CALGARY, AB – JULY 26 – 29, 2012
Day One — July 26
by Spencer Brown
With a brief afternoon shower, there was the creeping possibility of rain on the opening day of Folk Fest. Thankfully, it passed, which was a blessing for those waiting in the line to get into the festival as sun is much nicer to pass the time with than rain.
Even those that arrived after the 5:30 p.m. start time for Montreal/Boston act, The Barr Brothers, were able to catch the band as their set began late due to technical issues. After those were sorted out, the sound was still slightly muddy as the percussive elements were largely lost in the mix. Still, this was the first day and there are bound to be growing pains. Performing everything, from their subtle, hit track, “Beggar in the Morning,” to their louder, blues jams, like “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying,” The Barr Brothers made the best of their awkward start and succeeded at warming up the crowd.
Next up was soul singer Charles Bradley, or as some crowd members disappointingly referred to him, “that James Brown guy.” While he may have had the same flair in the wardrobe department, he proved that he was indeed his own man with his own songs and moves to bust. Highlights included his cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Bradley’s stepping off stage to hug audience members, tears streaming down his face.
Up next were indie darlings Beirut and the beer gardens emptied, or mostly emptied, of skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses so fans could be closer to the stage. The band ran through a wide swathe of their material and as someone beside me put it, “They played that one song that I know!”
Finally, Chris Isaak came to close the night, prompting many women in the crowd to audibly sigh or make comments about a “future husband.” Looks aside, Isaak and band were dapperly dressed as always and the enigmatic frontman was thankfully free of the blinding mirror suit he wore at his last Calgary performance. If the crowd wasn’t already charmed by the set, little nods from Isaak, like changing the chorus of “San Francisco Days” to “Calgary,” sealed the deal. If there’s one downside it’s that the songs were polished but down tempo. That changed as a cover of “Great Balls of Fire” showed that Chris Isaak may be a crooner, but he can rock with the best of them.
Day Two — July 27
by Cait Lepla
With raw soul and the kind of pained passion a vocalist could only ever reach from years of struggle and salvation as an artist, Bettye LaVette sang a story that brought masses to their knees, on tarps in the setting sun at the Calgary Folk Festival.
After she had shown us how to feel the true power music could hold, Del Barber took over with his sharply contrasted, yet equally honest, lighthearted roots style. Grounded in good humour, he got the crowd chuckling with a loveable lyrical debate over the material value of a 16-paycheck engagement ring over the usual romantic gratification of mutually working and enjoying each other’s company once off. Perhaps the extra work time apart re-ignites that spark, but we were feeling the love.
Dan Mangan was someone many came to see over anyone else and they all quickly stood up. Handclaps, swaying and the best inner-city hippie dances soon beckoned the rest onto their feet, as everyone started to realize what they had really come here for. When “Robots” began, there was no leaving and rather, hearts beating a little stronger to his feel-good performance.
Jeff Mangum followed solo to play all the fan favourites from his former band, Neutral Milk Hotel, to a huge influx of nostalgia. Complex concepts were brushed off in an unaffected folky cheer that made everyone forget their stresses and sing along. “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” moved straight into “The King of Carrot Flowers,” which he seamlessly continued into its varying “Parts.” He played with few pauses and kept people going until their final reserves of energy were satisfyingly expended and they could finally leave the Folk Fest as a pretty perfect day finished the way they all had hoped.
Day Three — July 28
by Cait Lepla
Where Friday night brought in folk acts that drew upon some of the recent Sled Island crowd, the Saturday night line up was marked with a much different atmosphere. Rather than the sing-along, swaying, rock-tinged folk, there was a distinct country sound that unified the bands and a much more relaxed kind of audience participation.
When the Twilight Stage had a more contemporary alt-country show going on, with bands like Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Little Scream and Rural Alberta Advantage playing, it seemed to be the place many flocked to in terms of its dynamism for an outdoor festival. A year ago, when RAA played X-Fest, they had seemed a bit young and nervous, but with new material and more joyful sounding tunes, the Toronto-based band appeared totally comfortable finding themselves once again at the Calgary Folk Fest, where they performed their first Alberta show a few years ago. Wrapping up at about 10 pm, an energetic audience came to see the night’s headliners at the main stage and found themselves at a completely different kind of show featuring two Top 40 country artists from the ’90s.
Gillian Welch and her very talented guitar picking partner, David Rawlings (who had a fantastic solo), looked glamorous in crisp, white, sequinned costumes and played songs that made the crowd realize that they did know a few of their songs after all (“The Way It Goes,” “Elvis Presley Blues”). Their good sense of humour and perfectly timed, smoky, ringing harmonies on vocals and two acoustic guitars was captivating. The pace and fan base were similar for Mary Chapin Carpenter, but her music primarily discussed themes of divorce (“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”) and grieving and put a slight damper on things when people seemed more prepared for celebration.
Day Four — July 29
by Cait Lepla
The finale seemed to come through the southern United States this year, although the grand finale for the show was some of the performers getting together in a read-off-a-napkin Canadianized rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” for the late Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday (July 14, 1912). The final three performances included the incredibly young, Grammy-nominated Sarah Jarosz (only 21), Randy Newman and hairy headliners, Iron & Wine.
Sarah Jarosz was totally outstanding on guitar and banjo in a trio with a cello player and violinist, who both looked like they have barely started to grow facial hair. They played catchy songs with impressive technical skill and gave us all a name to remember. Immediately following was pianist Randy Newman, who many would recognize from an episode where he was spoofed on Family Guy (nuclear waste in Quahog sends the Griffiths in search of another town and Randy Newman’s musical narration drives them out of the next one). His most famous song is probably “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” renewed by it’s appearance on the Toy Story soundtrack. He was very down-to-earth, but the social justice issues his music attempted to approach with humour left some looking a little bothered, like “Let’s Drop the Big One/Political Science,” a jingle about nuclear weapons and US foreign policy.
Of course, the Folk Fest ended the way every good folk festival does, with a nice fuzzy romantic strumming on our heartstrings. Intensely sentimental, Iron & Wine lulled everyone into a pleasant state where the couples would be crooned and the singles swooned, and everyone would feel seductively inclined to go to bed early, or at least with enough time to shower their weekend-long hippiness away for another year.
Photo: Sebastian Buzzalino