M. Ward unleashes blissful folk fest feel

Posted by Mike Bell on 26 July 2013

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Calgary Folk Music Festival

Thursday night at Prince's Island

Park featuring Alabama Shakes,

M. Ward and others. Attendance:

Sold out.

Something slightly off. Almost imperceptible, really.

But there was something slightly askew with much of the opening night of the Calgary Folk Music Festival. The mood was dipped and dampened enough to not be sombre, per se, but neither what it could have been, perhaps should have been - defiant, celebratory, relieved, resolute, raucous, folk fest.

Maybe it was the cold, battleship weather. Possibly it was the fatigue of the past month plus. Hell, it could even have been survivor's guilt.

The event is, after all, on a location that was all but submerged in the latter stages of June, and the reminders are everywhere: from the signs that warn that the river bank is offlimits and all of the felled trees, to mulch placed where green grass once grew and the entire area where two stages previously sat now fenced offand unusable.

So, a slow start, a time to warm up - fingers crossed for the literal translation - are somewhat understandable, forgivable.

That, incidentally, was mirrored with the acts that got the evening underway, with the honour of launching folk fest 2013 falling on brassy Romanian act Fanfare Ciocarlia. The large ensemble made a din that could charitably be called upbeat, but also, under extended exposure, fell under the banner of obnoxious.

It's something of a Thursday tradition now - an admirable one, at that - with the opener often a world music artist with a sound both foreign, adventurous and challenging to many Western ears, but Fanfare's mix of brass act, circus soundtrack, oompah, mariachi and high school marching band didn't start the night offon the right note.

Admittedly, Haligonian songstress Amelia Curran's concurrent set at the Twilight Stage seemed the smarter, more soothing bet but, well, technical difficulties meant that sweetness was something that would have to wait for one of her many weekend workshops.

A taste of Samantha Martin and the Haggard, on the other hand, was worth missing the opening couple of songs of mainstager Danny Michel and his Belizean friends the Garifuna Collective. Martin and Co. were, so it seemed, a nice build up to the evening headliners Alabama Shakes, with a simmering mix of gospel and soul, and her big, beautiful voice the wick that lit it off. (They, too, are around all weekend and certainly worth searching out.) That fact made it much easier to return to centre stage for fellow Torontonian Michel, whose career has been an eclectic one, be it putting out his own material or covering others as he did a few years back with a Bowie tribute. His latest collaboration with the Collective actually sounded like a tribute of sorts - albeit more in spirit than material - to Graceland-era Paul Simon, with his pop mentality melding seamlessly with the world music of his friends for a somewhat uplifting experience.

Still, while it buoyed things slightly, things really weren't as rocking as they could have been.

Until M. Ward. That was when the switch was flicked, when the alt darling hit the stage with his duo. Not at first. Like the evening, he started slow with some nice, easygoing blues rock, such as the song Primitive Girl and Make A Sad, Sad Song, laying the foundation, stoking the fire, as he and his mates got a little louder, a little more gritty as the set wound down. Wound down and built up to a flat-out nasty version of Buddy, the bespectacled one's Rave On, which grew and grew into a wonderfully noisy, blissfully exultant jam session.

It was unexpected, truly appreciated and a weirdly loosening ending that seemed to somehow make everyone start to think that it was actually fine to be in this place, feeling these things and allowed to find the folk fest frame of mind.

And if Ward did that, Alabama Shakes sealed the deal with a set that was everything their reputation and their press promised it would be.

If you think you get it from hearing their much lauded 2012 debut Boys and Girls, you don't. You need to see them to truly feel them. You need to hear vocalist Brittany Howard belt it out - praise the angels while seducing the devil - and the band get offthe juiciest groove to understand how powerful their soul-rock concoction is.

They were fantastic. They were freeing.

And when they launched into their hit, Hold On the entire Island, on its feet, finally seemed to realize that it really was folk fest.

And it really was OK.