Four days of sun, fun and folk

By Ryan Pike

It seems so long ago that the Calgary Folk Club partnered with the Alberta government to present what was then called the Traveling Folk Festival and Goodtime Medicine Show to commemorate the province’s 75th birthday. That festival quickly became an annual event and 27 installments later, the Calgary Folk Music Festival stands as one of Calgary’s cultural landmarks.

Every summer, Prince’s Island Park is transformed into a musical paradise for four days. The transformation isn’t magical, however, but rather a result of hundreds of tireless hours poured in by organizers before the first guitar is strummed. For the past decade, the Herculean task of constructing the event from scratch has belonged to festival artistic director Kerry Clarke.

“It probably takes about seven to eight months to program the festival,” says Clarke. “It takes from September to June, with the heavy booking done in January and February. We have just under 100 separate shows happening in just under 36 hours over the weekend.”

After choosing a festival focus, Clarke looks at bringing in compelling headline acts as well as unique fare from Alberta and the rest of the musical world. This year’s installment features musicians from eight Canadian provinces and seven countries–including acts from as far as Tuva and Afghanistan.

“Eight of the 65-plus artists are from around Calgary, but [more are] also from throughout Alberta,” says Clarke. “At least half of the line-up is Canadian. About 30 per cent of the remainder are typically from the United States and the rest are from throughout the world. Basically, we’re looking for a real mix of artists from a whole bunch of different genres.”

The challenge for festival organizers is building upon past successes without falling into the trap of becoming repetitive. Constantly refocusing the festival on different aspects of folk music each year is Clarke’s way of keeping things fresh, yet familiar.

“We don’t want every year to be the same,” says Clarke. “This year we have a focus on old-time music and New Orleans. One year we had a French program, another year we looked at spoken word. We look at what audiences liked and didn’t like and adjust.”

After nearly three decades, the Calgary Folk Music Festival has gained notoriety not only throughout Canada, but also around the world. All four-day festival passes were sold out well in advance of the first performance, with a few daily passes left at press time. While Clarke and the rest of the organizers appreciate the attention, they don’t feel any added pressure.

“We’re not really pressured, but I suppose we’re always trying to one-up ourselves,” says Clarke. “We’re trying to be better every year. We’re keeping an eye on musical trends because we want to be relevant. I like to say we’re music of the past, the present and the future.”

This year’s festival continues this tradition, promising four days of musical revelry featuring such diverse acts as Chumbawumba, City and Colour, Don McLean, Neko Case, Final Fantasy and Great Big Sea. The only danger of Folk Festival disappointment comes from the weather, so audiences are advised to dress for anything.

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