Programming the Calgary Folk Festival, Part II
Given the Calgary Folk Festival’s roots in the city’s folk scene, one might expect that its stated purpose would include showcasing local content. If you want to find out who the hottest Calgarian roots acts are, visiting the Festival would be a good way to get your feet wet; that was especially the case during the late 1990s. But as the Festival has expanded its program and received thousands of online queries from acts around the world in recent years, local performers have faced serious competition.
This dilemma is an enviable one to have: how to choose between a wealth of home-grown talent and a spectacular collection of the best folk performers the world has to offer? Luckily, increased funding and ever-growing audiences have enabled the festival to increase their offerings in recent years, although some would say to the detriment of the local scene. Many feel that the Festival’s broad approach to programming prevents the kind of support it should be lending to Calgary musicians. The Festival doesn’t have a local mandate, but tries to be as fair and balanced as possible in programming.
Although the percentage of local acts has been as high as 21% (in 1999) or as low as 11% (in 2009), it’s a tough balance to maintain. 2009 was the Festival’s 30th anniversary, and to celebrate, even more world-class acts than usual were brought in. Mavis Staples, Glen Campbell, and Alejandro Escovedo, acts rarely (if ever) seen on Calgary stages, contributed to the Festival’s ever-broadening definition of folk music.
That’s not to say the Calgary musicians featured in past years are not world-class. As a vaguely uncomfortable former Calgarian shuffling through the streets of Toronto, I find myself feeling increasingly dislocated from my hometown’s happenings. Where else would I have discovered Woodpigeon or Consonant C, who both played fabulous eclectic sets in 2008? How would I have discovered the Rembetika Hipsters’ infectious Greek fusions? And when else would I have been able to see the country superstar band of Calgary, Sorrow Bound, when I only made it back to the city a few times a year?
Even during my early Festival years, I discovered acts that might have been difficult to find elsewhere, and the opportunity to showcase their musicianship to a large audience made for fine first impressions. Dave McCann and the Ten-Toed Frogs’ blend of country and rock was firmly anchored in 1960s Laurel Canyon experimentation, and Jenny Allen’s sweet voice and well-crafted songs led me to find every recording that she’s been on. And Kris Demeanor’s (see “I Have Seen the Future” below) unique worldview and zany songs were such a hit with audiences that he has returned to the Festival several times.
The CFF’s not doing such a bad job. Never mind that they’re showing some of folk music’s hottest stars, they helped get people so excited about Demeanor that he’s built up a following on the Australian festival circuit too. Can’t wait to see who will emerge from this year’s line-up.