The Calgary Folk Music Festival (CFMF) 2021 has emerged once more in celebration of its 42nd year at Prince’s Island Park. This year’s theme was “Summer Serenades” — and rightfully so, considering how we all feel as we step out of the haze of this past year. The festival came surprisingly with almost a similar bombast of picnic blankets, lawn chairs and fun food truck beer and grub galore — despite being reduced to only 15 per cent of its original capacity. Somehow the festival organizers managed to shine through as this iteration of the Calgary Folk Fest is a “step towards recovery towards the arts,” as Artistic Director Kerry Clarke mentioned.
It was more sparse than previous years, with physically distanced tarps and mandatory mask restrictions for all staff, personnel and volunteers and lesser variety in affiliated merchandise being sold. But somehow they managed to pull off a most dazzling musical event — and honestly apart from some restrictions like physical distancing between the tarps, it didn’t feel all that much different.
Typically, the annual festival is a four-day, family-friendly, cultural and musical celebration featuring upwards 70 artists from Alberta, Canada and around the world performing on six daytime and two evening stages in concerts and sessions. It’s arguably Alberta’s — let alone Canada’s — premiere performing arts festivals with thousands of Calgarians and tourists in attendance every year and on average 12,000 individuals attending each day of the festivities, not to mention a boasting 2000 community of helpful volunteers.
However, this year they opted to generously do a week-long event to make up for lost time due to the COVID-19 restrictions from last year. Performers ranged from budding rising stars to headlining seasoned musicians including Shad, Jim Cuddy, Terra Lightfoot, Lido Pimienta, The Halluci Nation, Wyatt C. Louis, Dan Mangan, Frazey Ford, Charlotte Cardin, Cowboy Junkies and so much more.
What makes CFMF unique is their format, as they bring amazing artists from all over the world from different genres and immerse them in collaborative sessions by placing several artists on stage. This year there were nine Alberta artists out of the 36 total performers. It’s also an incredible networking opportunity for local musicians based in Calgary to boost their influence and expand their followers who end up oftentimes going on tour with each other and doing collabs on each other’s EP’s or albums.
But what exactly is “folk music”? Folk music can be given the standard definition of being alternative or indie, something set apart from mainstream music. But it’s so much more. A lot of people don’t realize that “folk is more about how people behave rather than the genre. It’s more about the diversity of music,” as Clarke emphasizes. At the end of the day, it’s an experience. It’s all about the songs that are sung by the people for the people and not another conventional recording in the studio. It’s is almost egalitarian and features a palette of country, blues, eletronica, coustic, blues and indie — you name it. The beauty of the folk festival is that it showcases unheard of newbies to well known Canadian artists that are not featured on super commercial radio stations, but instead ones like CKUA and CBC as Clarke expressed.
My first foray into this year’s folk festival was unexpectedly fantastic. Going in, I didn’t really have high expectations due to the recent lifting of restrictions, but oh boy, did they deliver. My first impression as I waded through past the checkpoint tents and through the gates onto the familiar main stage area, was to see swaths of people sprawled onto tarps — physically distanced, of course. For a flickering moment amongst the sway of the booming summer tunes and jives, it seemed as if the worldwide pandemic was but a nightmarish fever-dream. It just goes to show you the effort the festival organizers, including staff and volunteers, invested in not only making up for lost time but also putting together a grand celebration. I don’t think I’ve ever been so in awe of a crowd full of random people.
Okay, enough about my admiration of the art of festival. Let’s dig into the actual performances. I arrived just as Leaf Rapids were part way through their set and was immediately immersed in their alternative/indie sound. Hailing from Winnipeg, their music is influenced by lead singer Keri Latimer’s family origins and her Japanese great-grandmother and utilizes ancestral roots to blend history to time and place. Nominated for Best Contemporary Album for their album Citizen Alien at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, they are definitely ones to check out.
Following this, Aya Mhana playfully introduced her set by giving us a quick demo of her Gambusi, a string musical instrument originating in the Middle East. Mhana sang beautifully in Arabic and a lot of her songs are laced with her struggles with identity and departing from her homeland. Being an immigrant from Syria has inspired her to speak of the malevolent conflict that continues to this day. Mhana is a self-taught vocalist and continues to foster a safe and warm place for us all to enjoy.
Pharis and Jason Romero were the duo for the evening and, might I add, melded so well together. Their hamonic vibe is all about early country, old-time folk, blues and bluegrass and they’ve won three JUNO awards including one last year for their album Bet on Love. The banjo for me was definitely the highlight of the performance as, up until now, I didn’t realize how much depth it can add to a performance. It pairs well with the musical couple’s theme of living the simple life as most of their songs are inspired by living the rural and old country lifestyle.
Then there was our rising star Kate Stevens, an upcoming and locally based R&B and soul artist. Before this, I had never heard of her, but after seeing her raw emotion and strumming voice I was in awe — it was easily my favourite performance of the night. I was surprised to see how mature she was being so young, as she sang in an insightful way on the everyday ups and downs we all experience. She really has the ability to tap into that human experience and I only see her getting better and better in her musical endeavors.
And last but certainly not least we have the country and rock superstar Jim Cuddy who has been around for four decades — need I say more? I honestly don’t know that much about the genre of country music, other than the legendary Johnny Cash, who is also a global icon — “Ring of Fire” anyone? — but after experiencing this performance I was taken aback by the breadth of his songs. There really is something that everyone can relate to, folk lovers or not. I can see why many had gathered to see this Canadian music icon.
My first day at the festival was an adventure. I arrived at the wrong entrance and had to find my way to the right one through the maze that the Eau Claire area has become since they’ve started renovating the Jaipur bridge. I got to the park at around 7:10 p.m. I found Rachneet, but our reunion didn’t last long. Since I was also on photo duty this weekend, I had the privilege of watching many of these artists perform while — literally — standing at their feet. The first performance I caught was that of Terra Lightfoot and her band. Lightfoot was super energetic and her set was an absolute blast. Her rich, powerful voice and the soulful, country-rock beats of her music shook the stage and the people alike. She radiated energy through the strings of her guitar. She gave us a taste of her musicianship as she put down her guitar to sing at the keyboard. Her set was a great start to the festival for me, especially, later on when people started joining her, stageside, dancing.
Following Lightfoot and her band, came the Pairs. Also based out of Ontario, the Pairs offered more mellowed tunes and soft, acoustic Canadiana. You wouldn’t think the combination of three classically-trained singers and a former punk-rock drummer would come together this nicely, but there’s something about this band that just works.
Soon after, Rachneet and I were off to talk to Lightfoot. But even during our interview, it was hard to miss the power and presence Lido Pimienta brought to the stage. Lightfoot noted how unconventional it is for a festival to feature two female headliners on the same day, and commended the CFMF on this choice. We did too, because our Saturday was blessed with such abundance of female power and soul. After the interview, we joined the crowd and danced and swayed to the sound of Pimienta’s cry for justice and equality through “Aqua.” Her set ended the night with a bang and was such a substantive experience.
For Saturday, we focused on half-day coverage, but it was still jam packed nonetheless. As we belatedly started the evening in between coverage I have to admit, apart from the headliner of the evening Lido Pimienta, I would have to say that Terra Lightfoot impressed me the most. I appreciated how women were given rockstar status on that particular day. Lightfoot put on a dazzling display with her all-consuming soulful voice and rustic vibe. Lightfoot literally made everyone get up and groove with her singing as about halfway through her performance everyone began to get up and dance, leaving the comfort of their tarps — that’s saying something about her talent and skill as a musician.
I had the chance to interview her and she’s even more blooming in person and off stage and I was so inspired by her advice of empowering women — something I never learned from dry college lectures. This makes sense considering how the women mentors in her family groomed and inspired her bold bluesy and alternative rock style. If anything, Lightfoot made the melodic evening well worth it. And of course we have the headliner hotshot of the night, Lido Pimienta.
Honestly I didn’t really know what to expect. For me, I had seen her Miss Colombia album being a chart-topper on the Billboard Music Selections, so I knew she’d be amazing. I have this habit of always encountering a never-before-seen musician at a concert and then listening to their EPs and albums — kind of like how some have watched the Harry Potter movies first and then read the books. I know it’s the opposite but always having an open mind means you are more likely to come across some diamonds in the rough like I have. As an Afro-Indigenous and queer feminist hailing from Colombia and based out of Toronto, she is a true trailblazer when it comes to challenging the status quo. Rarely do you find artists who speak and sing of political and socio economic issues. She’s also all about women’s empowerment, speaking of the everyday struggles from periods, to being a mother and giving birth. I appreciated that she gives it to you straight and doesn’t sugarcoat her message. We definitely need more women creative types like this be it musicians, actors, entrepreneurs and so much more. You don’t need to understand Spanish fluently to understand how her songs can provoke a movement for justice — you can just feel it.
The Pairs, a musical group from London, Ontario, also performed twice. This band has this unbridled theatrical vibe, and go by the mantra of connection and sharing everyday stories of life’s vulnerabilities, anxieties and hopes. I would say they were the glue that bridged all of the performances of the night together with their laid back approach.
Monday was my first full day at the festival. When I arrived around 3:45 p.m. for a chat with Wyatt C. Louis, there were sound checks happening on the main stage. I had a lovely interview with Louis most of which was sadly lost due to technological difficulties. However, he told me about himself and his work. A budding, Indigenous artist, originally from Treaty 6 territory, currently living in Treaty 7 territory — Calgary — with his partner. Louis talked about his musical influences which included his family and a choir teacher he worked with extensively as a young person pursuing music. He explained how his single, “Dancing with Sue,” was an homage to all the women who have influenced him and his music throughout his life. He was excited to perform and to share his music — some of which he was performing for the first time — with the audience. Shortly after my talk with Louis, the park started echoing with the sound of Julian Taylor’s voice, as he took the stage for his soundcheck.
My evening at the park really started at around 5:40 p.m. I took a few laps around and snagged some photos of the food trucks and the audience before I made my way backstage, ready to go to the pit for Julian Taylor’s performance. This was a performance I really looked forward to and ended up enjoying a lot. He brought his calm and peaceful presence to the stage and to the park. The harmonious sound of voices and instruments blending together during his set was a great way to start off the evening. You should all pause reading this article right now and go listen to The Ridge.
Louis took the stage next. I could only recognize and sing along with “Dancing with Sue,” since it was the only song of his I had listened to on repeat the day before. It was wonderful to see so many Indigenous artists featured at the festival this year. It was also great to see and learn more about how events such as the CFMF can serve as networking opportunities for artists. Earlier, I asked Louis about his mentors and he told me about relationship with William Prince, who was also featured at the CFMF this year. As I mentioned before, many of the songs Louis performed are currently being recorded for his debut album. He’s definitely an artist to look out for if you’re into indie or roots music.
I’d been really excited about Dominique Fils-Aimé’s performance at the CFMF. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of her before this festival because I ended up really appreciating her music. I wasn’t able to watch her entire performance, but I did catch a few great songs, including “While We Wait,” and her version of “Feeling Good.” I soon went to the backstage area for an interview with Taylor, but as we sat there talking, we couldn’t help but vibe along with the sound of Fils-Aimé’s music. She’s doing some really great stuff, musically — mixing and blending genres — and telling some very important stories through her music. I would definitely recommend checking out her albums — especially Nameless, Stay Tuned! and Three Little Words.
The next performer was Marleana Moore. This was also when I was able to get some down time. Sitting under the shade of a tree, listening to music and watching the kids play in the grass really felt like summer had come to Calgary again after a long year spent in isolation. The most memorable moment of Moore’s performance was during her final song when she hit a high note that even left Dan Mangan in awe.
Though everyone’s performances were amazing and incredibly enjoyable, I think it was Mangan’s set that stuck with everyone who watched the show on Monday. I had been most excited about Mangan’s performance, having been a fan of his since my late teens. I might have cried a little while photographing him in the pit as he started singing my favourite song. His set just kept getting better. He stepped down from the stage and stood among the audience to sing a couple of songs campfire style. He really engaged the audience, encouraging us to sing along. The few songs sung in acapella, with the audience harmonizing and singing the chores was a lot of fun to do, watch and be a part of. The night ended with an encore and not only the park, but the entire Eau Claire neighbourhood resonated with the sound of music coming from the festival grounds. It was a marvelous way to end this year’s folk festival experience for me.
I had the chance to attend this day virtually through the Folk Fest TV live stream on Youtube. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve all just totally taken a deep plunge into the digital world, but I have to admit it was better than I expected. For starters, the HD quality was amazing and my levels of engagement were satisfying.
As mentioned, all the musicians had incredible performances and I too discovered hidden gems like Dominique Fils-Aimé, an African-Canadian blues artist from Ontario. Her neo-soul approach was both elegant and enchanting whilst still remaining fresh, powerful and smooth. And of course we had the opportunity to experience the headliner Dan Mangan — Canada’s alternative and indie rockstar. Because this is one of my favourite genres, I was shocked to find out that I had not actively listened to his music prior to the event and was so glad to discover him. His natural presence on stage is just as transcendent as his dreamy and inviting vocal style.
Tuesday was my third and final attempt at the festivities. I had arrived earlier to have a chat with Frazey Ford and I have to admit, it was one of the most in-depth sit downs I have done for the Gauntlet to date. Just hearing her backstory and how it shaped her music career gave me goosebumps. Also, might I add, that this whole day was again all about female empowerment.
Fiver kicked off the festivities for the evening with Simone Schmidt who has this improvisational and versatility about them as they opted for an almost psychedelic and country-meshed vibe and are redirecting the genre itself by hashing it open to other blends. Their unique approach doesn’t lay it on thick but rather takes a detour into other realms. Right after, Amy Nelson, who is also locally based and from Calgary took the stage — twice over — that evening and I have to admit it’s probably the most raw country performance I have ever seen in my life. Her old-timey bluegrass voice is amazing and really draws you in. Listening to her I felt transported back to what late 19th and early 20th century Alberta and its western culture must’ve been like.
Apart from the headliner act, Frazey Ford was of course, for me, one of the best performances of the night. I loved her ‘70s aura and everlasting soulful essence. She has this presence on stage that is confidently poised yet exposed to the sensitivities of the audience. A lot of her songs’ vocal style is timeless and so incredibly relatable thanks to her soulful spirit. Her harmony is also unparalleled by her empathy towards the life struggles we all face.
To end off the night, we had Charlotte Cardin, another upcoming musician from Montreal who readily and stylishly inporates French lyrics into her R&B, pop-rock and jazz-like unfiltered personal chants — everything from heartbreaks, lust, quarter-life identity crises and more. Her latest album Phoenix is akin to how she too aims to be reborn emerging from the ashes a new person based on the struggles she has faced so far. She seems to be a fan-favourite among the younger adolescence demographic which makes sense. I can definitely see her songs playing on the more mainstream top radio stations. As for me, her fun and playful stage presence had me staying until the very last song — even the last couple of encore performances. I can definitely see her blowing up as an international artist sometime soon. Overall, all of these talented and bold musicians that took to the stage this past Tuesday evening inspired me to see the extraordinary and be open to exploring the possibilities for us in the creative arts.
Over the course of a few days in the week long Summer Serenades music event was like escaping to a familiar unknown full of requited joy, laughter and hope.
For those of you who missed out, or are simply feeling nostalgic, you can view a showcase of this year’s featured musicians on the Calgary Folk Music Festival YouTube channel and keep a look out for their comeback for next time. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the amazing talent both locally and nationally across Canada. Keep calm and folk on!