Prince's Island prepares for one of Calgary's biggest music festivals.
Adrienne Shumlich/the Gauntlet

Folk Fest is coming and can't be stopped

Prince's Island prepares for one of Calgary's biggest music festivals

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Every year in late July, Prince’s Island Park is covered with tarps, and these tarps are covered with music fans. They arrive in droves of hundreds to attend one of the biggest festivals in Calgary, and one of the most important musical events in Canada: the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

Founded in 1980, the CFMF features a mix of artists from a variety of different musical backgrounds gathered from around the globe to perform over the course of four days, from July 26–29. With some events at the National Music Centre, the festival takes place almost entirely on Prince’s Island, which is filled with food vendors and other attractions for the duration of the event. However, despite always being in the same place at the same time each year, the festival is far from stagnation.

“Everything is new every year, even with the same format we have almost completely different performers,” says Kerry Clarke, CFMF’s artistic director. “We have a lot of artists who have never been to Canada or have never played in Calgary coming to the festival.”

Artists performing this year include Beirut, Iron and Wine and Jimmy LaFave, along with local acts such as The Magnetic North and Lorrie Matheson.

A popular feature of the festival that ensures every year is a unique experience is the collaborative music sessions. These sessions bring different musicians together playing on stage, often for the first time.

“We do the collaborative sessions where we put artists together to create different styles and themes. You are guaranteed to hear something brand new at the festival, something you will probably never see again,” explains Clarke. “What results from these collaborations is something entirely unique, and every year that is new.”

New this year to the festival is the Apache Talk Tent, a stage specifically designated for comedy and other spoken arts, including interviews with some of the musicians.

“It includes comedians, spoken word poets, community organizations and artist interviews,” says Clarke. “We’ve got Richard Flohil, a publicist that has worked with Folk Fest in the past, and he is going to be doing some more serious discussions with the artists, and sharing their stories of the road. We also have Atomic Improv, who are from Edmonton, and are involved in the Irrelevant Show for CBC Radio.”

Other artists performing at the Talk Tent including Kids in the Hall star Kevin McDonald and CJSW’s comedy program Am I Right?? There will also be a special tribute to the legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie, entitled Walking Woody’s Road.

“Walking Woody’s Road is a tribute to Woody Guthrie on what would be his 100th birthday,” says Clarke. “There is going to be a performance on stage of the show, with the performers playing some songs of his along with a narration, and an additional portion at the Talk Tent.”

Of course, despite this new addition to the Folk Fest, the main focus remains the diverse and talented group of musicians playing throughout the festival. Despite many of the artists being relatively unknown in Calgary, Clarke assures they will all be worth the price of admission.

“So many people who come for the first time say, ‘I had no idea,’ ” she explains. “They just don’t realize the magic of this festival, and the discovery element that comes with it. Some people on the fence may not see some of their favourite performers or enough of their favourite performers. When they come, they will see that there are a lot of artists that they haven’t heard of before, but will probably end up loving.”

This gathering of talent is also beneficial to the artists themselves, who are given a chance to collaborate with international artists they may have otherwise never met.

“For artists, it really helps to advance their careers,” says Clarke. “Festivals are regarded as really coveted places to play, people are paid well and treated well, and they get to collaborate with other artists. I think the local artists in particular benefit the most since they get to collaborate with musicians from all over the world, which opens up a lot of new opportunities for them.”

With the summer heat reaching its scorching zenith, the CFMF is a terrific way to enjoy the warmth while it lasts. With over 50,000 attendees in past years experiencing the music of over 70 performers, it is a Calgarian event unlike any other.

“It is a really amazing community event, with people from all ages and all walks of life,” says Clarke. “It really is the music festival of the summer, there is so much to see and do and so much variety. I think it links people, so many people are at home listening to music on their iPods, and the Folk Festival is something that brings people together to have a shared musical experience.”