Calgary Folk Festival: Day Three
Since tonight’s mainstage was bookended by the two great country acts of Alberta, Ian Tyson and Corb Lund, I decided to focus on them for the day. Lund first appeared in a workshop with several of his alt-country contemporaries: Ox, Baskery, and the United Steel Workers of Montreal. Although the workshop didn’t foster the collaborative magic that sometimes occurs on side stages, it fulfilled its other purpose in allowing the artists to try out new songs in front of the audience.
Perhaps Baskery was the biggest surprise of this show. Drawing on the good-looking charm and tight vocal harmonies that have characterized groups like SheDaisy and the Dixie Chicks, the Swedish trio was powered by distorted slide banjo, bass, and guitar. The girls were a crowd favourite, with their energy and volume matching workshop hosts United Steel Workers.
I caught the last few songs of Tom Russell’s concert on stage 4 as it started to fill up for the following workshop. Russell was also a crowd pleaser, which I overheard someone remark as strange, given that the target of his song “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall” (“There’s one thing that I most fear/It’s a white man in a golf shirt/With a cell phone in his ear”) describes the predominant demographic of Calgary, a city known for its multitude of corporate headquarters. I suspect Russell tapped into everyone’s hidden rebellious desires, that is, if they weren’t already taken by his powerful voice and engaging stage presence.
Russell hung around for the next workshop at stage 4, which also featured contemporaries Geoff Muldaur and Ian Tyson and was hosted by Corb Lund. Although the workshop began with the artists taking turns playing, by the end they were asking each other to sing verses and join in on songs that had become part of everyone’s repertoire. Tyson sang some of my favourites, “MC Horses” and “Roll On Owyhee,” along with a couple of new ones. Russell picked up the duty of singing “Navajo Rug,” trading verses with Tyson, while Lund joined in for “MC Horses.” Lund was a gracious host, illustrating his awe for his predecessors with a story of watching Tyson and Russell complain about married life over breakfast the first time he met Russell while staying at Tyson’s ranch. And the other three had obvious respect for their successor, nodding in approval to songs like “Alberta Says Hello.”
My day of country was interrupted by three diverse acts on the mainstage, all of whom proved themselves to be worthy of the headlining spot on the busiest day of the festival. Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens put on an electrifying show, singing their own songs as well as soulful covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The group was followed by Mississippi’s Hill Country Revue, a group that easily mixes 70s southern rock, blues, and gospel. HCR spent most of their set on extended jams. Reminiscent of the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, the songs featured meandering electric guitar solos over slowly changing chord progressions, blasting the audience with a percussion-heavy version of blues rock that had little room for singing. I think the listeners were pleasantly shocked by HCR, reacting with wild cheers, which primed the stage for the following act, The Cat Empire.
Even though I had seen The Cat Empire the day before on a side stage, I was unprepared for the display of variety and talent in their mainstage show. Press releases and artist bios are often rife with pleas not to pigeonhole artists who supposedly span a broad spectrum of genres—maddening orders for radio programmers looking to slot incoming albums into particular shows. But in the case of Cat Empire, such a claim is actually true. The band veered between funk, rock, salsa, and hip hop, employing their members in an array of capacities. Lead singer Harry James Angus flipped between vocals and trumpet, while fellow singer Felix Riebl moved from vocals to percussion. The two were augmented by backing vocals from Ollie McGill on keyboards and Ryan Monro on bass. Tight horn riffs alternated with the squeaky scratching from DJ Jamshid Khadiwala on decks. McGill kept the band together with salsa rhythms on piano, and Angus brought the performance to a peak with an extended vocal improvisation that reached an impossibly high falsetto.
Last night’s mainstage concluded with Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, who, with six albums to date, have a vast repertoire of songs on the Western Canadian experience that is eagerly received by the local audience. Lund was clearly happy to be at the festival, thanking organizers for programming him as the top headlining act—no slot is better than the closing one on Saturday night. The band sprinkled new tunes like “Long Gone to Saskatchewan” and “It’s Hard to Keep a White Shirt Clean” amongst classics like “Hurtin’ Albertan,” “Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer,” and “Five Dollar Bill.” Even though encores are generally absent from the festival’s short sets, Lund returned for a rendition of “This is My Prairie,” sending a content audience off into the cool evening.
Stay tuned for my interview with Corb!