These days, genre-specific festivals (see: most folk or jazz festivals in North America) are more about inclusiveness and embracing the spirit of genre than any sort of hard-lined definition. And I’m thankful for that. The Calgary Folk Music Festival had its fair share of folk-minded songs, but there was also proggy operatic pop, political punk, and just about the sweetest soul jams my ears have ever heard. We meandered from set to set at the beautifully serene Prince’s Island Park, soaking up tunes of all variety throughout the four-day festival, seeing some warm acoustic singer-songwriter sessions and sets that can only be described as ‘spiritual experiences.’
Warning: there is strong language contained in this review.
St. Paul & the Broken Bones giving James Brown a run for his money. (Photo: Brandon Wallis)
St. Paul & the Broken Bones—Stage 4, Thursday, 8:05 pm
All the way from Birmingham, Alabama soul revivalists St. Paul & the Broken Bones were the undisputed kings of Thursday night. The band’s bespectacled lead singer Paul Janeway is a force to reckon with, soulfully screaming gospel-inspired verses with the fervor of a church preacher. Channeling the weak-in-the-knees soul of Otis Redding, Janeway has got soul pumping through his veins and the pipes to match. Then add to the mix those funky James Brown-style dance moves amid the one-two punch of tracks such as “Like A Mighty River” and “Grass is Greener.” Needless to say, by the time it was over, St. Paul had converted us all.
Rufus Wainwright—Main stage, Friday, 8:00 pm
It’s a pretty incredible thing for a performer to hold an audience’s attention singing heartfelt ballads during a Friday night slot at a music festival. But the experiment worked and, frankly, Rufus Wainwright is just that good. He even managed to take jabs at the Calgary Stampede and the cowboy hat-wearing greeters at the airport without being booed offstage—although there were some comments. “Is he even Canadian?” I overhead an apparently aggravated member of the audience ask. (FYI: He grew up in Montreal, and has dual citizenship.) But when he sung, all was forgiven. He sung songs about his complicated relationship with his parents—folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle—showing off his precise skills as a singer-songwriter, whether it’s behind a piano or an acoustic guitar. As he neared set’s end, the flashing lights of fire trucks could be seen off in the distance. “It would be terrible if someone died to one of my songs,” he said. (ICYMI: No one died. A food truck caught on fire.) Closing with the appropriate “Hallelujah,” it was a spine-tingling version and highlight of the night.
YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN unleashing the noise. (Photo: Brandon Wallis)
YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN—Stage 4, Friday, 8:55 pm
Melding performance art, operatic pop, psych, noise and metal, YT // ST shows are a beast of sight and sound, marrying the band’s varied interests in Asian culture—from Chinese opera to animé and Buddhism to Kabuki theatre. Donning dark outfits and Kiss-style face paint, the six-piece tore through songs that featured a cacophony of sonics, including the blissfully noisy “Queens,” and tribal rock opus “One,” among other tracks. Though it was a visually stunning set, the outdoor setting somehow seemed to hinder the show. There were a lot of distractions, and the sound, from my vantage point, seemed inadequate for a full-on metal opera that presumably should have been turned up to 11. Given the right location, however, I have no doubt that the band would achieve something far more expansive.
Fishbone—Main stage, Friday, 10:30 pm
“We gonna play some folk music for you muthafuckas,” said horn-playing frontman Angelo Moore (aka Dr. Mad Vibe) jokingly, as he led his troupe into a manic 60 minute funk-punk set. For members pushing well into their 50s, Fishbone still have an unbelievable amount of energy. Backed by a badass horn section, the rock-steady funk of bassist Norwood Fisher and face-melting guitar work courtesy of Rocky George, the band nailed tunes such as “Ma and Pa” and “Everyday Sunshine” while the ever-animated Moore moshed and skanked like a person possessed by the beat. What a trip.
Highway 61, feat. Art Bergmann, Mary Gauthier, Jason Isabell, and Waco Brothers—Stage 6, Saturday, 4:20 pm
If you happened to catch the Highway 61 workshop over at NMC’s tucked away Stage 6, you were lucky enough to catch an affecting performance by Americana troubadour Mary Gauthier. Strumming through “Another Train,” Gauthier illustrated that she’s not an artist that requires any sort of bells and whistles. Her tortured words and striped-down melodies just naturally pull you in. Vancouver punk legend Art Bergmann is another such artist. Playing a plugged-in punk set the night before, he took the afternoon slot to try out acoustic versions of his politically-charged songs, including “Company Store” in which he denounces buying sweat-shop produced clothing and corporate greed. “Can’t you smell the women burning in the clothes you wear?” he snarled. “That’s Bangladesh, Wadda you care? Just another whore at the company store.” Later, Chicago’s Waco Brothers, roused everyone in the vicinity to a sing-along of “I Fought the Law.” Then, with Mary Gauthier joining the band onstage, the whole crew went into a rollicking breakneck version of George Jones’ “White Lightening.” Holy moly what a way to close out the afternoon.
Chad VanGaalen performing “Burning Photographs” at the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
Chad VanGaalen—Stage 4, Saturday, 8:55 pm
Over at Stage 4, Chad VanGaalen, Calgary’s unofficial golden boy, was enrapt in a seven-minute surge of trippy distortion, dropping to his knees to prod and manipulate sounds on his guitar. Backed by a full band, VanGaalen produced noisier punk-inflected takes on “Burning Photographs” and “Poisonous Heads.” Although a matter of perspective, I usually prefer VanGaalen performing solo. Still, those stinging guitar lines and extended psych-outs made for an interesting sonic foray. For the most part, the mood and ambiance of the show had a casual tone with VanGaalen making in-jokes about CJSW’s Myke Atkinson. But there were also some serious moments, like when he played the very sad and very eerie “Rabid Bits of Time,” which he dedicated to late Women guitarist Christopher Reimer, who tragically passed away in 2012. The haunting harmonica-laced “Hangman’s Son,” off his latest Shrink Dust, was also a standout.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80—Main stage, Saturday, 10:45 pm
Not to get too overboard with the hyperbole, but I felt something spiritual happening as I witnessed Seun Kuti, son of Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, perform with his 12-piece band, Egypt 80. His father created the template and set the bar high, but Seun has risen to the challenge, becoming a powerhouse in his own right. Channeling the fury of his powerful protest songs amid the funkiest of beats, the second generation Kuti passionately sung, danced, threw his shirt off, and blew away at his sax. Then there were his two booty-shaking dancers/ backup singers, and the man on the shekere (a massive football-sized shaker), who smiled and danced to the pulsating rhythms. That man was amazing, BTW. It was impossible not to be overcome by the groove and the sheer spectacle of the show. Listen to “Higher Consciousness” right now. Now imagine that live. See what I mean?
Gary Louris of The Jayhawks shows festival-goers the art of roots-rock done right. (Photo: Brandon Wallis)
The Jayhawks—Main stage, Sunday, 7:40 pm
Against the glare of the setting sun, Minneapolis roots-rockers The Jayhawks (sans co-founder Mark Olsen) ran through tunes from their influential catalogue spanning over two decades. While the band suffered some early sound issues (HYDRA did moments earlier, as well), the kinks seemed to work themselves out as the set progressed. Amid glorious soul-southing melodies and twang-drenched guitars, frontman Gary Louris carried the emotion through his plaintive vocals. Songs including “All The Right Reasons,” “Better Days” and the psych-hued “Big Star” provided the perfect soundtrack as dusk fell upon the lazy Sunday crowd. A bittersweet end to a beautiful weekend.
Wanna talk music? Email me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @thejulijanaruin.