By Thomas Johnson, August 1 2018 —
Ah, the Calgary Folk Fest: our city’s most magical weekend. A four-day sojourn into the intimate depths of Prince’s Island Park, a lush greenery sequestered in the heart of our city, a million kilometres from work though somehow only about 200 metres from civilization.
Arriving at the onset of another heatwave with the temperatures sneaking into the 30s, the thickets and canopies made the island feel like an oasis. The world beneath the venerable trees was quiet and peaceful, a little community of positivity. Fans, families and vendors mingled and took in live music by grateful artists. The cell service was spotty, too. It was utopian.
Despite its official name, the festival’s lineups in recent years have become increasingly inclusive to artists of various genres, and the argument could be made that 2018’s roster is the most eclectic there’s ever been.
It must be said first and foremost that the Mainstage is, and I stress, fucking huge. Huge huge. Like, Paul McCartney and Ringo reunion tour featuring the Beach Boys huge. It seemed a bit superfluous, but by the closing moments of the weekend’s last set, when the expanse of the crowd flooded all the way back to the food trucks, it was clear the space was well worth the scale. On the east end of the island, at the festival’s borders, the much more humble Twilight Stage hosted the cult artists that make up the meat of the festival. In between was a bevy of foodtrucks, a small market, and the outsized beer-gardens courtesy of National.
Here are some highlights from the delightful staycation.
On the massive grandstand, Passenger’s minimal set seemed comparatively small. Alone with his acoustic guitar, he was at times a bit tentative to the audience he seemed flabbergasted at having drawn. No matter, as his warm sense of humour and strong vocals were enough to fill the park. And what a great beard.
On the Twilight stage, Calgarian Chad VanGaalen’s warped mutations of folk and country made for convincingly peculiar set bookended by a pair of R.E.M. covers. There was a bit of bleed from the main stage, but VanGaalen sounded amazing live as he is wont to do, emphasizing the twang and letting the psychedelic tinkering occur organically.
Arguably the least folk-oriented act billed, backpack-rap torchbearers Blackalicious took to the Twilight stage on Friday. The duo were joined by long-standing collaborator Lateef the Truthspeaker, as well as hypeman Jumbo, for a wonderfully traditional set of rapping, freestyles and DJing that liberally reached back and borrowed from their timeless work in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Despite the dynamic landscape rap has become, beholding battle-hardened MCs conjure #barz from their head over aggressive scratching from a seasoned DJ will never not be exhilarating.
Joe Jackson was Joe Jackson, and his jazzy classical pop made for a spectacle. The festival has been attempting to book the mercurial 63-year-old for ages and it seems the wait was worth it, because he’s Joe Jackson and will presumably continue to be Joe Jackson until the end of time.
Destroyer’s Dan Bejar’s Twilight stage set mirrored Passenger’s, being only himself, his guitar and his quiet demeanor. The Vancouverite took the opportunity to mint newly written songs periodically, while he performed ‘hits’ from his various albums. Standouts included Poison Season’s “Times Square” and “Dream Lover” and Kaputt’s “Chinatown.”
The first band to truly fill out the cavernous Mainstage were prodigal folksters Reuben and the Dark, whose power-folk musings gave the quad a quiet power. Their poignant cover of The Tragically Hip’s “Bobcaygeon” dedicated to Gord Downie — not to mention the crowd singing along — certainly made for a wispy pair of eyes.
Next on the main stage was A Tribe Called Red, who shook the night to a close. It was either their collision course of Indigenous percussion and rap/grime or the feet of the swelling crowd, but the island had a distinct rumble that night. It was in all likelihood the loudest concert in history of the Folk Fest.
Fittingly, the best was saved for last. On Sunday, Bahamas brought the Fest to its knees end. The project of Ontarian Afie Jurvanen, whose recently released Earth Tones will find itself on many a year-end best-of list, played loose and at their own pace. Besides a performance of Earth Tones in its entirety, they left room for several Bahamas deep-cuts as well as a stunning cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings Of You.” Jurvanen’s whisky soaked voice and co-vocalist Felicity William’s sweet falsetto made for the warmest moments of the weekend.