Folk Fest Journals: Tired at the folk fest, not tired of the folk fest

By Garth Paulson

Few things are as great as a folk festival. When you get to attend these folk festivals for free it just sweetens the already saccharine-laced deal. After a hectic week of trying to arrange our media passes for the Gauntlet after they were already supposed to be in. I showed up at Prince’s Island Park on Thursday a little bit frazzled and a bit more excited. I was also exhausted, having stayed up too late the previous night putting together the paper and reading comic books. This fatigue would come to be a defining feature for my festival experience almost as important as the actual music itself.

After checking in at the media tent and wandering around for a bit Ken, our photographer, and I headed to the beer gardens where we met the other writer, Rachel. A beer later we went back towards the stage to catch the first act of the festival. India’s Kawa Brass Band kicked off the festival on a dancing and brightly coloured foot. The band delivered a lively set complete with dancers and stories of elephants stomping through cities, winning over an unfamiliar audience.

Next up was Buck 65 who came on to stage decked in a captain’s uniform with only a couple turntables to back him up. I was immediately disappointed because I was hoping Tortoise would be backing him up but he played a decent set nonetheless. For every young head-bobber in the audience there was an older person who couldn’t quite wrap their head around Buck’s bizarre delivery and nonsensical storytelling but he tried his best and displayed some remarkable talent acting as both his own DJ and emcee.

The Festival experienced its first attack of technical difficulties while setting up for the next band, Instinckt, this left emcee Kris Demeanor in an unfavourable position trying to fill time while the techs worked out the problem. In an incredible display of guts he launched into an unaccompanied rendition of “Airborn Bastard,” shrieking and gyrating wildly in front of 8000 uninterested people. Once the problems were finally fixed Instinkt took the stage sans double bass and launched into their unique brand of Danish Celtic Folk. The first song didn’t work so well but the band quickly improved and got a bunch of people up on their feet to dance along.

Next up was the always-fantastic Hawksley Workman, who didn’t disappoint even though he claimed to be nervous after being holed up in the studio for so long. In an unexpected move, his second song was one of his Christmas songs, which worked surprisingly well. Always the showman, Workman was constantly engaged in witty banter with both the crowd and his backing band making for a truly delightful experience. The show lagged a bit after he got behind the drum kit but it was still a great set which would have been the highlight of the night if it wasn’t for who was scheduled to follow him.

Hitting the stage and launching into a song with lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie, which he promptly forgot, things didn’t start as smoothly for Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy as they might have. He quickly made up for his mistake though and delivered an otherwise flawless set. Sadly, many audience members unfamiliar with Wilco left and didn’t get to witness dazzling solo acoustic versions of such masterpieces as ‘I am Trying to Break your Heart,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” and “She’s a Jar.”

Once Tweedy was done people started filing out of the park, Rachel, Ken and I decided to head out for a beer and ended up at a swanky pub where a bunch of middle aged people were ridiculously drunk ar some sort of corporate party. In addition to watching a woman do a full on face plant, knocking over a table and breaking a few glasses on the way down, we were also unexpectedly given $35 from a man for reasons I still can’t understand. Eventually I got home and hit my pillow later than I would have liked.

I took Friday off from the festival but ended up going out for drinks which lead to Stephen Chow movies and me not getting to sleep until about four a.m. Peter, who crashed at my place, and I got up around nine to head down to the festival in time to catch Tortoise, Buck 65 and Hawksley Workman do a workshop. We met up with our Photog Andrea and headed in. The workshop started up with Buck 65 acting as ring leader, pretty soon everyone one was jamming with varying results. The performers readily admitted they weren’t quite sure what they were doing but for the most part the rhythms they cooked up were pleasing. The only major complaint is the under use of Workman who spent the entire workshop behind a drum kit keeping very basic beats.

Workman would come into his own at the next workshop though which also featured K’Naan and Xavier Rudd. Here the three artists played off each other wonderfully resulting in an undeniable festival highlight. After this workshop I headed back to the media tent to check on interviews then got some food while the Del McCoury Band played on the mainstage.

Eventually, I found my way back to Stage four, which featured a consistently kick ass line up throughout the festival. This time I caught a workshop with Buck 65, K’Naan and Arrested Development which succeeded in every respect. All three emcees were tight with K’Naan in particular shining, and the impromptu jams and freestyle battles they engaged in were nothing but thrilling.

After a brief return to the media tent I made my way over to stage five for the first time to watch a workshop with Justin Rutledge, Ron Sexsmith, Chad VanGaalen and Xavier Rudd. By this time I was really feeling the scorching sun and didn’t have a good view of the stage so this workshop turned out to be a bit of a let down after the last three. The last time I was at the media tent they told me to check back at 4:30 regarding the interviews we had requested so I went back there yet again. I was nervously waiting around not wanting to miss Tortoise’s set, which was set to begin at 4:35. After not hearing anything I told the reps to call me if anything came up and headed back to stage five. When I got there nothing had happened and the band was still setting up. This lasted for what seemed like a really long time, at around five Tortoise finally started playing. This was one of the biggest draws for me at this year’s festival so I was really digging what they were doing on stage until my phone rang.

It was one of the media reps telling me we had an interview set up with John at quarter to six. I had requested an interview with John K. Samson of the Weakerthans so I assumed this is who they were talking about. Reluctantly I made my way back to the tent leaving Tortoise locked into a groove. When I got there I soon realized the John they were talking about was actually John Rutherford of No Guff who Peter had asked to speak with. A little annoyed, I headed back to get Peter. Everything worked out, we got the interview done and Peter told me the rest of Tortoise’s set was great. Bastard.

About halfway through Tortoise’s set Andrea decided to leave which left Peter and I to take care of the rest of the photos for the day. I made my photographic debut snapping shots of Bill Frisell and Iris Dement on the mainstage. Peter then took over photo duties for CJ Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band who put on a blistering, party friendly performance. I got the camera back for shots of Sarah Harmer but there was lighting problems and most of them turned out blurry. Harmer did put on a pleasing concert though, playing songs which pleased pretty much everyone in attendance. Arrested Development closed out the night, Peter went to take photos and we stayed around for a few songs afterwards but headed out midway through their set due to fatigue.

We had to go back to the office and download the photos so we could take more the next day, somehow this lead to a late night visit to Denny’s and another day of going to bed way too late.

I woke up again at around nine a.m., I wasn’t initially supposed to go on Sunday but Alan, the writer who was supposed to go, dropped out so I scooped up his pass. Sunday started out really ugly with poring rain and frigid temperatures. While walking to the festival I was cursing Alan’s name for making me go out in the violently unpleasant weather. By the time we got in, the rain had pretty much cleared up but the temperature was still nasty. Emily and I waddled our way over to the coffee vendors then off to stage five to see Christine Fellows, the Weakerthans and Jackie Leven play. I told Emily she should request an interview with Leven mistaking him for the accordion player Wendy McNeil. Needless to say we were both a little bit surprised to find out instead of a cute 20 something folkie Leven was a large middle-aged Scot. The set was good and I snapped a few more photos then ran over to stage six to get some shots of Chad VanGaalen which didn’t turn out very well.

Afterwards I made my way back to the media tent and caught a couple of excellent songs at a workshop with VanGaalen again, Dany Michel and No Guff. I also met Dale, our photog for the day, then and we went back to the media tent. I warmed up there for a bit before going back to see the tail-end of the same workshop. The few songs I caught turned out to be among the best stuff I heard at the entire festival as Michel led the performers through some great improvisation.

Steve Earle took to the mainstage at 1:30 allowing me to get some much needed fuel and a bit of down time. After filling my belly with sweet potato fries I made my way to stage four to watch the Weakerthans, Chad VanGaalen, Dany Michel and Thea Gilmore play. This workshop followed the great precedent set by other workshops throughout the weekend and blew the audience away.

I had to head back to the media tent yet again for an interview with Chad VanGaalen but ended up waiting around for a good 45 minutes past when the interview was supposed to happen because he was busy with other things. When we finally did get to talk it went well, he said things were mind boggling a lot which just made me like him even more than I already had.

When the interview wrapped I made my way to stage three to check out the last bit of the Weakerthans set. I met up with Dale and Emily and caught a few songs, which were as tight as ever.

After their set was done the mainstage shows started and I wandered around a bit without much direction. We ended up getting food during Waterson: Carthy then went back to the main area to watch Mary Gauthier deliver a strong, if Lucinda Williams-esque, set.

I had to leave halfway through to go and chat with John K. Samson of the Weakerthans. I was a little bit nervous because I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked to be but the interview still went alright.

Next up was Balkan Beat Box who Emily was really excited to see. They came out wearing pig masks, which was something I didn’t expect to see at a folk festival. We laughed at how their DJ brought an entire desktop computer along with him instead of the typical laptop. Their performance was quiet fun but by this time the last five or so days had really caught up to me and I don’t remember too much of it.

Dale left halfway through their set, Emily and I stuck it out until a few songs into Shelby Lynne’s but decided to leave after that as it was starting to get cold and my but was sore. When I got home I had the greatest shower in the history of existence and collapsed in my bed. My three days at folk fest were great but they sure kicked the crap out of me. Still, I’ll be back next year.

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