I traveled down to Calgary this past weekend for the Friday and Saturday shows at the Calgary Folk Festival. I had never been before, but given the opportunity to get away for a few days, catch up with friends, and see a killer lineup led by The Decemberists, I couldn’t miss the opportunity.
Folk Fest is held every year on Prince’s Island Park on the Bow River just north of the Eau Claire market. It’s a great location, both picturesque and convenient; it’s a 5-10 minute walk from the nearest C-Train station. It’s a 4-day festival – Thursday and Friday evenings, then spanning the daytime and evening on Saturday and Sunday.
There was a good variety of food vendors, both in number and in types of food offered; I had no issues finding gluten-free food to eat. I ate souvlaki from a greek food vendor both days in addition to butter chicken from SunTerra on Saturday. They had a centrally-located beer gardens so patrons could still enjoy the musical acts. They also had a number of vendor booths offering everything from merchandise to home made crafts, and a number of local non-profits were present as well; I had a great chat with a couple of people from CivicCamp Calgary. Last but not least, being able to duck away for a few minutes to sit on the rocks by the Bow River is a joy that few other music festivals can offer.
I only paid close attention to the final two acts of the evening – Arrested Development and The Decemberists.
Arrested Development put on a fun upbeat set. I remember their hits from the early-mid 1990s, as did most of the crowd judging by the reaction to songs such as “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendell”. They also played a good rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.
The Decemberists were the main reason I made the trip, and they did not disappoint. From the start of the set with ‘The Hazards of Love 1’ to their encore performance of ‘Sons & Daughters’, they brought their A-game, playing with energy and rarely taking a moment to rest between songs.
Every song they played but ‘Sons & Daughters’ was off their latest album, The Hazards of Love, and much of the set followed the same sequence as the album. I’ve listened to the album about a dozen times (according to my iTunes) and think it’s fairly good, but not on par with ‘The Crane Wife’ or even some of the songs on the internet-only ‘Always the Bridesmaid’ EPs. This set gave me a new appreciation for the album as a whole work; the songs fit together well as a whole, they’re not just a collection of independent works. While I had gone in hoping to hear some of my favourite songs (such as ‘O Valencia’, ‘Yankee Bayonet’, ‘O New England’ and ‘A Record Year for the Rainfall’, to name four), the set they put on was so well done I have no complaints about the show. In the future, I’ll take any opportunity I can get to see them live.
I spent the morning and early afternoon at The Glenbow Museum (which will be the subject of a future blog post), then rushed to the festival in time for an afternoon session featuring Justin Rutledge, Sarah Harmer, Steven Page, and The Good Lovelies. I skipped the remaining afternoon sessions in order to visit vendors and have a coffee on the banks of the Bow River before returning for the mainstage acts. I didn’t watch Justin Adams or Alejandro Escovedo, and I paid enough attention to Bellowhead to notice they play an upbeat calypso style, but not to comment any further.
Afternoon Session: Justin Rutledge, Sarah Harmer, Steven Page, The Good Lovelies
The seating area was packed for this session, and with good reason. Harmer and Page are two of the biggest names at the festivals, and Rutledge likely earned himself a lot of fans with his Thursday mainstage performance (I heard good reviews). Rutledge was the host and opened with ‘A Penny for the Band’ off of his latest album, Man Descending. Each of the four performers then took turns and played three songs each. Highlights included a couple of new Harmer songs, one called ‘The City’, which she also played on her mainstage set, and another one that I can’t track down the name of (video of it coming soon). Page played a mix of old and new, with his final song being the BNL hit ‘Jane’, which delighted the crowd, myself included. The Lovelies are a trio featuring two guitarists and a banjo player. They were the least recognized of the four performers, but were a fun group to listen to.
Steven Page performed a solo set, just him on acoustic guitar. Like his mini-set on the sidestage, he played a mix of new songs and classic BNL hits. He was very engaging with the crowd between songs, and a touch self-depricating too; one anecdote began with “This hasn’t been the best year for me…”. Some of the highlights included strong performances of ‘The Old Apartment’, ‘Jane’, and to close the set, ‘Brian Wilson’. Lowlight was the absence of ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’ from the set.
73 years young, Glen Campbell made his way to Calgary Folk Fest, and I couldn’t miss what might be my only opportunity to see him perform live. I’ve been a fan since first hearing ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ in my teen years.
Campbell and his much younger band took the stage and opened with ‘Gentle on my Mind’, then ran through a set that included most of his classics (‘Galveston’, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, and ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’), a surprise appearance by his daughter, who sang one song by herself then did a duet with her dad (a cover of a Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash song), and a handful of other cover songs – two that appear on his latest album ‘Meet Glen Campbell’ (‘Walls’ by Tom Petty and ‘All I Want is You’ by U2), a Hank Williams song, and a couple of great instrumentals (Classical Gas and the William Tell Overture). Much of the crowd was on its feet by the time he closed with ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. Campbell is clearly talented as a showman, and it’s no surprise he’s still drawing great reactions after 40-plus years in the industry.
Sarah Harmer was the Saturday headline, and was for me, the surprise of the festival. I’ve always liked her stuff when I’ve heard it, but never listened to her much. Accompanied by a full band, she played a fantastic set, and definitely has me keen to listen to her full catalogue (I listened to I’m a Mountain on the drive to Jasper today). Her set was a mix of standards such as ‘Silver Road’ and ‘Escarpment Blues’, with a handful of new songs mixed in. Next to the two acts I came to see, she was without a doubt my favourite perfomer.
Suffice to say, I had a blast at Calgary Folk Fest. I almost always attend festivals for performers I want to see, rather than for the experience itself. That being said, even outside of the performances, the Festival was a great experience; there’s a good chance I’ll head down again next year given a decent lineup (and they have had good headliners for the past few years). If I have a criticism, it’s that they had too many headliners (about 5 or 6 each night I was there). I would much prefer they focus on fewer acts and give them a longer set to play. But I’m nitpicking. All in all, it was a great weekend at Folk Fest, and I might even do it again next year.