By Liam Prost
Disclosure: Roots editor Liam Prost is a Calgary Folk Music Festival employee.
I. Calgary Folk Fest or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Music (and Beer)
CALGARY — In the June’s print issue of BeatRoute, music editor Colin Gallant wrote a piece entitled This is Sled Island (p. 25) about the precarity of writing about, and helping cover Sled Island festival while working full time at that same organization. I hate to tell you folks, but we’ve done it again. I spend my weekdays huddled in the second floor offices of Festival Hall with 12 fantastic people, making manifest those four magical days every summer we call Calgary Folk Fest. And in my evenings and weekends, I’ve been helping write about and cover that same festival. Colin put it better than I could, so do read his piece, but I thought I’d reiterate one thing. We at BeatRoute work at, write about, and volunteer with organizations like Sled Island, Folk Fest, Fringe, NMC, and etc. because they produce such incredible value for our city. It’s a privilege to get to both work at, and write about, the best our city has to offer, and we think it also gives us a privileged position with which to talk about those same things. So here goes.
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, but it’s always worth reiterating: CFMF is not just folk. Take a quick glance at the lineup and it’ll get clear quick. Sure there is Corb Lund’s rough-edged country rock, Caleb Klauder’s dancehall bluegrass, and Cecile Doo-Kingue’s sultry blues; but there’s also BRAIDS’ paced electronics, The New Pornographer’s anthemic indie rock, and Jerusalem in my Heart’s world-bending soundscapes. The weekend is so jammed with music, if you aren’t jiving with what you are hearing, there are six other stages to check out. Further, the workshop format, which puts sometimes four or five artists on stage at once, means that any musical movement can be coloured and washed from any instrumental direction. Folk Fest makes genre irrelevant like you’ve never seen. Bored by the banjo? Wait until you hear someone bow one. Soul’d out on blues guitar? It’s totally different overtop a bed of synthesizers and drum beats.
Folk Fest has a lot to love and discover musically, but if you only see music this July, you’ll have missed out. There’s a full artisanal market with everything from handmade ukuleles to henna tattoos. If you get hangry there are 27 unique food vendors with special attention paid to make sure that there are vegan and gluten free options. I have friends and family that come just for the beer garden, and would rather level out with a Big Rock Beer or a festival sangria with the sonorous sounds of Cat Power or Kathleen Edwards as the ultimate patio playlist, than hang with the tarpees. These folks are even better served this year with a satellite screen in the garden to better glimpse the mainstage, as well as an expansion of the beer borders to encompass stage 3, so you can sip your Rock Creek while Foy Vance sings your sorrows away. This expansion will also add space for a fair few extra bodies in the beer garden, so you can kiss those lines goodbye. Those with young-uns need not to worry though, the beer garden remains open to the underage to sit and watch the performances at stage 3, while the grown-ups imbibe (or not if you’d rather). The kiddos are also well served by the family area, whose volunteers produce strange and wonderful activities every year. Last year’s box fortress was particular hard to resist.
Speaking of volunteers, Folk Fest has 1,800 of them. To put that into perspective, at any given time during the festival open hours, around 1/5 of the folks on the island are volunteers. Everything that can be is run by a folkie in a festival shirt, and it’s no small task. 37 years in, the festival has developed an elaborate program with 78 crews staffed by front line volunteers, coordinators, and managers, some of whom have been with the festival since before I was born. There are a lot of perks to volunteering, a free shirt, fantastic meals at volunteer hospitality, and a few exclusive after parties, but volunteers do it for the festival. No matter what artists are headlining or what direction the cumulonimbus’s are headed, Folk Fest volunteers come back every year because they love it. Many long-time volunteers have met spouses at the festival, and some have gone from heavily active roles back to smaller duties because of lost mobility. The through-line that you hear from all of them is that they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
After a few recurrent years on staff, I now wander through the festival just to say hello to dozens of volunteers who I only see those four days a year. Most of them I don’t know what they do for a living, many of them I don’t even know their full names. But when the Folk Fest shirts are on (many volunteers customize the shirts with tassels and the like), and the music starts to play, it’s truly a family. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Folk Fest is the most welcoming community of people I have ever been a part of.
Folk Fest is truly a festival of folks. Beards and banjos aside, there is something for everyone at Prince’s Island Park. And if the year has been tough on your wallet, you can always grab a fiasco gelato and watch the free TD Stage at Eau Claire Market. There’s always a contingent of folks who listen from the banks of the river. If you’re in town on July 21-24th, you have no excuse.
II. Six Degrees of Separation
Folk Fest is a festival of connections, inside and out. Friendships are made and grown between swills of Big Rock, and profound musical connections occur before our very eyes at the workshops. But unbeknownst to the audience at large, Folk Fest often acts as a convergence point for artists, where stylistic commonalities and discovered, ethnic and geographic origins are explored, and professional connections are made and solidified.
Often, artists are specifically sought out and smashed together on workshop stages for the strange ways they might artistically interact. There are more of these connections at Folk Fest than even artistic director Kerry Clarke could possibly explicate, but with her help we chose a few that might inform your experience at the festival, especially in navigating the many tempting workshop choices.
Mekon-nections on Connections
Jon Langford is a Folk Fest staple, he’s played the festival a bunch (four times in the last 10 years or so) in bands The Waco Brothers, Jon Langford and Skull Orchard, and this year, the mini-Mekons (a three-piece version of the legendary Mekons). You’ve probably seen him bouncing about the festival before, his magnetic personality and sprightly dance moves are pretty hard to avoid, but you might not know just how far his fingerprints spread at the festival. The Mekons have backed several festival artists on records before, including this year’s Robbie Fulks who produced an album together last year entitled Jura, but the influence doesn’t end there. Jon Langford has also done album artwork for Marty Stuart (who gifted him a Nudie suit in exchange), and Jon’s 2003 album Mayors on the Moon was backed by the Sadies. Bonnie Prince Billy is releasing a record of The Mekons covers this fall.
Play Us Your Swede Sorrow
We don’t know it is about the Swedes and beautiful, contemplative folk music, but they seem to be pouring it out like rainwater. Folk Fest features two such Swedish Singers this year. The Tallest Man on Earth is Kristian Mattson, a fierce songwriter with a Dylan-y howl, unparalleled acoustic guitar chops, and unconventional narrative lyricism. And before you ask, no, he is not actually abnormally tall.
José González’s Hispanic name comes from his Argentinian ancestry, but he was born outside of Gothenburg in Sweden. His understated, naturalistic songwriting explores the interplay of these competing cultural and musical influences. His finger-nail picked classical guitar and soft vocals will be backed by a delicate five-piece band.
Let’s Party Montreal Night Long
It’s pretty incredible how many brilliant artists come out of, or end up moving to, Quebec’s not-quite-capital city. What’s even stranger is how much variety is coming out. Take Cécile Doo-Kingué, guitar goddess and blues virtuoso, a sharp contrast to the sweet croons of Emilie & Ogden’s ethereal harp folk. Lisa Leblanc rocks the banjo like you’ve never seen, while Jerusalem in my heart match traditional instruments like buzuk with overdriven synths and Vox Sambou brings funk and hip hop.
I Just Have to Axe
Guitars have dominated western music for most of last hundred years for a reason, it’s an incredibly versatile instrument, and in the right hands it can speak entirely different musical languages. If six strings are your thing, Folk Fest has them in droves. One workshop in particular, the all-too-perfectly titled “It Was a Dark and Strummy Night” features four of the best in the biz, who approach it entirely differently. James Blood Ulmer’s guitar is soft, traditional, and thumb-centric, while Hartin Harley quite literally turns the guitar on its head, playing from his lap with a steel slide. Jorge Miguel plays a skillful flamenco, and Cécile Doo-Kingué shreds like no one else.
Alberta Bound For Glory
We Albertans have to support our own, and boy is it a great time for Alberta music. Evan Freeman, Nancy Laberge, Carter Felker, Northern Beauties, and Kris Demeanor all represent hometown songwriting talent, and Braden Gates will be shuffling down from Edmonton town after an excellent showing at their Folk Fest last year. True Hurtin’ Albertans Corb Lund and Ian Tyson’s last workshop together on Folk Fest stages is the stuff of Cowtown legend, and will be revisited this year at the “Time to Switch To Whiskey” workshop. Calgarians have almost certainly seen true hometown heroes The Dudes before, but how about on stage with Northern Irish folkster Foy Vance?
III. 37 Years of Tarpees: How to Folk Fest Like a Pro
Tarpee, or Not Tarpee, That Is the Question
You might have heard that there are two types of folkies, those who park their stuff on the main field to get the best auditory experience for mainstage (tarpees), and those who opt to stand and move around in the dancing area (standees), but this is a false dichotomy. Lots of folks who like to dance also use a tarp as a home base, and lots of folks who like to sit for mainstage get their dancing fix at the early day sidestages. Truth be told, there is no right or wrong way to experience the festival. A tarp is a great resource, a meeting point for friends and family, and a great place to store meals and supplies for the day while you gallivant about the island, but it doesn’t mean you can’t dance if you want to and leave your friends behind. The only hard and fast rule is to respect your fellow folkies who might want to experience the festival a little differently.
Folk with the Fam Jam
The Family Area at Calgary Folk Fest is well renowned, and it has all to do with its dedicated volunteer crew. There are engaging activities for youngsters of all propensities, but there are also dedicated family area performers to keep the parents occupied as well. Mr. Fantastik performs balancing, plate spinning, juggling, contortion, and basically every bodily activity that we wouldn’t even try and is also a musician in his own right. Edmonton’s Ben Spencer will be performing Songs for Terrible Children, a collection of silly and fun narratives, canted and strange enough to amuse even the most stoic parents.
Dress For the Fest
The festival runs rain or shine, so don’t let a few raindrops scare you away. This is Calgary after all, if you don’t like the rain, putting on a raincoat will almost certainly scare it away. Even during hot days, temperatures can drop pretty quick when the sun sets, so bring a few layers. Sunscreen is also a must, and for those with fairer skin, keep a small tube on you. Remember, it’s not the SPF, it’s how often you reapply that keeps you from burnin’. If you need a little back support, festival chairs are always a good idea, provided they are shorter than eight inches.
Build a Schedule
There’s too much music to see it all, so be sure to take a look at the online schedule before getting on site to make your picks. You can also build a MyFolkFest schedule to take with you on the mobile website. Make sure to see a variety of stuff, take recommendations from friends, and follow #CFMF on twitter and insta to see what people are loving. Be sure to take breaks too, a truly memorable set deserves a moment of reflection over a snack or a beer to truly appreciate. Besides, there is a lot of non-musical wonder to discover as well, so schedule some time to wander and appreciate the park.
Imbibe, Engorge, Enjoy
Bringing snacks is a must, but we both know that you are going to peruse vendor alley as well. There are 27 wonderful local and visiting vendors, and it would be a shame to not do a little bit of sampling. Returning favorites are back including two places to caffenate from Phil and Sebastian, Fiasco Gelato, The Naaco Truck, and Avatara Pizza among others. The alley will also be home to a few new booths including Wild Sparkling Tea kombucha, Waffles and Chix, Delissitude, and more.
The beer garden returns with sumptuous suds and splendid sangria. Those with refined wine tastes will also appreciate the three distinct wines, including a rosé (a special request by artistic director Kerry Clarke). The beer gardens has also expanded this year to encompass stage three, so you can enjoy music with beer in hand. The extra space as well should help mitigate the lines.
IV. Smells Like Green Spirit: The Island is a Prince’s, Let’s Treat Her Like One
A festival truly is defined by where it occurs, and Folk Fest is no exception. You can’t host a festival on a beautiful, leafy, island paradise, and not be committed to keeping things green. Events are wasteful, festivals more than most, and CFMF has been uncompromising in reducing waste and emissions through a few major programs.
Diversion and Compostables
The biggest and most quanitifiable goal of CFMF’s eco initiatives is to be waste-free festival. In 2015, that meant that 77 per cent of the festival’s waste was diverted away from the landfill into compost, refundable beverage containers, mixed recycling, and wood recycling, and every year the Environment volunteer crew strives to do better. To make this happen, festival volunteers person every single waste station to help patrons figure out what goes where. Further, the festival requires all of the vendors at the festival to use exclusively compostable plates, bowls, cutlery, and etc. CFMF’s eco policies have developed and refined, and have directly influenced local waste-reduction event companies like DIG Events and Green Event Services.
No Bottled Water
Calgary’s municipal recycling program gets better every year, but the bottled water industry doesn’t make it easy to reduce waste. Folk Fest is a bottled water free zone, meaning that none of the food vendors have bottled water for sale. Fret not though thirsty folkies! Folk Fest provides free water stations on site, save a few bucks, save the environment, and drink the delicious local water supply. Just make sure to bring your own bottle, and refill often, especially if you are going to be drinking those other substances (and consequently use the porta-potties more often) as well.
Bike Lock Up
Other festivals necessitate car transport, but luckily for Calgarians, we have the perfect festival site right downtown in Prince’s Island. As such, trying to drive down is more trouble than it’s worth. Two wheels is the only way to travel to the island, and Folk Fest makes it easy with a volunteer-staffed bicycle lock up. Local community bike shop Bike Root is on site again this year to provide bicycle tune-ups for those with squeaky wheels. For those who aren’t bike mobile, or intend on imbibing more urgently, Calgary Transit is a short walk south.
V. The Skate Ramp: Laying Pipe For the First Time
The world needs more skateboards. It’s an activity that takes skill, coordination, and artistry, and is a powerful outlet for young folks, specifically ones who have limited access to after-school programs. No one knows this better than Calgary Folk Fest production manager John Hiebert (pictured, or rather, illustrated, above), who has been a tireless skateboarder and skateboard activist in Calgary since childhood, and has worked with the City of Calgary to bring a full half pipe to the festival this year, but this too has a legacy that stretches back as far as the festival.
When Hiebert was growing up, he did his skating at a cement park called Skatopia, but it closed it’s doors and plexiglass windows in 1979, leaving Calgary skaters without a place to go. “Once that closed down, we needed a place to skate.” Hiebert wasn’t going to take this lying down, so he and his brother Barry Hiebert scoured through Thrasher Magazine for images and specs of half pipes and then “just started building it.”
The two Hieberts “dissected ramps [they] saw” in magazines, recruited their friends who had built smaller ramps, and built their own ten-foot half pipe in their mom’s backyard. Momma Hiebert approved of the project wholly as a way to keep track of the two young skaters and their friends.
“Our mom only let us skate until 8 p.m.,” and skate they did, attracting friends and friends of friends from across the city to their pipe. It became a community project where skaters who used the pipe would help maintain it with fresh wood, there were even rumours that some of the skaters were raiding construction sites for wood so they could keep skating.
Safety is paramount with skateboarding, Hiebert himself hurt his knee on his ramp, an injury which he still lives with. Another friend, Blaire Watson, known in those days as the “Camrose Ramp Ripper,” got a nail up his ass on that pipe. Thus, Hiebert and Joleen Teske from the city have gone the extra mile to make it safe, all riders of the Folk Fest half pipe will need to bring their own helmet and board, and will also need adult supervision under the age of 16, and to sign a release form.
The pipe will live on the north side of the island during the fest, and even if you aren’t a skater, come cheer on the folks that are, and support an activity that does so much to centre the out of school lives of kids everywhere.
This year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival runs July 21-24 at Prince’s Island Park. Keep track of all our July issue’s coverage, as well as our forthcoming live reviews, using the tag Calgary Folk Music Festival 2016.AB, Alberta, Calgary Folk Music Festival, Calgary Folk Music Festival 2016, Calgary Folk Music Festival guide