Calgary Folk Music Festival- July 24, 2010

Thanks to Jeff over at Country Standard Time, I was able to attend a day at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. As I’ve written before, I have a hard time attending more than a day of any festival. Calgary never disappoints and even lacking huge name acts- Roberta Flack (!) and Ian Tyson were likely the only household names on the slate for this year (depending on the home, I suppose.) I hope no one reads into this anything of a slag toward the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, itself a brilliant creation. Edmonton and Calgary are different beasts, each with their positives and shortcomings.

Between Jeff’s and my computers, there was difficulty getting my writing published. Jeff posted much of the review here and I will post the entire, unedited article here at Fervor Coulee. Thanks for visiting, as always. Donald

Calgary Folk Music Festival- Prince’s Island Park

With 67 performers from around the globe- including the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and Niger- representing the diversity of turntablism, blues rock, nu-folk, gospel, country, and- in a select cases- folk, the 2010 edition of the Calgary Folk Music Festival may have been the most eclectic in 31 years.

Often overshadowed by its monolithic northern brother in Edmonton, the CFMF has long been the preference for music lovers looking for comfort- the treed-island set in the Bow River provides shelter from the sun throughout the day- ambiance, and an exceptional music selection deliberately refusing categorization. As the fest’s artistic director wrote in the program, the CFMF is “an idyllic verdant urban village where indie artists, roots and country veterans and blues masters rub sonic shoulders with global electronic divas, Latin rhythm masters, Ukrainian rock bands and Congolese hipsters.”

In an effort to nurture the festival, the directors have continued to manipulate the offerings to extend the audience while maintaining respect for the music and performers the loyal patrons have consistently supported. 20% of the talent booked is home-grown with a full 50% Canadian. In recognition of the breadth of the offerings, additional sessions were added this year with a side-stage complementing the main stage most evenings. The festival came within a few hundred tickets of being a sellout, with Friday and Saturday tickets unavailable at the gate.

Due to competing demands- including becoming just too darn old and impatient to spend four days at any festival- I only took in the Saturday. And as Country Standard Time did the assigning, for the most part I searched out the country side of the fest.

Country music was well represented on this particular day by three artists with strong Alberta connections – Tom Russell, Ian Tyson, and Corb Lund. As has occurred in the past, Russell was the standout. Pulling his attentive side-stage concert audience into his “neon world of knives and guns,” the Texas-resident opened with his modern classic “Blue Wing” before launching into a set that emphasized more recent material. With a generous offering of songs of immigration blues, near death experiences, cowboy truths, and western debauchery, it didn’t take long for Russell to expose much of the nu-folk crowd as obvious pretenders- passionate perhaps, but lacking in the gravel of life. Accompanied by guitarist Thad Beckman, Russell was in keen voice and humour, reinvigorated since last seen and heard.

Corb Lund could do no wrong with a hometown crowd enthusiastic for his hip, country offerings. Like Russell, Lund concentrated on fresher material. Indeed, the southern-Alberta native performed a handful of songs not previously encountered including “R-E-G-R-E-T” and an untitled tale of an antique pistol. His calm confidence allowed Lund to deliver personal portraits of love lost and tributes to those who serve with equal composure, but also enabled Lund to effortlessly join in with his mentors- Russell and Ian Tyson- in an early afternoon session.

It was during this interactive workshop that the afternoon’s most memorable moments occurred. Sharing the stage with blues- and jug band-master Geoff Muldaur (who performed a number of well-received offerings from the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Bobby Charles), Lund, Russell, and Tyson swapped songs in a companionable manner. Providing evidence of the enduring patron base supporting these country-shaded singer-songwriters, this session filled the audience bowl to the fence.

Sharing songs of family experience (Russell’s “Throwing Horseshoes at the Moon”) and embellished history (Lund’s “Five Dollar Bill”), the three displayed an amiable desire for collaboration. Again performing “Blue Wing”, Russell traded verses with the more youthful Lund while Tyson joined in on the chorus. Elsewhere, Tyson reluctantly joined Russell on “Navajo Rug”, while Lund swapped verses with Tyson on “M.C. Horses”, with Russell jumping in on the chorus. It is this interplay that can only happen in a well-constructed session that creates the magic of a music festival.

Into the evening, Tyson opened the main stage offerings with a captivating hour-long set of western country songs. Performing tunes largely drawn from his most recent albums, Tyson also went back into his saddlebags to locate “Smuggler’s Cove”. The lyrics of “This is My Sky” and “Land of Shining Mountains” may be geographically specific, but their metaphors speak to more global experience. So well-received was Tyson, now fully adapted to his new, virus-scarred voice, that he was allowed to return for a rare main stage encore, capping his performance with his signature song, “Four Strong Winds”.

Elsewhere on the grounds, world music held court. A crowded stage featured India’s Debashish Bhattacharya, Belgium’s Natacha Atlas, and Vancouver’s Delhi 2 Dublin. Fiddle, percussion, guitars, and a range of stringed and wind instruments caused trance-inducing sounds to swirl overhead. Augmented by Atlas, a singer with the world in her voice, the collaborations between the dozen or so instrumentalists- including “S.O.S.”- were met with great enthusiasm.

Steve Dawson’s Mississippi Sheiks tribute project was represented by guitarist Del Ray, Geoff Muldaur, Robin Holcombe, and Dawson sharing a soothing concert set of stringband standards including “Please Baby”, “We Both Are Feeling Good Right Now”, and “Lonely One in this Town”.

Over on the main stage, Greg Brown delivered a spellbinding set of mid-western rural blues. With a voice as deep as his penchant for folkosophical parable, he drew close the ears of the dinner-eating masses. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens brought church to the people with forty minutes of uplifting gospel soul music.

A bit sultry, a whole lot dirty, Memphis-based Hill Country Revue took things in a different direction with a set of Mississippi education. Destroying any “Kumbaya” moments that may have been developing, Cody Dickinson’s troupe shared a surprisingly flavorful set of modern southern rock. The horn-based pop of The Cat Empire got the crowd dancing, giving promise for a glorious set.

Unfortunately, facing a two-hour drive home, I elected to sneak out during their initial numbers and therefore missed Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans’ evening-closing set.

While the focus of the Calgary Folk Music Festival is increasingly kaleidoscopic, there remains sufficient support- both from the audience and the festival’s management team- for more traditional music. While populist acts are necessary to pay the bills and diverse, developing talents are required to keep the festival young and vital, little evidence exists to suggest the festival is in danger of losing its way.

Discovery of the day- Baskery, three Swedish sisters playing explosive lingonbilly on electric banjo, bass, and guitar

Appreciation of the day- The staff and volunteers who make this show occur. Hats off, y’all!

Affirmation of the day- The ‘good neighbor’ policy isn’t understood by too many who continue to see outdoor music fests as the place for nonstop chatter

Peeve of the day- Artists who repeat songs- Tyson, Russell, and Lund were all guilty

Disappointment of the day- no bluegrass (none scheduled for the entire weekend!)

Good guy of the day- Ox’s Mark Browning who gave up his main stage tweener to encourage Tyson to return for an encore

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