Festival fills folk music void

By James Keller

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That seems to be the theme surrounding the 2001 Calgary Folk Music Festival. According to festival Associate Producer Kerry Clarke, while the artists may switch from year to year, the format is much the same–from the qualities of performers to the type of crowds to the workshops, a festival favourite.

"I think we have a winning formula, so we are not going to reinvent the wheel," says Clarke. "But each year’s lineup has a different flavour because it has different artists."

On the bill for this year’s festival are well known artists as such David Byrne, Billy Bragg, the Cowboy Junkies and fiddle bad boy Ashley MacIsaac. However, these are only a small handful of the close to 50 artists performing. This diversity is something that audiences have come to expect from year to year.

"Our audience tends to be very open minded," begins Clarke. "I think that they rely on us to introduce them to [different] styles of music. With the headliners we’ve
got this year, you certainly have something that leans toward a less traditional aspect of folk music."

This range of performers, which stretches from folk staples like Victoria Williams and Billy Bragg, to more unconventional artists like Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, wasn’t easy to assemble.

"We always have our own wish lists of artists that we think are good in all different genres," says Clarke about the long and involving process. The festival receives over 800 CDs every year from hopeful performers. But as Clarke points out, not everyone they hoped would come is able to attend.

"Then there are lots of others we didn’t end up booking like Ben Harper, the Persuasions and Tom Waits, that we tried and didn’t get," says Clarke, pointing out that they were still successful in creating a winning lineup.

Unfortunately, the current roster of artists hasn’t come without difficulty. One roadblock was the cancellation of Raul Malo of the Mavericks who was later replaced by Gord Downie.

"We’ve certainly [received] e-mails from people who are disappointed that Raul Malo isn’t coming," says Clarke, adding that despite this, others are very excited about the addition of Downie. "You’re never going to get an exact carbon copy. I would prefer to say that both could have done it instead of replace one with the other."

Regardless, another shining star of the festival is the presence of artist workshops. Set up more as jam sessions than full-fledged concerts, the workshops give both the audience and performers a different perspective on the music.

"They’re something that becomes improvisational and collaborative," says Clarke, noting that these workshops are something that sets the Calgary festival apart from other local or national ones. "You’re getting people that have never played together before and may never play together again–it means it’s not just a collection of artists coming in and leaving and never meeting each other again."

Whatever aspect of the festival the audience is interested in, Clarke encourages those in attendance to take in as much of what there is to offer as possible.

"People need to come early, find their place in the grass and kind of get into the whole festival culture to enjoy it to its fullest," says Clarke, cautioning against coming for just one or two specific artists, rather than experiencing the entire festival. "It’s not like Gord Downie and a whole bunch of opening bands."

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