By Mike Dunn
CALGARY — Any music festival is defined as much by the land it’s held on as by the music it presents; Gallagher Park, home of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, features rolling hills and a dawn-till-dusk, sun-drenched view of the city skyline from the capital’s iconic river valley. The Calgary Folk Music Festival’s setting at Prince’s Island Park is replete with thick fir trees with the downtown core’s skyscrapers towering above them, trails throughout the grounds, and is banked on either side by the Bow River. But few settings inspire the devotion of attendees as well as “The Land,” the location of the North Country Fair, near Driftpile First Nation, northwest of Slave Lake.
For the uninitiated, the North Country Fair has been held annually since 1980, making it one of the longest-running Alberta folk and roots festivals. In that time, it has become a destination festival for artists from across Canada and North America. In the past, the lineup has featured some of Canada’s most respected artists, some very early in their careers, such as Tanya Tagaq, and Luke Doucet of Whitehorse fame.
The festival, ever eccentric in its programming, has a reputation for music running from the early afternoon until deep into the night, featuring stranger and stranger shows as the night turns to morning. As it’s held each year on the summer solstice, it’s rare that the night stays truly dark for more than a few hours, giving way to a 4 a.m. twilight of dusk, where the fog rolls in off the Driftpile River, and the hoots and hollers of wild hippies, hipsters, rock ‘n’ rollers and cowboys getting free and freaky can be heard from all sides.
“All clichés aside,” says Meagan VanDruten, vocalist from Edmonton’s Swear By The Moon, “The Fair is a place where you can discover who you are. There’s a symbolism between the space in the field and the ability to discover who you are.” Her musical partner, Zachary Moon, suggests that the generous and welcoming vibe of the Fair, in addition to its unpredictable nature, are a couple of the biggest reasons people keep coming back. “You get out there, and you’re greeted with a truckload of firewood from the locals. And before you can even set up your tent, some friend, new or old, has handed you a beer and a guitar. As long as you’re awake, it’s just sort of keeps going like that. Everyone makes you feel like you belong there. And I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I don’t want to miss anything either.”
This year’s lineup, as eclectic as ever, features a rare solo appearance by Canadian legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, Vancouver rock ‘n’ rollers Bend Sinister, the avant-garde psych-pop of Calgary’s Ghostkeeper, legendary Manitoban children’s entertainer Fred Penner, and B.C. blues guitarist Jesse Roper. In addition, the Fair always features a diverse group of familiar Edmonton-area artists including singer-songwriter Joe Nolan and his new outfit The Dogs, the energetic blues of Boogie Patrol, alt-country weirdoes The Uncas, trip-hop stylist Tzadeka, and, as has become custom, one of the Fair’s most vocal and globe-trotting promoters, prairie balladeer Scott Cook. “This’ll be my 21st Fair, and my twelfth as a performer,” says Cook with no small hint of nostalgia. “It was the first inkling I got of a wider family, stretching across scenes, that I could be part of. That first year, someone said, ‘Welcome home,’ and I believed them. It’s sun-drenched, fungi-tinted, boreal perfection. Or, it’s a giant bog full of muddy hippies searching for a dry rolling paper. Most likely, it’s both.”
The North Country Fair will be held June 16th-19th at “The Land,” near Driftpile, Alberta. Advance weekend passes include camping and are $140 for adults, $80 for youth. Children’s passes are free. Details, full lineup, and maps are available at lslncca.caAB, Alberta, Driftpile, festival season, North Country Fair