The magic of Friday at the Folk Festival

By Trenton Shaw

When I arrived at the Folk Festival main stage after meeting our cameraman, who was an hour and a half late, I realized I missed my chance to throw down my blanket anywhere close to the stage. It wasn’t all that upsetting because I had no blanket or tarp, but I still managed to lay down my jacket beside a friendly old man who wasted no time initiating a conversation. “Snuck in the media gate did you?” he said when noticing my media pass.

As I looked away from the shirtless old man’s jovial potbelly, I saw Ruthie Foster singing the blues with her rich gospel voice. It was not long before she launched into a sparsely accompanied monologue about her overweight grandmother and winning the crowd over with her southern charm. Although some of the mostly middle-aged audience was captivated, others did not seem to be paying much attention to the stage, more content reading while waiting for someone more to their liking got on to play.

That was when I started to appreciate some of the unorthodox qualities of the Calgary Folk Music Festival–it’s one of the few concerts where you can read a book ten feet from the stage during a performance without getting destroyed by the moshers or feeling like a loser. This is the only music festival I know of to offer free yoga sessions in the morning behind the main stage. This is also a forum for very different musicians whose styles would not normally mesh to jam together in workshops.

Before Friday’s second act Caitlin Cary had finished her first song, my shirtless neighbour was already complaining about country music. He grouses about being able to have done without her performance. I guess the diversity of the folk fest is like Jay-Z’s seventh album–a gift and a curse.

Speaking of rappers, the third act to take the stage was revered blues artist Olu Dara, father of famous Queensbridge rapper Nas. Dara had more than a few interesting things to say about hip-hop and how black music had changed in front of his eyes. The highlight of his set was the sultry track where Dara sings "Your lips are juicy", beautifully accompanied with Conga drums and orgasmic wind chimes. Dara’s failure to deliver an encore angered one hippie behind me who shouted, "Play one more" for five straight minutes after the performers had cleared the stage.

The next act, Shooglenifty, graced the stage with their adrenaline charged Celtic music, and demanded to know why people were not dancing. But dancing at the Folk Fest is somewhat problematic, because if you really want to dance, you would have to get your ass out of your lawnchair and go to the designated dancing area to avoid pissing off the people sitting behind you. This seemed like way too much work for an uninspired audience more content to enjoy the music from their seats.

The North Mississippi Allstars, who jammed on everything from psychedelic to country hillbilly, had more success getting the crowd involved. By the time Great Big Sea took the stage, all Hell had broken loose. Some people at the front started standing, which impelled everyone behind them to stand. It was all for the best, because you can only pump your fist from a lawnchair for only so long before you start to look like a moron. Great Big Sea performed an energetic set of their typical Newfoundland folk-pop, and impressed with their acappella vocal harmonies.

When I got home my sister was setting her alarm to get up at 3:30 in the morning to wait in line for Saturday’s performances. If people were willing to get up this early for the Folk Fest it must be something special. Even if it was difficult to understand the many different styles of music at the festival, it was easy to understand the bond of love music could create. It was easy to understand the old potbellied man and I had shared something magical.

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