The Calgary Folk Fest
Well, I know I’m late but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to at least share my experiences at the ol’ Calgary Folk Fest. I’m an active volunteer at the festival and as I volunteer I think we get a great perspective of how things work and we also get a bit closer to the magic that is this weekend.
I would be so thrilled to blog from a volunteer’s perspective – getting interviews in the morning and passing out programs (this is what I do as a volunteer) in the evenings. Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to provide such detailed posts, but I still believe there’s artistry to written communication regardless of the details involved.
Again, I know that I’m late, but shoot me a line and let me know what y’all think!
Some one told me when the sun was still up that there ain’t no party like a FolkFest after party. I replied that he obviously wasn’t aware of my grandma’s teaparties but by that point I’d lost him to a plate of butter chicken. Needless to say, I was keen to check this party out. I mean, I’ve seen my share of after parties but if the last five hours were any indication of what I had in store I was fixed for a good time. After the torch carriers close down the evening, the better part of the audience files in queue to get back into their cars and head home but there’s a good chunk of folks who stick around. Some of them laughing and frantically talking about their day’s adventure while others roam through the main sitting area looking for garbage to throw away or valuables to give to Lost & Found. These are the volunteers – 900 of us make this festival work and we are the tightest team of volunteers I’ve ever seen. The parties, most will tell you, are for us volunteers and by the end of the night I can’t argue with that.
Once the audience has left and the better part of the garbage is picked up (there’s surprisingly little to begin with and these folks know how to clean in the dark) the energy in the crowd of volunteers shifts a bit – there’s an excitement in the air. Like a flock of birds who change direction with no forewarning or communication whatsoever, like everyone thought about it at the same time we all start walking south towards The Weston hotel, a block and a half away. On this paltry party pilgrimage I ask the girl beside me, she’s weearing a 2005 volunteer t-shirt so I know this isn’t her first time, if she knows why we didn’t just leave with the rest of the crowd. She explains that it’s only fair to give the public right of way when they’re leaving. I’m smiling again, thinking that even off the clock, us volunteers don’t quit this weekend. It’s like wearing this volunteer t-shirt puts us in a different world than those civi’s, we’re still serving them but never in a servant’s capacity.
It’s about 11:30 when we get to the hotel. It smells so clean, so pristine and it’s bright but there’s already a different vibe than the Weston normally has. Back in the Real World I meet a lot of clients of mine in this hotel. Everyone is smiling. There’s a band playing in the distance – I can hear the bass drum thumping, inviting me like it did the cavemen who invented it, to come closer, come and have a good time. There’s a trumpet leading over more instruments than I can identify.
I walk up the stairs and the source of this music is in one of the Hotel’s larger conference rooms. There are drink tickets for sale in the well lit area outside the conference room and there’s easily two hundred pizzas lining the walls. I’d say there are 200 people in this area alone and everyone is hugging friends from last year’s festivals, shaking hands and reintroducing each other. There are a couple of children, high in their own right on pizza after bedtime and the excitement of all these faces. In little rooms, smaller conference rooms off to the sides I recognize some of the artists from the day. Tom Wilson from LeE HARVeY OsMOND (and Blackie & The Rodeo Kings back in the Real world) is standing talking to two of the folks from Acorn – his pose not nearly as demanding as it was earlier today on the main stage soaked in sunlight.
All around me are toasts of good health and fine regards. I grab a handful of tickets and a slice of vegetarian pie (I’m not even a vegetarian, but when in Rome…) say hello to some folks I know and some folks I don’t then make my way to see what this rock & roll show is all about.
Nothing could have prepared me for what’s inside – there’s easily 500 people dancing to the Tom Fun Orchestra. Tom Fun is an eight piece band, fully equipped with a shakey bass, an accordian, violin, a banjo, couple of guitars and of course, the aforementioned trumpet. The scent inside is like a tropical storm, humid and hot. There’s a lingering threat of torrential precipitation in tremendous proportions but everyone is too focused on dancing to pay mind to any sort of threat. I think in honesty, this is the first time in my life I’ve seen so many people completely care-free. Uninhibited dancing at the front by the stage and granted, the energy does fade as it moves further from the collection of amplifiers and drums onstage, but even the wall flowers here are swaying their shoulders and tapping their feet. It’s beautiful and after swallowing several drinks I find myself in the heat of everything, dancing like a fool and laughing with everyone in the room – we’re all in on some kind of joke but it only serves to unify us.
My drinks went down too quickly – what can I say, sometimes red wine that you buy with a ticket just tastes so good. The swirl of violins & wah-wah guitars, horns & dresses, faces & shalls – it’s all too much for me right now and as beautiful as this place is, I’ve got to go for a walk and clear my head.
It’s 1:06 right now and the resonance from the kick drum is shaking this entire 24 storey building – like for one weekend a year this building of temporary lodging for downtown executives needs to flush itself, pump new blood through its veins through a heart beat of 190 beats per minute in the key of E Major. The state of this lobby 90 minutes ago is nothing more than a memory now. I’m not the first to retire from dancing early and there’s a lot of folks out here talking, reminiscing about festivals of yore, getting to know one & other, complimenting and sharing with each other. New blood does this building well.
Off in the distance is a different sound – a piano being played to the fullest. I follow my ears and sure enough, on the first floor west side hallway there’s a well dressed man on the piano all by himself. Just playing those keys with such exuberance and passion of an artist. From behind I see that he’s discarded his sportsjacket and now, in a well fitting white shirt and vest he’s attacking the keys but attacking with the sensitivity and emotion of a lover coming to climax. In situations like these you can’t help but lose yourself – there’s nothing else to me right now but my Piano-Man and myself – even the distant hotel heartbeat, that rhythmic rejuvenation has faded in the distance. When he reaches his orgasmic crescendo he just stops, wipes the sweat from his brow and sighs.
‘Thanks for that,’ I say, hoping not to have surprised him with what seems like a demonstration of my voyeuristic tendencies, ‘That was fantastic.’ I almost embarrassed to admit, but having studied the festival program since early in the week but I have no idea who this guy is. I hold out my hand, ‘Josh,’ I say.
He looks up coyly – almost like he’s been caught when he wanted to be and like he owes me something for catching him. He says to me, ‘I’m Steve – I work here. Really not supposed to play the piano when I’m on shift but this weekend only comes once a year.’ He smiles and we shoot some small talk about the hotel and the festival. His well fitting shirt is little more than a hotel clerk’s uniform but that comes as no surprise – this festival makes you see the beautiful in everything.
When I tell Steve that this is my first festival his eyes light up like people’s do when they have too many thoughts all at once. Steve’s off to the elevator faster than you can say alligator shouting for me to follow him – why not? He presses the button for the 3rd floor with a sense of hackless abandon, like the 3 button in its classic typeface was just a random number and it didn’t matter if we hit that or any of its numerical brethren. These elevators are quick – new blood does this building well.
In the 3rd floor hallway there are musicians playing every type of instrument you can imagine. Sitars and banjos, accordions and washboards – girls are singing tenor and guys are bass, some float in the middle intertwining intricate harmonies. Congas provide a different type of heartbeat than Tom Fun did downstairs but just as inviting for my ticklish feet. Like a dream, off in the distance there’s an old man in coveralls, thick white hair and deep crevice-like wrinkles that have had a lot of time to get comfortable on that face of his plucking and ploinking on a Jew-Harp falling in an out of key but never losing rhythm.
‘They do this every year,’ Steve tells me, ‘It’s not just the artists but their managers and road techs, their girlfriends and boyfriends, wives & husbands, sons & daughters and the friends they’ve made in Western Canada. They’ll go until 5 or 6 in the morning if the vibe is right and the wine is better.’
I’m not one to get star-struck and I don’t even think I’d call this star-struck – more like wonder-struck. Looking at this community of musicians all telling their story in a separate language. A language which at once is so much simpler but with such complicated beauty and such deeper emotional resonance than our simple English. Their language isn’t constricted into nouns, verbs adjective & what-have-you, they are free to openly share emotion and I’m pretty sure the emotion they’ve chosen is happy. You can tell the ones who know each other from the ones who don’t – those that don’t are jamming with more precision making sure the styles mesh before committing to comfort (by the looks of things comfort can last all night.) Like dogs getting to know one & other its like they are smelling everything they can about the partner to make sure their combined scents make sense. They meld between groups like chocolate chips in a pot of hot milk – slowly they find a partner to melt into and before long everyone has melted together in a delicious sauce. There are a few of us observers, walking up and down the halls watching this beautiful society in its infancy, but this night is not about us.
Perhaps it’s the residual haze from my last gulp of wine or the all the sun I took in today, but everything is glowing. Even the walls of the hallways are more organic now – the floral print on the carpet looks at ease, like it doesn’t have to stand so firm this weekend and even the carpet can get some time to enjoy the weekend. New blood does this building well.
It’s late now – about 3 and I’ve got make it home. I’m smiling and I can’t stop – not smiling like a big dumb idiot, no – smiling just like everyone else.