Calgary Folk Festival: Day One
Teaching music to university students is a constant reminder of how unhip I am. I ask them at the beginning of every year to tell me who they’re listening to these days, and I don’t know half of the artists mentioned. They have to spell out names as I write on the board: “K-A-T-Y [space] P-E-R-R-Y.”
So it was with great unhipness that I anticipated tonight’s mainstage show, assuming that the lead singer of Stars was Emily Haines, who I had recently seen perform on the Junos and liked. Nope, that’s Metric. Whoops. I revised my excitement for Amy Millan, but frankly, I get all those Broken Social Scene alumni mixed up. A mistake one shouldn’t make, since Millan’s singing is quite recognizable, and made more so through her vocal partnership with bandmate Torquil Campbell. The band was in a mellow mood tonight, marked by dreamy keyboard solos, droning synth sections under Millan’s contemplative moments, and an overall laid-back stage presence.
At times, though, it was nearly impossible to hear Millan over the crashing backdrop of nostalgic 80s pop, which, with a modern twist, has become the band’s trademark sound. But when sweet moments of balance were achieved, Millan’s and Campbell’s voices were highlighted by their obvious onstage chemistry. They smiled and sidled towards each other while the rest of the band supported them with muted drums and fuzzy bass. Stars is capable of writing both catchy and haunting songs, a nice mixture for a short set on the opening night of the Festival. The audience on Thursday is anticipating the promise of the weekend, but are also lazily drifting around the site after a long day at work.
I suspected that the Avett Brothers might be a band I found reasonably intriguing from a distance but completely astounding live. I was right. I don’t know that the audience expected what they got—the girls next to me claimed they couldn’t make it through “the something or other Brothers” while cradling a sleeping baby, but ended up staying for the entire set. So did the rest of the crowd, who were on their feet by the end of the show.
The Avett Brothers have a nice, genuine appeal to them in a young troubadour sort of way, but onstage they are transformed into a hyped-up punk string band complete with choreographed moves, spinning double basses, and perfectly synchronized jumps without missing a lyric. The bottom end was filled out nicely with not only Bob Crawford on bass but a cello (whose player, Joe Kwon, stood for the whole set with it hooked over his shoulder), and brothers Scott and Seth played banjo and guitar. Seth’s voice is particularly appealing, as is Scott’s banjo technique, which appears to be following a trend in roots music where it is struck forcefully, acting as a percussive instrument, rather than being picked in a typically rollicking style.
There’s no question that their infectious songs, solid technique, and tight playing will have me following them around the side stages for the rest of the weekend. In the meantime, check them out here: