For the last 33 years, Calgary has held one of the largest and most interesting folk music festivals in North America. For four days, flocks of people bring tarps, lawn chairs, sunscreen, hidden bottles of booze and other camping supplies to hunker down and chill out on the grass in Prince’s Island Park.
That might sound like a relaxing time, but it isn’t if you’re actually running around trying to check out the music. The “tarpies”, as they are called, wait outside the festival overnight to snag the number one position in front of the stage. This goes on every day at the fest. It’s pretty wild, for such a laid back atmosphere. If you want to stand and watch the shows on the main stage, you have to go to the grassy spots on the side where the “dance area” is. There was no way I was arriving early to secure a spot of “prime real estate,” so I just loaded my bag with snacks, juice and sunscreen and stood around to watch the show.
Beirut played a set that sounded like any indie-pop band, except for the fact that they were going for some Eastern European vibes. There were a couple of songs that were nice, more of a slow-dance with your girlfriend feeling, but sometimes fell into a Dracula zone. Other songs picked up the pace and got into some heavy jambalaya jams. The people off to the side were moving and grooving, but it wasn’t until one of the members of Beirut complained about how the people on tarps weren’t allowed to dance and compared this rule to Footloose that it got everybody up off their butts and taking in the heavy doses of accordion and tuba. Was that really a rule? No dancing? That’s crazy.
After sulking in those sounds, it was time for Chris Isaak. He may have been one of the greatest performers I have ever seen. I’d heard him a lot in the past, especially his famous song/music video “Wicked Game,” which is a real crooner. Isaak was funny, charming, had an amazing back-up band, and got the entire audience excited. I have never seen an audience at the Folk Fest stop what they were doing and immerse themselves in the show like this. They had a lot of audience gimmicks, like having the piano blow up and shoot fire out of it during “Great Balls of Fire,” but we all ate it right up. Isaak and other members of the band went into the audience at times, and everybody broke the supposed “no dancing” rule once again because it was just too good to pass up such a fun opportunity. “Wicked Game” was amazing as I expected, but the whole show was quite the spectacle. I can’t forget to mention his red, glittery suit, and his disco ball suit made of mirrors he wore during the encore. It was a beautiful sight to see.
The next day was a big day for all of the indie kids out there. Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel was playing a “rare” performance. That was at the end of the night. But first: Bettye LaVette!
LaVette has been around for over three decades. She became popular with a disco track, and has been making R&B / soul / blues hits every since. She recently won a couple Grammys, and mentioned this a few times during her performance, which I thought was kind of tacky… but hey, I would brag if I won something like that I’m sure. She was very energetic and was trying to get the audience going, but after relaxing all day on tarps, a lot of people were more content lazing that one out. Truth be told, as hard as she tried, LaVette wasn’t really that interesting. Every song sounded pretty similar, and I didn’t think it would get any more exciting. I heard Shad was playing over at a smaller tent, so I decided to check him out.
Seeing a rap show at the Folk Fest means you are going to see some sort of positive, uplifting musician who has a message he wants to tell you. Don’t expect any Rick Ross types here. And well, that usually means a pretty boring time for me. Sorry, but that backpacker hip-hop stuff is for young, eager, positive and uplifting people whose spirits have yet to be crushed. I’d rather hear about fantasy stuff at this point. Anyway, Shad had the whole audience moving their hands up and down in unison, so I guess he was getting his message across in the form of positive rhyme. One of his beats did sound suspiciously like an old Aesop Rock beat, which was pretty fishy. Oh well, at least everybody else had a nice time. You can’t win ‘em all.
Jeff Mangum was up next, and it was pretty lousy. The guy is headlining a night at the Folk Fest on the main stage, and requests that the two screens showing the artist in action be turned off. He’s playing solo, in the dark. Somebody tried to take a photo and he said, “I don’t mean to be a dick, but I don’t want you taking my picture”. Sorry Jeff, but you do mean to be a dick. You are headlining a major festival on the main stage, and nobody can see you unless they’re up close? That’s stupid. Also, you paved the way for so many wiener-y indie-pop bands. Quit playing live shows if you are going to be such a baby about it. I have never seen so many people leave the fest so quickly.
On the Sunday, Randy Newman was playing. Most people know him for doing the Toy Story soundtracks, but he also had some cool albums in the ’70s. Unfortunately, it was not really an appropriate setting for the guy. It was just him and his piano. Some of his songs were absolutely beautiful, but to stand on the side stage and hear this while a bunch of people were talking and wondering what else to do got kind of distracting. I would like to see him again, but in a smaller indoor club.
Iron and Wine were the headliners at the end of the festival. I had almost the same feeling about them as I did with Randy Newman, except I don’t really care for Iron and Wine at all. I’ve listened to a few albums, and they never did anything for me. I guess it’s pretty nice music if you have to go to bed. Well, for a headliner, the fest didn’t really go out with a bang. Maybe they scheduled it like that because it was a Sunday night, and people had to get ready for work on Monday? If so, that’s pretty smart. Otherwise, I would have accepted a slammin’ funk band to roll out and keep me feeling good vibes.
Overall, this year’s Folk Fest was alright. I understand they try to cater to all sorts of musical tastes, but that can sometimes cause conflict. Many people left during Jeff Mangum, and it’s just because they were trying to appease the younger crowd. They also brought Randy Newman in (a girl next to me said, “Toy Story was the first movie I ever saw!” I felt old) and rap acts like Shad. It’s a nice mish-mash if you’re into that sort of thing, and if you aren’t, it’s just nice to sit out in the sun, and catch some rays. I just don’t think a lot of people come for the music. It’s more of a “staycation” for a lot of people, and setting up your tarp becomes the #1 priority. A lot of the time, it felt more like a weekend for socialization. Nobody is watching bands, just drinking beers and talking about their week.
Folk Fest is what you make it, but I don’t know if I would shell out the cash to socialize and hang out in a beer tent. It’s a great place to bring the family, relax, and get to know some upcoming artists, and some classic gems. I prefer small bars or nightclubs for that “intimate” setting, but for the few months of decent weather we have, I guess people would rather sit outside. The food is usually pretty good, the audience is relaxed and for the most part, pretty laid-back, and the volunteers are very helpful and friendly. It’s no wonder the festival is so popular, but it is beyond me why you would want to watch a guy whining into a microphone, playing a guitar at night on such a massive stage, with such a huge audience. There really is no target demographic for the festival, and that’s a good thing. It just seems to be a thing to do. Just deal.