Calgary Folk Festival: Day Two
I’ve been going to the Calgary Folk Festival for 15 years, and even though I’m fascinated by the community that spontaneously springs up on the site over the course of the weekend, I’m sceptical of the way everyone talks like it’s some kind of perfect utopia where love, music, and everyone’s natural inclination to recycle form a happy union.
Despite my cynicism, I’m confronted with these perfect moments that seem to only happen at folk festivals. The first happened during Michael Franti and Spearhead’s set last night, and no question I’m not the only one who felt it. Rarely do you see a folk festival audience actually stand for an entire set, let alone wave their arms in unison, jump, dance, sing, and cheer. That sort of crazy behaviour is reserved for stadium concerts and dancing in one’s own living room with the curtains drawn. But Franti is one of those perennial festival favourites who seems to be able to excite even the most cynical of attendees. Drawing kids up onstage to dance and sing, strapping an unamplified guitar around a young woman and instructing her to adopt the choreographed movements of the other guitarists, and dancing through the crowd to sing to the back of the audience helped further endear Franti to his adorers. The band’s engaging mix of reggae, hip hop, and pop-driven folk transmit his messages of social justice, equality, and acceptance easily. These are mixed with fun party songs like “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “Shake It.” An old favourite of mine is “Soulshine” (“Do you wanna feel free/…we all need a little soulshine”) Franti seems genuine in his love for Alberta, claiming that it is the only other place he’s lived in besides California, and after his last year’s hospitalization for a ruptured appendix that caused a last-minute festival cancellation, he seemed particularly eager to win back local fans. He needn’t have worried.
That’s not to detract from the other acts last night, who provided an eclectic collection of performances. Frank Turner is the perfect opening for Friday night at the festival, pleasing the audience with his accessible songs about love and politics. Turner proudly described his love affair with music early on in “Substitute”: “I’ve had many different girls inside my bed/But only one or two inside my head/These days I cuddle up to my guitar instead,” and later pulled up a volunteer from the audience named Adam for a feature harp solo. Turner uses some nice, unexpected chord progressions, which add interest to simple and catchy melodic sequences. His shouted interjections between lyric lines and heartfelt singing reminded me a little of Billy Bragg.
The Swell Season is a band that I have never fully understood, mainly because I wasn’t crazy about the unrealistic rapid-fire record production portrayed in Once. But like many other acts, they were able to win me over in a live setting. Glen Hansard’s soulful singing and affable stage presence complemented Markéta Irglová’s quiet sweetness, and there’s no question these two are highly competent musicians. They began with a nice example of how successful a stripped-down performance can be at a folk festival, singing into one microphone while Hansard strummed vigorously on an acoustic guitar. The full band entered for the second song, backing up the rest of the set with drums, piano, and electric bass and guitars. Warm guitar timbres and pleasant harmonies characterized songs like “Low Rising”, with Irglová and Hansard moving easily between lead vocals, piano, and guitar throughout the set.
This is the first year that the festival has featured side stage performances on the Friday afternoon, and I dashed between Stage 4 and 5 to catch a bit of everything. The mixture of Israeli hip hop band Coolooloosh and Australian funk group The Cat Empire was brilliant programming on the festival’s part. Cooloooloosh’s irregular meters and embellished melodies were augmented by vocals that settled into hypnotic patterns and Cat Empire’s funky bass lines. There’s often a party atmosphere at Stage 4, which is located right next to the main gate, and this was no exception, with audience members leading dance processions through the grass. What little I caught of Swedish alt-country sweethearts Baskery’s set at Stage 5 grabbed my attention—I will definitely be heading to some of their workshops over the weekend.
Any uncertainty one might have about the “folk” nature of some of the groups that appear at the festival is always counteracted by the unexpected musical collaboration and fine playing these artists provide. Today’s workshops should be no exception to that. I’m looking forward to a day of sunshine and good tunes.