Music Festivals Do Matter
“Holeee, you’re a music snob,” said my brother when he met me in the beer gardens Friday night at the Calgary Folk Festival. Taking my five minutes spent on his tarp to hear a Bahamas song before I went to meet friends for a beer as snobbery, my brother assumed I wouldn’t make time for any act unless I’d deemed them worthy prior to the festival.
Fair enough. I didn’t see much of the mainstage that night, but it hadn’t occurred to me that not listening to the music offered by the festival might be read as the worst form of discernment.
Later, I explained to him that I don’t actually go to the festival for the music; this explanation was far clearer in my head than I made it to him, and I spent the rest of the weekend wondering why festivals matter.
The summer months are a time when blog spaces like ND are inundated with festival reviews. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, and for the fans who can’t travel and/or shell out the bucks to see their favourite acts in what’s becoming the favoured presentation format for warm weather, reading a review can offer a sense of the festival experience. The festival structure means short concerts of mostly greatest hits, odd workshops that sometimes generate cool collaborations, but when you read a bunch of reviews, you can start to feel like every festival, whether folk or roots or rock, is the same as that other one in the town further down the road.
So why do festivals mean so much to us?
I and many of my close colleagues have made Canadian folk festivals the subject of our research, with varying degrees of depth. What we’ve all found, no matter our angle, is that people attend the festival for the experience first, and the music second. More specifically, attendees, volunteers, staff, and musicians get more out of the festival community than they do out of any particular year’s line-up.
I’ve gone to the Calgary Folk Fest since 1995, missing only one year in that time. The festival has become a sort of annual anchor for me in those 19 years: a time when I come home to visit family and friends; a time when I’m suspended from regular life and intensely experiencing the festival from different perspectives; it’s often a time that forces me to question my life path or the goings on of the past year, because I’m asked by my festival cohort to report on my latest personal news (not to mention the fact that sitting under umbrellas of green trees while singer-songwriters get all lamenty kind of lulls you into a contemplative state anyway).
I initially started going to the festival as an audience member and soon discovered the benefits of volunteering (meeting cool people, serving grateful artists food, going to after parties), and then switched to researching and reporting on the festival in the last few years. In that time, I’ve met many people that are now a regular part of my life and research; most of the Calgary artists I know I discovered through the festival. Other friends have made it an annual event and it’s our one chance to catch up over four days. I’ve interviewed a great number of interesting artists that I may not have encountered otherwise. It is, in short, a social event for me. Others may not agree, especially if they saw me walking around by myself, or hiding under a tree alone during a workshop; in other ways it is a solitary event that does generate contemplation, or lets me reflect on the changes I’ve seen in Calgary and the festival since the mid-90s.
Recently, it’s become a family event. My brothers have started buying tickets, which is a nice reflection of both our merging musical tastes and of the festival’s ever-evolving definition of folk. I go home and tell my parents what I heard, and they ask about acts they’re interested in. My family has gotten to know some of my festival friends, or bought the albums of local roots artists.
A festival like CFF is built on a set of values that evoke earlier instances of folk revivals: this is the music of the folk; as such, it should be as accessible as possible. That attitude is manifested in things like bringing in local coffee producer Phil & Sebastian over national chain Tim Hortons, or the banning of bottled water (“because as a basic life requirement, it should not be bottled for profit”); more overtly in cheaper passes for the full four days, accessible seating areas, encouraging people to bike to the site and bring in their own packed lunches. Whereas other festivals might use the event as a greedy opportunity for corporate partnership and charge sweltering teenagers $10 for bottled water, letting them suffer heatstroke on the pavement of a crappy parking lot site, festivals like CFF are thinking about the well-being of their patrons.
In short, the music is the side effect, or the by-product, or whatever you want to call it, of this experience. It may be the reason we all come together, but it’s only part of something that is far more valuable. That may be even more the case this year, given that only a week before the CFF started, the site was cleared for use after a long struggle by the city and volunteers to clean up after the Calgary flood last month. The festival inspires a sense of purpose and effort for the common good, and you don’t always get that from other cultural events.
And the music was good, by the way. Probably my favourite stage of the weekend was the collaboration between Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Albert Lee, The Wilders, and Cousin Harley, never mind the chance to see Hayes Carll, Steve Earle, and many of my other fave acts. So there’s my review. Go check out those bands.