Calgary Folk Music Festival touches down with wonderful opening night

Posted by Mike Bell on 23 July 2015

The John Butler Trio plays the Mainstage at Folk Fest on Prince's Island Park in Calgary on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

It did touch down.

Just a day later. And right smack dab in the centre of the city.

Or at least it appeared that way.

Come to think of it, at this time of year, it always appears that way.

It always seems as if glorious sonic detritus from across the nation, across the continent, and, yeah, around the world is picked up and plopped down on Prince’s Island to lay waste to eardrums, tastebuds and expectations.

The annual funderful funnel cloud that is the Calgary Folk Music Festival touched down on Thursday later afternoon, bringing with it sounds and styles from far and wide for the 11,640 or so faithful who sought shelter from the dull, dull doldrums of summer.

And, quite fittingly, the second it did, almost the exact moment that the first act, Nigerian artist Bombino and his band, took the Mainstage for what should be four days of a deliriously discombobulating musical whirlwind, there was calm.

Moments before, there was rain, there were clouds, there was thunder and there were many umbrellas.

Then. Sun. Warmth. Wonder. We were welcomed right into the eye.

Wayne Milligan, centre, covers up from the sun while listening to Jr. Gone Wild play the National Stage at Folk Fest on Prince’s Island Park in Calgary on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

And a pretty great welcome it was, as the blistering, brilliant guitarist and his backup hit the groove and rode it out hard to a superb conclusion with their electric, soul ’n’ funk infused set. It was easy to see and hear how the artist Omara “Bombino” Moctar found favour with Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, who produced the Tuareg musician’s last album Nomad.

It was a great start.

And it only got better.

Hell, everything is better when you have a little Jr. Gone Wild in your life, which we thankfully once again do, with the veteran Edmonton western punks reuniting a couple years back and plowing forth with the same sweet, cankered country sound for a whole new generation. Or maybe make that generations.

Jr. Gone Wild plays the National Stage at Folk Fest on Prince’s Island Park in Calgary on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

For while the audience of the old guard in front of the secondary Twilight Stage for the quartet’s hour of excellence was filled out with some who were likely seeing and appreciating the woefully under-appreciated Canadiana act for the very first time, there were also plenty of toddlers dancing and shaking with that kind of wide-eyed innocence that lets you truly know what cool is.

It was all the more wonderful that they did so, blissfully unaware, unencumbered by any critical thought, as the band inserted among their classics, such as In Contempt of Me and Slept All Afternoon, one of their new tunes Fool’s Errand — a great, raucous track which featured frontman Mike McDonald f-bombing his way into hearts both young and old.

Toronto’s The Wooden Sky kept the same sonic theme going, with their own pleasing blend of driving roots rock. At times the group, led by long-locked lead singer Gavin Gardiner recalled My Morning Jacket, albeit stripped of their psychedelia.

They were likable and went down easy.

Ruben and the Dark plays the National Stage at Folk Fest on Prince’s Island Park in Calgary on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

Back on the Mainstage, things were a little more challenging and less straight forward, with the first taste of far-flung folk — again, Bombino was a little more western world in his approach — via Ukrainian ensemble DakhaBrakha. Visually, musically, it was an exotic and colourful blend of cultural collisions, with percussion that seemed born of the African continent, instrumentation that pulled from Australia and the Baltic states, and a look that was right out of mother Russia.

It was, like the start of the evening and the weather itself, quiet and soothing.

It was also the calm before the storm.

Or the quiet before the Texas twister, otherwise known as Austin artist Shakey Graves.

Graduated to the Mainstage thanks to the illness of Patrick Watson, Graves and co. put on what could very well be the set of that or any of the other stages throughout the weekend.

It was a star turn. And it was awesome. Another grit-caked, roots rock act, they didn’t hold back on the latter descriptor, beautifully loud and noisy in their approach, the feedback and tone sounding at times as if the picket fences and combines from six municipalities over were being hurtled against the outside of a grain silo.

They were huge. And, by the time they closed with stomper, stunner Dearly Departed, they had the island on its collective feet begging them not to leave.

The John Butler Trio plays the Mainstage at Folk Fest on Prince’s Island Park in Calgary on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

One almost pitied Aussie act the John Butler Trio having to follow such a showcase. Until they started to play, and picked things up where Graves left them — frontman Butler and his band equal to the task and decibel levels.

They, too, had a masterfully massive sound, battering as they grooved and jammed away on extended versions of their heavily amplified blues, funk, rock, jazz, world, folk and pop.

Back on the Twilight Stage, things were somewhat quieter, but no less electric, as Calgary-born band Reuben and the Dark returned from their new headquarters of Toronto for a stirring set of their own.

The band, led by songwriter Reuben Bullock, brought back the now well polished and well travelled rural rock tunes from their Arts & Crafts debut Funeral Sky. Warm, gorgeous versions of songs such as Devil’s Time and Rolling Stone were fondly, fittingly received by the audience who welcomed him back with genuine affection, genuine joy, genuine heart.

And why not. There is, after all, no place like home, no place like home, no place like … folk fest.