Calgary Folk Fest delivers on all fronts
By Sean-Paul Boynton
When the sun finally decided to keep on shining throughout the weekend after a gloomily rained-out Friday, the 2011 Calgary Folk Music Festival truly came alive.
In this reviewer’s opinion, the true spirit of this annual four-day musical frolic through Prince’s Island Park isn’t about camping out in front of the main stage waiting for 5:30 and the biggest names to finally arrive. Rather, it’s about living up to what happened to be this year’s festival’s slogan: “Where Calgary discovers music.”
As I found during the course of this past Saturday and Sunday, that discovery is sweetest when one takes the initiative to travel to each of the festival’s six side stages to witness stirring solo sets and, more importantly, surprising workshop sessions featuring eclectic mixtures of artists. Hearing that certain buzzed-about or frequently name-checked performers would be showing up at particular stages consistently led me to discover other, lesser-known artists I normally wouldn’t have heard any other way. Such is the magic of this festival every single year, and the 26th annual installment did not disappoint.
Upon entering the grounds early Saturday afternoon, my ears instantly responded to the distant sounds of charging African funk rhythms coming from a nearby stage. The source turned out to be Ti-Coca & Wanga-Négès, from Haiti, and I was immediately reminded of the Folk Fest’s wide-ranging and world-conscious approach to the term “folk music”: it’s clearly not all about acoustic guitars and bushy beards but rather about music that touches on the musical roots of one’s community.
This was also apparent in another pleasant discovery, in the Rwanda-born and Canadian-bred virtuoso known as Mighty Popo. The guy seemed to be everywhere within the ensuing two days, ending up playing four shows in total – no small feat. A purveyor of what he calls “world blues,” the man is a dynamo on the guitar and a soulful singer in multiple languages (more on him later).
It was great to see Montreal’s BRAIDS back in Calgary; I remember only a few years ago they were hometown favourites performing under the banner of The Neighbourhood Council. Naturally, the group is hauntingly beautiful as ever, yet what struck me the most during the brief time I was able to witness their playing was how far they have evolved. The fact that they’re now starting to get some major international attention is no surprise.
Another Folk Fest tradition is to bring relatively obscure living legends back into the spotlight. This year featured guitar maestro Ernest Ranglin, whom fellow workshop performer Jason Wilson introduced as “the man who taught Bob Marley how to play guitar.” The roar of approval from the crowd and the immensely appreciative smile on Ranglin’s face surely struck a chord with all in attendance, and when he was given the opportunity to show off his consummate skills, the crowd went even wilder.
One major highlight from Saturday was a solo concert from Cadence Weapon, the Edmonton MC and that city’s former poet laureate. I had never seen him live, and was admittedly not expecting what he delivered, which was a high-energy lyrical assault that nearly rivaled his conscious-rap forefathers such as Mos Def and Kanye West. When Cadence jumped off the stage and started moving through the crowd, still spitting furiously on the mic and interacting with his fans, it was a truly classic moment of performer-audience camaraderie.
My Saturday wrapped up with two workshops full of new discoveries and inspired moments. Bonnie “Prince” Billy was able to get a giant crowd to sing along as he professed, “There’s no God,” only to be upstaged by Scottish folkie Dick Gaughan’s hilariously cutting preamble to a political folksong about a particularly rotten Scottish folk hero (whose name I unfortunately can’t recall). And finally, over at the TD stage at the very rear of the festival grounds, I was rocked by the punchy folk-punk of the Felice Brothers, whose onstage energy nearly blew the tent off its poles. Minutes later, indie legends Yo La Tengo closed out the afternoon workshop festivities with a “chorus only” (because they didn’t know all the words) rendition of the Gordon Lightfoot classic “Alberta Bound.” The rest of the artists onstage were more than happy to fill in the verses with off-the-cuff solos, while the crowd happily sang along over and over again.
Sunday was full of an equal number of pleasant surprises and magical moments. The first occurred when I caught bluesman Harrison Kennedy performing a solo concert with no band behind him, and delivering his sermons with nothing but a banjo, a harp, and a hell of a voice. Despite being the sole body on the large stage, his presence and soul more than filled the space.
Soon afterwards, I found myself back at the TD stage where local cowboy Matt Masters, Blue Rodeo rhythm guitarist Wayne Petti, New Country Rehab, and banjo maestro Morgan O’Kane delivered a workshop under the moniker “Men of Constant Sorrow.” The artists declined to follow along with the connotations of that title, however, as Masters opened things up with a ripping Elvis Presley cover, Wayne Petti delivered his own rendition of “Alberta Bound” (complete with verses!), and Morgan O’Kane fiddler Ferd Moyse led the band and the crowd through a traditional hootenanny full of inspired yodeling from all involved. This show just about made me a country fan.
Although I took a small break in the middle to catch a poetry-centered workshop featuring slam poet extraordinaire C.R. Avery, Calgary’s own Kris Demeanor, and a returning Cadence Weapon, nothing could ultimately keep me from what became the highlight of the weekend: a “Boogie Chillun” workshop featuring Harrison Kennedy, Mighty Popo, New Brunswick soul man Matt Andersen, and my new favourite artist, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
The hour was a constant delight, with Peyton and his band ripping through furious call-and-response slide-blues barnburners, Andersen leading the audience through a soaring sing-along rendition of the Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready”, and Mighty Popo and Kennedy reminding the massive, over-capacity crowd of the true origins of the blues by adding touches of African rhythms. The set ended with Peyton getting everyone onto their feet and calling back orders for “two bottles of wine,” and just when it seemed the energy and excitement couldn’t get any higher, Peyton’s washboard player emerged from the side of the stage with her instrument on fire, to which the crowd roared and screamed and the rest of the onstage players burst out in shocked yet delighted laughter.
That final moment of the afternoon encapsulated the entire spirit and theme of the festival this year: excitement, energy, hunger for something
new and unexpected, and the simple thrill of spending an afternoon with hundreds of people – spectators and performers alike – who are all looking for the same thing: good music, good friends, and a brand-new collection of memories. And, of course, good weather in which to enjoy it all in.