The Calgary Folk Music Festival is back – really back – after three years of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Musical artists from across the globe will take the stage in the city’s Prince’s Island Park for four days of concerts, including collaborative sessions that bring unpredictable artists together to jam out. The music festival, which offers entertainment beyond live shows, runs Thursday to Sunday.
Artistic director Kerry Clarke tells The Globe and Mail what to expect at the 43rd annual festival.
Folk Fest is returning in full swing after three years. How does it feel?
It’s surreal. It’s like the last three years just evaporated and it’s totally normal but, at the same time, everyone’s getting their sea legs again – artists, agents and us. Flights are literally up in the air. We’ve had a couple cancellations but we’re hoping the weekend is going to run really smoothly and we are asking for people to be patient with us and other performing arts organizations because it’s not easy doing an event still in a pandemic and the world in chaos. So it is still new and different. It’s exhilarating. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s all the emotions at once.
What can people expect from this year’s festival?
We have 70 artists from all over the globe performing on two evening stages and five daytime stages. For the first time, we have all-site licensing, so we’ll have our beer garden and service area. We have a talk tent with comedians and panels and Vaudevillian performers, in addition to the artisan marker and the food and family zone. It’s basically a small town for the whole weekend like a lot of festivals are. And its magical because of the site, the lineup, the vibe is really cool. We’re right downtown so it’s an oasis in the middle of the city.
Compared to other festivals, what makes Folk Fest so unique?
I think Canadian folk music festivals are unique in that we’re very much community driven, volunteer driven, not-for-profit and we also tend to bring artists from a diverse amount of genres. We use the word folk, but really folk is about the vibe and how people are with each other, and the collaborative sessions are unique to a lot of the Western folk festivals. There isn’t another festival that I’m familiar with that has the collaborative sessions and has the amount programming diversity that really ranges from roots and traditional music from all over the world through to funk and hip hop and indie and lots of edgy, different sounds. I don’t know any other festival in town like that.
Which crowd favourites are returning this year and who are some exciting first timers?
We usually have about 20 per cent of the artists returning from previous years and then a combination of some artists who have never been to Alberta, or even Canada. A favourite I would love to highlight is Allison Russell because she’s played in many different formats at the festival. She was with a group called Po’ Girl and she’s also in Birds of Chicago but she has come out as a solo artist this year and her album has received a ton of attention. She’s just phenomenal. DJ Shub has been elevated to the main stage this year, after a cancellation, and will have a full band, dancers and singers. Basia Bulat is also coming back but this time she’s coming with a string section that’s quite special.
The Wood Brothers have never been here before. They’re from the States and phenomenal players, so that’s exciting. Then there’s Watchhouse, which used to be called Mandolin Orange, who are also phenomenal. There’s just so many, like Bette Smith who’s a funk artist from the States. Devon Gilfillian, very funky.
What kind of interesting collaborations can people expect to see on stage?
Some of the mashups are fun. We like to use puns so there is one called Tinnitus the Night, which are more rock artists that happen to be local, including Astral Swans, Jung People and Samantha Savage Smith. We have one called Retrofuturists which includes a band called Trio Svin from Denmark, and then a Brazilian artist based in Canada called JER and Quintet and all the way from Brazil we have Xênia França. That’s the kind of example of the kinds of people you’ll see performing together on a stage. It’s an amazing way for artists to actually meet each other and collaborate.
There’s more than just music at Folk Fest. What else can attendees do on the grounds?
People can just chill under a tree or play frisbee or sit in the beer garden and walk around with their drink and hang out with their friends and family. The ‘talk tent’ is cool and not all festivals have that option. In the afternoon, we have a panel done by an industry pro who is an octogenarian, Richard Flohil, a very well-known, very iconic music industry fellow who has been a journalist for a long time. He runs a panel called War Stories, where different musicians sit on the panel on Saturday afternoon and Sunday and tell crazy touring stories. Then, of course, we have the artisan market and food, so lots to see and do. The days go really quickly.
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