It was over a decade since I was last in Calgary, not since I turned 18, the legal drinking age in the province of Alberta. Between our disastrous and sinister Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose riding is Calgary Southwest, and the reputation of the Stampede, I had built up some negative impressions of the city over the years that had, up to this point, given me all the excuses I’d needed to avoid revisiting. Plus, as a BC boy born and raised, and thus a longtime fan of the Vancouver Canucks, there is that whole division rivalry thing. Fate will have its way, though. And, indeed, when the opportunity to cover the Calgary Folk Music Festival came my way, I felt something pushing me to expand my horizon a bit.
Braving a horrendous 16-hour Greyhound bus ride to get there, my effort was rewarded with a fantastic festival experience. Everyone who volunteered at the festival and all the vendors I talked to were genuinely nice and forthcoming, while the crowd was passionate and pleasant, selling out the 12,000 capacity space on Friday and Saturday, proving that the festival is alive and well in this city. There were a few worthy record stores in town too. Plus, the mountainous views near the provincial border started the ride home on an awe-inspiring note. I’m going to miss those when I’m flying into town next year. Calgary, you’re alright by me.
The touring quintet of Etran Finatawa brought the hopeful sounds of Niger to a Calgary crowd that could likely relate to the story of the band’s survival of a harsh desert climate as they performed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the second sweltering, cloudless day in a row for the festival. The band’s history is one of coming together, a joint venture between nomadic tribes on the fringes of the Sahara, and their music presents the acceptance and hope required to withstand the unforgiving weather and lack of resources of their stomping ground. With a couple Western instruments and a couple of upside-down drums, the likes of which I’ve never seen, their bubbly dirges not only put all those in the shade into happy comas, but also brought several of those out in the elements to their feet for some committed yet sluggish hippy swaying.
Joe Henry is a musician’s musician, quietly plugging away on the albums of legends such as Ani DiFranco, Betty Lavette, Soloman Burke, and Aimee Mann, without stealing much of their fire to bring back to the mortals. Although he skates on the fringes of obscurity as far as the mainstream is concerned, Henry sings with the voice of truth, emphatically bolstered by timeless songwriting skill and one hell of an acoustic guitar. He preaches his rustic Americana with conviction, coming across as being equally classy, funny, and humble, making jokes at his own expense and profusely thanking the crowd. By all rights, Joe Henry should be a household name.
Philadelphia’s Man Man were not the most “in tune” band I heard all weekend, but they were easily crazy enough to pull it off. With tribal dashes painted on their faces, a concoction of confetti, feathers, forks, and head butts flew across the stage at unexpected points, sometimes for no other reason than to goad their bandmates into laughter. Singer/keyboardist Honus Honus (a.k.a. Ryan Kattner) could give Karen O a serious run for her money, especially when he puts on that green dress. Altogether, Man Man was like some wonderful combination of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Monotonix, with a little Gogol Bordello for flavor. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to have as much fun as they do at their shows, but it is without question worth the effort. This is likely as close to a Frank Zappa concert as I am likely to see without resorting to Dweezil.
Toronto’s Ohbijou has obviously practiced a lot. The seven-piece ensemble has a rich orchestral pop sound, with each performer filling in all the space and thus animating their compositions, but never coming close to crossing the line into cacophony. Fronted by the adorable Mecija sisters, singer/guitarist Casey has a voice so cute, you want to hug it. They also covered Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” in a workshop, which was a tremendously great choice. If they performed with drop-screen visuals of puppies and kittens filmed with a wide-angle lense, your head would explode.
The main outlet for Annie Clark, former member of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band, St. Vincent imposed its presence on this weekend through two notable workshops and a magnificent main-stage set. The Oklahoman project’s style of oddly depressing folk-pop stood out of this lineup like Michael Richards at a Black Panther Party meeting. They had a massive sound at the main stage, taking on more of a trip-hop tinge than was obvious on their first two studio albums, like a primarily acoustic Massive Attack set.
Captivating as a singer, Annie can also play a mean guitar. She was nothing short of righteous when she sent her band offstage to cover The Beatles’ “Dig A Pony” solo, in the name of Texas and its similarities to Calgary as she lovingly saw them. Of course, she noted the possibility of mixed feelings among Canadians for that comparison, palpable in the air as it was, but she assured it was a good thing for her.
I doubt that particular main stage is used to seeing the kind of breakout feedback jam moments that occurred at points during their set. Yet, incredulous as many were at the start, people of all ages were nodding their heads on beat by the end, with the majority rising for a standing ovation after their closing number. Furthermore, her cover of the Nico version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” was the single greatest moment in the Insider Trading workshop, capturing the theme perfectly.
Polaris Prize nominee Timber Timbre was definitely the highlight of the festival, a fact proven by their winning of the Galaxy Rising Star award, as voted on by festival patrons. As the sun bore down on the Saturday afternoon without a cloud in the sky, this Ontario trio let loose a slow-burning set of hypnotic campfire blues-folk that just about sent the shade seekers at the Ship & Anchor stage to a higher plane of existence.
With front man Taylor Kirk’s voice dropped into a tortured register, Timber Timbre were positively shamanic, yet rustic in that “alone in a cabin in the woods” horror movie kind of way. After their first song, with Kirk working guitar and a kick drum while wearing a mosquito mask that made him look like an old-time executioner or a Dethklok minion, the audience remained was so spellbound that they didn’t make a sound. This prompted Taylor to ask, “Are you still with us?” A chorus of wooing and applause followed.
They were an awesome workshop band too, proposing a jam with “all the wrong notes” alongside the stunning St. Vincent, the standard Sunparlour Players, and the subpar Library Voices. The next day, with Ohbijou, Laura Marling, and Samantha Savage-Smith, they covered “Vampire Blues” by Neil Young, during which Kirk announced that it was time for the guitar solo and added, “…anyone but me.” There were no takers, leading him to resort to asking, “Violin solo?”
Later, Kirk encouraged a “jaunty” version of “Demon Host” from their 2009 self-titled Arts&Crafts debut, lighting up the track’s usual mood and having a fun time doing it. When the time to pick a song in that workshop came around for round three, he requested “Black Ice” by Ohbijou, giving it up to another band on stage rather than grabbing every moment they could for themselves. They always tried their best to get other bands involved, which is precisely what these workshops are supposed to be.
The Avett Brothers
North Carolina’s Avett Brothers came across much more dynamic live than on their critically lauded major label debut, I And Love And You from 2009. They changed instrumentation and altered their lineup throughout their set, from five down to just Seth Avett and his guitar. Their changes were sweeping and tight, moving from quiet to loud in a heartbeat and propelling their otherwise quaint folk into full-on dirges and zesty barnburners. “Kick Drum Heart” still sounded like a bad elementary school recital song, but their occasionally undercooked lyrics notwithstanding, there is no denying that these boys can play. Despite the sea of low-back chairs at the stage, almost everyone there stood appreciatively throughout their set.
The consummate professional handled the main stage with all the grace you would expect from someone in the Order Of Canada. Tyson’s set was a home run for older demographics; with his repertoire stretching back almost 50 years, and his voice aging from the Elvis-like rumble of his youth to an older Rod Stewart-like grumble. There is a certain purity and innocence in what he does, seemingly embodying that notion where people look back nostalgically at a period of time and say, “Things were simpler back then.” Even if he is a long way down the Rick Rubin resurrection list, he makes nice music for nice people, and it was inspiring to see a gentleman who has been around as long as him still doing what he loves.
Hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I find Konono Nº1 hard to pay attention to when all of their Bazombo trance songs sound exactly the same, last 10 minutes at a time, and do not subsribe to the typical musical narratives of Western musics. I don’t know why they bother labeling their tracks. They might as well just jam, ‘cause that’s what it sounds like they are doing anyway. Actually, maybe that’s what they were doing.
Boy howdy, can this Mercury Prize nominee sing. It’s only the fact that she did not bring much to the workshops that she is not getting a hard recommendation from me. On Sunday, she twice passed on the opportunity to play her songs with Ohbijou, Samantha Savage-Smith, and Timber Timbre on stage, despite the audience giving her a rousing round of encouraging applause and shouting out requests. Perhaps the shyness came from a lack of confidence, training, or inexperience (she is only 20), but in any case, it was unnecessary: When she performs her own Victorian indie folk material, you cannot take your eyes off her. Her voice has a penetrating, raw, haunting quality to it, utterly captivating to behold. Hopefully, she will realize how awesome she is soon.
Michael Franti & Spearhead
Michael Franti is a sticky wicket for me. On the one hand, he has some great lyrics, political and hopeful, everything good folk lyrics should be. He unquestionably does his part to try to make this a better world. However, I cannot stand the direction his sound has gone over the past 20-odd years, seeing him diving headfirst into his cheesy side. But at least he puts on a respectable show, hitting all of his well-rehearsed marks from bringing kids on stage to running out in the crowd and playing “Everyone Deserves Music” from there. He gave the crowd exactly what they wanted, exactly what has caused Franti to be booked for this festival so many times — by the numbers all the way. The annoyingly goofy look on his guitarist’s face was icing on the cake.
That said, despite sounding just as corny live as on record, the big bass produced by Spearhead and easy vibes flowing from Franti suited the festival well. He came on as the rowdies spilled in from last call at the beer gardens and started both shove-trains into the dance areas and light scuffles over blanket placement respect, a sacred notion at this kind of festival. The crowd had been begging to dance all day, so of course it went over well. A pizza guy even proposed to his girlfriend during this set (she said yes), so that leaves no question as to how much his music means to people. Here’s hoping they listen to his lyrics just as intently as his banal instrumentals.
Jason Kibler (a.k.a. DJ Logic) had a decent track selection, apparently spinning mostly tracks he made, lots of jazz and “world music”-influenced hip-hop with traces of drum ‘n’ bass. However, the Bronx producer is a mediocre scratch DJ at best, and he rarely attempted mixing throughout his set. That was probably a good thing, because it was a consistent trainwreck when he did try using the crossfader, but most often he elected to let tracks run out before starting the next one instead. There were also several obvious record skips that threw the crowd temporarily off beat, which did not help matters. He should stick to producing, and that is likely where he devotes much of his energy. The fact that he uses Skull Candy headphones is a big red flag that he is not serious about deejaying anyway.
This Regina band took the stage dressed all in white, ready to paint the stage with their ineffectual indie pop anthems. Almost all of their eight touring members contribute vocals, but most of them could not hold it together, breaking apart into pure yelping with gusto. They sound more eclectic on record, but always with the generic feeling that they want to be someone else like Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens. To get anywhere near that caliber, they’ll need to make less predictable sounds and changes.
Possessing a great name for a mediocre synth pop band in this era of irony, the Broken Social Scene side-project was a reasonably tight unit, but they did not take many chances, with unexceptional progressions all leading to the middle. They had the Calgary crowd on their side, though, if only to catch the white roses they chucked into the crowd from time to time. Principal singers Amy Milan and Torquil Campbell had the chemistry of a recently divorced couple, while keyboardist Chris Seligman looked like he was trying to bring a WWII bomber in for a landing behind his garage sale synths. They were much better in the downtempo moments, when drummer used synth kit pads to employ a couple less-ordinary sounds, and the group resisted the urge to go mid-tempo… again.
There were other bands there that I saw a little bit of here and there, but not quite enough to place in the unerringly precise scale above. I only caught a couple songs from Madison Violet, whose shimmering harmonies invoked the voice of god in their religious-tinged roots-folk. Not seeing more of them remains my single biggest regret of the weekend, up there with chugging two beers on Saturday and then standing in direct sunlight until I almost passed out. I had seen Polaris Prize nominee Dan Mangan before, so I made no special attempt to see him this time. What I did see looked like Dan being his usual self, riding the line between cutesy and smarmy that has made him adored by his growing fan base and quietly loathed by many in the industry. I also saw just a touch of Victoria folkies Jon & Roy and glitch-pop outfit Axis Of Conversation at various workshops, and they both left me wanting a bigger piece. Here’s hoping for next year.
• BEST WORKSHOP:
Mysteries of the Universe Unraveled [4:20PM, Sunday]
Of all the workshops I caught, Mysteries of the Universe Unraveled (DJ Logic with members of Man Man, Etran Finetawa, and St. Vincent) had the most actual jamming in it by far. After Logic thankfully stopped feebly scratching over everything and just laid down some dope beats for the actual musicians to groove on, everything fell into place. You could tell Man Man was itching for riffing, while the acoustic guitarist from Etran was always one of the first performers to jump in. St. Vincent brought out some of their heavier beats, which eased the transition into Logic’s selections. Banter was kept to a minimum, as the set progressed fluidly. What an interesting mix of experimental, “world,” indie, and electronic sounds. This set presented the concept of the workshop at its very best.
[Photo: Travis Lutley]