Don’t Let the Folk Fool You: Calgary Folk Festival Defies the Laws of Music with the ‘Arranged Marriages’ of Songwriters, Rockers, Emcees, and Globalistas
Surreal perfection: A festival where Gil Scott-Heron and Rufus Wainwright, the Decemberists and Kid Koala rub sonic shoulders with beat poets, Siberian singers, and West African hipsters. Where on-the-fly collaborations bring unexpected artists together on one stage. All in a verdant village at the heart of a vibrant city, where the skyline rising over the trees is backed by distant mountains.
This is the 31st annual Calgary Folk Music Festival held July 22-25, 2010 on Prince’s Island, whose dreamlike balance of urban and bucolic, friendly and far-out, superfly and earthy reflects Calgary, Canada’s cowboy can-do and progressive DIY aesthetic. It’s Annie Oakley meets Ani DiFranco.
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But don’t let the “folk” fool you: This year’s 64-act lineup includes everyone from indie darlings like bluegrassers the Avett Brothers and folk/punkster Frank Turner, to the sultry global electronica diva Natacha Atlas; from the effortless soul of the legendary Roberta Flack to the wit and grit of acoustic songsmith Greg Brown.
The Festival embraces all the upsides of a good-quality, mid-sized summer festival: basking in the great outdoors—albeit a mere hop, skip and a jump from urban amenities—and catching dozens of great musicians, the icons and the upstarts, as part of a laidback, ecologically astute community-for-a-day. It’s got cool wind power and hot main stages.
Yet the Calgary Folk Music Festival goes above and beyond creating a temporary city-within-a-city or booking diverse acts. It takes risks that spark one-off works of art by tossing wildly different artists together on stage.
“What happens at our festival will never ever happen again. Artists don’t just pass each other on the way to their shows. There are many spontaneous collaborations, and one-time creations, at our sessions,” Festival artistic director Kerry Clarke explains. “It’s technically challenging and it’s really risky. But what results is astounding.”
The Calgary Folk Fest has put Arrested Development on stage with a Scottish folk singer, Jamaican dub poet and a Scottish-Canadian reggae artist. It’s hooked the cerebral godfather of new wave Robyn Hitchcock up with Canadian country rockers The Sadies. “One year, Chumbawamba, a punk acoustic group, wound up on stage with Nathan, who play warped Canadian country, and Tuvan group Chirgilchin,” recalls Clarke. “It was based on vocals and on the idea of the wind. The Tuvan throat singer made a wind sound, and Chumbawamba leaped in with vocal harmonies. Before you knew it, a wonderul new song unfolded.”
“Singing an a capella song along with a throat-sung drone was risky, ridiculous and beautiful, all at the same time,” Chumbawamba’s guitarist Boff later reflected. “This wouldn’t happen this easily anywhere else in the world.” These seat-of-the-pants moments of brilliance give artists a new energy and transform the entire ethos of the Festival. “We had an amazing time!” the members of Arrested Development gushed to Festival organizers. “It was hands down one of the most inspiring festivals we’ve been a part of.”
“At Canadian festivals like the Calgary Folk Music Festival, they don’t feel the need to massage the artists’ egos by keeping them separated from the other acts,” Chumbawamba mused. “It forces us musicians into thinking on our feet, working together, dealing with stuff outside our cozy worlds.”
Even skeptical artists swiftly become converts after their first workshop experience: Clarke remembers that one Canadian rock legend who was less than thrilled by the prospect of jamming on stage with musician strangers exclaimed afterward to festival staff that if he had known how wonderful they are, he would have agreed to ten of them.
It’s not just artists learning new tricks on the Festival’s stages; festival goers also get a unique chance to learn from their favorite guitar heroes and song craftsmen as part of master classes, lovingly referred to as Boot Camp. Held at Calgary’s best kept musical secret, the Cantos Music Foundation, festival artists teach a dozen of the willing for three hours, three days in a row, among the Foundation’s collections of rare and curious keyboards, organs, Theremins, and instruments played by the Rolling Stones.
Past classes have included vocal tips from gospel greats the Sojourners, and unconventional guides to a life in music by members of punk mainstay, the Mekons. “You learn more and more as time progresses. Some musicians take people step by step: rhyming, themes, the basics of songwriting,” Clarke explains. “Some of our more unconventional artists have just talked to people for three days straight, and they loved it.”
These unconventional Festival experiences reflect the ethos that has guided it for the past three decades, when it started as a left-leaning and eccentric kitchen party writ large. About fifteen years ago, after eight years straight of rain, the Festival turned over a new leaf, keeping some of its Woodie Guthrie-style folksy militancy, but striving to bring big names and local favorites, history-makers and innovators, to Calgary. What resulted is a broad-ranging vision of folk with an edge, and a festival with a wry, get ’er done attitude. This mix attracts audiences from the far reaches of North America, Loreena McKennitt fans cruise up from Mexico and die-hard Festival aficionados travel from Illinois and Ohio on their motorcycles, dogs in tow.
They come for the Festival, but often fall for the city. “Calgary is a cool medium-sized city with lots of great restaurants and a strong underground scene that’s not on a lot of Americans’ radars,” Clarke enthuses. “You have the Rockies 90 minutes west and the Badlands two hours northeast. It’s a red rock desert where the dinosaurs roamed plopped in the middle of Alberta. You couldn’t get more different.”
The Calgary Folk Music Festival experience captures Alberta’s wild and varied geography. “We aim to take people to different place,” Clarke smiles. “That emotional, spiritual place only music can take you.”
Full List of Performers – 31st Calgary Folk Music Festival
*Annie Lou (YT) Northern solitude and grit wrapped in Southern old time string band music from songwriters Anne Louise Genest and Kim Barlow.
*Karla Anderson (AB) Intimate and direct songs with understated-but-powerful instrumentation.
*Asani (AB) Fresh traditional Aboriginal vocals incorporate jazz and blues, underpinned by drums and rattles.
*Natacha Atlas (UK) Electronic beats fuse with North African and Arabic sounds, often in collaboration with a diversity of international artists.
*Avett Brothers (USA) This high-flying ensemble incites stomping audience sing-a-longs with theirbrotherly harmonies and twangy acoustic punkgrass.
*Axis of Conversation (AB) A broken-hearted dance party of strings, samples and stolen noises covered in Canadian snow.
*Baskery (Sweden) Three sisters perform high voltage bluegrass with a no-holds-barred punk attitude.
*Bette & Wallet (NS) Foraged fiddle tunes, unearthed melodies and repurposed lyrics that synthesize Maritime and Quebec traditions.
*Debashish Bhattacharya (India) Ground-breaking slide guitarist renowned for his dynamic improvised raga music and broad-ranging musical grounding.
*Greg Brown (USA) A wickedly sharp observer of the human condition with a worldly hillbilly’s take on the poetry of love and grooves from the Delta, the plains and hills.
*The Burning Hell (ON) A cinematic multi-instrumental circus built around the black wit and cracked genius of songwriter and history teacher Mathias Kom.
*Caracol (QC) Her acoustic music is filled with raw emotion and draws from folk and Jamaican rocksteady with an indie-pop and vintage ’50s feel.
*The Cat Empire (Australia) Mashup a smorgasbord of ferocious grooves into their own funky musical hybrid.
*Coolooloosh (Israel/USA) The cultures and streets of Jerusalem and Baltimore are personified in a fresh hip-hop-jazz-funk mash-up.
*Delhi 2 Dublin (BC) A dubwise, Bhangra-based electro-acoustic collaboration that meshes Irish and North Indian folk melodies.
*DJ Dolores (Brazil) Rooted inventive electronic beats from northern Brazil villages that engage the mind and motivate the feet.
*DJ Logic (USA) This master turntablist and collaborator mixes tablas into drum ‘n’ bass, re-imagines jazz, co-anchors rock bands and meshes MCs with Afro-Cuban rhythms.
*Dojo Workhorse (AB) Dan Vacon and gang create soulful, honest rock with an eclectic fusion of backing vocals and instruments.
*El Puchero del Hortelaño (Spain) A quintessential Andalusian band constructs urban flamenco rock with a unique twist.
*e.s.l. (BC) Uniquely orchestrated songs that range from heartbreaking ballads to roaring gypsy-punk dance numbers.
*David Essig (BC) Wise songwriting from a virtuoso instrumentalist who’s penned classic Canadian folk songs from Delta blues, bluegrass and country roots.
*Etran Finatawa (Niger) Hypnotic nomad’s desert bluesunites theWodaabe and Touareg tribes on an evolving journey built around laid-back guitars, driving rhythms and compelling voices.
*Roberta Flack (USA) This musical legend has been killing us softly with her insightful and effortless soul for over 40 years.
*Michael Franti and Spearhead (USA) A global troubadour who moves hearts, minds and limbs with his passionate soulful and funky protest music.
*Fribo (UK) Fresh and inventive ‘nu-Nordic’ artists explore historical links between British, Irish and Nordic traditions.
*Chris Gheran (AB) has a working man’s demons to exorcise, complaints to make and passions to turn into tunes that pulse in your right brain.
*Ghostkeeper (AB) Idiosyncratic stories told through raw outsider blues and heartfelt pop.
*Thea Gilmore (UK) Sharp, astute songs that are deceptively populist and deceitfully dark.
*Haydamaky (Ukraine) Exotic, daringmusic that melds traditional sounds with the heavy groove of a punk rhythm section.
*Joe Henry (USA) Producer extraordinaire and the creator of memorable, intelligent lullabies that detail the lives of heroes and ordinary folks.
*Hill Country Revue (USA) Modern southern rock and blues represents a return to Northern Mississippi’s juke-joint one-chord trance blues.
*Robin Holcomb (USA) This pianist and cultural iconoclast’s adventurous compositions are elegantly simple and utterly original.
*Honeybear (AB/US) Low-key, mesmerizing and charming indie-folk songs built around the ukulele.
*Jon and Roy (BC) Intoxicating new urban folk with worldly influences and sounds.
*Jordan Klassen (AB) Quietly intricate, delicate melodies with poetic and whimsical lyrics.
*Konono N°1 (Congo) Thumb-piano wizards create distortion-fuelled traditional trance music on their home-made sound system.
*Library Voices (SK) Sophisticated hooks and melodies plus complex harmonies and anthemic choruses.
*Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans (AB) Original, 21st century punk-influenced country music and vivid depictions of the Canadian west.
*Madison Violet (ON) Channel vintage music into tumbleweed pop loaded with harmonies, stringed instruments and lovely tales of heartache and loss.
*Dan Mangan (BC) His trademark rootsy laments use razor-sharp phrasing and sage poetry to evoke the wonder and absurdity of everyday life.
*Man Man (USA) Torchbearers of the unusual, these enigmatic multi-instrumental experimental rockers create strange, beautiful and profound sounds.
*Laura Marling (UK) A Victorian ghost sent to the future, she constructs acoustically lush indie folk around her husky voice and dark insightful songs.
*Mauvais Sort (QC) Reinvented Quebecois music through a global exploration of old folk rhythms.
*The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Project (BC/USA) Steve Dawson and his stellar band create modernized 1930s country blues with co-conspirators Robin Holcomb, Del Rey and Geoff Muldar.
*Geoff Muldaur (USA) A singular approach to American music from a producer, composer and roots music force.
*Ohbijou (ON) A seven piece pop orchestra whose tender compositions eulogize humbling encounters in a city’s changing streets.
*OX (ON) Textured dust bowl soundscapes make an alt-country/indie hybrid.
*Po’ Girl (BC) Homespun urban roots music that’s fluid and joyous with back-porch harmonies and a sultry ambience.
*Finley Quaye (UK/USA) His multifaceted, multi-ethnic catalogue mashes pure pop to the underground, characterized by his sweet voice and feel for a soul groove.
*Peatbog Faeries (Scotland) The future of Celtic dance music is an adventurous melting pot of fragmented fiddle and pipe tunes, deep dub bass lines and spacey electronics.
*Steve Pineo (AB) His large bag of songs, virtuosity and versatility have made him an oft-covered songwriter.
*Del Rey (USA) Country blues, ragtime, classic jazz and hillbilly boogie through the sensibility of an autodidact trailer-park esthete.
*Romantica (USA) Catchy, richly arranged pop-folk with rural influences, from Minnesota via Ireland.
*Tom Russell (USA) A quintessential songwriter whose music and powerful observations help reinvent the Americana genre.
*Shakura S’Aida (ON) gives life to ’40s and ’50s blues, performs original, funky, boundary-pushing songs and acts in films and theatre.
*Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens (USA) Authentic, classic and rich soul music characterized by her sweet raspy tones and backed by a smooth band.
*JR Shore (AB) At the crossroads between Texas and Alberta lives the musical soul of this storyteller, social commentator and performer.
*Samantha Savage-Smith (AB) Sparse, stripped-down accompaniments support her strong voice and lyrics inspired by a love of classic songs.
*Stars (QC) Loved for their knack for creating melodic, literate, sophisticated pop songs in a natural, off-the-cuff manner.
*St. Vincent (US) After time in the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’s band, multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark’s solo work is cinematic, eerie and dramatic.
*Sunparlour Players (ON) Dark-but-delicate rhythms from folk revivalists who find poetry in their own backyard.
*The Swell Season (USA) At the group’s core are the stars and songwriters of the sleeper hit film Once, The Frames’s Glen Hansard and classically-trained Czech pianist/vocalist Marketa Irglova.
*Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir (USA) The spirit, history and sounds of African America are brought to harmonic, percussive life.
*Timber Timbre (ON) His sound is characterized by a confident, hushed voice, understated guitar, strings, keyboard flourishes and a subtle beat.
*Frank Turner (UK) Folk-punk strummery from a post-millennial troubadour whovociferously preaches the gospel of action.
*Ian Tyson (AB) has forged a distinctive trail over his long career; his new songs reflect Alberta’s cultural landscape and the disappearing cowboy.
*Ukrainia (ON) From the streets of Kyiv to Ottawa, they’ll kick your kishka with vintage Ukrainian music, hardened by the members’ rock roots.
*United Steelworkers of Montreal (QC) Play a unique brand of blue-collar swing and gospel-based alt-country featuring historical ballads, dry wit and tall tales.