Edmonton Folk Music Festival, August 9, 2008

I was only able to attend one day of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival this year. As I get older, I do find that one day is enough for me! However, I would love to be able to attend for more days; maybe I need to move closer to Edmonton! In the past I’ve been fortunate to attend the festival for the duration- four days and nights- and have been exposed to some wonderful music. But, I really can’t stand the crowds, but more on that later. Forgive me on the lack of details in places; I hadn’t attended the festival with the intention of writing about it, so I didn’t take any notes. Oops.

I drove up to Edmonton on Saturday morning. I had initially planned on going up on Friday night to catch the Dan Tyminski Band, but didn’t make it. I was told that their performance was good, but not essential so I felt a little better. After parking and taking the bus to Gallagher Hill, I was on-site in time to spend a few minutes in the merchandise tent and buy a new release of a Tom Russell Band show from 1989 in Lyon, France; I’ll review that one someday soon.

I had planned out my day at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival prior to arriving; with so many artists performing at the same time- and a bit of a walk between stages (minimum of eight or nine minutes between stages six and one)- time spent considering the options is usually well spent. However, like my plan to attend Friday evening, such plans need to have some flexibility built in. I ended up attending about two-thirds of the sessions I had planned on, with last minute decisions changing things up.

I headed over to Stage Six to listen in on the In Harmony session with Martyn Joseph, the Claire Lynch Band, and Moya Brennan (Clannad). However, as I neared Stage Four, I could hear Tom Russell singing, and decided to pop in for a listen. He had started his session several minutes early, and we were treated to a number (can’t remember what it was) before Tom introduced Dan Frechette and Ridley Bent in turn. Frechette was well matched with TR, and performed music of a similar fashion. Bent cuts across genres although he is more country than anything else; he performed a couple songs (“Buckles and Boots”) including one from his first album in his country-rap fashion; I think it was “Suicidewinder.” Russell told a couple stories, including one I hadn’t heard before about being in Switzerland with Johnny Cash; he did a little impression of Cash’s interpretation of “Veteran’s Day.” Russell also performed “Stealing Electricity” as well as a new song. By the way, I hate Stage Four; it seems to be the worst stage for sound bleed as Stage Three always seems loud here. I never did get to Stage Six.

After this session I walked next door and caught the end of Too Cool For School session at Stage Five. Luke Ducet and Melissa McClelland were performing the “I Wish I was An American” tune, and got lots of laughs from the appreciative mass. Good fun.

Next up were John Reischman & the Jaybirds, a well-respected bluegrass band that I hadn’t planned on sticking around for as I have seen them live many, many times and I really wanted to see Eliza Gilkyson. The Jaybirds are always brilliant, however, and so I got a good shaded seat in front of the sound board and listened to several Jaybirds songs. The set was fairly familiar with songs from each of their four albums. “Bravest Cowboy” started things off, as it often does, and then “Winter’s Come and Gone”, “North Shore”, “Blackberry Bramble”, “Travelin’ The Road West”, and other tunes. Greg Spatz played some really sweet fiddle during “North Shore” and Reischman was note perfect in a Monroe style. As much as I was enjoying the set, I sensed I wasn’t going to hear anything ‘new’, so I hustled over to Stage One for some Eliza, and am I ever glad I did.

Joined by Nina Gerber- who I’m told is a brilliant guitarist (to me, it just sounded like every other electric guitar player I’ve heard…sorry)- Eliza was in the midst of “Tender Mercies” as I walked up. The especially large audience was silent. A special moment. She also performed (if memory serves) “Emerald Street” before I got called away to talk to a friend.

I was sorry that I hadn’t spent more time with Eliza, but that is the way it goes sometimes; I did get the sense that I was falling into the trap of trying to see too many things, and did vow to slow down for the rest of the day.

Heading back to Stage Five to meet up with friends, I was able to listen to the entire set from Wales’ Martyn Joseph. I had circled this one in my program, and since my friends also wanted to hear it, I was excited to hear Joseph again. I think the last time I caught him was here in Red Deer in 2004 at a little show in a (fair) dive called the Vat; talk about a wierd gig for a ‘word-heavy’ singer-songwriter. Joseph did his usual thing, and he was in fine form. I do wonder what all the folkies will do next year when they don’t have George Bush to kick around, but it sure was fun to hear them do so this time out. He performed “Cardiff Bay” as well as the song where he mixes in Tracy Chapman’s “Talking About a Revolution.” I enjoyed the set, but it did have a bit of ‘same-ness’ to it. After about twenty-five minutes, my friend stated, “I think it was David Francey I liked” which was funny. I guess he wasn’t enjoying MJ as much as I was. [Addition: Since the fest., I’ve been listening to MJ almost non-stop. He just gets better with additional listening.]

By this time, it was 2:00, and the main stage afternoon set with Bellowhead was ready to start. I guess I’d describe them as Chumbawamba crossed with Great Big Sea with Rory McLeod sitting in. A few jigs and reel type instrumentals, a few sea shanty type songs. Good enough, but nothing that changed my life.

By this time, I was tired of walking, and decided to stay in one area. So I gave up on my initial choice of Redemption Song with Joseph, Eliza, Jon Brooks, and Karine Polwart and headed to Stage One for Above the 49th. It turned out to be the type of session I hate in that each of the sets of musicians would stand up, perform a song, sit down, and then the next would do a tune. Next to no interaction between them. Having said that…it turned out great.

Serena Ryder was there with Hugh McLellan and did a few songs. The youngster with us was quite smitten with Ryder, and while she isn’t my favourite performer I do see what others like. She did a blistering version of the Band’s “This Wheel’s On Fire.” Reischman was hosting this one, and he and the Jaybirds did a few tunes including “Home Sweet Home” while Catherine MacLellan was also present. Things really picked up at the end when everyone finally got involved and Jim Nunally led them through a rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”…at least that is what I hope it was- the memory, again. Whatever it was, it was terrific. You’d think I could remember! (added: Just confirmed with my friend that it was “EMR” that the workshop crew jammed on. The memory isn’t as bad as I thought, although it is bad enough to doubt.)

I then headed to the nearby Stage Seven to hear Colin Hay. The site for this stage is, unlike all the other stages at the EFMF, a bit limited, and the space was filled to overflowing. It was here that the crowd got to me. This lady sitting near me didn’t stop talking for the entire forty minute set. Not once. And she wasn’t talking about music or the festival, just visiting in a very loud voice. Her friends were right in there with her; no good neighbours here. I just don’t get it. If you want to visit, why sit at one of the side stages to do it; go to your tarp on the hill, go to the beer garden. What a pain…and that was enough to send me into a pout of negativity! I just hate the rudeness, especially when I really want to hear the artist.

Hay took awhile to get going- a bit of tech fiddling- but started out with “Who Will It Be Now” before heading into tunes like “Beautiful World” and “Are You Lookin’ at Me?” He told a few funny stories including about his family’s migration from Scotland to Australia; they had considered Canada, but why go to another place with bad weather! He also performed “Down Under” which I guess he pretty much has to. His accompanying female vocalist was very, ummm, strange. Lots of trippy hand movements and swaying. I didn’t quite get her. A very good set, though. Really regretting I didn’t buy his album “Are You Lookin’ At Me?” at the merch tent, especially as it isn’t on eMusic, like I was hoping it would be. Another time. [Addition: And that time is now! “Are You Talking to Me?” was just added to eMusic on August 13!)

The final session I was going to attend was supposed to be Tom Russell’s concert- even though I said I wasn’t going to walk again-, and I did walk back across the site for the beginning of his show. I stayed around for about four or five songs, and while it was okay, I wasn’t blown away. So I headed over to the other concert I had wanted to hear, which was Dar Williams. I love Dar, but after about four songs, I wasn’t able to tell the songs apart. However, I stayed around, and she did a few that were nice, including “The Ocean”, “When I Was A Boy”,  and of course “The Christians and the Pagans.” She did a few new tunes as well. I love her sense of fun, how can you not, but- like Martyn Joseph (whom she mistakenly called Joseph Martyn) and Ron Sexsmith, the songs kind of run together.

The main stage started up again at six, and I wanted to hear Ron Sexsmith. I was able to sit with my friends again, and we did a little visiting- not noisy!- while letting Sexsmith’s easy breezy sounds float over us. He did real nice versions of “Gold in those Hills” and “Brandy Alexander.”

I used to think Carolyn Mark was my least favourite festival MC. She has been replaced by Al Simmons.

I had planned on heading home after Sexsmith, but decided to see what Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet with Bela Fleck would be like. I had enjoyed her disc of a couple years back- Song of the Traveling Daughter- and was intrigued. That didn’t last long. The reviews the next day were good, but I just found it boring. Excessivelly so. So, I headed out to make the long journey home.

It was a real good day, and I heard a lot of enjoyable stuff. Nothing really blew me away, and Tom Russell’s concert- for the first time ever- kind of disappointed me although I have nothing tangible to base that on. I wish I had found time to hear John Wort Hannam, who I always enjoy, and Moya Brennan, if even just for a song or two. The next morning they had her as well as Jon Brooks live on the radio, and I really liked his stuff. Missed him too. That’s the problem with the folk fest- too many choices. If only Terry Wickham would consult me on the sessions schedule, I’d be able to help him plan things a bit better! Start with what I want to hear, and plan around that.

The sessions offered on this day were okay, but not earthshattering. And definitely there wasn’t enough interaction between the participants, at least at the stages I was at. And the programmer missed a chance for a real banjo spectacular- with Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Abigail Washburn, Craig Korth, Nick Harbuckle, and Jayme Stone all on site, we could have had a real good time with 5-string masters who play in very different styles.

It is likely good that I don’t go to the area folk and bluegrass festivals for the full weekend. I am tired of people who talk while I’m trying to listen. It happens everywhere- including concerts- and it drives me nuts. But the Edmonton Folk Music Festival- despite the presence of idiots- is always well organized, and nicely programmed. I wish I could have been there for more of it- for the Tyminski band, Brett Dennam, and others- but if I had to choose a day, and I did, I’m glad I chose this one. Well done EFMF and all the volunteers. Even the portapotties weren’t too gross. Nice.

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