Friday, July 30, 2010

dancing queens and wicked shredders: day four volunteer monologues of Calgary Folk Festival 2010

Evidently I am a much better fringer and beader than I had realised, as Sunday morning dawned with my volunteer shirt still intact, and only slightly more groady than your average piece of folk festival garb. I figured the shirt and I both had one more day left in us.

My final shift at the record tent sped by, with some mighty sweet sounds drifting in from The Curious Incident of the Songwriter in the Daytime workshop, directly behind us, making me remorseful that I would not have a chance to hear any more of Jon and Roy, because despite their pedestrian band name they sounded damned fine. But I did have a chance to visit and reminisce with my little tent buddy from last year, introduce him to this year's tent buddy, and suggest that they arm-wrestle to see who takes home the title of Supreme Tent Buddy.

Although I was determined to fit in as many workshops as humanly possible, I ended up parking in the shade near the rear of Stage 3 for a good portion of the afternoon, joined first by the Resident Offspring, later by the Spousal Unit. The RO and I were both tickled by the inspired musical combination of Man Man, the Burning Hell and Frank Turner for the Rock It to the Moon workshop, particularly when Frank belted out Dancing Queen. Any songwriter who can unabashedly cover ABBA on a Sunday afternoon, presumably stone-cold sober, has a huge piece of my heart.

After the RO abandoned me and before the SU joined me, I spent some time chatting with a lovely little indie couple, he in fedora and button-down shirt, she in flowered summer frock, who educated me on the joys of the United Steelworkers of Montreal, who were just warming up for their concert. It turned out to be a concert featuring a heavy diet of songs about beheaded hookers, and drunks and people who like to drive really fast, which was surprisingly more lighthearted than it sounds.

The delightfully named Pro-Rogues workshop, with the Sunparlour Players (who hawked the jars of preserves they had originally dropped off at the record tent), Ukrainia (who spoke only in Ukrainian despite the fact that they are from Ottawa and who left no bum unwiggling), Dan Mangan (who took his Robots singalong to the next level and put himself in mortal peril by climbing up on part of the roof of the stage to lead the handclapping), and Chris Gheran (local lad with a sweet voice), was a fine finale to my deplorably meagre workshop diet this year.

I had just enough time to race over to Stage 5 catch the first part of the Ohbijou concert before my Dan Mangan interview. If you look up the definition of "sweet and pure sound" in the dictionary, I am pretty sure there will be a picture of Ohbijou. It would have been nice to have my Clonomatic 5000 up and running for the folk fest.

When I got to the media tent, I discovered that I was one of six people scheduled for a 5:30 interview (as the man simply does not turn down a media request). My obsessive clock-watching ways meant that I was the second person to show up, so I only had short time to hang around the media tent, bugging the volunteers and cursing the even more obsessive clock-watcher who out-clocked me.

I'm not going to tell you what we discussed, as you are just going to have to read the BC Musician Magazine article when it comes out in September, but I can tell you that Dan Mangan is quite possibly the nicest person on the planet, that Konono No. 1 sounded pretty funky, even from behind the stage, and that I did not get attacked by a goose despite the fact that they were wandering around our bench by the river, giving us the hairy eyeball, as geese will do. Also that I got a really sweet autograph.

When I rejoined the clan back at the zombie tarp, Peatbog Faeries were just taking to the stage, getting ready to assault us (in the best possible way, of course) with their infectious celtic jazz fusion.

Po' Girl then played a far too brief tweener. Their lovely harmonies reminded me a little at times of fellow Vancouverites, the Be Good Tanyas, and I could have kept listening.

But it was time for St. Vincent. Prior to seeing her perform on Sunday, I knew very little about St. Vincent. I knew that she had once been a member of the Polyphonic Spree, but as the Resident Offspring sagely pointed out, if you are an American and if you have ever touched at instrument - even brushed against a piano at someone's house - you have a one in five chance of having been a member of the Polyphonic Spree. From the handful of songs I had heard, I knew that she had a beautiful ethereal voice, but I didn't find her music all that exciting.

I guess I was just listening to the wrong songs, because the performance that St. Vincent gave was complex and off-kilter and completely unexpected. I did not know the girl could shred like that! Annie Clark, as she is known in real life, is a wee thing, a tiny, pale, fragile beauty. But when she gets down and attacks that guitar like she is wrestling a demon, she is scary.

For me, that was the perfect way to end the festival. We were curious enough about Roberta Flack's legendary status to stay for a couple of the headliner's songs, but the zombie clan all agreed that the lure of home, the chesterfield, and our kitten whom we hadn't seen in two days was stronger than the need to hear Killing Me Softly. Besides, I heard it enough in the seventies to pretty much last a lifetime.

So with a one last longing glance at the gelato stand, we rolled our tarp and folded our chairs for the final time, and waved farewell to the island that had been our home for the past four days. Salut.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Robot boys, chair nazis, and holy rollers: day three volunteer monologues of Calgary Folk Festival 2010

It was my own damn fault, not buying any Avett Brothers CDs while there were still a few hundred in stock. And if I hadn't been racing off to catch a show, I would have done so at the end of Friday's shift. Because at 9:00 on Saturday morning, there weren't even any crumbs left in the Avett Brothers' section.

As it happened, Saturday's shift was decidedly slower paced than previously (to the point where I found myself buzzing about looking for things that needed attention), so I snuck in some personal time to buy my first batch of music for the weekend - Frank Turner, Shakura S'Aida, and an early Dan Mangan. Looking back, I regret not getting those Burning Hell, St Vincent and Po' Girl CDs as well.

The Lullabies for Little Subliminals workshop, with Ohbijou, Jordan Klassen, Po' Girl, and Timber Timbre, was nearing its finish as I squeezed into the final sliver of shade with my plate piled high with chicken sausage and greek salad. The remainder of the afternoon was a bit of a departure for a normal Saturday festival afternoon, with concerts taking precedence over my usual diet of workshops.

Saturday was a blisteringly hot, brutally sunny day and Stage 4, where I headed to catch the Dan Mangan concert, is notorious for its lack of shade. It's really the only stage without adequate trees and one that I generally try to avoid during the afternoon. But hey, it's Dan Mangan!

Somehow the Zombie clan managed to find each other in the crush of sweaty shade-seeking hippies and we parked ourselves in the one shaded area that the stage afforded, an area across the path and off to the side. It was rapidly filling up with humanity, as was the massive sun-baked open area directly in front of the stage, when I noticed that neither I nor the throngs of people behind me could see any of the stage thanks to two large camping chairs, legs well above the six inch regulation height, blocking our view.

Calling upon the power of the volunteer badge and my sworn oath to serve and protect festival patrons from a variety of infractions, including not being able to see the stage on account of towering chairs, I used my best hostage negotiation skills to convince the slightly hostile occupants that the folk fest way would be to fold up their chairs. I was only slightly disappointed that nobody in the crowd behind me threw me a victory parade. But ultimately
a mostly unencumbered view of the stage was victory enough.

When Dan ended his set with Robots, that wonderful audience singalong song that fans have so wholeheartedly embraced, the entire audience, including those perishing in the sun-baked open area, rose and began to dance and clap and sing along for an extended chorus. It was a glorious spontaneous moment, that I saw repeated a number of times throughout the festival.

Timber Timbre were playing their afternoon show at Stage 1, which, by contrast, is the most deeply shaded stage, and the one which I thought would be most suited to their dark and eerie music. And it was better suited than the main stage had been the night before, but the normal chatting and the constant movement of people from stage to stage still impeded upon the hushed atmosphere that their music really requires.

Laura Marling, the young British musician who has been nominated for a Mercury award, ran into sound problems during her concert, as she kicked off the Evening Stage which served as an alternate to the main stage offerings, but she gamely made her way to the edge of the stage with her guitar, completely off mic, and led the audience in a singalong. We were too far back, in the deep shade, to be able to actually hear anything and I saw quite a few puzzled looks from passersby as they viewed the small figure on stage singing and strumming in complete silence, except for the sounds of Ian Tyson drifting over from main stage.

I was really disappointed that Laura did not bring any CDs to the festival, as I would certainly have bought one. I never did have a chance to find out what the situation was with her merchandise, but it seemed to be a hugely wasted opportunity.

Tarp blind! We've all gone tarp blind!

Despite my panicked notes, I eventually reached our oasis amongst the trees near the back of the main stage area with my plate of steak and the best damn corn-black bean-cilantro salad I have ever had, just in time to settle down comfortably for Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Trouble was, I almost immediately wanted to jump up and start dancing, or at least do a little rolling in the aisles, because damn those Queens were fierce! I wanted to testify or get baptised or something. Instead I raced over to the satellite record tent set up by main stage to grab a CD, but sadly, nobody thought to put one aside for me. Now how I am going to save my soul?

The Spousal Unit and I nipped into the beer garden to use my free beer ticket before his most anticipated act - the Hill Country Revue. According to my festival notes, it was too fucking crowded even for a free beer. I drank that Grasshopper so fast I am still burping up bubbles.

The Hill Country Revue served up a rocking nasty southern blues. Once I got over my initial discomfort with the frontman's disturbingly Axl Rose-esque head band, I dug deep into that groove, especially when that one guy started wailing on the washboard.

I was really curious to hear the tweener set by Romantica, the Minneapolis-Belfast band whose literary bent has been compared musically to Belle and Sebastian. Les Siemieniuk, the Calgary Folk Festival's General Manager, had been telling me that Romantica was the band he was most excited to see, and with Les' impressive musical pedigree, who am I to argue? The songs they played were sweetly lyrical and peopled with curious characters and observations.

The Cat Empire from Australia filled the stage with their hundred some odd band members and filled the island (and likely a good portion of downtown Calgary) with their bright and energetic fusion of ska, jazz, and funk. With lots of swinging saxophone and a tag-team of front men, they were a really great festival band, following in the footsteps of previous folk festivallers like Bellowhead, who got the whole crowd jumping. I doubt that the experience would translate to listening to them on CD, but on stage they were a force of nature.

I remember thinking that Dan Mangan had a brutal spot for a tweener set, sandwiched between the exuberantly-received Cat Empire and the highly anticipated Corb Lund. But although he only played two songs - the lively clappy Sold and the trusty singalong Robots - he managed to charm the crowd with his charisma and his enthusiasm. One of the media tent people told me the next day that they have never before had so many media requests for a tweener act as they did following Dan's performance. Can't say I was overly surprised.

Kris Demeanor and Chantal Vitalis, the evening's emcee tag-team, had been quite delightful to that point, playing nicely off each other with Kris' storytelling prowess and Chantal's quirky humour. But when they introduced the headliner performance by covering Geoff Berner's Don't Play Cards for Money with Corby Lund, well that was inspired.

Being a lame excuse for an Albertan myself, I had never before seen Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans perform,and I was pretty excited to see this rural Alberta ambassador with the punk pedigree. The cowboys behind us were pretty excited too, judging from the yeehaws emanating from their tarp, yeehaws being something you don't hear a lot of at the folk festival. I believe they engaged in some two-stepping as well.

At this point of the evening, the lamplighter parade traditionally weaves its way through the audience, bearing whimsical lighted torches, adding a touch of magic to the evening. By now, a rather wide space had opened up in front of our tarp and it became a natural pathway for the dreamlike procession. Toes tapping to the infectious tunes of the hipster cowboy on stage, we marveled at the quirky assortment of lanterns - the watering can, the goldfish, the peace symbol - as they swayed gently past us. It was an odd, yet charming, juxtaposition, and a magical way to end the night.

Monday, July 26, 2010

hot tent, hot punk, hot funk: day two volunteer monologues of the Calgary Folk Festival 2010

I looked at the notes that I have scrawled down about Friday at the Calgary Folk Festival, and I thought, I can't talk much about my afternoon volunteer shift because all I have written down is busy as fuck, no time to pee, no time to put on any Blistex.

And that's true, but it was a good kind of busy as fuck. I didn't get to spend any time on the floor, talking to customers about CDs and I thought I was really going to miss that interaction, but I found that I loved the adrenalin rush of dealing with incoming merchandise just as much. You really get a chance to put those Tetrissing skills that you've been amassing over the years to work.

You have to be on top of your game when dozens of boxes of Corb Lund CDs get unceremoniously dropped off into the 20x3 ft work space where all the behind-the-scenes action happens, just after you have finished alphabetizing all the other artists' stacks of CDs, vinyl, and DVDs, and you thought you left enough space, but apparently didn't. Even more so when there is a live beetle in the first box you open.

It may not sound like it, but it was all great fun. That crisis mode buzz is exhilarating when you know it's all going to be over on Sunday. But I did feel like I owed it to myself to get a large gelato as I rushed (as quickly as one can rush through the throngs in the entrance/food vendor pathway) to get to the main stage in time to catch Frank Turner. Half chocolate flake, half salted caramel. This inspired pairing will fuel my culinary erotic dreams for years to come.

Frank Turner was pretty inspired pairing as well. Half former punk frontman, half solo rabble-rouser, Frank Turner was flirting with the pinnacle of my must-see acts for this year's festival. And he delivered. An impassioned performer with boatloads of charm and charmingly self-deprecating stories to share, he engaged the audience to the point of inviting a volunteer up on stage (jump over that barricade, break through that fourth wall!) to play harmonica for him on one song. It didn't matter that he had to teach Adam how to play the harmonica first, it was about the politics of the congregation.

I vowed I would track him down at more workshops throughout the weekend. My work schedule kept my Turner-stalking to a minimum, but fortunately other family members stepped ably up to the plate in my stead.

I darted off to hospitality for some food I didn't have to cook, but due to a snag at Plate Recycling missed local lad Chris Gheran's tweener set and most of Joe Henry's full set as well. I have a great deal of respect for Joe Henry's ever-evolving brand of slightly world-weary cabaret. A little reminiscent of Tom Waits, with a harkening back to cowboy blues and whiskey-soaked jazzman, his music challenges pigeonholing. From the little I caught of his set, however, I am not certain that a sunny Friday evening was the optimum time to really appreciate the breadth of his range.

The same was true (as I suspected it might be) for Timber Timbre, who performed a brief tweener later in the evening and whose dark and cinematic offerings are better suited to the hush of a darkened church or the stillness of an abandoned attic, with shutters nailed down.

Shakura S'Aida, on the other hand, was perfectly suited for a Friday evening rolling into a Friday night. All sassy and strutting in a glittery silver sleeveless dress and legs up to here, she smoked the place from the second she strode on stage. A jazz and blues goddess, with a voice of scorched silk, she floored us with her fierceness and her funky rhythms. Her guitarist was simply mesmerizing, a wild woman who attacked her instrument with measured force, wringing out some of the most incredible blues riffs we've heard. The Spousal Unit, a long time blues lover, was smitten.

The Swell Season were obviously a highly anticipated crowd favourite. My notes from the evening simply say she got her hair cut, but I remember them being a little more noteworthy that that. In fact, I remember soaring heartfelt ballads with precious harmonies, a lot of spirited strumming accompanied by pretty piano, which all morphed into a denouement that was flat-out rocking.

When The Burning Hell took the stage for the evening's final tweener, it was with less than one-quarter of their full roster. Still, Mathias Korn and his two compatriots utterly charmed us with their quirky and harmonic tales of the absurd. I loved them and thought they were completely refreshing, with a musicality that belies any notion that they are a mere novelty act.

But that was enough for us for one day. We weren't all that fussed to stay for Michael Franti and there were plenty of people in attendance for whom this show was the highlight of the festival, so we didn't allow ourselves to be wracked by guilt. We stayed for a couple of songs, which were lively and infectious and then headed to the hotel before the tarp dancing got too wild.

With a 9:00 AM volunteer shift and a possible afternoon interview looming in a few short hours, the volunteer after-party was not even an option. Those crazy kids were going to have to dance till 3:00 AM without me.

wearing onions on our belts and yelling at clouds: monologuing about the Calgary Folk Fest 2010

Having returned home completely knackered, and having since scrubbed the caked sunblock, the embedded dust and any vestiges of patchouli stink off my body, I am gradually and ever so reluctantly returning to the real world. The world where one does not normally write up contracts for musicians, the world where a festival chair is not a proper piece of furniture, the world where nobody is feeding me two incredible meals a day and all I have to do is hold out my plate. Lord I miss those salads.

All I have left is a mitt-full of CDs and some rapidly fading memories of a sweet weekend on the island. So please indulge me while I blather a bit over the next couple of days about the last few days at the Calgary Folk Festival. Since I couldn't convince you to drop everything and join me on Prince's Island Park, I am just going to have to get you into a corner instead and tell you all about it. I need to preserve my memories in this digital amber and you are the closest victim.

Beware, there is no 800 word limit around here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

didn't even rain till we got home: day one Calgary Folk Fest 2010 volunteer monologues

After last night's post-festival torrential downpour, I'm not sure what mood I will find the hardcore gate-waiters in when I head to my shift at the Record Tent today. Yesterday as I headed into my 10:00 am shift, I asked the first people in line, as is my custom, what time they had started lining up for the 4:30 gate opening. 7pm the previous night, they had told me. But they didn't have the downpour and the cold whipping winds to deal with. Maybe I should hand out hot chocolate to the hardy souls today.

I love working setup for the Folk Festival. When you are unpacking and pricing CDs in the Record Tent, not only does it provide a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with the albums and the artists, it gives you a chance to take in the hum of the pre-festival atmosphere. The entire island virtually hums with excitement, as stages get readied and artists begin to arrive and the food vendors fire up the ovens and start tormenting us with the heady aromas of butter chicken and lamb kabobs and kettle corn and garlic everything.

As I was filling my backpack before I left in the morning, I couldn't locate my collapsible toothbrush, so I brought the cat's. And I used it too. Fortunately the cat had never done so, so it's not quite as crazy cat lady as it sounds, but the kitten was gratified to know that she had done her bit at keeping the festival patrons safe from the ravages of lunchtime garlic.

I had a chance to head over to Media on my lunch break to put in an interview request, having had the go ahead from BC Musician Magazine to write an article about Dan Mangan. When he brought his own CDs into the Record Tent later that afternoon, I had the opportunity to mention it to him and he graciously replied that he would be pleased to chat with me, that he always confirms all media requests.

Take a note, new musicians, this is how you become a beloved and heralded artist - graciously accept all interview requests and offered gigs. Oh, it doesn't hurt to be extremely talented either.

The six hour shift flew by. I worked quite a lot with Micah, organzing and pricing the CDs. She is a fellow music nerd who was duly impressed with my Radiohead water bottle, as I was by her scoring tickets to the James show in Vancouver in October. We were quite pleased to discover that we also work together on Sunday. "I like working with you!" she told me, and I replied "I like working with you too; you're smart and you're organized and I like that in a person". "I'm also a bit of a control freak", she confessed, but I assured her that the Record Tent was exactly the right place for control freaks.

I met up with the Zombie clan at our usual spot and we were thrilled to do a little tarp sha
ring with Susan and Jeff during the main stage show of Library Voices (indie pop group from Regina, all dressed in white, anti-goth, Susan called them), Natacha Atlas (who also did a little belly dancing), the highly anticipated Stars (Amy Millan was sporting the most intriguing blue eye shadow and sparkly dress and a voice that was clear and sweet). Susan and Jeff then had to leave to catch Wolf Parade at the Republik (don't these rock stars ever coordinate their schedules), but they graciously left behind their blanket, which we put to good use, as it was starting to get mighty chilly.

The night ended with the Avett Brothers from North Carolina absolutely flooring the place
with their high energy-stomping harmonizing hair-swinging punk bluegrass country. We suspect that the Asian fellow on the cello was not a blood relation however. They were amazing and I am glad we put a full complement of Avett Brothers CDs into the satellite record tent by the mainstage, as I as pretty sure there was a rush for them after the show.

Today, I head back down to the island for an earlyish shift, leaving the family to drag all
our stuff to the hotel by themselves. We'll be holed up at the Sheraton for the weekend, as is our tradition, steps away from the music and the folks. And I, in an unprecidented move, am leaving the laptop at home, so you will have to wait till Monday for the rundown on the remainder of the weekend.

You can bet it will include CD purchases, artist encounters, falafels, and gelato though. You couldn't call it
a folk fest without them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

will folk for food

I can practically smell the music from here. Two more sleeps till those sweet notes fill every leafy nook and shady cranny of Prince's Island Park, two more sleeps till I haul my festival chair and our family tarp to our super-secret (north side near the back amongst that stand of trees) super-optimal main stage location for four days of bliss.

Tonight I customized my volunteer shirt. It's purple this year, which was a trifle alarming at first, but it features the same winged cowboy artwork as depicted in the poster, and that just seemed to cry out for some fringing and beadwork. So rather than hack off the sleeves and neckline, as I normally do, thereby converting my volunteer shirt into a folk-flavoured wife-beater, this year I decided to go a little less trashy, a little more retro, and to channel my inner rockabilly folkie instead. A pair of scissors and handful of beads, and I am a fringed splendour.

Soon as I locate the camera, I will show you.

And hey, if you happen to find yourself in the Calgary folk festival vicinity, you should come hang out with me. I'll be working in the record tent 10-12, 1-5 on Thursday, 2:30-5 on Friday, 9-1 on Saturday, and 10:30-1 on Sunday. Drop by and I will show you where I hid all the best CDs.

Or come watch a few shows with me and I'll share my festival chair with you. Here's my schedule:

Thursday July 22

on5:30pmMainstageLibrary Voices
on6:25pmMainstageNatacha Atlas
on7:25pmMainstageStars
on8:50pmMainstageThe Avett Brothers

Friday July 23

on6:00pmMainstageFrank Turner
on6:55pmMainstageJoe Henry
on7:55pmMainstageShakura S'Aida
on8:55pmMainstageThe Swell Season
on10:15pmMainstageMichael Franti and Spearhead

Saturday July 24

on1:00pmStage 3Lullabies for Little Subliminals
Jordan Klassen, Ohbijou, Po' Girl,Timber Timbre
on1:55pmStage 4Gravel Road Travelers
Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans, Geoff Muldaur, Tom Russell, Ian Tyson
on3:20pmStage 4Dan Mangan
on4:40pmStage 1Timber Timbre
on6:00pmStage 4Laura Marling
on6:25pmMainstageGreg Brown
on7:20pmMainstageNaomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens
on8:20pmStage 4Man Man
on9:15pmMainstageThe Cat Empire
on10:30pmMainstageCorb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans

Sunday July 25

on12:50pmStage 5Face Down, Feet First
Laura Marling, Ohbijou, Samantha Savage-Smith, Timber Timbre
on1:30pmStage 1Ox
on2:15pmStage 3United Steelworkers of Montreal
on3:15pmStage 3Pro-rogues
Chris Gheran, Dan Mangan,Sunparlour Players, Ukrainia
on4:40pmStage 5Ohbijou
on5:30pmMainstageKonono No. 1
on6:25pmMainstagePeatbog Faeries
on7:30pmMainstageSt. Vincent
on8:45pmMainstageRoberta Flack