Saturday afternoon at the Calgary Folk Music Festival: Political singalongs, the Devil's music and Irish soul

Posted by Eric Volmers on 9 August 2016

Robbie Fulks plays at the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Saturday July 23, 2016. GAVIN YGAVIN YOUNG / POSTMEDIA

It was just breaking noon on Prince’s Island Park on Day 3 of the Calgary Folk Music Festival and a seemingly already sun-drowsy crowd took in what was surely one of the weekend’s don’t-miss concerts, even if most did. Nashville singer-songwriter Adia Victoria, sporting a shiny gold dress, sang about the devil and heartbreak, God and redemption, to grungy-blues backup like she was in a night-club scene directed by David Lynch. 

The singer, who has been described as “gothic blues”, gave a mesmerizing performance as many were indulging in their first brews of the day (On Stage 3, now located in the double-sized beer tent, before it became crowded) Singing songs from her debut album, Beyond the Bloodhounds, Victoria alternated between defiant growl and yearning beauty, describing her harrowing slow-burn anthem Howlin’ Shame as being about “being a teenager and being a girl. It’s not all Taylor Swift, y’all.”

Victoria, a performer bold enough to cover, and do justice to, Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil, was one of those musical discoveries fans can make if they are playing close enough attention.

As usual, there was plenty to choose from on Prince’s Island Saturday. At the other end of the park, The Mini-Mekons — Jon Langford, Sally Timms and Rico Bell from the punky alt-country pioneers —  joined the Sadies for a rollicking set that also included singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks and Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy) in a rather on-the-nose preview of a workshop scheduled to begin directly afterwards and was to feature the Mini-Mekons, Robbie Fulks, Will Oldham and the Sadies. Together the ran through some of the Mekons’ most durable and political singalongs such as Big Zombie, (Sometimes I Feel like) Fletcher Christian, Millionaire, The Bomb and The Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Timm’s gorgeous vocals on Ghosts of American Astronauts was a 2016 festival highlight.

And, as is usually the case with daytime festival experiences, there were plenty of beautiful, random moments that perhaps depended on a little luck to happen upon. For instance, it was good luck to stumble upon accordion-playing Vancouver singer-songwriter Geoff Berner just as he was singing a haunting, Yiddish song about displacement during the Brick and Martyr workshop; or to witness Yemen Blues with Ravid Kahalani’s anguished ballad turn into a global groove-fest courtesy of supple backing from Montreal’s Moroccan-music revisionists Ayrad and rhythmic Columbian-American act Palenke Soultribe.

Back in the beer tent, now just as crowded as the one half its size used to be, festival hot ticket Foy Vance let loose with tunes such as Noam Chomsky is a Soft Revolution, his own (vaguely) political anthem set to a raucous Bob Seger-esque beat. Like Victoria, Ireland’s Foy was another 2016 performer who seemed to be earning plenty of “did-you-see?” chatter among fans over the weekend. A gifted soul singer who occasionally sounds like a gruffer version of fellow countryman Van Morrison, he applied those soulful pipes to Prince’s Purple Rain and his own piano-ballad Guiding Light with equal grace. He was another discovery, sure to be asked back and sure to be talked about.

The Calgary Folk Music Festival continues on Sunday at Prince’s Island Park.