Canmore Folk Music Festival, July 31- August 2, 2010   1 comment

Canmore Folk Music Festival, July 31- August 2, 2010, Canmore, AB

The Canmore Folk Music Festival has long been a ‘best kept secret’ between western Canadian music lovers. Being a bluegrasser, for many years I attended Blueberry at Stony Plain, inconveniently scheduled the same weekend as Canmore. Other years, since Canmore’s fest is nestled between Calgary’s and Edmonton’s folk fests, I was unable to convince myself to do festivals three weekends in a row.

In its 33rd year, making it Alberta’s longest running folk fest, Canmore has done just fine without me attending. But finally, after hearing so much about the event and having things work out this year, Deana and I made the commitment to attend. I’m very glad I did.

For those from away, Canmore is nestled in the Rocky Mountains, less than an hour west of Calgary. The setting of the festival is small but adequate, is within the downtown hub of the community, and has flushables. Yeah! The site is level ground making access a breeze for all and there are many trees providing shade. There were a wide variety of food and other vendors on site, selling everything from $6 smokies (!) to smoked salmon meals and Mediterranean-inspired dishes, clothing, jewelry, naturopathic remedies, flutes, and alpaca products. There was also a large and active kids area and program, making the festival very child-friendly.

On the negative side, because the site is so small, there is a lot- too much- sound bleed between the three stages. When an artist such as John Boutté is performing, he shouldn’t be drowned out by loud, electric blues from a neighbouring stage; either the stages need some realigning to prevent this or the volume levels need to be brought down a touch. Of course, having so many people together for a weekend- especially on Sunday when the fest eventually sold out- there are going to be some people who are a little too self-involved and oblivious to others to understand that their behaviour- standing, talking, their kids’ talking, their monster stroller- may impact the enjoyment of others.

On the whole, the festival has a wonderful atmosphere and for the most part the attendees appeared to be more attentive and engaged than witnessed at other, larger folk festivals.

The music is what we went to the festival to hear and I wasn’t disappointed. We left midway through Monday afternoon so missed an evening of the main stage. However, with about 20 featured performers playing over three days on three stages and 33 ‘workshop’ sessions, several opportunities to hear all the performers were available.

The highlights were many:

John Boutté was the reason I really wanted to get to Canmore this year, knowing I won’t be making it to Edmonton to hear him next weekend. Four or so months ago, I had never heard of John Boutté. Today, he is one of my favourites. After hearing “The Tremé Song” introducing the third episode of Treme, I started searching out the song, believing it must be contemporary to “Iko Iko” and such. Wrong.

Since then, I’ve listened to his albums and have loved the breeziness that he brings to his jazz-soul hybrids.

He did not disappoint live. Whether singing Sam Cooke songs in a session with the always impressive Ruthie Foster, or holding court on the mainstage accompanied by guitarist Todd Duke, Boutté was the highlight of the weekend. A talented songwriter and collaborator, Boutté is able to make the songs of others- Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Neil Young, Steve Goodman, Louis Armstrong- entirely his own. Listening to him perform “Southern Man” added an entirely new shade to the song. His clever arrangements, which made full use of Duke and his own quietly powerful voice, made Boutté’s songs meaningful and memorable.

While Boutté could sing generic soul, jazz, and pop standards to great acclaim, he is instead drawn to a higher calling, singing of his city, its residents, and their celebrations and challenges. He does so with intensity and humour. Whether a particular song is directly about New Orleans or not, he manages to make it relevant to the circumstances. “Nobody Knows Nothing,” “Door Poppin’,” and “The Treme Song” were especially enjoyed.

If you thought k.d. lang had delivered the ultimate “Hallelujah,” you haven’t heard Boutté sing the Leonard Cohen song.

As much as I was impressed by and enjoyed Boutté, I was left with longing to see him with a full band and horns. Maybe I’ll make it to New Orleans sooner than I had thought.

I stuck around on Monday afternoon only to hear Boutté again, and that session was another highlight and is described below.

Hearing Buffy Sainte-Marie sing “Universal Soldier” at a too-brief afternoon session. She said it- sometimes a three-minute song says more than an entire thick book. (I’ve often stated that if it can’t be said in a 2:50 country song, it doesn’t need to be said!) The heavy rain made me abandon the festival on Sunday night so I missed her main stage set. I’m told she was great.

Being properly introduced to the music of Zachary Richard. Before this weekend, I knew he was from Louisiana and that was about it. Now I’m a fan. One needs not be familiar with the man’s music or language to feel an intense and immediate connection. During his main stage set, he kept things moving, whether making us think in songs like “Last Kiss” or bringing the dance hall to us, hauling out the squeezebox for “Dancing at Double D’s” and getting everyone (except us) up to do the “Crawfish.” On the session stages, he held his own with Buffy Sainte-Marie and making everyone do a little thinking while performing “Acadian Driftwood” or performing “The Levee Broke” sitting beside fellow Louisianan John Boutté. Richard is a powerful and entertaining performer.

The Duhks were a very pleasant surprise, not that I hadn’t heard them and enjoyed them before. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their music this weekend. One of the most versatile of roots groups, the latest incarnation of always evolving The Duhks brought more French and Louisiana influence than I had expected. True, I haven’t listened to their music in several years but the days of flirting with bluegrass are long over- much more bayou in their sound than when I saw them live and listened in the mid-aughts. I’ve since learned that their standard set closing has “Les Blues de Cadien” morphing into an explosive take of “Whole Lotta Love”, but this raucous move caught me off guard and was entirely thrilling.  At the session stages, the group was equally impressive and demonstrated their ability to flit between genres and interact with a range of performers. Sara Dugas is a very strong and personable vocalist.

Music of the Deep South was a Monday afternoon session, and I am very pleased that I stayed around for it. It was the session I had been awaiting all weekend. Vancouver’s The Sojourners were joined by John Boutté and Zachary Richard. Ouch! Gospel, New Orleans soul, and Cajun- three tributaries of Mississippi music represented on one stage. The Sojourners performed their rich, soulful gospel music- “Eyes on the Prize,” “Farther Along”- to great effect. They also collaborated, adding harmonies to the songs of Boutté and Richard. Richard delivered a devastating rendition of “The Levee Broke,” augmented by Steve Dawson laying down some fiery licks on the electric guitar. He also went back to Snake Bite Love (the next Richard album I’m buying) for “Côte Blanche Bay”. Beautiful. Boutté finally got around to performing “Louisiana 1927” – with the original lyrics, not his Bush- and Katrina- inspired reworking- and the wait was most assuredly worth the investment before concluding the session with a gospel rave-up- joined by The Sojourners and Richard- of “One of These Days.” Pure magic.

Other notable moments-

Dala impressed with complementary, weaving vocals, sharp humour, and strong songs including “Levi Blues.”

Vieux Farka Touré’s music suffered a bit without the ornamentation that made Fondo so impressive, but the ‘bare bones’, three guitar and drums format was as close as the weekend came to rock ‘n’ roll. Obviously well rehearsed, Farka Touré and crew delivered a lively main stage set of bass heavy grooves. Even the most intimate sounding songs kept the audience keen, upon their feet or swaying in their chairs.

Matt Andersen demonstrated that his confidence with the blues and performing just keeps getting stronger. During a Sunday evening rainstorm, he didn’t miss a lick.

Four Men and a Dog know what they are doing, collaborate with anyone, and make music that draws you in even when you aren’t really listening.

A wonderful festival. I would recommend it to folks who- like us- are tired of the hustle and bustle of larger festivals. And you can’t beat the location.


One response to “Canmore Folk Music Festival, July 31- August 2, 2010

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  1. You got to see The Duhks? I’m jealous!

    Thanks for the thorough descriptions. I’ve never heard of the Canmore Folk Music Festival, but it sounds like a unique experience. Maybe some day. 🙂

    ~Kara @ Sarathan

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