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Calgary Folk Fest 2013: Day 1

Camera? Check. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Phone? Check. Snazzy new business cards? Aaand check.

I was fully prepared.. At least on the outside, as I frantically packed all my things into my camera case and scuttled out the door. I was already running thirty minutes behind schedule and-..

Wait.. Notepad.. Notepad? Ah shit.

I could hardly finish a thought without forgetting what I was thinking. I scrambled back up the staircase and fidgeted with my keys as my brain flashed the location of my notepad. I snagged it off the bar and was halfway out the door once more when I thought, “What of my nutrition? Do I have the appropriate amount of vitamins and fluids necessary to make it through the Folk Fest without collapse..?” I hurriedly grabbed a quart of almond milk and began to refuel. Much to my dismay, in my reckless haste, I managed to wear a few sips on my dress shirt.

“Jesus Murphy..”

Eventually I made it to the train station in a new set of clothes, although the trip itself was fraught with near disaster and embarrassment. After attempting to unlock my car with my house key, I nearly struck a child on a bicycle. Killing a ten year old would have certainly derailed my plans, I thought, I sheepishly waved apologetically and cursed under pursed lips.

Funding for music college, anything is greatly appreciated

I snagged my ticket and dropped a few extra dollars in to the violin case. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old, flanked by his parents playing other string instruments I failed to recognize. Surely after ten years of train station serenades he would have enough money to send us all to music college, and he certainly had time on his side. My brief charitable donation would be my demise shortly thereafter when I wound up chasing after the departing train with one arm outstretched. This day was really making a valiant attempt at ruining itself, I thought.

With only a vague idea where I was supposed to go, I spied a young couple with lawn chairs headed north. Lawn chairs aren’t a mainstay in a towering metropolis, so I knew they were a safe bet. The sound of music echoed off the tall skyscrapers and I began my trek to the island. The scene was all ages and all walks of life. Hippies glared at scalpers while metropolitan young parents hoisted their stylish children onto their shoulders.

“Come on, we’ve gotta go see the Alabama Shakes..!” a stalwart and square-jawed man beckoned to his young son,
“Are the Beatles going to be there?” wide-eyed, he reached for his father’s hand,
“No, the Beatles won’t be there..” he gave me a crooked smile as I passed, hardly containing a chuckle.

I had very little instruction on how to obtain my press pass, and I assumed a brief visit to the Will Call desk would give me the answers. Unfortunately, the desk girls informed me I’d have to backtrack to the other side of the island. Even so, they were uncertain as to where I should go from there. After a ten minute jaunt I approached a group of festival security volunteers and quickly found myself being ushered to the makeshift media area.

“So what kind of access does this pass give us?” said a man from Where magazine, he had calm eyes and an air of modest wisdom.
“Oh.. well you can pretty much go everywhere. Except the artists lounge which is just for artists.. but other than that you can go anywhere!” the woman seemed somewhat put-off by the question, and I could tell by her demeanor that she was withholding some information from us.

Once I grabbed my pass and made a quick adjustment to the misspelling of my name, I wandered off into the festival grounds with little sense of direction. At the main stage, a Caribbean fusion band was pounding away on drums and muted guitars. The scene was drastically different from what I’d experienced. Only a few months prior I was neck-deep in a drug- and alcohol-infused crowd of twenty-somethings at Sasquatch. Calgary Folk Fest was a completely different vibe; Hundreds and hundreds of people lined the grass in front of the main stage, but they weren’t jostling for position. The ground was covered with multicolored tarps and a rainbow of lawn chairs. People sat, people stood, people reached for snacks and made funny faces at their children. It was a soothing scene, more akin to a backyard get-together than a music festival. The focus remained on fun, and everybody was invited.

I meandered over to the food area and recognized a lot of local favorites. The Ship and Anchor Pub, Calgary’s most popular bar, had a food tent set up, along with a handful of local staples. Food trucks had gained widespread popularity since local superhero and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi slashed bureaucratic red-tape and restrictions on mobile food sales, and the line-ups were large as they doled out falafels and burgers. The festival grounds were smartly dotted with H20 refueling stations which were only one of many initiatives taken towards a healthy and environmentally friendly experience. “Plate refund” tents offered money back on returned Styrofoam plates while hundreds of volunteers picked up garbage and recyclables. It was nigh impossible to avoid recycling bins for all sorts of materials, and I was quite impressed with the green and eco-friendly atmosphere.

On the smaller stage, Toronto folk-rock troubadour Samantha Martin belted her heart out to a crowd of awe-inspired onlookers. Her music was passionate and truly Canadian, and I sat in the grass to drink in her eclectic mix of rural rock and rootsy folk power-ballads. Martin had Alberta written all over; her raspy voice and whiskey references with her small-town-girl face and a heavy pair of cowboy boots. Last year she released her first album as Samantha Martin and the Haggard, and onstage she was flanked by a pair of backing vocalists and a single acoustic guitar player.

All the talk of whiskey got me thirsty, and I scanned my map for the beer tent. Only a two-minute walk later and I was face to face with one of the longest lines I’d ever seen. Over a hundred eager and thirsty festival-goers braved an hour’s wait for some of Calgary’s finest. Big Rock, the city’s largest local brewery (and a personal favorite of mine) were a sponsor of the Folk Fest and had set up a gargantuan beer gardens for its cotton-mouthed attendees . The Calgary Stampede, an annual rodeo, grandstand and mega-midway show had only ended a few weeks prior, and despite over 100,000 attendees per day at the Stampede, Big Rock’s beer gardens dwarfed the hilariously small Budweiser equivalent by 20 to 1. However, the lineup was unbearable and I elected to search elsewhere for bubbly alcoholic refreshments.

“What’s so special about this place?” I gave the doorwoman a quizzical look.
“This is the artists lounge. They serve beer and food and generally have a good time”
“Does my thing work for here?” I gestured to the pass hanging around my neck, even though I already knew the answer. She flipped the press pass over, and pointed to an empty space where a special sticker was missing.
“No, unfortunately it does not.”
I frowned and slumped away while the other guard at the gate spoke of artist-only waterslides and bouncy castles, as well as other fantastical make-believe falsities. The woman’s voice from the press tent earlier echoed in my head .. you can go pretty much everywhere, Yeah.. everywhere. Which was a roundabout way of saying nowhere special. I decided to wander over to the side-stage and catch the next act, Hayes Carll.

I sat on the grass with a hundred others and soaked in the Houston native’s somber jams. It was one of the more relaxing moments of the festival, surrounded by people of all ages and stripes swaying back and forth slowly to Carll’s guitar. It was a very tranquil experience highlighted by some fantastic tunes.

M. Ward was next on the docket at that main stage, and I knew very little about him other than the fact that he was buddy-buddy with Zooey Deschanel. Ward was one half of the band “She & Him” which often bobbed to the surface of the blogosphere, however I wasn’t particularly fond of their sound. I was too late to snag any ‘up-close and personal’ shots in the press pit, which didn’t irk me much considering I felt it dishonest to use my pass to snag photos of an artist I didn’t even know. So I perched myself to the left of the stage in the dance area, and proceeded to be very entertained.

I remember bouncing around the internet and reading an article once about how M. Ward didn’t like touring and live shows. If this was the case, it certainly wasn’t very evident as he ran rampant on his classic Johnny A. Gibson. His style was hard to pin down; it was as if Mark Ruffalo was channeling B.B King and Johnny Cash, and he had the cool confidence and wisdom of a seasoned guitar wizard.

“You, in the yellow, you look like you’ve had quite a few.. quite a few beers today.. What’s your name?” Ward gestured to a young girl seething with inebriated exuberance. “Jolene? Joe… Joey? Joey. Well Joey, I think you got about a half an hour left in you and that’s it.” She was briefly insulted, but her face was awash with the excitement of becoming the center of attention. Joey shouted at him that she’d last three more hours, and he chuckled as he strummed the next few cords to lead his band into the rest of the set.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/M-Ward-Post-War.mp3|titles=M Ward – Post-War]
M. Ward – Post-War

The Calgary Folk Fest had a unique way of killing time between set-ups. As stage-hands frantically disassembled and reassembled speakers and amplifiers, the MC’s would entertain the crowd with cheesy family friendly jokes and commentary. However, instead of drawing out their welcome, they would bring up other acts from the smaller stages and have them play acoustic. Samantha and the Haggard played stage-left only a few hours after their previous set. It was a brilliant way to introduce the entire Folk Fest audience to the talent, as well as keep us all entertained during the set-ups. I weaved my way out of the harmless crowd and headed backstage toward the press pit entrance, eagerly awaiting the next act.

I first heard the Alabama Shakes nearly six months before their debut album blew the world away. I was only a fringe fan of the blues at the time, lightly listening to Son House and often spouting monologues about how The Black Keys ‘used to be so much better when they played blues‘. I heard “You Ain’t Alone” at a very awkward time in my life, when I was caught between two women and struggling with university. That December I recall crying a few times, something men don’t often admit, and the Shakes power-ballad struck the right chord in my heart. Since then, I’d been an avid fan and could hardly believe my fortune of watching them play only a few feet in front of me.

“You get the first three songs. No recording, only stills. When we wave you off, come off, but we aren’t going to haul you away. If you need thirty more seconds, we don’t mind”

The staff at the Folk Fest were the friendliest batch of people. A mix-match of twenty- to fifty-somethings all ready to slap you with a wise-crack at the drop of the hat. They were generally quite pleasant, in stark contrast with the press. Local magazines and newspapers had hired surly youth to snap photos with their expensive telephoto lenses, and I got the impression that neither the editors nor the press they hired gave any shits about the music. It was all a job, in some cases an unpaid job for experience, and enthusiasm seemed hard to come by. I felt more like a fan who happened to have a badge and an assignment rather than a member of the press, which unfortunately meant that after three songs I’d be forced to head to the back of the crowd and enjoy the rest of the show from a distance.

Our escort emerged from a sea of photographers and ushered us down the railing to the pit. My heart was pounding. I remember watching the press at Sasquatch, jockeying for position, taking upwards to a hundred photos desperate for the shot that would grace the front page on whatever news source paid their bills. I thought to myself, do as they do and you’ll be fine, and we lined up single file to kneel on the grass with cameras cocked and nerves on high alert.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Alabama-Shakes-Hold-On.mp3|titles=Alabama Shakes – Hold On]
Alabama Shakes – Hold On

It was organized chaos. There were unwritten rules I immediately picked up on: Absolutely no standing, only varying degrees of crouching and leaning were permitted. This also applied to moving positions, only crab-walks and hunched jogging allowed. You may also only spend a small amount of time getting close-ups and nuzzling up to the stage, anything past thirty seconds was seen as offensive to the rest of the press. And above all, it seemed, absolutely no enjoying yourself or applauding. The latter rule I flagrantly defied. I sang along, I danced while I snapped pictures, and I clapped raucously with the rest of the crowd when a song came to a close.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Alabama-Shakes-Always-Alright.mp3|titles=Alabama Shakes – Always Alright]
Alabama Shakes – Always Alright

I took about a hundred pictures, but I was there for the music, and the Alabama Shakes blew everyone away. Once I felt satisfied, I sat in the grass at the back of the press pit and just enjoyed the music. Lead singer Brittany Howard had the lung-capacity of an Olympic swimmer, and she howled and crooned over every note possible. She sang high, she sang low, she shrieked and she serenaded. Never had I seen such a wide vocal range completely mastered, and every moment was full of soul and power.

Once we were waved out, I found a great viewing spot behind a gate a few rows back from the front.

“I don’t often like to talk about the meaning of my songs..” Howard spoke with a strong Alabama-twang, “.. but this is a sad song.. about a boy. We were best friends growin’ up, until the point when som’body tol’ us we were too old to be friends anymore.. an’ I think that’s bullshit.”

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/08-Alabama-Shakes-Boys-Girls.mp3|titles=Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls]
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

Just as she belted out the first few words, the clouds opened up and began to weep. It was a very surreal and poetic experience, albeit I was ill-prepared for rain. As the set continued, huge lightning bolts crashed above nearby downtown. And the crowd ‘ooooh’d’ and ‘ahhh’d’ at the magnificent power of the light show in combination with the magnificent power of the Alabama Shakes.
“One more song! One more song! One more song!”

It was sort of an obligatory chant since we all knew they weren’t finished, and every headliner got an encore. I enthusiastically yelled and chanted with the crowd, and at the exact moment the Shakes took back to the stage, the sky let out its own thunderous round of applause.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Alabama-Shakes-–-You-Ain’t-Alone.mp3|titles=Alabama Shakes – You Ain’t Alone]
Alabama Shakes – You Ain’t Alone

My soul was ablaze as I walked crosstown to the nearest train station. The first day was an absolute rollercoaster, and I hadn’t even reached the peak. A blood-red sunset peaked over the Peace Bridge, and I could hardly wait for dawn.

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