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Calgary Folk Fest: Day 3

A bandana sporting youth rubbed his girlfriends hands within his own while a man behind me was mindfully deep within a tantric yoga spirit journey. It was Day 3 of the Calgary Folk Fest and I was standing just offside the main path scribbling into my notepad. For the first time of the festival, I was under very strong herbal influence of combustable plants, and as a result my eyes were exceptionally wider than usual. I must look like a fucking lunatic, standing alone and hastily fiddling with a pen and notepad, what must these passers-by think? Was it obvious to them I was recording their behavior? This is all a trap, I thought, and the urge to keep moving suddenly grabbed hold of my legs. I walked by a beleaguered brunette with tribal face paint just as she waved her hand over her face in disgust from the gasoline fumes of a passing security cart.

“Let’s wait here for a minute” she gestured to her male companion with a chuckle and a raised brow. Her eyes said more. “..good lord, I can’t possibly walk behind this pollution, these other beings sure are strange for not feeling the same way I do

She had reached a whole new level of environmentalism. Ultravironmentalist. Her lungs would dare not tolerate the injustices of gasoline engines, even on the smallest scale imaginable, a lowly golf cart. I was immediately struck with wonder and amusement. How did she manage to avoid the constant slew of vehicles and skyscrapers one must weave through to get to the festival? Surely, she must have emerged from a hobbit hole located somewhere on Prince’s Island.


The Hula craze expanded over the weekend. Note our friendly hula-man from the day prior in the back right

There were characters of all sorts, and for a chronic people-watcher my senses were constantly on overlord due to the visual entertainment. The press were an odd bunch, certainly. A rag-tag group of perpetual loners, all of them working for FFWD magazine and relatively uninterested in prolonged human contact. We were, of course, competition with one another, but only by some distant invisible string that none of us understood. If somebody looks at your webpage, they must have no interest in my work. Therefore my pictures must be superior. The majority of them were professional photographers, with just a few bloggers whispering in the masses. I flew a flag of many colors, and was usually greeted with confusion and disinterest when it was discovered I wasn’t working for the local cult magazine.

“This is Freddy, he’s with Fast Forward, um Leah she’s Fast Forward, Wayne and Lisa both Fast Forward”

Jesus Christ they must need a lot of pictures, I thought. And I wondered if they all had mutual resentment for one another since they didn’t arrive ‘officially’ as a team.
Today was a different day, however, I had reinforcements. I met a headstrong Australian kid at a hockey game nearly two years prior, and he informed me that he’d be making his way down the mountain from nearby Canmore to see Cat Empire later in the evening. I also had a friend working as a volunteer who was off shift in only an hour. No longer would I drink beer on the lonesome!

I headed over to stage four and caught the end of some sort of electro super group. I stood in awe, puzzled by the sheer amount of people onstage making noises with strange devices. I quickly scanned the program

Roll Your Own:
Elliot BROOD, The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, Michael Hearst’s Unusual Creatures, Royal Canoe

The fuck does that even mean? Since it was towards the end of the set, I was led to believe Royal Canoe was the particular band making this enchanting racket. I certainly recognized the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, but they were only a couple in a group of many. The music was mad, absolutely nuts and completely brilliant at the same time. The type of music you’d expect a bunch of basement stoners from Winnipeg to make. They were masters of experiment, I counted at least three keyboardists, as well as one individual playing some sort of ridiculous voodoo radio device. What in the name of Christ, I laughed, they were completely amazing.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Royal-Canoe-Today-Were-Believers.mp3|titles=Royal Canoe – Today We’re Believers]
Royal Canoe – Today We’re Believers

After their set finished I heard whispers of a young Scottish beauty taking to the main stage in five minutes. I ran over just in time to slip in to the press pit and snap some shots. I immediately felt exposed; I was the only one taking pictures, but I quickly shook any self-conscious cobwebs and drank in the full spectrum beauty of Rachel Sermanni.

I suppose it’s unavoidable, when we’re talking about female musicians, not to focus on physical beauty. I guess that makes me a man, or a neo-chauvinist, but alas.. A lass!.

(Sorry..)

I was completely enamored by her presence, and it was more a result of the beautiful music she played rather than any other instinctual inflection. Sermanni had little support aside from her guitar and charms; there was a singular unassuming keyboardist and a rather large man with a rather large double bass. They were only accents to her fingerwork, as she weaved stories of great sadness and sorrow. I was awestruck with the idea that she was just twenty-one, I sensed the presence of a very wise old soul. There was a quiet fire about her, a modest explosion of emotion just beyond the observable spectrum. She was toying with the lonely adventurer that took a backseat in my mind’s audience. The moments seemed to pass with great heaviness.

I shook my head in amazement and heaved a great sigh while the media escort ushered me to the backstage area. Rachel Sermanni was such a dynamic talent, how the hell did they find her? I hung around until the end of the show and contemplated approaching her and her keyboardist as they lighty conversed beside an equipment truck. I sheepishly kicked at the dirt and muttered to myself.

Oh hi my name is ‘Who-Cares’ and I really enjoyed your show, you’re very beautiful and I think our souls connected momentarily. Not romantically, no no um.. just.. I felt your soul.. oh god.
Well this will never work, I thought. I elected to give her a few passing glances and continue day-dreaming of the stupid things I might say. My phone jolted to life in my pocket alerting me that my reinforcements had arrived.

“Welcome to the Folk Fest!” I beamed at my Aussie friend Lewis and his female companion. Amanda was pretty with full-moon eyes, and I wondered if Lewis ever looked in to them deeply. I hurriedly showed them around, waving my arms frantically and stopping to look over my shoulder and unleash a wide grin. Suddenly, a hand clapped my chest and I looked up.

“Holy shit, Sean!”

Sean was the boyfriend of one of my dearest and oldest friends. I hadn’t seen Alex in nearly five months, and she had a way of pulling a very frequent disappearing act. It was the type of friendship where you would be deadlocked in conversation for countless hours. A never ending humorous and intellectual battle, and I recalled the unspoken and deep seeded respect we had for one another. I immediately hugged her, but she was distracted and hardly took notice, talking over my shoulder and completely disengaged. I was suddenly aware that something was amiss. My enthusiasm was nowhere near her level, and I grew cold almost immediately.

“Why didn’t you guys tell me you were here?” They came every year, they said. It was no surprise. They always get the four day pass. I quickly flashed back to the past two days of drinking beer alone and wandering the grounds with sealed lips and longing looks. Where had they been?
“Where are you guys going to be tonight?” They broke eye-contact and looked away. Oh, here and there, they said. We’ve got a spot at the mainstage somewhere vague, you should come by some time, they nonchalantly proposed.

I couldn’t place their vibrations, but we weren’t in tune.

We said our insincere goodbyes, then lead my Canmore followers to the beer gardens. They were desperately thirsty, and I assured them that the line was fast moving. We parted ways so I could hoof it to Sharon Van Etten at the Twilight Stage.

It seemed such a small stage for someone I considered to be immensely talented and notable, but Sharon paid little attention to her surroundings. She hid behind a curtain of long dark hair, while the crowd sat in the patchy grass and laid blankets over the sand, a campfire crackled rhythmically in our hearts.

Sharon Van Etten was stunning in her subtlety. She hardly moved, yet somewhere in her stoic figure behind drapes of dark hair a powerful and steady voice emerged. Etten’s first few songs stuck to the acoustic flavor, her eyes remaining locked with her keyboardist. I’d been a fringe-fan of hers for over two years, and I was intrigued to see her traverse genres of quiet folk and heavy alternative.

I dipped out midway through her set and began to prepare for The Cat Empire. I knew absolutely nothing about them, other than that Lewis said they were “The greatest eva band to see live mate”* (he may or may not have said ‘mate’). I decided it might be a snappy opportunity to skip down to the river and enjoy an herbal cigarette.

I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was in store for. I stood straight and tall while the media gathered around me and struggled to suppress a spirited series of coughs. The crowd broke the silence and we determinately walked single-file to the pit.

(Now when I say press pit, I should clarify. The “Press Pit” was a fenced off area at the very front of the mainstage, free from obstruction and separated from the regular crowd. The term ‘pit’ isn’t entirely appropriate. It was a glorious garden of untrampled beauty. The grass was thick and luscious, crisp and comfortable, and we were treated to an eight foot buffer between the crowd and the stage. It was a proverbial garden of Eden, with enough space for pictures at all angles, and throughout the weekend my most tranquil and humbling moments were spent sitting calmly on the grass with the biggest grin I could muster)

What the hell was happening? My heart was beating at an intense rate, but I was overwhelmed with the urge to get on my feet and dance until my heart burst. I sat in complete awe for nearly fifteen minutes, snapping pictures with my mouth agape. In that moment I thought, how in the hell am I ever going to describe what I’m seeing? Within about thirty seconds of the first song, the ground began to shake, and I looked behind me to see a massive crowd bouncing on their toes. The usually tranquil mid-stage lawnchairs were lost, and all the sudden I felt I had been transported to another festival.

There is no proper way to describe what happened. They were a SKA-infused carnival. A relentless onslaught of positive energy and extended instrument solos. They sang, they ran about the stage, they played the bongos at a blistering pace for three minutes, and then other things happened. At one point, their trumpet player and co-lead singer Harry James Angus started scatting. And no, not that other thing. Scat singing. He held the same few notes for an eternity, his band egging him on, and I shook my head in utter amazement. “BADA-BA-DA BADA-BA-DA BADA-BA-DA BADA-BA-DA” Harry began to turn blue, yet showed no signs of slowing down.


Bandmates watch in awe in the background

This sort of thing carried on for another hour or so, and I felt like I was on the verge of a spiritual collapse. The pace didn’t slow, and The Cat Empire held the same exuberant freneticism the whole time. Lewis wasn’t kidding. They were completely off the charts.

What comes next? I sat in the press tent watching the staff dance in the street. I decided to call Sean and see if I could meet up him and Alex. What followed was one of the most awkward conversations of my life.

Yeah, we’re coming back to our main stage base camp. Where is it? Well it’s sort of close to the back. Oh you’re at the back? Yeah we aren’t there yet.

What the fuck, I thought. These people weren’t my friends. I sat deep in thought for a few moments, and made note to remove them off my friends list; the most serious of social rational actions. If they ever wondered what happened, I’d steer them to my writing. Maybe I was reading into it too much, but even my pal Lewis who I’d hung out with about four times was eager to reconnect after the concert. I sent him a quick text, saying I’d meet him at the gardens after Steve Earle’s first three songs.

Silence swam over the crowd in anticipation of the next show. Cat Empire had the whole audience on their feet, and the group was certainly ready for a brief rest before Steve Earle took the stage. An accordionist and a drummer slapped a few tunes together in between rampant screams from the crowd. They were another “inbetween” band; playing a few songs while the set-up crew prepared the stage for the night’s headliner. Their music sounded quite akin to some early products I made in Ableton Live 8. It was horror-themed carnival music, something that procured visions of Jack Skellington spinning on his toes. I patiently eavesdropped an old cameraman giving an impassioned epilogue to a pretty and pierced youthful photographer. He seemed desperate for a talking partner, as reluctant as she was.

Steve Earle was a legend. He’d been making music for nearly forty years, won three grammys in the process and recorded a veritable treasure trove of Americana.

“Man, he’s a total rockstar huh” a friendly burnout from Fast Forward nodded at me.

Somewhere beneath a cowboy hat, a footlong beard and a sweet pair of aviators there was Steve Earle. He wore dark jeans, a sharp suit-jacket and a floral-patterned high-collar. Even someone without any background context would easily recognize him as a man of great renowned fame and wisdom. I sat once more in the grass, directly in front of the Texas legend.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Steve-Earle-Copperhead-Road.mp3|titles=Steve Earle – Copperhead Road]
Steve Earle – Copperhead Road

Steve Earle rolled thunderously through thirteen albums of old favorites, backed by one of the most talented bands I’d ever seen. He was a modest man, and gave credit at every opportunity to the amazing artists at his side. The Mastersons were part of his band; a Texas based husband and wife duo and two of the most extremely deft musicians I’d ever witnessed. Chris bounced between electric and steel guitars, while Eleanor eloquently ran her bow across her violin. They were by far the most polished experts of the entire festival, and I was honored to sit in the grass and hear them play as if I was the only one there.

I met up with Lewis and Amanda as they struggled to finish their jug of beer. Like a true friend, I elected to lend a helping hand, and moments later we were locked in deep conversation. We talked about life, about music, about travel, and about our passions. It felt good to release some carefully thought-out words for the first time of the festival, all the while Steve Earle and the Dukes boomed above us. The jug quickly evaporated.

We spared no time making our way to the front left side of the stage to catch the last five or six songs Steve had in store for us. The awestruck crowd beamed and applauded, even the youth in their wool knit caps and oversized longsleeves couldn’t help but appreciate what they were witnessing.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Steve-Earle-Guitar-Town.mp3|titles=Steve Earle – Guitar Town]
Steve Earle – Guitar Town

Steve Earle, larger than life, played well in to the dark, and for some time the city seemed to stand still.