Folk Fest: 30 years and going strong
Surely after 30 years a music festival is bound to become stale and outdated, right?
Well judging by the flurry of activity already going on down at Prince’s Island Park, the Calgary Folk Fest seems to be finding a stride it never knew it had.
But, what about the economic recession, you ask?
The Folk Fest sold out all of its four-day and Saturday passes the weekend before the show.
Still, you must think, there’s no room for the festival to grow. Surely they can’t be marketing the festival outside the province? That’s way too expensive and no one is travelling these days anyway.
In reality, the festival received nearly $300,000 in federal funding Tuesday during an announcement made by the Canada’s Minister of Industry Tony Clement. The economic injection will be put toward spreading word of the festival primarily in the northwestern U.S. but also targeting areas as far away as New York. The festival is also considering opening up Friday afternoon performances for the first time next year.
For more on the funding announcement click here
Well all that’s well and good but Folk Fest is just a bunch of white-haired musicians strumming away on their banjos, right?
Not quite, this year’s festival features 62 artists from around the world, ranging in genres from hip-hop and rap to swamp blues and post-punk rock.
These questions and many more have been posed countless times to les Siemieniuk, Folk Fest’s general manager, and he simply lets the results speak for themselves.
“We put on a good show at good value and you can’t get this show anywhere else,” Siemieniuk said during a interview Monday as last-minute preparations were being made on the festival site.
“It’s once a year, people treat it like a mini vacation, four days away from the real world with music that mostly you don’t get a chance to see every day.”
For those who have never made the journey that has become a staple in the summer routine of others, here’s a quick rundown.
Folk Fest runs Thursday-Sunday and features numerous performances from the majority of the artists on the bill. Each night the festival features a mainstage show that kicks off at 5:30 p.m., showcasing the biggest names on this year’s bill. On Saturday and Sunday, sessions that take place simultaneously across six stages kick off each morning at 10:30 a.m. Some of these are your standard concerts, however, it is the workshops — where as many as four groups or artists will spontaneously collaborate together on stage — that sets folk festivals apart, says Siemieniuk.
“It’s not just a bunch of concerts. If you are coming to see someone in particular, you don’t just get to see them in concert, you also get to see them interact with other musicians,” he said.
“You get to put musicians together that might not necessarily make sense. You take a band from Australia, some folk singers from northern Canada and some Spanish singers from Columbia and then it’s like ‘wow it really works.’ They all speak the same musical language and it clicks. That’s where the real magic happens.”
“Those musicians will probably never be on the same stage again.”
That might not always be the case, as Siemieniuk recalls a situation where the workshop created at Folk Fest extended well past four days jamming at Prince’s Island Park.
“Some of (the artists) actually are scared of them. A few years ago we had a singer- songwriter from Florida named Jim White and he was one of those guys who kind of toils in a studio and puts together stuff alone and travels alone.
“We put him in a workshop with The Sadies from Toronto, Mary Gauthier from Nashville and Oh Susanna, also from Toronto, and it worked out nicely.
“Lo and behold his new album comes out the next spring and who’s playing on it? The Sadies, Mary Gauthier and Oh Susanna. He invited them to all come down to Florida and play on his next album he had such a good time.”
It is this kind of unpredictability that makes it tough to catch all of the bands you intend to while touring around the festival site. Even Siemieniuk, a true connoisseur of folk music, has a tough time singling out specific acts that he personally hopes to catch.
There’s 62 of them,” he says with a chuckle. “It will all different for each person. Someone once said ‘If you can’t find something you like at a folk festival because of the variety, then maybe you really don’t like music.’ ”
The question of what really is folk music is often posed to Siemieniuk, as Folk Fest has seen the types of artists performing evolve a great deal over the years, the incessant spinning of turntables by Montreal’s Kid Koala or the easy breezy hip-hop beats of Atlanta veterans Arrested Development are just two of many examples that come to mind.
Check back on thereflector.ca in the coming days for profiles of Kid Koala, Arrested Development and many others
“Folk music had always been where all the orphans went that didn’t fit in,” Siemieniuk said.
“Part of the problem is that a definition that some people still seem set on is that folk was developed in the 1960’s with Bob Dylan and others. . . . Times have changed. World music, example, is folk music because a lot of the music comes from (the artist’s) heritage they just play it in contemporary styles.”
Beyond the debate and showcase of the festival’s performers, Folk Fest also has plenty to offer in terms of vendors and initiatives, maybe most notably its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. For 10 years, organizers have purchased the energy for the festival entirely from renewable sources like windpower. Compostable beer and wine glasses and a plate rebate program have also been in place for a number of years. This year Siemieniuk and staff chose to take it one step farther.
“We have calculated how much carbon is used for all the artists to travel here and have purchased some seedlings. As people leave the festival, if they are willing we will give them a seedling to plant a tree that will offset a certain amount of carbon throughout its life to cover the travel for this year’s festival,” Siemieniuk explained.
The environmental initiatives and spontaneous artist sessions are just a mere part of what will likely come into play during the weekends festivities. And while it doesn’t look like Folk Fest is going away anytime, Siemieniuk encouraged those who have never attended to come down and see what all the fuss is about.
“The one thing I will guarantee is that you will come away from here talking about a band you have never heard of,” he said. “That’s the beauty of this thing, the number one thing people tell us is they came to see one group and they discovered another while they are here.”
As of press time, festival passes were still available for Thursday and Friday evening as well as Sunday. More information on tickets can be found here or by calling (403) 233-0904.
Before heading down to Folk Fest each day, log on to thereflector.ca for interviews with the bands, photos from the night before and tips on what to check out because we know it can be quite overwhelming.