Ask most Canadians about Calgary and the words ‘oil and gas’ usually follow. Other phrases like ‘cowboy town’ and ‘mini-America’ are almost as common and the annual Stampede is as extreme an example of this culture as you’re likely to find. Only a matter of days after the Stampede visitors have vacated the city, the Calgary Folk Music Festival, which celebrated its 30th birthday last summer, caters for a much more laid back audience. Fittingly, the six stage setting is on Prince’s Island Park – a small island in the Bow River which is flanked on the southern side by characteristically large buildings branded with logos of energy, engineering and telecommunications giants.
The festival holds only 12,000 people and the line-up may seem somewhat meagre considering the four-day schedule but this is a festival that gets impressive value out of each artist. Aside from the Main Stage at the western end, there are six smaller stages nestled around the park that host concerts and workshops. Virtually everyone on the line-up takes part in several these group workshops which inevitably go one of two ways. Some turn into enormous jam sessions with covers, experimentation and re-interpretations. Others are somewhat stifled by one or more of the acts not wanting to get mixed up in the wash and stick to a rigid round-robin format of performances. During the changeover of acts on the main stage, lesser known acts play short ‘tweener’ sets to distract the audience from roadies at work. The added opportunity to play to a large crowd galvanises some of these acts and several of them build a following that stays with them throughout the weekend. The more energetic acts also do a stint or two at the autograph stall and many play informal sets in the backstage catering tent to entertain volunteers and fellow artists.
With three-quarters of the festival capacity accounted for by 6pm on Thursday, the festival gets under way with a healthy helping of main stage acts. The first of many outings for the self-described ‘pop as f*ck’ indie of Library Voices is well received. After ten years, Stars are considered big fish in Canadian indie but their performance is lacklustre and while they go through all the dramatic motions you’d expect, it is missing the vigour of their live shows in the past. Amy Millan describes the crowd as a sandwich due to the large seated central area and the ‘dancing areas’ on either wing. A strong version of ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ closes the set well before headline act The Avett Brothers take to the stage. The group from North Carolina have much in common with Mumford & Sons in their approach to revitalised traditional music styles. Like their British counterparts, the Avett brothers and their band have found huge success in creating lively, stomping modern takes on old fashioned folk and bluegrass music. It is difficult not to be won over by their energy and they prove to be a perfect headline act.
As is now the case around the world, The Swell Season are greeted with impressive adoration here in Calgary. Their appearance in a workshop early on Friday draws a large crowd but Glen Hansard’s vain battle to engage with the other performers coupled with a noticeably distant Marketa Irglova results in a disappointing show. Hansard is further irritated during their main stage set that evening by the noise of the crowd while Marketa was singing. He tells them that it’s ‘bullshit’ and that they have to meet a performer halfway so that ‘something magical happens’. They take this somewhat literally and his invitation to come close causes a sizeable crowd to jump the front barrier resulting in the strange sight of a rather polite attempted stage invasion during ‘Falling Slowly’. Though the disruption of the organised seating arrangement disgruntles many in the crowd it isn’t long before the whole place is up gyrating to Michael Franti & Spearhead‘s brand of reggae-rock. The set is a mix of danceable sing-alongs like ‘Hello Bonjour’ and occasional acoustic tunes such as ‘I Got Love For You’ interspersed with messages of peace and love and one long trip deep into the crowd in the middle of a song. It can seem a little too saccharine at times, like when he ends his set with a host of children from the audience onstage singing along, but it’s a joyous high point in the weekend nonetheless.
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