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A guide to the Calgary Folk Music Festival

By Troy Hasselman, July 18 2019 —

The Calgary Folk Music Festival will be celebrating its 40th year of showcasing artists working in countless different traditions of songwriting from all over the world from July 25 – 28 at Prince’s Island Park. The festival is a summer tradition for many and perhaps the biggest highlight of Calgary’s jam-packed festival season.

Since its inception in 1980, the festival has played host to luminaries such as David Byrne, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, St. Vincent, K.D. Lang, Elvis Costello, Neko Case and countless others while growing in terms of its size and audience.

“In the first couple of years there were only two nights, the festival happened Friday and Saturday night over two or three stages,” says Calgary Folk Musical Festival artistic director Kerry Clarke. “In 1995 we added a third night and in 1996 we added a fourth. Slowly over the years we’ve added stages and now are up to six daytime stages and two evening stages.”

Aside from the massive growth it’s made at Prince’s Island Park, the festival has also grown into an institution that is involved in concerts and community events over the entire year.

“We added Folk Music Boot Camp which is an instructional series of programming that happens at the National Music Centre during the week of the festival,” Clarke says. “We have concerts at our performance venue and office space called Festival Hall. We also now do a winter festival called Block Heater that’s now coming into its fifth year so it’s now bigger than the summer festival in its early years. We have a national profile and some significant and well-known artists.”

The festival is offering many well-known headliners across the four nights including sets from melancholic songwriter Sharon Van Etten and Scottish indie legends Belle and Sebastian on Thursday. Friday will have Folk Fest veterans Rheostatics, Prince protege and virtuoso drummer Sheila E. as well as Montreal indie rockers Half Moon Run. Saturday will bring country music mainstays Asleep at the Wheel, followed by the one-two punch of indie-folkies Lucius and the country-soul of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The festival will close out on Sunday with sets from neo-Gospel singer Valerie June, outlaw country singer Colter Wall and finish off with a set from hooky, sing-along starters The Strumbellas.

Beyond the headliners, there are many lesser-known artists that Clarke is particularly excited about for this years’ festival. 

“I think Bedouine is going to be very interesting. She’s a singer-songwriter from the States who has a Syrian background — I think she’s going to be fantastic and a sleeper hit. La Force is a member of Broken Social Scene, she’ll be very cool. One of my favourites is Yissy Garcia, she’s from Cuba and is a drummer,” Clarke says. “I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about her soon. Tal National are a group from Niger that are super interesting. I love the Mekons, they’re going through their 41st year as band. John Langford from the Mekons will also be fronting the group Four Lost Souls so we’ll be getting two shows from him. Beverly Glenn Copeland is very interesting, he’s a transgender artist who is about 71 years old and has had a very interesting career and spent some time on Mr. Dressup. He’s now coming back as an artist and has some young players with him so that should be very interesting. Cedric Burnside is a very cool blues artist. He’s related to R.L. Burnside as well.”

Folk Fest’s lineup is highly diverse and takes a very broad definition of what can be classified as folk music that acknowledges the innumerable musical traditions that artists from around the world operate in, setting up the lineup with its ethos.

“For me, folk is as much about the crowd and what the experience and how we treat the audience and how egalitarian it is,” Clarke says. “We have two-year-olds sleeping in front of the main stage and octogenarians walking around. That’s to me what folk is and the ability to have a wide tent in terms of styles of music. We tend to focus on independent songwriters but those songwriters can be singing from an African tradition or an American bluegrass tradition and everything in between.”

Folk Fest is as well a great place for a family outing with kids’ activities and performers being part of the festival.

“The family area runs on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m,” Clarke says. “It’s got activities and face painting and a bouncy castle and I think it has a climbing wall and all those kinds of fun things. We have a library book truck — artists come and read a story to the kids. We have local celebs that do as well. In the Talk Tent, in the morning, we have more kids-inclined stuff. We have Secret Agent 23 Skidoo who has a more hip-hop bent and does a lot of singalong stuff. We also have Shelley Bean and she’s awesome and does more participatory stuff.”

Spoken word performances are a huge part of the festival with comedians and other speakers all partaking in the festivals’ Talk Tent. 

“The talk tent has a variety of different aspects of spoken words,” Clarke says. “We have comedians and spoken word artists. We have Zoey Roy, a very cool Indigenous spoken word artist from Saskatchewan. We have Ali Hassan who is quite well-loved, from CBC. We have something that we call Richard Flohil’s War Stories — Richard is an 85-year-old, a very entrenched music industry fellow. He has booked the Mariposa Music Festival, he’s been a publicist, he’s worked with a lot of artists as a manager and he’s quite the character. He engages with a panel of artists that we’ve put together and he engages with artists about some of touring war stories and some of the funny things that have happened on the road and it’s really entertaining.”

For anyone who may be unfamiliar with the artists on the lineup, Clarke encourages checking the festival website for information on performers and to look at the festival as a chance to discover a new favourite.

“Some people may not be familiar with many of the artists which to us is not a bad thing because it’s a festival of discovery,” Clarke says. “I’d recommend people check them out on the website, click on their photo, a video will come up, read their bios and get to know them and I think people will have a really good idea for how to get into that artist.”

Clarke as well offers some advice on how to get to the festival and ensure that your time there is enjoyable as possible.

“If you can, bring a blanket or tarp but it’s not necessary. People tend to float from stage to stage but also stake their claim out on mainstage. People also line up quite far in advance to get their spot but you don’t have to. You should have a water bottle and some bug spray and some cool clothing and warm clothing because it can get cold at night time and you’re allowed to bring your own water bottle and picnic lunch. There’s some really good food on site. You’re allowed to come and go, so if you have to go home or want to go to Eau Claire market, you can. You can bike to the festival and we have a really awesome bike lock up as well.”

The 40th Calgary Folk Music Festival will run at Prince’s Island Park from July 25 – 28. For more information about the festival and tickets, visit their website.

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