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Calgary Folk Fest 2014: Part I

Two days in the prairies with little company outside the dueling personalities of uncertainty. An isolation vacation, 60 miles from civilization and all the noise that encompasses life as a twenty-something single man living in a downtown metropolis. I house-sat my parents place out in the country, and It was the perfect prelude to this years Calgary Folk Fest; a family-friendly frolic on an urban island greenspace surrounded by the beautiful Bow River. Prince’s Island Park is a breathtaking venue in the heart of Calgary, and the storybook location for one of the most relaxing, down-home festivals out west.

Trampled By Turtles were first on the docket, and between the fiddle and banjo solos they were the perfect pair for a city with deep country roots. With a decade of experience and an impeccable festival resume that includes Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella, TBT knew how to keep a crowd entertained, which can seem incredibly difficult when the majority of the audience is seated on tarps and lawn chairs. But despite the seemingly lethargic atmosphere, the crowd is always vocal and appreciative, and it’s not uncommon to see children boogying down with their parents. There are designated dance areas on each side of the stage as well, usually occupied by rabid fans of the band who recant all the lyrics behind a cool pair of misty eyes. I parked myself behind a young couple and soaked in the Americana as they sang every word and made note of the tall-boy cans of PBR resting at the feet of each bandmember. “I KNEW that case of PBR was for Trampled By Turtles!” exclaimed one exuberant fan.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Trampled-By-Turtles-Wait-So-Long.mp3|titles=Trampled By Turtles – Wait So Long]
Trampled By Turtles – Wait So Long

Trampled By Turtles set the tone for this year’s festival; a much folkier/country-heavy lineup than previous years. There weren’t as many big name headliners as last year (see Alabama Shakes, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten etc.), but what the fest may have lacked in marquee talent, it made up for in pure heart. Even as a well-traveled music journalist I only recognized about five bands in the entire lineup, but the opportunity to discover fresh new music was huge, and the Calgary Folk Fest did not disappoint.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Trampled-By-Turtles-Midnight-on-the-Interstate.mp3|titles=Trampled By Turtles – Midnight on the Interstate]
Trampled By Turtles – Midnight on the Interstate

Thursday was always a bit sedated, the concerts began just after the 9-5’ers get off work, and the beer gardens were notably underpopulated. Which was good news for yours truly, as I barely had to wait in line to dive into a cold cup of Calgary’s finest courtesy of the Big Rock Brewery. Next on the mainstage was southern starlet Valerie June, who started off her set with a gospel number to “set the tone”.

The multi-instrumental and enormously talented Valerie June describes her sound as “organic moonshine roots music”, and she couldn’t have put it better. She traversed between intense banjo solos and her traditional six-string, rolling over each chord with extreme ease and a mastery that seemed beyond her years. June played a diverse southern collection of old classics, personal favorites, and tunes off her latest album “Pushin’ Against a Stone”. And her moonshine music certainly got me in the mood for some liquor-fueled madness.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Valerie-June-Pushin-Against-a-Stone.mp3|titles=Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone]
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone

Flying solo no longer, I met up with a couple friends and managed some mischief before the final performance of the preliminary evening, Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory. Bird began with a couple solo efforts before being joined by his band, and the contrast couldn’t be more stark. He plucked strings and whistled ominously, with sounds echoing the tense moments of an old western. It was very atmospheric and hypnotizing, but the moment the Hands of Glory joined him on stage the fog was lifted, and one of the most beautiful performances I’d ever witnessed began.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Andrew-Bird-When-That-Helicopter-Comes.mp3|titles=Andrew Bird – When That Helicopter Comes]
Andrew Bird – When That Helicopter Comes

They almost seemed unreal; like a robotic folk band you might see looping the same song at some Heritage Fair. Only substitute the cold, steely and jerky movements with pure organic beauty and soul. They strummed out some fireside tales, and time seemed to stand completely still. I managed to park myself on a friend’s tarp directly at the front of the stage to soak in the sounds. Words won’t ever be able to fully describe their performance, even in retrospect it feels like a dream. Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory were the perfect performers to close out the relaxed and cool opening night to the Calgary Folk Fest.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Andrew-Bird-Three-White-Horses.mp3|titles=Andrew Bird – Three White Horses]
Andrew Bird – Three White Horses

A middle aged woman in full sprint squeezed between the closing doors of the train with a wide grin that said “I still got it”, and everyone was all smiles making their escape from the downtown core. It was 5:30 on a Friday, and the city was practically a ghost town. It seemed everybody had already made their way to the island. A short walk north and a quick flash of the badge later, I was back at the fest.

My first treat of the day was to witness The Great Lake Swimmers compose some incredible Canadian fare. Their set felt like memories on the farm, which was a peculiar emotion considering I’d never actually lived on a farm. I found myself swaying in the press pit, there was an earthy honesty to their loneliness. And for a rainjacket type of day there seemed no better fare. Lead Tony Dekker stood with certainty, his music seemingly the entire purpose of his existence, and a quiet passion seemed to burn behind his lyricism.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Great-Lake-Swimmers-Changing-Colours.mp3|titles=Great Lake Swimmers – Changing Colours]
Great Lake Swimmers – Changing Colours

Flanked by some incredible musicians, Dekker certainly wasn’t the only one on stage building an atmosphere. Miranda Mulholland was enchanting on the fiddle, effortlessly painting portraits with her bow and often commanding the stage. They were a pleasure to drink in, and after the first three songs I made my way to the edge of the stage catch the rest of the set. I found myself contemplating the rather incredible work of the festival organizers; each mainstage act seemed more appropriate than the last. Make no mistake, I was at a folk fest through and through. On occasion, The Great Lake Swimmers would send the tension mounting in similar fashion to Foals, and I found myself completely swept up in the noise and emotion.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Great-Lake-Swimmers-The-Great-Exhale.mp3|titles=Great Lake Swimmers – The Great Exhale]
Great Lake Swimmers – The Great Exhale

It was a powerful performance, and although the music was beautiful and serene, I became overwhelmed with loneliness. This was the first of two days I would spend alone at the Folk Fest, and I adopted the roll of silent observer much to my dismay. The beer-line was untenable, with eager 9-5’ers desperate to whet their mouths. After my first year, I knew the beer line fluctuated quite rapidly, and I elected to sit down by a tree and doodle while people-watching through my sunglasses.

Lee Fields and the Expressions were just the jolt of energy I needed. There was a certain electricity to his personality, he seemed larger than life, and at the wise age of 63 Lee was absolutely shining. With suits so sharp they could chop wood, the Expressions were the solid anchor of certitude behind the man himself. Prior to my research for the festival I hadn’t ever heard of Fields, he’d been the original ‘underground’ James Brown throughout the majority of his career, and my exposure to soul music was as limited as any other pasty suburban Canadian. But I wouldn’t give ignorance any more credit. Lee Fields was a genius.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Lee-Fields-The-Expressions-I-Still-Got-It.mp3|titles=Lee Fields & The Expressions – I Still Got It]
Lee Fields & The Expressions – I Still Got It

For anyone still desperate for the soul and passion of the 70’s, Lee was still slinging feelings and records. 35 years since his first release, Emma Jean dropped earlier this year, and plays not just as an homage to a genre from the past, but a reinvention of generation. There was a crispness to his sound, no friction or wobble, just sharp clarity. Lee and the Expressions made beautiful, fresh music, and without the inevitable comparisons to James Brown and Bobby Womack, Lee was his own man.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Lee-Fields-The-Expressions-Magnolia.mp3|titles=Lee Fields & The Expressions – Magnolia]
Lee Fields & The Expressions – Magnolia

I felt reinvigorated, and it was just the right attitude for the next act. I crept behind the Twilight stage, unsure of my qualifications to be backstage but careful not to wear my uncertainty. There was a noticeable chunk of people missing from the beer gardens, and undoubtedly they were at A Tribe Called Red.

The powwow-step of the all First Nations DJ trio had the crowd in an absolute craze. The ground was shaking, and front row was a homogenous group of those old enough to be drunk and those drunk enough to act old. There was danger, most certainty, but the Calgary Folk Fest was run almost entirely by volunteers with little mind to the potential insurance hangover from serious injury. It was all in the name of good fun, and A Tribe Called Red put on an energetic performance that couldn’t be further from Folk.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/A-Tribe-Called-Red-Electric-Pow-Wow-Drum.mp3|titles=A Tribe Called Red – Electric Pow Wow Drum]
A Tribe Called Red – Electric Pow Wow Drum

The ancient art of the crowd plank.

Calgary gets a bad rap for being a strictly conservative cowboy city, a ‘Dallas-North’ if I may, but the reality is that the city is a diverse, multi-cultural and metropolitan haven. The arts scene has been on the rise, desperately trying to prove ourselves worthy of comparison with the coastal clout of Vancouver or the historic prestige and culture of Montreal. The festival organizers managed to encapsulate the true spirit of Calgary, and the set lists each night were multifaceted and colorful.

Everything Rufus Wainwright has touched turns to gold. The classical singer/songerwriter has dabbled in opera and baroque pop, and since his first releases in the late 90’s he’s been a stalwart figure in post-modern classical composure. He was charming, much like your English teacher who got a little too friendly with your mom at parent-teacher interviews. It wasn’t my kind of music, by any stretch of the imagination, but as a fan of music in general I was quite impressed with Wainwright’s range and spectrum. From piano to guitar, Wainwright was a personality.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Rufus-Wainwright-Montauk.mp3|titles=Rufus Wainwright – Montauk]
Rufus Wainwright – Montauk

Midway through the set, fire trucks began to slowly creep through the back of the crowd towards a plume of smoke. “I see a lot of firetrucks back there..” Rufus pointed, “I hope everyone is okay and I hope my music isn’t killing them”. Like the intrepid ambulance chasing journalist I had become, I strapped my camera to my back and made a consorted jog towards the sirens.

We’re clearing the area” a tall, impressively mustacheod twenty-something made an aggressive gesture to the other journalist creeping behind the volunteer barricade. I wasn’t sure who this guy was, he wore a captain’s hat and vintage military cloth. He had evolved past the level of lowly hipster and transcended into some post-trendy cross between a hardy sailor and a chiseled war-glorifier. There was an intensity in his eyes as he store down his enemy. I drew back slightly, careful not to be lumped into the category of a thirsty vulture desperate for “the shot”. They very nearly got in a fist fight as the journalist refused to recognize the Captain’s authority, and I decided to make my exit and fire off a few tweets.

Several trucks had arrived as well as the police, but their presence seemed more precautionary than anything. The Taiko food truck, a delicious Asian-Mexican fusion, had a small grease fire in one of it’s trailers. The issue seemed minor at best, and the only repercussions were a few hundred diverted walkers and maybe a handful of tacos.

I decided to snag a few cups of wine before the last two shows of the evening, and after parking myself at a table alone I was joined by two very pretty late-twenty-somethings who proceeded to quiz me. Why are you here by yourself? Do you take pictures for real? I would’ve been more annoyed if they weren’t obviously inebriated, but I kept them entertained long enough to finish my wine and make it to the pit in time for Amos Lee.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Amos-Lee-Windows-Are-Rolled-Down.mp3|titles=Amos Lee – Windows Are Rolled Down]
Amos Lee – Windows Are Rolled Down

Amos Lee’s music was made for Calgary. Funky, folky and bluesy country, Amos’ honeyed voice swam over the audience as the sun began to set. It was hard to make out his face underneath the bushy beard and sunglasses, but he gave off the general vibe of a rugged Chris Pratt with a taste for 70’s rock and barbecue. The music itself was solid, danceable, and energetic, and the crowd began to sway as Amos dropped the guitar in favor for some straight-up slapstick. Towards the end of the set they did a southern rework of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, much to the delight of every person on the grounds, let alone those actually watching. It was an absolute blast, and Amos Lee was effortlessly brilliant.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Amos-Lee-The-Man-Who-Wants-You.mp3|titles=Amos Lee – The Man Who Wants You]
Amos Lee – The Man Who Wants You

Fishbone was last on the docket, and very little could have prepared me for the high-energy circus performance that was about to take place. It was fantastic, quick-fire urban SKA, and couldn’t be a more opposite performance than that of Andrew Bird the night prior. They took over the press bound, bounding up and down the crowd railings and standing on the edge of the speakers. My shutter snapped several hundred times, but I knew the fast movements coupled with dim lighting were a recipe for failure. I anchored myself against the stage and relentlessly snapped photos of the crowd, and moments later Angelo Moore screamed “FLYING J, GO FLY”

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Fishbone-Ma-And-Pa.mp3|titles=Fishbone – Ma And Pa]
Fishbone – Ma and Pa

The man on horns dropped his instruments and leaped ten feet over the pit and into the crowd. Photographers couldn’t decide whether to snap pictures or look at eachother completely shocked, but we all jumped up to try and snag a shot of Flying J surfing the crowd. He was pushed back within moments and was gently lifted over the barrier by the raucous audience. With a quick wave of appreciation, he bounded back on stage and picked up where he left off, absolutely slaying the trombone.

It was the perfect end to a Friday night, the sky had cleared and a warm westerly breeze had settled in. The party had only just begun at the Calgary Folk Fest.