is an intriguing and enjoyable mix of Bryan Ferry and Ron Sexsmith. Kicking off with a brassy, horn-y version of the bizarro Roxy Music-esque tune Santa Fe from his latest album The Riptide, hipster crooner Condon and his band casually breezed through a set that sonically ran the gamut of oompah band, Mariachi and polka act, while still reined in by pop-rock parameters.

It was on the mellow-side — especially considering the more energetic acts Beirut were sandwiched between — but after admonishing the folk fascists for not allowing the kids to dance, a la Footloose, they still managed to bring the entire Island to its feet for the remainder of their set, which went down easy.

The first highlight of the fest will go down in the books as Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, who brought their own share of sun to the island, sailing in on a cruise ship of soul and funk. The Brooklyn, N.Y., vocalist, who built a modest name for himself as a James Brown impersonator, Black Velvet, before finding recent fame with his own career on the revivalist Daptone Records, was simply, sensational, putting on a set that was off the “wow” scale.

A born showman, with a voice that could peel paint, sand it and throw on a coat of lacquer, Bradley had the crowd grooving and in a mood to get moving, as he showed off those steps learned from the Godfather of Soul, be they superfly twirls or some kung fu funk moves.

The only thing that could stop him was a microphone that failed him on entrance — making the traditional one instrumental from the band-then introduction setup sadly anticlimactic. But once that bug was worked out his pipes, which are rusted wonderfully from a long, hard life lived, were unloaded on songs ranging from the title track of his 2011 debut No Time for Dreaming to a superb cover of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. Musically, he was shadowed every step of the way, with a backup band that lives up to its name, hot young players that swung and shone on their own, never in the shadows of the star standing out front.

Starting off the evening and the entire event was Canadian alt folk act The Barr Brothers, whose set was 30 mins late to start — due to the first technical glitch — and underwhelming when it did. To call them merely a bargain Avett Brothers would be entirely unfair. Even if relatively true. The Montreal act, built around bros. Andrew and Brad, mine the same moody, melodic roots terrain of the American act, and even have a song that sounds like I and Love and You lite. That said, they’re still quite good at it, bringing elements of Delta blues, indie rock and jam band esthetics into the equation that, when fully clicking, can build a big, brash sound, make some fairly beautiful noise. But too often during their set the songs meandered, disappearing into nothingness, and leaving very little behind to chew on or take away.

It wasn’t the best start to this year’s fest. But there’s always the sun. Fingers crossed it continues.

The Calgary Folk Music Festival runs through Sunday at Prince’s Island.

mbell@calgaryherald.com Twitter.com/mrbell_23