By Mike Dunn
CALGARY – During summer, you’re a little more prepared. Even after months of promo, it kind of felt like Block Heater, Calgary Folk Fest’s second annual winter music festival, snuck up on us. At 4PM on Friday, February 10, it dawned on us. “Holy shit, today is the day.”
Friday, February 10
Kicking off the festival at the Lantern, local singer-songwriter Evan Freeman brought his most recent album Luna to life, with soaring vocals reminiscent of Jim James, backed tastefully with the pleasant harmonies and atmospheric guitar tones of guitarist Darren Young. It’s a testament to Freeman and Young’s professionalism that they played with such strength in the face of the recent, tragic passing of bandmate Adam Van Wielingen.
Over at Festival Hall, Block Heater presented the Indigenous Showcase, beginning with the traditional drumming of Eya-Hey Nakoda, who were accompanied by some of the world’s best traditional dancers, resplendent in traditional dancing gowns. While their presentation of the music was warm and friendly, there was a palpable intensity that took over once they began playing, which only ratcheted up throughout the evening. Toronto-based artist isKwé was a tour-de- force, with heavy dance beats punctuated by synth and violin, as explosive in her more driving moments as it was subtle and expressive in her more tender passages. Leonard Sumner, from Little Saskatchewan, Manitoba, displayed striking honesty in his sincere and heavy solo performance, unflinching in his melodic and lyrical assessment of the experience of getting through life in one of the hardest places in Canada to live. The solo acoustic vibe of Sumner’s set was a marked contrast from isKwé’s volume, and the juxtaposition of styles worked like a charm to set up the evening’s closer, DJ Shub of A Tribe Called Red, who stepped up to drop huge drum and bass beats mixed with the intensity of traditional singing. Next, at the Alexandra Dance Hall, local roots-rocker JJ Shiplett and his road-wizened band took to the stage, playing hopeful, anthemic tunes from Shiplett’s recent full-length Something To Believe In. The title cut made the rounds throughout the weekend, tones of Springsteen in its refrain, notably between sets outside Festival Hall, with Shiplett & Co. inviting the crowd to get with them, on a crisp, full-moon prairie night, that audience happily obliging. Meanwhile at The Lantern, Calgary indie-rockers Reuben & The Dark played two sold-out sets in a row, to an overjoyed crowd.
Walking into a church to hear tones recalling The War On Drugs was a pleasant surprise, and the backdrop suited frontman Reuben Bullock’s theatrical style, while harmonies and chiming instrumentation bounced through the room awash in reverb both natural and developed.
The Ironwood played a fitting host to a raucous closing set by Toronto roots-rock veterans NQ Arbuckle. Frontman Neville Quinlan’s assertion that “our crowds tend to be good drinkers” was accurate, and their energetic sound is as well-suited to the intimate confines of a barroom as it is to the late-night lights of an outdoor stage. It was also a testament to the community engagement of Calgary Folk Fest that The Ironwood could provide a welcoming and inclusive environment where our elected provincial ministers could feel comfortable and enjoy themselves for a rare night out on the town together, a cabinet-level dance party breaking out at stage left.
Saturday, February 11
NQ Arbuckle’s Quinlan’s ability to get a decent night’s sleep despite Friday night’s rowdiness was on full display Saturday afternoon, as he joined provocative Vancouver poet C.R. Avery and Edmonton folk-rockers Scenic Route to Alaska for the Avant Bards workshop on the Festival Hall stage. Quinlan took a well-earned breather between songs by sitting happily on stage, while Avery, ever the topical raconteur, was backed with subtlety by SRTA as he waxed mightily on what possible reactions Bob Dylan might have had to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, having lived through the golden years of censorship which hastened the demise of satirist Lenny Bruce, and were given unique emphasis by the work of comedian George Carlin. Avery has always been one of Canada’s most lyrically fearless performers, and his well-regarded ability to discomfit was most welcome with a morning coffee.
A quick walk down the street found a near-capacity Alexandra Dance Hall for the Country Club session, featuring Texas songwriter Hayes Carll, local country chanteuse Sykamore, Saskatchewan old-time revivalists The Dead South, and hosted with confident-yet- self-deprecating style by Calgary singer-songwriter Mariel Buckley. Sykamore was subtle and restrained, note-perfect on her melodic songs of longing. While there are few performers who can set up a song as well as Carll, Buckley made the stage her own with a well-timed withdrawal from the mic, which only enhanced the heft in final refrain her last number, “Driving in The Dark.”
Seeing Carll and Buckley on stage together during the afternoon was merely a prelude to their back-to- back concert sets at The Lantern later that evening. Buckley took the stage solo for a couple of numbers, before calling up her Jealous Hearts, vocalist Jessica Marsh and guitarist Keane Eng. Marsh’s harmonies were a studied, brassy compliment to Buckley’s lower register sensitivity, and Eng’s guitar work is particularly fitting on darker numbers like “Motorhome.” Buckley is coming into her own as a bandleader, with a measured steadiness on stage that belies her years, which sits as a welcome addition to her charming, say-what- I-want disposition with the microphone.
Carll’s songwriting and storytelling chops were on full display at The Lantern, distinct in his ability to avoid theatricality and to show the work as a damn good craftsman. The reaction to Carll’s intros, and the ovations from the crowd proved that he’s still a popular as ever around here, after songs like the good-time barroom poetry of “Hard Out Here,” the beautiful small-town love song “Beaumont,” and “KMAG YOYO,” a high-paced humorous trip into space while still managing an indictment of the use of poor young people to fight the wars that darker forces embroil them in. Carll was joined on stage for a duet with Alberta country-hero Corb Lund, for their co-write from Lund’s Cabin Fever album, “Bible On The Dash.” The irony of a Bible as musician’s border security wasn’t lost on Lund, who quipped, “we might have to build a northern border wall.”
The late show at The Ironwood featured Australian country troubadour Henry Wagons, whose table dancing mania was on full display, as wild and reckless in his guise as a singer-songwriter as he’s been on other recent trips to the city with his band. Wagons has made some excellent alt-country records, but there’s a Guy Terrifico element to him as a performer, a measure of escapist lunacy that’s entertaining, but the question that always accompanies the Terrifico comparison is, “Is this serious, or is this taking the piss out of the style?”
Festival Sundays are the “we made it” day, with the schedule wrapping up between The Ironwood and Festival Hall. Beginning at the former, with the Dark End of the Street session, with confessional singer-songwriter Kris Ellestad, the piano-driven rock of The Northwest Passage, Calgary indie-rockers SAVK, and Montréal’s Mélisande, whose bouncing mix of grooving dance music with traditional acoustic Québecois tones was a pleasant driving force in the collaborative session. The Ironwood’s programming for the day concluded with the Mondo Mundo session, featuring the grooving calypso and reggae of Trinidadian-Canadians Kobo Town, philosophical reggae singer-songwriter Taj Weeks & Adowa, along with the esoteric hip-hop of Calgary’s Sargeant & Comrade, the groups’ frequent collaborations taking off when the rhythm sections settled into deep grooves, pulsing the floor of the old theatre with heavy urban beats punctuated by tropical percussion and blasts of jazzy saxophone.
Festival Hall was buzzing first thing, with All The Rebel Rockers, JJ Shiplett joining the venerable Dojo Workhorse, The Torchettes, and Henry Wagons, bringing both their original work, and a number of well-received cover tunes to pay a bit of tribute to the artists who influenced them. Shiplett kicked off the round of covers with the immediately identifiable strains of The Tragically Hip’s “Grace, Too,” perfectly-timed for the afternoon crowd. The Torchettes stoked the fires with a powerhouse rendition of Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic soul classic “Chain Of Fools,” before the Dojo Workhorse boys brought the house down with a beautiful, spacey, and heartfelt reading of Bob Dylan & The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” while Wagons once again threw caution to the wind, running into the crowd on his jammy number “Willie Nelson.” Dojo Workhorse brought the festival to a close at Festival Hall with their spacey soul vibes, dropping killer cuts from Civil Shepherds and Come To Your Senseis, once again showing why they’re one of the goodwill musical ambassadors of the Calgary underground.
If altruistic people seem eager of late to ascribe a deeper meaning to entertainment throughout the most trying of times, there’s good reason for it. The unrelenting barrage of information today makes events like Block Heater special, where we can get together and enjoy each other’s company, meet new friends, or by some coincidental miracle, run straight into old pals you haven’t seen in ages. It gives us a chance to break away from the usual brunch-and- check-our-phones routine; to be entertained, or enlightened, and in the rarest cases, emboldened from what an artist shared with us. If their perspective made us laugh, or tear up, or even feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, then that’s to our benefit, because we’re still at liberty to feel however we want to, and say it out loud as well.