By Mike Dunn
CALGARY — It’s year two of Calgary Folk Fest’s winter music extravaganza, Block Heater. A three-day music festival, Block Heater takes the daytime workshop and evening concert format of the staple summer festival, and brings it to four venues throughout Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood of Inglewood. Calgary Folk Fest’s own Festival Hall is the hub for the weekend, but it’s only a quick walk over to the historic Lantern Church for the headlining performances. Ironwood Stage and Grill serves as a comfortable spot to roost and enjoy both food and beverage during a show, and this year’s addition of the Alexandra Dance Hall brings rootsy magic to a non-traditional music space.
As the organizers of Calgary Folk Fest prepare to host the sophomore edition of Block Heater, they are taking special attention to ensure a little more diversity in this year’s lineup, both in genre and culture. “Last year was mainly roots and indie rock, right up the middle,” artistic director Kerry Clarke tells BeatRoute from their office above Festival Hall. “This year, it’s a little more diverse. We have the indigenous showcase, and another showcase that’s more of a world music focus, with some reggae, calypso, and funk. It’s a little more reflective of the summer festival, from an eclectic standpoint.
“I think it’s a strength of both the [Calgary] Folk Festival and Block Heater,” marketing manager Matt Olah attests. “A lot of folk festivals tend to lean toward the traditional. We’re programming really diverse lineups, with something for everyone, so you can see your favourite roots or indie rock acts, and you get to experience a completely different style like [electronic], or afro-cuban styles, or modern and traditional indigenous music.”
The indigenous showcase features four diverse aboriginal acts from across the country, including DJ Shub, one of the founding members of A Tribe Called Red; Winnipeg-born isKwé, who melds trip hop, R&B, and electronic music with political lyrics, treatises on reconciliation and peace; Anishinaabe singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner, who brings stories, life lessons, and philosophies to life with a fusion of the classic roots styles with free-flowing rap interludes; and Eya-Hey Nakoda, the award-winning, intergenerational Stoney Nakoda powwow group primarily based on Morley’s Stoney Reserve, who recently collaborated on the Making Treaty 7 project with other musicians, artists, and actors.
“This is critical music and culture,” says Clarke, of presenting indigenous music, “It’s a celebration for people from a number of different indigenous nations, and it’s something that many of us have maybe overlooked. These are the founding peoples, and these artists should always be included in festival programming. Placing a focus on this music is a celebration of their culture, and of the excellent music being created in the form.”
As with the summer festival, in the knowledge that folk and roots music has always taken it upon itself to address larger social issues, Clarke mentions that the festival encourages artists to share their views on the contemporary moment or of narratives of historical import, if that’s what artists feel the times require: “Whether it’s Steve Earle and his feelings on the death penalty, which he feels very strongly about, or the political messages behind DJ Shub’s music, lyrics are really important to us at the [Calgary] Folk Festival, it’s the core of what we do, so I think it’s important for our artists to feel comfortable sharing that, and never feel like they have to hide it. What’s really interesting is that now you have artists like Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red, who are clearly indigenous, they’re incorporating traditional sounds like throat singing or drumming, or visual styles, and they’re reaching a mainstream audience but they’re making it their own sound.”
The festival has added a few more regional, national, and international artists for this edition, with Australian alt-country wildman Henry Wagons, Toronto folk-rockers NQ Arbuckle, Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, and Vancouver provocateur C.R. Avery all making the trip to Calgary to play the various venues around Inglewood.
“We’re not saying ‘You have to stick it to the man’ out there,” adds Olah, “but the artists know they have the freedom to present their work and say what they feel.”
Block Heater’s lineup this year also features a number of veteran and emerging local acts, once again an indication of Folk Fest’s dedication to promoting the local music community. Ranging from the soulful strains of Dojo Workhorse, to the ambient eclecticism of Evan Freeman, and including a diverse array of local and regional acts including the indie rock of Scenic Route To Alaska from Edmonton; Calgary’s dark-folk breakouts Reuben and The Dark, the retro pop soul of The Torchettes; and emerging soulful country acts JJ Shiplett; Sykamore, and Mariel Buckley; Block Heater is ensuring that local musicians get a well-earned opportunity to play alongside some of the best and most eclectic roots acts around.
“We counted yesterday,” mentions Olah, “and half of the artists on the bill are Albertans, and we feel that does a lot for the local scene.”
“There are artists we think are making interesting music and fit with the eclectic nature of the festival,” says Clarke. “We like to share the love with the local artists, whether through Block Heater, the summer festival, or with our concert series at Festival Hall. It’s important to us, in a way we’re bringing the world to them, whereas if they tour they have to bring themselves to the world. So by having them be part of the collaborative sessions, or have someone like Mariel [Buckley] open for Hayes [Carll] is quite a tip of the hat to the work they’ve done, you know? Like, “This is where we think you should be, and these are the people we think should see you.’”
Block Heater takes place at Festival Hall, the Lantern Church, the Alexandra Dance Centre and the Ironwood, February 10th to 12th.AB, Alberta, Block Heater, Block Heater 2017