2002 Calgary Folk Music Festival

By Chris Morrison

I have my wristband, my pen, my notepad, and my hat. I’m cursing myself for forgetting sun block, which is unforgivable for a pasty white boy like me. Otherwise, I’m ready for the 2002 Calgary Folk Music Festival.

Thursday night’s openers, the Brothers Cosmoline from Toronto, sound like Bob Wills or early Lyle Lovett. They came across much better at the workshops, especially pedal steel player Burke Carroll. B’Net Marrakech, an all female ensemble from Morocco, followed. Their banshee wails sound like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, while their music is straight out of Physical Graffiti. I half expected Robert Plant to strut out any minute, blonde mane flowing and shirt open.

Thursday night’s highlight was the third act, Calgary’s own Co-Dependents. They veer through a terrific set of originals and brilliant covers. Some songs remind me of George Jones, others of the Beatles. My personal favourite had to be Arthur Alexander’s "Anna," covered by the Beatles in 1963. They don’t belong at a folk festival, but on a 1956 package tour with Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.

It was all downhill from there on Thursday, but Quebec’s La Bottine Souriante gave everyone quite the ride. Group leader Yves Lambert looks like Dr. John, the Night Tripper. Musically, what with the horns and the bass, they could be a 1960s New Orleans R&B combo or maybe a 1970s funk band. They were definite crowd pleasers.

Chantal Kreviazuk headlined the opening night doing the solo piano thing that I generally can’t stand. Without a band, piano players tend to get lost up their own arses showing us how pretty they can play. I really wasn’t in the mood for Chantal as she replaced Shane MacGowan, who cancelled. My brother figures Shane and the Pope can’t be in the same country at the same time. Maybe he’s right.

Friday night
began with Madagascar guitar wizard D’Gary. For those not present, try to think of South American guitarists. Following D’Gary was De Dannen, from Ireland. They got the crowd going with their brand of Irish folk. This is what most people tend to think of when they think of folk music, which is kind of sad. Not because De Dannen are bad, but because folk music is much more than jolly Celtic fiddling or some guy with a guitar and a harmonica singing in a nasal drone about the government. Folk music is the indigenous music of a culture. Back in Madagascar, D’Gary are probably considered a pop act, not folk, but outside their own culture, they get pigeonholed with the nonsensical label "world" music. All music is from the world.

The Sadies were up next and they killed. Their cover of the Goffin-King classic "Wasn’t Born to Follow" is almost exactly the same as the Byrds’ version from the Notorious Byrd Brothers, even the cacaphony in the middle section. My only problem with them is that many of their songs rely on tired old lyrical clich├ęs. But it is a minor complaint.

Laio, from Galacia in northern Spain, were something else. They used loops, samples, beats and a bagpipe type instrument. They should be playing the dance tent at Glastonbury, but for some odd reason they ended up at a folk festival in Calgary. We really lucked out.

Warren Zevon was up next and he was really good. He was in good humour, noting the fog machine at our festival. It’s a folk festival, not a Spinal Tap concert. Jim Cuddy followed Zevon. He mixed songs from his lone solo record with a clutch of Blue Rodeo favourites, including "It Could Happen to You," a song about Toronto’s city government using unnecessary force in evicting squatters from their homes. The Sadies could learn a thing or two from Jim’s ability to update country with contemporary lyrics.

My Saturday began at the Bass Bros. stage to catch a quick 20 minute set from a short-handed Fairport Convention. They were missing singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, who, as bassist Dave Pegg told me over a beer later in the green room (thanks much Dave!), is the band’s primary writer. Leslie’s absence meant that the band had to reach back into their deep catalogue, as opposed to playing more recent material. While they did play a few traditional numbers, ending with Liege and Lief’s standout "Matty Groves," Pegg was adamant that Fairport are not a folk band.

"We always recorded new material. It was only when (Dave) Swarbick stopped writing that we turned to traditional material."

To be fair, Pegg is right. Fairport are closer in outlook to the Band, another group that dragged traditional music kicking and screaming into the modern age.

As I left the green room, I spied Nick Lowe having a cup of coffee. Requesting a photo, Nick replied "I’d rather you didn’t right now. Maybe later, but thank you for asking." Still, he said more to me than he did to either the Herald or the Sun.

I then headed to a workshop featuring my two new best friends, Jim White and Mary Gauthier. Although they had only met that day, there was definite chemistry between them. Mary told me Sunday that she wished they could have got rid of the other guy and just left her on stage with Jim.

Soon after, I found myself in the media tent being introduced to Jim White himself. Jim in turn introduced me to Olu Dara, musician, songwriter, singer, father to rapper Nas, and the youngest looking 61-year-old man in the world. Hey, I thought he was 35. I nearly spoke to both men, and after seeing Olu’s Sunday night performance, I’m kicking myself for not piping up. I missed Saturday night, which sadly means I missed Michael Franti and Spearhead tear the proverbial roof off.

Sunday morning began with the "Playing to the Congregation" workshop on the Bass Bros. Stage featuring David Essig, John Reichsman and the Jaybirds, Sleepy La Beef, and Jim White. I’ll write more of this next week in my Jim White feature, but John Reichsman and the Jaybirds should have been in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Following this I aimlessly wandered around until I found myself back at the same stage watching Mary Gauthier, Mike Stack, Keith Glass, and the Brothers Cosmoline. While Mary was the star, I was again gobsmacked by Burke Carroll, the aforementioned pedal steel player from the Brothers Cosmoline. Does he ever sit a song out?

The next act was Rokia Traore on the main stage. Words cannot do justice to her performance. A pox on anyone who missed her show. She nearly got the whole population of the sea of tarps up and dancing in the mid-day sun, a sea Moses himself would have trouble parting. That is some task.

After lunch, I headed to see Jim White’s concert at the Mercury stage, accompanied only by his "Japanese drummer." Brilliant set to say the least; suffice it to say "Heaven of My Heart" sounds even better than it does on his 1997 release Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

After snapping a picture of my brother with Jim, we said good-bye-the man remembered my name! I headed to the merchandise tent where Mary Gauthier was signing cds. I missed her solo set as it started during Jim’s concert, but fortunately, I was able to talk to Mary.

The final evening’s festivities began with Hayden. Although not a huge fan, he was enjoyable and won the crowd over with his self-deprecating humour. Swamperella, a cajun band from Toronto, livened up the afternoon, but it was the next performer, Olu Dara who was the star of Sunday night. Had he played for another fifteen minutes, there would have been more people dancing than sitting. He should have asked everyone to get up and dance, the crowd was that into him. Nick Lowe followed and I finally got my picture, left the media area, and returned to my seat to enjoy the remainder of his all too brief set which featured "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding." I had to work far too early on Monday, so I skipped Buffy Sainte-Marie’s closing set and headed home, folked out for another year.

All in all, this year’s festival was much better than last year’s. There was no big draw like David Byrne, but then again, there was no Gord Downie wasting an hour of my life. And we got Carolyn Mark, who should really have her own weekly variety show on cbc, hosting for two nights. With such a variety of music on the weekend, only one who truly despises all music would not have had a good time.

Photos by Gary Milner and Chris Morrison

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