Monday, July 27, 2009

rock opera under the stars: day two of Calgary Folk Fest 09

I firmly believe that the addition of the Twilight stage (as an early evening alternative to the main stage) that the Calgary Folk Festival has offered the last couple of years on Friday and Saturday nights is brilliant. Generally the artists performing on the Twilight stage offer an alternative type of music that greatly appeals to me, in the past showcasing Final Fantasy, Jon-Rae and the River, Bill Callahan, and Great Lake Swimmers, among others.

Friday night's Twilight stage lineup proved to be just as inspired - Chad Van Gaalen, Esthero, and Apostle of Hustle. This particular location, which is the only side stage that can be brutally sunny during afternoon workshops turns into a blessed place in the evenings, away
from the general crush of the main stage, and at a time of day where long shadows ease the heat of the day into a fading memory. Over the hedge of tall trees that isolate us from the heart of downtown Calgary, the glass towers can be seen rising over our green oasis, and the choice of music feels like a perfect homage to both the freedom of the island and the realities of the city.

Chad's set was well received by an enthusiastic shoulder to sweaty shoulder crowd, and I was pleased to hear him play a number of new ones, as new Chad Van Gaalen music is always cause for celebration. At one point, I spotted Jeff and Susan, the cutest BLIP couple of all time, across the field from us, and then was startled a short while later to see their dopplergangers park themselves not far from us. Will the real Jeff and Susan please stand up?

Heading back to zombie central, embedded amongst the five thousand other blue tarps at
main stage, we managed to hear the tail end of Belle Orchestre's set, but not enough to really convey any informed impressions. As British indie rockers, Gomez, launched into their lively and solid set, the Spousal Unit convinced me that I really needed to accompany him on a short pilgrimage to the beer garden.

It is actually in a lovely well-treed location, just at the back of the main viewing area, with lots of decent visuals of the stage and certainly no problem with hearing the musicians. But it is a beer garden, after all, and although we managed to share a table with someone who had volunteered with the folk boot camp this year and who shared some great stories of John Langford from Mekons, a beer garden is not where I want to spend the folk fest, so we were quick about washing the heat and dust away with a Big Rock.

Then came that excruciating moment that you know will happen many times at any folk
festival, choosing which act to miss. I had been quite keen to see both Apostle of Hustle and Mekons, but unlike the Resident Offspring, I didn't feel like shuffling back and forth between stages to hear bits of both, so I opted to relax under the trees which felt slightly less aphidy than the previous night. Perhaps we had already ingested most of the aphids in our food.

As was a problem a few times at main stage over the weekend, and particularly with solo performers, we really could have used some additional volume to hear the set properly. Maybe not all the way to 11, but we did have a lot of trouble hearing the between song chats, although I noticed that this was not a problem at many other areas of the park, so perhaps we were just located in some kind of dead zone.

Mekons' set put me in mind somewhat of the one that fellow British rebels, Chumbawamba, played a couple of years ago. Heartfelt and rousing songs of protest, proving once again that the revolutionary spark does not need to disappear as your youth fades.

But that quiet folksy ferocity rapidly disappeared when Arrested Development stormed the stage. Arrested Development are every bit as socially conscious as Mekons, but they purvey their message with serious bootie-shaking grooves. Funky and exuberant, with hip-hop rhythms and Sly Stone covers, gospelly numbers and soulful rapping, they left nary a bum in a festival chair during their highly charged set. I remember wondering how the hell the Decemberists, who were closing the night, could possibly follow that spirited set.

But, oh silly me to have worried so needlessly.

For the first time in my history of attending the Calgary folk festival, I made my way up to one of the dancing/standing areas located in front of the stage, but off to the sides. I figured
if I couldn't see anything I would head back to zombie central and watch on one of the jumbotrons, but as luck would have it, I was about four (not overly tall) people away from the front and had a better view than I have had at many a concert.

There was a palpable buzz in the standing crowd as we watched the stage crew set up the instruments and saw the stage lights dim. And then, without benefit of any introduction from emcee Carolyn Mark, the Decemberists silently took their positions and we heard the first organ notes of the prelude to their new album, The Hazards of Love. They played it in its entirety, the way it is meant to be played. And they played it without song breaks, but with costumes and lighting and plenty of drama. It was glorious, it was a spectacle, it was an honest to god rock opera! And it was the Decemberists!

People were pretty polite too, it was still a folk festival, after all. Even the guy behind me resting his long-lens camera on my head, stopped when he realized what he was doing. People did give ample room (presumably to avoid the fumes) to the one really drunk guy who
didn't appear to know where he was, since he kept calling out for Thurston Moore. But then he fell down and after someone helped him up, he was quiet.

Naturally, we all went nuts at the conclusion of the performance, and, as hoped, the Decemberists came back for an encore of Sons and Daughters, which was an inspired choice for a folk festival, being a singalong round, as it is. Of course, before launching into the song, Colin Meloy absolutely charmed the hell out of each and every one of us with his little tale of flying from Calgary to Dusseldorf on a $200 flight while attempting to get from Montana to Paris for an ill-fated romantic encounter.

Upon Colin's instructions to "the denizens of this island", we all sang loudly and lustily and long to the final chorus, with Colin conducting, in addition to jumping up and down and shredding and finally ending with a dramatic rock star leap off the speaker. My mind was suitably blown.

Then with hear all the bombs, they fade away still echoing in our ears and pounding in our chests, as our new best friend Colin promised they would if we sang loudly enough, we shuffled en masse off the island of which we had all been denizens of Decemberists' mythology.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post and I concur 100% about the Decemberists' set! One thing though- it's "Hear all the BOMBS, they fade away."

I've been hearing some grousing among rock geeks who wanted to hear "old" Decemberists- to heck with 'em, this was a spectacle and I'll never forget it.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Hi fjmanzo and welcome.

Ooops! I plead post folk fest exhaustion. You are absolutely correct and thanks, am changing that before embarrassing myself further.

I love old Decemberists as well, but this amazing and forever memorable.

Allison said...

The Decemberists show sounds absolutely amazing. Hearing an album from start to finish, the way it was designed, is such a refreshing thing at a live show!

My favourite line in your piece...

"The drunk guy who didn't appear to know where he was, since he kept calling out for Thurston Moore."

Trying to imagine that is still making me smile. :)

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

You are the high priestess of hip.

bloody awful poetry said...

Not the biggest Decemberists fan, but their show sounds like it was postitively kickass! And Chad. Again. Seriously, it's like I already know the guy.

Westcoast Walker said...

Sounds like you had a folk'o'rific time!

A well written piece by the way - I could almost imagine what it was like to there - thanks for sharing this.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

He was hilarious in a disgusting sort of way, Al. If I hadn't just wanted him to shut the hell up, I would have engaged in a debate with him. Errr, then again, perhaps not.

You've noticed my high priestess hips then, have you, Dr M?

It kicked all kinds of ass, BAP! And Chad is practically your new best friend after all.

It was a brilliant festival, Westcoast Walker. Lots of great memories stemming from this one.

Gifted Typist said...

OK, off the fence Barbara, are you enjoying this fest?

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It would appear that I am enjoying it far too much, wouldn't it, Gifted? I'll be paying for that when the post festival let down hits fully.