Calgary Folk Music Festival Day Three Recap

By Jodi Brak, Willow Grier, Arielle Lessard, Ian Tennant

Photo: Michael Grondin

July 29, 2017


In some ways, Saturday is when the Calgary Folk Fest really begins in earnest. It’s when the fans and musicians come out in force, when the side stages fill up with crazy workshops mashing up bands from all over the world and the party rages practically from dawn till dusk. Saturday at the 2017 Folk Fest graced us with a truly beautiful day, temperatures in the 30s and not a rain cloud in sight. A cool breeze kept the heat bearable, thankfully, so it wasn’t too much of a chore bustling between all of the stages throughout the day. The range of acts this year was truly phenomenal, with everything from straight-up acoustic folk to rock, country, western, global dance tunes, indie electronic jams and instrumental blues workshops. The park was packed to the brim by the time 5:00 p.m. rolled around, with the gate tally hitting over 12,000 people at one point in the day. There was plenty of mellow tunes to lounge in the shade and listen to throughout the day, but in the evening the pace really picked up. Between a pair of up-tempo global dance bands, the foot stomping country of Dave and Phil Alvin, and the epic finale by Barenaked Ladies, the main stage crowd had plenty of music to move their feet to by the night’s end.

Ghostkeeper, Drum’Holla Stage, 10:30 a.m.

Photo: Jodi Brak

You knew you were about to face a completely distinct musical experience when Ghostkeeper launched its Saturday morning concert with a screeching sound like a slide guitar gone mad. Shane Ghostkeeper woke up a small but appreciative crowd as he passionately bent an electrified saw to his will while stroking it with a bow, eliciting a sound like no other. Ghostkeeper went on to introduce a mix of eclectic sounds and beats that left a listener bewildered by the echoes of a multitude of influences, strangely conjuring simultaneous notions of First Nations rhythms pounding their way through a Berlin disco. Almost overshadowing Shane, his partner Sarah Houle on vocals, synth and keyboards, Eric Hamelin on drums and Ryan Bourne on bass and other taped noises, was Vittal Ghostkeeper, a terrific wee dancer who expertly channeled his Mom and Dad’s collection of beats. Shane Ghostkeeper introduced “EEE,” a tune he named “after my favourite Métis expression in Northern Alberta” and what followed was another tour de force, a staccato beat setting a base for Shane’s soaring guitar and a sonic slap upside the head — the best way to start a day. (IT)

Optimistically Cautious (Workshop), Rigstar Stage, 10:30 a.m.

Photo: Jodi Brak

This workshop should have been held in a coffee shop on a rainy April afternoon as the last remnants of winter seem to refuse to willingly transition to spring. Lounging in the (much needed) shade at the Rigstar stage, listeners were treated to the mellow sounds of Leif Vollebekk, John K. Samson, Jason Collett and Helena Deland. The running theme with this workshop seemed to be slow songs on the verge of being happy but afraid to put a foot across that line for fear of what might lie on the other side. A very relaxed workshop that had many people simply lying in the grass and mulling over existential questions in their minds. (JB)

The Bones of JR Jones, Rigstar Stage, 11:55 a.m.

Photo: Jodi Brak

Before he took the stage at one of the workshops on Saturday, somebody said “now this guy is going to play what all five of us just played, by himself.” They weren’t exactly wrong, either. The Bones of JR Jones is a one man folk / bluegrass project out of New York City, and it’s pretty easy to see what all the buzz is about once you watch him perform. Some of his songs are a slow burn, mellow southern folk style ballads with lightly plucked chords and melodies. In others, his body is literally flailing as he solos on the harmonica around his neck, strums out a furious rhythm on an acoustic guitar or banjo, and somehow keeps it all on beat with both feet using a kick drum and a hi-hat cymbal. Definitely an act to watch for if you are a fan of southern folk or bluegrass music. (JB)

The Dustbowl Revival, National Stage, 12:50 p.m. 

Photo: Jodi Brak

This was one for the dancers. The Dustbowl Revival took the National Stage just as the day was heating up on Saturday at Folk Fest, and the sounds of their horns could be heard clear across the park. They almost have a big band sort of sound, with trumpet and trombone piping up in unison during instrumental breaks and climaxes in their songs. They have a very up-tempo feel to their music and their tunes didn’t slow down too much. The energy was always high and the dancers never really stopped except to take a break in the shade for a few minutes between songs. (JB)

Heart of Darkness (workshop), National Stage, 1:50 p.m.

Photo: Jodi Brak

Leif Vollebekk, Ghostkeeper, The Bones of JR Jones and Forbidden Dimension? Talk about a genre mashup! You had singer-songwriter, post-rock electronica, southern folk and horrorcore all on the same stage trying to make all these opposing sounds fit together. They pulled it off in style, making this one of the more unique workshops in terms of how different these groups sound together as opposed to by themselves. Each group had to compromise a little bit of their own sound, but in the process a little bit of something new was added. The theme of the workshop was songs about the darker parts of life, our anxieties and feelings that keep us down, and somehow they managed to accomplish this without really being depressing. Rather, they created a more inspiring sound that was less about giving in to the Heart of Darkness than it was about rising out of it. (JB)

AM Static, Drum’Holla Stage, 3:15 p.m. 

Photo: Jodi Brak

Another set that was a welcome break from many of the other sun-baked side stages, AM Static played in the shade of the Drum’holla stage on Saturday afternoon to a fairly packed crowd. It was obvious many fans were in attendance as requests were shouted at the band from the audience. AM Static rarely plays live shows, so a lot of people seemed to jump at the chance. They are hot off the release of their latest album, Rise and Shine, and they showcased a lot of those songs at Folk Fest. They play mostly chill indie-rock style tunes supported by the synth and keyboard wizardry of Nils Mikkelsen and Chris Austman, the primary members of the group. Thankfully they were in a quiet corner of the festival grounds, leaving their subtle melodies undisturbed by the raucous guitar playing going on across the park. (JB)

Detours Off Route 66 Workshop, Drum’Holla Stage, 4:20 p.m.

Photo: Jodi Brak

Musical joy ensues when top-notch talent gathers on one stage under the mash-up title of “Detours off Route 66.” Hosted by baritone singer/songwriter Sean Rowe, the stage groaned under the weight of heavy hitters Dave and Phil Alvin, The Iguanas and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton + Meredith Axelrod. It was a mutual admiration society as the artists joked around, played seamlessly through sound glitches and traded songs reflecting decades of American blues and country. Dave Alvin and Rod Hodges from The Iguanas traded guitar leads, Paxton chipped in some tasteful fiddle and Rowe kept the groove going with an unexpected bluesy version of “Luckenbach, Texas” made famous by Waylon Jennings. At one point Axelrod soloed with just her voice mimicking a trumpet, sparking giant grins among the gang on stage. “Whatever that is,” Rowe enthused, “that’s awesome.” The hour-long set on a hot day was also awesome. (IT)

Parsonsfield, Rigstar Stage, 4:45 p.m. 

Photo: Jodi Brak

Punk rock meets Nashville? That’s as close as it gets to describing the sound of Parsonsfield without simply resorting to excited blabbering about how much energy these guys added to the Calgary Folk Fest. Picture a man doing a punk-rock jump while furiously strumming a banjo as another does a knee slide in to a guitar solo, all while the remaining band members shout out the final refrain to a chorus about how life should be lived to the fullest, sorrows be damned. The energy in their performance was visceral, sweat literally flying off their hands and faces as they jumped around the stage delivering their fast and furious southern rock style ballads. If that doesn’t already sound cool enough for you, they just released an album that was recorded in an abandoned axe factory. Definitely an act to see if you are not afraid to hop into a mosh pit. (JB)

Betty Bonifassi, National Stage, 6:15 p.m.
Betty Bonifassi put on a meaningful, integrative show with an attention to detail that shined hard. Having paid close attention to slang, accent and pronunciation in her most recent work, she brought this with fire to the stage. She’s a master at filling her voice with intonation and passion, matched only by her personality’s vivaciousness. She dug in her heels and drove the resiliency of slave songs forward with a tincture of electro and rock solos. Her contralto could be heard all the way to the fence, where people lined in the shade to hear her set. A breath in from her alone set a strong tone – stirring, on her breaths out, strings of dancers. (AL)

Tanya Tagaq, National Stage, 7:35 p.m.
Meanwhile at the National Stage, Tanya Tagaq’s spectral cries had goosebumps shivering up backs and necks. Her throat singing was a striking and strange juxtaposition with the warm summer day, as it seemed to conjure the spectral plane, ancient spirits, aurora borealis, and every dark and beautiful thing. The slow, droning build of her accompanying band offset her ghostly cries and created a silken nest for the performance to awaken and awe the crowd. (WG)

John K. Samson & The Winter Wheat, Main Stage, 7:40 p.m. 

Photo: Jodi Brak

Where would Canadian music be without those cynical souls with a razor wit who seem to be able to capture the essence of the day’s problems into a verse that is at once humorous, strikingly honest and cuts like a knife? John K. Samson & The Winter Wheat carries on that proud tradition, writing songs that simultaneously make you laugh while also questioning the reasons you keep falling into the same old traps life sets for you over and over again. The music is generally of the mellow singer-songwriter variety, but where it really shines is in its lyricism. Tunes which on the surface are about Soviet defectors in the Cold War or about how much Winnipeg sucks are all really just vehicles for John K. Samson’s stark poetry. His lyrics bring to mind the sarcastic wit of The Front Bottoms or AJJ, and in a way he sort of emulates that style of acoustic punk, but with much more of a Canadian singer-songwriter spin on it. (JB)

Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin & the Guilty Ones, Main Stage, 8:55 p.m.

Photo: Jodi Brak

Dave Alvin, Phil Alvin and The Guilty Ones had this tired camper at hello. The crowd gathered before the Main Stage appeared to need a jolt after a long, hot day. The Alvins and their crackerjack band delivered in spades. Backed by the incomparable Lisa Pankratz on drums, Canadian Brad Fordham on bass and Chris “All killer, no filler” Miller on the telecaster, the Alvins cruised through Big Bill Broonzy covers and hits from the brothers’ days as The Blasters like “Border Radio,” “Jubilee Train” and “Marie, Marie” – an absolute rocker of a closer that brought the tarpists to their feet. While it seemed concerning that Phil, who nearly died in 2012, stood still throughout the entire set, he nonetheless delivered crisp, strong vocals and sweet harmonica on time and with punch, especially on a cover of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” That sent chills up and down the spine. A tight and epic version of Dave Alvin’s solo effort “Dry River” also hit the sweet spot, showing once again that a sure-fire way to get a Folk Fest crowd jumping is to unleash roots rockers extraordinaire like the Alvin brothers and The Guilty Ones. (IT)

BADBADNOTGOOD, National Stage, 9:05 p.m.

Photo: Michael Grondin

Another addition to the splendid day of weirdness was BBNG with their frantic, sometimes anxiety-inducing jazzy sound flourishing with room to breathe on the airy outdoor stage. Saturday’s lineup at the National Stage seemed to make more evidence for the argument that perhaps the headliners have outgrown the smaller stage, with the crowds piling in and begging for more, jamming into the smaller space to catch a glimpse. With the crowd dancing to every one of the multiple tangible rhythms and time signatures, it was a frenzy of writhing bodies and enthusiasm, despite the cramped space. (WG)

Barenaked Ladies, Main Stage, 10:20 p.m. 

Photo: Jodi Brak

What Canadian doesn’t have a fond memory of the Barenaked Ladies’ music? Whether you heard them on the radio, in a film soundtrack, on Much Music or at a folk festival before they were a household name, odds are if you grew up in Canada you have at least one favorite Barenaked Ladies song. They write fun music with a slight political twist, they don’t get preachy in their songs and they seem to have no presumptions about being too cool to goof off. As they walked out onto the stage somebody said ‘I hope they play some of their hits,’ and it was answered by “dude, ALL of their songs are hits!” That pretty much sums it up right there. I heard it over and over across the weekend, people saying “you know, I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore Barenaked Ladies fan but I can’t believe how excited I am to see them.” Then the moment came, and it was glorious. The smiles on both sides of the stage were unreal, the energy was palpable. They started the intro to “The Old Apartment” and the crowd went wild, memories of listening to that song while moving out of my first apartment flashed through my mind immediately. They moved through a set that was part greatest-hits and part a showcase of their new material without missing a beat, still just as fun and lighthearted as they were over two decades ago. (JB)

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