By Troy Hasselman, August 6, 2019 —
(with files from Kristy Koehler)
The Calgary Folk Music Festival has come and gone for another year. The laid-back carnival of lawn chairs, tote bags and, of course, music took over Prince’s Island Park on the weekend for its 40th year with sets from notables such as Sharon Van Etten, Belle and Sebastian, Sheila E., Half Moon Run, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Colter Wall and The Strumbellas. Here’s what we thought of the festival this year.
I arrived at the grounds on Friday night just as the Rheostatics were nearing the halfway point of their mainstage set. The music coming from the main stage echoed so loudly that I could hear it rumbling as I walked from my neighborhood in Sunnyside and across the Peace Bridge to the festival grounds. The Canadiana tinged folk-rock of the Rheostatics echoed the work of Canadian luminaries like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and acted as a strong introduction for the festival for myself.
Following the Rheostatics set came master percussionist and Prince protégé Sheila E. You don’t get to be Prince’s protégé and survive four decades in the music business without knowing how to put on a hell of a show, and Sheila E. did just that. She set the tone for her set early on when during a break in a song she ordered everyone in the audience to hug the person sitting next to them. This set the tone for a set that espoused the old-fashioned ideals of peace and love while running through sprawling funk-jams that recall the space-age groove of her precursors like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly & The Family Stone while also showing how she paved the way for current-day aliens like Janelle Monáe or Esperanza Spalding. Her electrifying performance brought a sizable portion of the audience out of their lawn chairs into a frenzy of communal dancing in what was a surefire highlight of the festival.
After Sheila E’s had left the stage the sun had set on Prince’s Island Park and Montreal indie rockers Half Moon Run came onstage through the darkness for a more restrained and toned-down set. While the folk-influenced tunes of Half Moon Run certainly fit in with the aesthetic of the festival and made for a solid set it couldn’t help but feel deflating after the show-stopping dance party that was Sheila E’s show. The music that Half Moon Run makes is less energetic than Sheila E’s and is more suited for an early evening set before the main-headliner and ultimately ended up feeling anticlimactic in the closing slot.
I got to the park around 5:00 p.m. and headed for Stage Four where Santa Cruz-based Americana band The Devil Makes Three was set to play.
The drummer-less trio of Pete Bernhard, Lucia Turino and Cooper McBean blend old country, bluegrass, folk, ragtime and rock n’ roll into energetic, punchy performances. Die-hard fans gathered by the stage, hootin’ and hollerin’ and singin’ along. The crowd was totally into it by the time they got around to belting out “Thank you Jack Daniel’s Old Number Seven / Tennessee Whiskey got me drinking in heaven.” What more could you want in a song than to hear the artist wax poetic about the merits of whiskey?
It’s unexpected for a folk trio to come on stage and pack all the energy of a punk concert into a 45-minute set but The Devil Makes Three did just that.
After a visit to the packed beer garden for a few hours of enjoying Big Rock brews, I made my way to the ATB Mainstage to hear Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — along with apparently everyone else on the island. Where people normally sit to relax and listen they stood in anticipation. Rateliff’s vintage rhythm and blues style was on full display as he opened with radio favourite “You Worry Me.” The crowd waited in anticipation through the hour-long set for the group to launch into the familiar “Son of a bitch / Give me a drink,” but didn’t get their wish until the encore.
As the group made their way off the stage, the crowd refused to leave. Rateliff knew what they came for, returned to the stage and launched into the hit song “S.O.B.” as the ecstatic crowd sang along.
As thousands of people made their way out of the park, they were calm, orderly, friendly and not at all rowdy — perhaps owing to the new cannabis consumption site on the grounds.
I arrived on the grounds on Sunday afternoon in time to catch a set from Tuareg guitar master Mdou Moctar, Moctar previously played Calgary as part of 2015’s Sled Island festival where he played a mind-bending set at the dearly departed Wine-Ohs Bistro and Cellar. I’ve since maintained that he is one of the greatest living guitarists and was one of the artists I was most excited for at this years festival. I was not disappointed. He blazed through his set, ferociously displaying his command over his instrument. The captivated Sunday afternoon crowd that either sat in awe or danced like they were at the third day of Woodstock in response. The 45 minute set from Moctar was my personal highlight of the weekend and one of the strongest sets I’ve seen this year.
I took a large portion of Sunday afternoon as a chance to explore the festival grounds on Prince’s Island Park that offered more than the multiple stages scattered throughout the island. I walked through the food truck area that featured trucks that sold full-size pizzas, vegetarian corn dogs and pulled pork, Jamaican food, Asian-fusion burritos, Mediteranean BBQ, mini donuts and gelato amongst others. For shopping, the merch tent offered vinyls and t-shirts of artists performing at the festival along with official Calgary Folk Festival merchandise. The artisan section held displays that offered everything from hennas to jewelry to wooden guitar picks.
Outside the festival grounds, crowds milled through the Bow River pathways either walking, biking, or most likely, zipping by on one of the new Lime Scooters that was introduced into the city earlier in the summer as part of a pilot-project and have since taken our cities walkways by storm. I took a quick spin on one of these scooters and can say I completely understand the hype behind them now. I felt like a kid taking his first bike ride as I weaved across the pathway. There have been numerous injuries caused by these scooters with close to 60 people hospitalized with injuries since their introduction. I’d like to plead with my fellow Calgarians to stay safe on these scooters because it has quickly became my favourite form of transportation and I would hope to see them become full-time parts of our city.
Back inside the festival grounds, after playing a few quick and competitive games of two-by-four Jenga in the Beergardens, I made my way back towards the main stage to catch the end of the set from Outlaw country-star and son of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, Colter Wall. Wall has a Cash-like baritone well beyond his 24 years and counts Steve Earle amongst his growing fanbase.
Following Wall’s set came headliners and festival closers The Strumbellas in what was one of the most wholesome concerts I’ve ever seen. The Strumbellas brought a camp counselor vibe to their performance as they coached the audience to clap and sing along to their set. The sing-along atmosphere was compounded by a dance that most of the audience was doing that was a more laid-back variation on the wave as the band “oohed”, “woahed” and “hey’d” their way through their supremely earnest songs. After their encore fireworks lit up from the stage to commemorate the 40th edition of what has become as much of an enshrined summer institution in Calgary as the Stampede and a crown jewel of our cities thriving festival season.