Roots Music Infused With a Punk Ethos: Edmonton Folk Festival 2009

Following my trip down to Calgary for their Folk Festival two weeks ago, I made a much shorter trip this past weekend to attend the Edmonton Folk Festival on Friday and Saturday. I didn’t attend Thursday or Sunday on account of other commitments, but I managed to catch a number of talented acts – some I was familiar with and was looking forward to, and others who I had never heard of before, and blew me away.

I’ve uploaded photos from the festival to my Flickr page. Here’s a recap of my experience at the festival.

Friday Night
I arrived on Friday in time to catch the last 30 minutes of the workshop featuring Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards, and Chuck Brodsky. I’d heard some songs by Case and Edwards and generally liked them; I’d never heard of Brodsky.

Chuck Brodsky performs at a session also featuring Neko Case (left) and Kathleen Edwards (right)

Chuck Brodsky performs at a session also featuring Neko Case (left) and Kathleen Edwards (right)

Brodsky acquitted himself well, playing a standard folk style. As a baseball fan, I was disappointed to find out I missed his song “Dock Ellis’ No-No”, about the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter while allegedly on LSD. Turns out Brodsky writes a lot about baseball – he made an album titled “The Baseball Ballads”. Case and Edwards also sounded good, though I didn’t recognize any of the songs.

The mainstage acts followed. First up were The Wailers. Only 1 original member of Bob Marley’s legendary band remains, but the current lineup represents the Wailers’ reputation well.

They played a number of classics such as ‘Exodus’, ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, ‘Jammin’, and ‘One Love’, mixed in with other numbers. They were what I was hoping they would be – fun, energetic, and true to the band’s history. A solid set; if you have a chance to see them live, do it.

Neko Case
I’d heard the odd Neko Case song (and made a point of listening to music available on her MySpace page Friday afternoon), but wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Neko plays a folk-country-rock style that was mostly mellow with a few upbeat tracks thrown into the mix. She is an excellent live performer; I especially enjoyed her interaction between songs with sidekick Kelly Hogan.

Neko Case performs on Friday night at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Neko Case performs on Friday night at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Raul Malo, formerly of The Mavericks, closed out the night. Anticipating a long day on Saturday, I headed home before his set. Apparently I missed a good show; Malo, according to Andy, plays a country-rockabilly style along the lines of Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak, and was a lot of fun.

Saturday Sessions
This was the day I was looking forward to, mostly because of the two Joel Plaskett sessions.

Talkin’ Bout My Generation: Ben Sures, Joel Plaskett, Jill Barber, Johnny Flynn
I made my way to this session to start the day.

Sures, playing a traditional folk style, hosted the session, and kicked it off with a humourous song titled “My Last Girlfriend”. Plaskett, accompanied on guitar by his father Bill, followed with “Lyin’ on a Beach’ off of his album ‘La De Da’.

Jill Barber performs at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Jill Barber performs at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Next up was Jill Barber. I first heard Jill last spring on the Sibling Rivalry tour with her brother Matthew, and was impressed with her – she has a really good voice. She opened with a song called ‘Measures & Scales’ – she played guitar, and was at times through her performances accompanied by violin, piano, and accordian.

Last to perform in each round was Johnny Flynn. This was the first time I had heard him, but he came highly recommended by a co-worker. Flynn did not disappoint; he opened with just himself on steel guitar, and accompanied by a cellist, and played a roots-style that was full of passion. I don’t remember the name of the first song, but the second one he played is “The Wrote & The Writ” off of his debut album “A Larum”. My note, not knowing the name of the song at the time, was simply “jf-this song is off the hook”. Pretty much captures how I felt at the time.

Each artist played 3-4 songs. Other highlights include Plaskett breaking out his $7 electronic keyboard (from Value Village) to play “Rewind, Rewind, Rewind”, then playing “Happen Now” (with Jill Barber on backup vocals), my favourite of his songs, to close. Barber herself sang a song in French, “Toutes Mes Reves” (All My Dreams), then closed with a pretty wicked cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”.

Concert: Danny Michel
There was half an hour between the previous session and Joel Plaskett’s concert at 1. On the way there, I stopped by Danny Michel’s concert for a few songs. I’ve heard his most recent album, ‘Feather, Fur & Fin’, which is pretty solid. He played the title track as soon as I got there, then a couple of other songs I didn’t recognize before playing ‘Sweet Things’ Danny often plays with a loop/sound machine, but it was just himself on electric guitar at this point. I left a bit early to get to the Plaskett show in good time.

Concert: Joel Plaskett

Joel Plaskett at his concert on the Saturday of the Edmonton Folk Festival.

Joel Plaskett at his concert on the Saturday of the Edmonton Folk Festival.

As I was expecting, he delivered a really good set. Accompanied by his dad at the start, he played some songs off of his latest album ‘Three’, mixed in with standards from his previous albums. His set list, in order: I Love This Town, Pine Pine Pine (dad leaves at this point), Nothing More to Say To You, True Patriot Love, Work Out Fine, You Let Me Down, Through & Through & Through, Television Set (on keyboard), (dad returns) Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’, Wishful Thinking, and finally as an encore, Nowhere With You (solo).

Joel is always engaging with the crowd between songs, giving preambles before songs such as ‘True Patriot Love’ and ‘Work Out Fine’. He’s an energetic live performer, and probably won himself a lot of fans (as did most performers). I especially liked that a good amount of his set came off of albums besides ‘Three’ (by my count, just over half the set). I always enjoy hearing from an artist’s full catalogue, rather than just hearing the latest work.

Intermission
As Oysterband played on the mainstage from 2-3, I took the opportunity to browse the merchandise tent, get food, and wander the festival grounds. The merchandise tent was full, and had an excellent catalogue of artists’ CDs as well. Some had already sold out. There seemed to be less food vendors than at Calgary, and local non-profits (save radio stations such as CKUA and CJSR) weren’t present either. One other thing that’s different from Calgary is that the site is much larger and spread out. I enjoyed the compactness of Prince’s Island Park; you could get anywhere quickly, and you could still enjoy the music perfectly well from the Beer Gardens, which isn’t possible in Edmonton. On the other hand, the hill at Gallagher Park offers outstanding views of the stage and the downtown Edmonton skyline. The hill alone makes it worth the trip.

Megatunes: Danny Michel, Jill Barber, Fred Eaglesmith, Loudon Wainwright III
Danny Michel hosted this session, which was recorded for CBC Radio 2’s Canada Live program, and will air on Thursday, August 27th. It will be available on-demand on the Canada Live website and in podcast form on iTunes as well. This was a fantastic session, and I recommend you catch it in one of the above listed formats.

Michel opened with “White Lightning”, and Jill Barber followed with a song I didn’t recognize. Fred Eaglesmith was up next. Fred, for anyone who has never seen him before, likes to tell stories. Each song he performed was preceded by a 2-3 minute (at least) introduction. The first song, “Wilder than Her”, was recorded by Dar Williams, who considers it a lesbian anthem. Fred made a couple of jokes, including one about how all we writes now is lesbian anthems (once the royalty cheques started coming in), before segueing into the song.

Loudon followed. He prefaced his song by introducing the Charlie Poole Project, dedicated to preserving the memory of the aforementioned musician, who has not yet been inducted into the country music hall of fame. Loudon’s new album “High, Wide, & Handsome’, pays tribute through covering Poole’s work.

Danny followed with “Sweet Things”, and Jill played a song accompanied by piano and clarinet. Fred was accompanied by the Ginn (sp?) Sisters from Schulenberg, Texas on the next song, which was preceded by a long story and a joke about the last supper.

Danny Michel joins in on Loudon Wainwright III's "The Swimming Song"

The next round saw Danny play “Whale of a Tale”, which I also caught at the morning concert. Jill Barber followed with an excellent rendition of her hit song “Oh My My”. I didn’t catch the name of Fred’s next song, which was his last before Loudon played a song about Tonya Harding.

To close out, Danny played “Feather, Fur, and Fins”, before Loudon got to close the show. He played his famous hit, “The Swimming Song”, and Danny jumped in to sing a couple of verses. It was a great rendition, and a great way to end the session.

All four performers acquitted themselves well. I particularly enjoyed Jill and Loudon. Fred is an entertaining performer, and Danny is good enough to share a stage with anyone.

Concert – Alex Cuba
Alex Cuba followed. I caught a bit of him on Friday night as he played between Neko Case and Raul Malo on the mainstage.

Cuba played electric guitar throughout the show, some songs by himself and some with a three-piece band. The highlight was definitely his cover of “Bad Timing” by Blue Rodeo, with the lyrics sung in spanish. Cuba was fun to listen to, though not one of my favourite few acts of the weekend. He’s coming back to Edmonton (or St. Albert, to be precise) on February 4th, and I would consider seeing him again.

Saturday Mainstage
Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit
After his stellar performance in the morning session, I didn’t want to miss any of Johnny Flynn on the mainstage, so I left Cuba’s set a little early to make my way back to the hill.

Johnny Flynn on steel guitar performing at Folk Fest.

Johnny Flynn on steel guitar performing at Folk Fest.

Flynn is a talented, versatile musician. He played steel guitar through most of the set, but also played mandolin on a couple of songs, as well as banjo and trumpet at times. Rounding out his band are a bass player, cellist, piano/keyboard player, and drummer.

Johnny Flynn was the surprise, and therefore the highlight of the festival for me. I knew what to expect from Plaskett, but Flynn exceeded any expectations I had. Ok, maybe they get 1a and 1b status. Anyway, I highly recommend Flynn’s music. I don’t know how to best describe it, though the phrase I jotted down during his set was “roots infused music with a punk ethos” (hence the title of this post), which for me captures its spirit well.

The set itself was outstanding, as he ran through most of the songs from “A Larum”. Unfortunately, the hill was largely empty, and many fans in the audience (including the ones on the tarp beside me) spent much more time talking amongst themselves than paying attention. Their loss, in my opinion.

Beer Gardens
After Flynn, I went to the beer gardens to meet up with friends as Patty Griffin set up. I intended to return for Iron & Wine (who was after her), but ended up getting sidetracked and didn’t return until the final act was taking the stage. So let’s just skip ahead. One thing to note: I like the proximity of the beer gardens to the stage at Calgary; you can hear (and see on the big screen) the bands perfectly fine. In Edmonton, you can barely hear the music coming through the speakers and you’re a good distance away. On the other hand, a hot day calls for some Rock Creek Cider, so I don’t regret this decision at all.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at Folk Fest

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at Folk Fest

Pleasant surprise, part 2, of the evening. Jones and her band play an old-school 60’s/70s style of R&B/Funk. Having never heard them before, I didn’t have huge expectations, but I had been assured that they would be worth sticking around for. They were, and then some.

The Dap-Kings opened with a couple of instrumentals, before bringing Sharon out. If you aren’t familiar with her background, stop right now and read it. It’s a great story of perseverance and determination to succeed.

The music in this set was good, but the performance was even better. Sharon danced all night (she’s 53 years old!), and the Dap-Kings know how to perform on stage as well – right down to dressing up. Sharon pulled guys on stage to dance with her (I call this the “Reverse Springsteen”), and invited a group of girls to join her as well. The performance highlight was towards the end, when Sharon showed off her dance moves talking about her ancestors (don’t remember the name of the song). Unfortunately, a lot of fans had left by the time they took the stage, and many more continued to file out throughout the set. They missed a fun hour of music.

Summary
One of the great things about going to festivals or shows (or really, anything in life), is the beauty of the unexpected – when you go into a situation not knowing what to expect, or having low expectations, and then seeing something phenomenal. For me, Flynn and Jones’s performances rank near the top for “best unexpected performances” at a live show. Seeing Matthew Barber open for Chris Isaak in 2007 probably rounds out the list. Their shows, my first time hearing Flynn’s music, Plaskett’s excellent sets and a great rendition of “The Swimming Song” with Loudon and Danny are what I’ll likely remember when I think back to Folk Fest ’09. It was a great (half) weekend of music, sunshine and friends; I think I’ll be back next year.

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