Monday, August 20, 2007

Calgary Folk Fest: Part I

Just so you know, this is going to be an extremely over-the-top long post, mainly for my own personal records than anyone else's reading pleasure. Brevity be damned. After an event such as the Calgary Folk fest, there's a window of opportunity to create a relevant posting... and that window has long since passed. Even the Edmonton Folk Fest has come and gone, but I guess one of the beauties of the personal blog is that there's no deadline or rules about that. So there.

It's been about a week 3 weeks (stupid procrastination...) since I hopped on a southbound bus to Calgary to partake in a full weekend of musical excess. I've been to Calgary several times before, but usually just passing through on my way to the mountains or visiting friends. This was the first time I had really come as a tourist and it dawned on me that I was completely unfamiliar with the Calgary's downtown.

Friday July 27th
I arrived in town about an hour before the festival gates opened and armed with a crumpled up google map, I oriented myself within the downtown core and checked myself into the hostel. Luckily the festival site and hostel were within semi-reasonable walking distance or if I wanted to save some time, I could always jump on the free C-Train. Even if I didn't know where I was headed, it was hard not to notice the disproportionate number of pedestrians and cyclists with knapsacks and festival/beach chairs heading north. And I followed, eventually crossing a foot bridge to Prince's Island Park, an idyllic festival site if ever there was one. The river was full of ducks and Canada geese, kids were joyfully feeding them, the dog walkers were out in force, and some people were even frolicking in the water. Ah, summer.

Last year I got a full weekend pass to the Edmonton Folk Fest for the first time, so I was well-acquainted with how this would work. Thursday and Friday only feature main stage performers in the evening while the weekend would present simultaneous performances at 6 side stages during the day before everyone settles in for the evening main stage shows. Once you exchange your ticket for a wristband, you grab a program and head to the main stage to stake out a spot. There are devoted hardcore "tarpies" that camp out the night before and make a mad rush to the front of the main stage to get prime spots. Since I was ambling along at my own pace, the stage area was already packed with thousands of people and tarps by the time I arrived. To help the people furthest from the stage, there are two giant screens to sides as well. On each side of the stage there were designated dance/standing areas, which is where I was headed. If you were staked out in the middle section, you were expected to sit and not block people's views. I was able to plop down my blanket near the right dance area with a bunch of other folkies blatantly ignoring the "dance only" signs. This dance area was decidedly less rowdy than the left side dance area since it was slightly further away from the performers. Actually, this was the ideal situation and I ended up heading there for the next couple days. I was able to read or just chill out during acts I wasn't particularly interested in, then jump up and move in close for the ones I wanted to see.

The weather was beautiful (though perhaps a little TOO hot) and remained so for the whole weekend. I've sat through rain-soaked folk fest performances before, so this was a welcome change. The first few acts on Friday were Jim Byrnes, The Crooked Jades, and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, though I have to admit I was only haphazardly listening and just biding my time until the Squirrel Nut Zippers were to take to the stage. In the meantime, I perused through the program to roughly plan my attack for the weekend and wandered through the festival to acquaint myself with all the necessary landmarks: food, bathrooms, merch tent, side stages. And then out came the Squirrel Nut Zippers and I was on my feet.

Man, it sure was a thrill though quite surreal to finally hear them live after so many years of listening to them on CDs. For a little bit of historical perspective, check out this recent article on the band's reunion. They're playing what should be an awesome show this week at the World Cafe in Philadelphia with The Old Ceremony and the Firecracker Jazz Band (another great band with a few SNZ members). If my sketchy short-term memory is correct, they kicked off their set with the blazing Bedlam Ballroom, the title track of their last album released in 1999. Other songs played include (in no particular order) Club Limbo, Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter, Danny Diamond, Good Enough for Granddad, Wash Jones, Put a Lid on It, Prince Nez, Low Down Man, La Grippe, and Bad Businessman, before ending on their hit Hell. It's a great feeling to recognize every song being played and the Squirrel Nut Zippers are one of the few bands that fall into that category for me (others being Ben Folds, The White Stripes, and Led Zeppelin). The main stage show was a nice treat, but probably not the ideal venue for them. I knew the real magic would come during the more intimate sessions on the side stages the next day...

While I was part of a handful (or less) that came specifically to see Squirrel Nut Zippers, Hawksley Workman who came up next is a regular on the festival circuit and has a devoted following, in particular a section of screaming teenage girls. You wouldn't expect to see screaming teenage girls at a folk festival, but I guess it's a healthier alternative to the pop pablum on the radio. The few times I've seen him perform live, it's hard to ignore his instant charisma on stage and theatrical sensibilities (he has a tendency to warble in spastic falsetto). One of his more interesting tics, at least from the perspective of a cover lover, is to segue mid-song into a classic rock cover. At last year's Edmonton Folk Fest, in the middle of Jealous of Your Cigarette he pulled into Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall pt. II (see my youtube video here). This time during the same song, his pianist Mr. Lonely started pounding the distinctive organ break of The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again before the whole band ripped into it to delight of the audience's collective inner rock star. Traces of Supertramp's The Logical Song also cropped up in another tune.

Hawksley Workman - When These Mountains Were the Seashore

The night ended with Neko Case and, I have to admit, I just can't get into her solo music. Outside of her role in the New Pornographers, it's just not my thing so I ended up leaving early to get a good night's sleep. On a sidenote, The New Pornographers new album Challengers comes out tomorrow. Accompanying the release was a really cool Buy Early, Get Now campaign, where you could (and I did) pre-order the album a couple months ago and get a slew of bonus goodies. You could have listened to the whole album stream right away, which I didn't really take advantage of. Some B-sides were made available. But the ultimate fan gift (more and more bands should really be doing this) is 3 bonus discs of material: an disc of b-sides/demos, a disc of videos/multimedia, and a "Live from the Future" concert disc. Some assembly required... that is, you download it and burn it yourself, ha ha. And this whole package cost only slightly more than a regular CD. Sucks for me, their upcoming Canadian tour just does not jive with my schedule. Anyway, back to Folk fest:

Saturday July 28th
I awoke to another beautiful day and set off for the festival grounds. First up in the day's schedule at 10:30am was the session with the Squirrel Nut Zippers that I had been looking forward to. Concert organizers randomly throw artists together under a common "theme" that sometimes even the artists themselves are baffled by. But this is where some of the best moments of the festival are derived from because you never quite know what to expect. I arrived somewhat early and snagged a front row seat easily.

SNZ's Katharine Whalen preps for the Tin Pan Alley session

SNZ's Henry Westmoreland "tunes" his tuba.

A crowded stage for the Alley of Tins and Pans session.

The session was titled "Alley of Tins and Pans" with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mary Flower, Eleni Mandell, and the Polyjesters. I didn't know the other groups, but I was soon to become fans of all of them. Jason Valleau of The Polyjesters acted as emcee and introduced the session and participating artists. They would all be playing the music of Tin Pan Alley (very roughly speaking, late 19th and early 20th century jazz/blues/ragtime music originating in New York). Based on past sessions I've seen, they usually take one of two forms depending on the artists' inclinations. Each band will play one of their own song then pass the baton to the next group. Or a more freeform (and exciting) set where everyone collaborates on each other's songs in essentially a big jam session. And this is how the first session went with the groups taking turns choosing the tune, but everyone playing. The Polyjesters kicked it off with a fast-paced folk-jazz number called Cakewalk and that set the tone for the next hour and a bit: fast, fun, and improvisational. At any one time there were 10 - 16 musicians on stage, which was chaotic yet exhilirating as they traded off solos and jammed on each other songs. Often the group leading would shout out a chord and everyone would join in. It was awesome. The Polyjesters, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Mary Flower looked comfortable improvising on the spot. But even Eleni Mandell would dance on the spot or chime in with some harmonies on familiar songs. And sometimes, like the rest of us, she would just stand there admiring the incredible display of musicianship.

Squirrel Nut Zippers - You're Driving Me Crazy [originally by Walter Donaldson]
The Polyjesters - Be What It May

Eleni Mandell caught in a rainbow.

The Polyjesters' Jason Valleau makes his own trumpet sounds between SNZ's Je Widenhouse (left) and Jimbo Mathus.

SNZ's Stu Cole and Jimbo Mathus.

Jimbo tries to cool down Jason's frenetic bass-slappin' fingers.

I can't remember 90% of what was played but it was great. A particular highlight was when the Polyjesters started playing After You've Gone, which is a favourite of mine. SNZ Katharine Whalen performed a superb version (my personal fav) of this song on her solo Jazz Squad album. You could see her kind of perk up when they started playing it and she joined in the vocals.

Katharine Whalen's Jazz Squad - After You've Gone [originally recorded by Marion Harris]
The Polyjesters - After You've Gone [originally recorded by Marion Harris]

After the session, I lurked around and got some autographs from some of the Zippers: Je Widenhouse, Stu Cole, Chris Phillips, Katharine Whalen, and Will Dawson. I missed co-founding SNZ member Jimbo Mathus and hoped to catch him later. The band was also gathered for some official folk fest shots and I snapped what amount to stalker photos from the sidelines. And wearing one of my SNZ shirts, I wasn't exactly inconspicuous.

I went to see another session called Six String Nation where various artists including Hawksley Workman tried their hand playing a hand-crafted guitar with bits and pieces of Canadian history attached (i.e. wood from the Bluenose, a piece of Pierre Trudeau's canoe, a piece of Maurice Richard's Stanley Cup ring, etc...). I got there a bit late and had a seat at the back where I basically passed out in the shade for the entire session. The rest of the afternoon I spent wandering between sessions and poking my head into the merch tents. A caught a bit of Chirgilchin, a group of Tuvan throat singers. Tuvan throat singing is a remarkable feat where the singer can actually produce multiple pitches simultaneously. I was drawn to that session after having my interest piqued a couple years ago by a covers album by Albert Kuvezin & Yat-Kha. With covers of Zeppelin, Joy Division, and Santana among others, Yat-Kha is clearly not your average Tuvan throat band.

Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha - When the Levee Breaks [originally by Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe; reworked by Led Zeppelin]

I also saw Final Fantasy at a couple sessions. Final Fantasy is one of those artists I've heard of a lot, but never heard. So I have to say I was pretty astonished to find out that the "band" is in fact only one guy and a violin, Owen Pallett.

I'm sure this comparison has been made, but my first impression was that he's like a Canadian version of Andrew Bird. Using looping pedals, he conjured a string quartet out of nowhere and the audience was mesmerized, myself included. I was also surprised to learn he co-wrote the string arrangements for The Arcade Fire's first two albums. And here I thought Final Fantasy was just another random indie band making the hype rounds. I really should check out his album, He Poos Clouds, which I have to admit I've unconsciously avoided listening to because of its dubious title and vaguely disturbing cover art.

Jimbo drops by another session to take a peek.

The last session of the afternoon that I went to was Blues With a Feeling which featured the blues stylings of Chris Smither, Jim Byrnes, Mary Flower, Watermelon Slim, and Jimbo Mathus. During the hiatus from Squirrel Nut Zippers, Jimbo indulged in his blues influences, putting out a few blues albums with his Knockdown Society and playing with the North Mississippi Allstars. He was also invited to join Buddy Guy's band in the studio for two albums and on tour. SNZ's drummer Chris Phillips and bass player Stu Cole also joined Jimbo on stage. Like the Tin Pan Alley session earlier in the day, this blues session naturally lent itself to improvisation and group jamming with all the participating artists. Watermelon Slim proved to be a blues force to reckon with on slide guitar and harmonica. Much more on him later... After the show, I found Jimbo Mathus and got his autograph to finish off my Squirrel Nut Zippers CD. He told me that the Zippers would be playing a show that night at 11:30pm at the Westin hotel. Bonus!! This weekend was the first and likely last time I'll ever see them, so to find out about that extra show was a major boon.

Watermelon Slim is feeling the blues.

Watermelon Slim is a must-see show... as Jim Byrnes can attest.

The mainstage shows on Saturday were not anyone I particularly wanted to see. I actually left the festival site to track down some sort of photo place where I could unload my digital camera on a CD. It was practically full since my main camera was busted and I was forced to use an old camera with a 256MB card, which I definitely needed to empty before tackling the Squirrel Nut Zippers show later that night. Back at the festival, I did see Bela Fleck and the Flecktones who totally brought the crowd to their feet. That's the first time I've seen anyone play two saxophones simultaneously, harmonizing with himself. Bela Fleck's "drummer" was also a sight to see: an imposing dread-locked guy called Futureman who played some sort of home-made guitar thing, which produced all of the percussive sounds. While the band was technically impressive and the audience just ate it up, I was honestly rather unenthused with the whole bit since it seemed like endless solos for an hour or more. Then again, it could just be me because I've read people raving about the performance for days after. Great Big Sea ended the night. They were energetic, but becoming so commonplace at folk fests it's a bit of a joke. For the second night in a row, I left early during the headlining act... but this time I was headed to another show.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - Oh! Darling [originally by the Beatles]
Great Big Sea - It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) [originally by REM]

OK, this is getting ridiculously long, so I'll leave that night's show and Sunday for Part II.


Anonymous said...

seriously: he poos clouds, ignore the title. it's a brilliant piece of work. and i kind of love the f'ed up cover. it works, somehow.

Fongolia said...

Ooh, thanks for the reminder. I was wondering why it was taking so long to get it from the library, then I realized I forgot to place a request on it in the first place. Incidentally, I'll be flying to Vancouver next weekend to see the vaguely similar Andrew Bird. Woohoo!