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Is the Calgary Folk Music Festival overrated?

By Josie Simon, June 7 2024—

The Calgary Folk Music Festival, one of Canada’s largest and most celebrated music festivals, has been a centrepiece of Calgary’s cultural landscape since its inception in 1980. Held annually at Prince’s Island Park, the festival draws in over 52,000 attendees annually. This year’s event, scheduled for July 25-28, promises to be no different. With its sprawling setup across eight stages and an international lineup of 72 artists, the festival’s appeal is undeniable. But with high ticket prices, long lines and food some describe as mediocre, one must question: is this beloved event worth the fuss?

The Calgary Folk Music Festival began modestly as a three-day event on three stages and evolved over the years into a four-day musical extravaganza. This transformation did not happen overnight. The construction of the festival’s permanent mainstage in the late 1990s and its recovery after the catastrophic flood of 2013 are significant milestones in its rich history. The festival has weathered various storms, both literally and figuratively. It has continued to grow with the support of over 1,600 community volunteers who help build and produce the event each year.

This summer, marking the festival’s 45th anniversary, the lineup announced promises yet another eclectic mix of music. According to Lily Dupuis of CBC News, the 2024 roster is not restricted to folk music. Genres from funk, jazz, soul, hip-hop, indie and more are represented. Headliners for this year include The Roots, a three-time Grammy-winning group, along with artists like KT Tunstall, Cowboy Junkies, James Vincent McMorrow and Booker T. Presents: A Stax Revue.

Artistic and Marketing Director Kerry Clarke highlighted that this year’s lineup is a “festival of discovery,” aiming to balance seasoned artists with up-and-coming performers. Local talent is also well-represented, with acts like Wyatt C. Louis, Kue Varo and the Only Hopes and Arlo Maverick, among others. This mixture of local and global talent continues to be one of the festival’s strongest selling points.

Over the decades, the festival has seen unique and unforgettable performances. K.D. Lang and the Siss Boom Bang’s performance in 2011 captivated the audience and remains legendary. Tegan and Sara’s 1999 performance delighted the hometown crowd, leading to their rise in international stardom. The festival’s spirit lies in these magical moments and transformative performances.

Beyond the music, the festival holds a solid economic and cultural influence on Calgary. A Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance study showcased how the festival generated $6.6 million worth of economic activity in Alberta in 2016, with $6 million directly benefiting Calgary.

The festival is family-friendly around the clock, with the Bishop and McKenzie Family Zone offering a unique haven for children and parents alike. Families can unleash their creative spirits and engage their senses through hands-on activities, toys, games and performances. From crafts and face painting to dedicated family entertainment, this zone ensures that even the littlest folkies have a delightful time.

For those keen on culinary delights, the Calgary Folk Music Festival‘s dynamic food vendor market caters to a full spectrum of dietary considerations. Whether you have specific dietary needs or enjoy diverse culinary options you will find something to satisfy your taste buds. Plus, attendees can bring their own food and non-alcoholic beverages to the park, ensuring everyone can enjoy a picnic-style experience.

While outside alcohol is not permitted, the festival is fully licensed across the grounds. Patrons aged 18 years and older (with ID) can purchase various alcoholic beverages from both the Big Rock Bar areas and the Eau Claire Distillery Outpost.

The Talk Tent also offers an exciting alternative to the usual festival fare, featuring comedy, spoken word artists, hip-hop cyphers, family entertainment and music panels. This shaded tent is a fun, interactive space where attendees can listen to Richard Flohil’s “War Stories,” detailing the road life and work practices of musicians, complete with all their bumps and bruises. 

One major criticism of the Calgary Folk Music Festival is its high ticket prices. A four-day early-bird pass costs $215, and day passes range from $80 to $90. However, children 12 and under get in free, making it more appealing for families. 

Students, in particular, can benefit from significant savings. With a valid post-secondary ID, students can buy four-day early-bird passes for $160 and day passes for $50 to $60. This discount allows students to access the festival’s rich, multifaceted experience without breaking the bank.

For those attending this year’s festival, a well-prepared approach can enhance your experience. Arriving early to secure a prime spot with a tarp or blanket is crucial. This base camp not only reserves your territory but also serves as a reliable meeting point if you get separated from your group. 

Given the vast lineup of 72 artists across eight stages, planning your schedule is essential. Review the event timetable and make a list of must-see performances to ensure you do not miss out.

Hydration is key, especially with Calgary’s late July heat. Bring a reusable water bottle for free refills at the festival’s stations, ensuring you stay cool and hydrated without buying bottled water. 

Bring a low-rise festival chair for comfortable viewing. These chairs provide relaxation without obstructing others’ views, enhancing the overall experience.

Calgary’s weather can be unpredictable, shifting from hot to chilly quickly. Bring layers or a light jacket to stay comfortable, and consider a poncho for unexpected drizzle. Remember, the show goes on rain or shine.

Finally, linger on the grass to avoid the end-of-day rush as the crowd thins out. This relaxed approach can make your departure more enjoyable.

While the Calgary Folk Music Festival is criticized for high ticket prices, long lines and occasional food quality issues, these drawbacks are overshadowed by its vibrant performances, cultural contributions and economic benefits to the city. For those questioning whether the festival is overrated, the answer is no. Its magic, rich history and profound community impact make it an indispensable event on Calgary’s cultural calendar.

This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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