Last Weekend at the Calgary Folk Festival
It’s taken me nearly a week to get over how soaked I got at last week’s Calgary Folk Fest. Granted, I don’t get along well with rain, but in 17 years of attending the festival, and even in the week that I spent in St. John’s before the festival, I have never been so cold and wet. At one point during Matt Andersen’s set, my friend glanced over at me in a double hood, drenched jeans, and umbrella and said, “You look miserable.” I guess I was…but I found out it was nothing that a warm bar and a beer couldn’t fix. Luckily, the skies cleared for the end of Friday night’s set, and the rest of the weekend was sunny and warm.
So. I should recap some of the great things I saw onstage over the weekend (perhaps to Easy Ed’s dismay), and I’ve got an interview with local country singer Matt Masters and a review of k d lang to follow soon. It seemed this year was focused on established CFF favourites (Buffy Ste Marie, Blue Rodeo, Nanci Griffith), emerging frontrunners in roots music (The Felice Brothers, Punch Brothers), and a solid collection of indie’s best (City and Colour, Joel Plaskett, The Head and the Heart). Artistic Director Kerry Clarke went for a more eclectic program overall, which led to some interesting collaborations on the side stages, although most of the ones I saw followed a more round robin format, with many of the performers playing solo.
At Stage 6 on Saturday morning, Newfoundland trio The Once gathered with New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen, Ontario’s Catherine MacLellan, and Alberta’s Emily Jill West for a singer-songwriter workshop. This combination of performers was a nice idea: the strong harmonies and narrative songs from The Once balanced Andersen’s texturally thick (and amazing) guitar playing and East Coast ballads. My favourite, which he had also played Friday night, was “Coal Mining Blues,” a slow tempo song that he introduced with the idea that the coal mining experience is the same for everyone, regardless of where they are from. Emily Jill West and Catherine MacLellan, both accomplished songwriters, complemented the others with their warm voices, subtle expression, and unpredictable melodies.
Later, I went to Stage 1 to see a bit of the “Country Club” workshop with T. Buckley, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the Felice Brothers, and Martha Scanlan. Scanlan may not have been there; I didn’t hear any of her songs and there was apparently a change in the concert she was giving there after the workshop. The other three were great, though, and again, a nice combination. All of the musicians joined in at certain points of others’ performances, whether they knew the songs or not. It helped that some ‘classics’ were played—Buckley did a rendition of Billy Cowsill’s “The Fool is the Last One to Know” to which the audience, familiar with Cowsill from his last years spent in Calgary, responded with cheers. And Gilmore performed a fellow Flatlanders song, Butch Hancock’s “My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own,” a perfect tune for his dry, twangy tenor voice.
That night on the mainstage, Punch Brothers, led by former Nickel Creek mandolin master Chris Thile and his partner, fiddle player Gabe Wichter, wowed the audience with their winding melodies, complex song structures, and adept soloing. The pinnacle of newgrass, Punch Brothers are clear masters of the bluegrass tradition, but push its boundaries with jazz harmonies and unexpected contrasts. Whenever it seemed the audience was a bit lost, the band would bring everybody together again with a quick waltz, songs with more predictable structures, or classic bluegrass vocal harmonies.
They were followed by the Felice Brothers. I was happy to see the band play after a student in my summer course recommended that I look them up. I always know I have to do some catching up when I fall behind my students (which is pretty much all the time). The band got the audience even more worked up than Punch Brothers, putting forth what I felt was a mix of the Jayhawks and Bob Dylan. The pulsing piano, syncopated bass line, and ‘hawks-esque harmonies were a nice support to lead singer’s Ian Felice’s raspy timbre. They punctuated more complicated polyrhythms in the percussion with meandering piano lines and rich textures. Although I would label the band as pop with a folk influence, based on their fairly straightforward, attractive song structures and lush harmonies, they veer into country territory occasionally with boom-chick patterns in the bass and drum and hyper fiddling.
More on its way soon!