Calgary Folk Fest 2019: A Haunting Experience
Spelled in lower case, iskwe belted out a haunting melange of trip-hop-influenced electronica and indigenous rock music as I sprawled out on the grass in front of the stage. She wore angelic white garments and multicolored indigenous face paint. Evergreen trees surrounded us.
In Calgary, I had just left the National Music Centre at Studio Bell a few hours earlier, where I saw iskwe’s likeness on the wall in full display, in a room dedicated to indigenous Canadian musicians. Her songs often sparked dialog due to outspoken stances on pipelines, land protection, gender disparity and suicide prevention. Through her words and music, she strove to bring indigenous issues to the foreground.
This was only the first night of the Calgary Folk Festival, located in Prince’s Island Park, technically part of Treaty 7 territory. iskwe was on Stage 4, the National Stage. People were just beginning to gather for the opening evening of music, both on this stage and the main stage — now a permanent concrete structure with two impressive jumbotron-style screens way off to each side. All the other stages would soon erupt over the weekend. But now it was 8:30pm on a Thursday, with nothing but daylight and peaceful vibes blanketing the landscape. Over toward the river, which flowed on both sides of the park, groups of Canada geese wandered around. Brown squirrels scampered through the trees. I wanted to imagine some insane poetic Jungian alchemy merging the polarities of the built environment with the natural outdoors, all on a macro level, while helping me to overcome whatever internal problems were taking place on a micro level. I had returned to Calgary for this. I could feel it.
Prince’s Island Park occupied an island in the middle of the Bow River, just north of downtown Calgary. From my spot near the various stages, I could glance to my left and see towering flanks of evergreens with a few pines mixed in. Above the trees, I could see the more-towering skyline of downtown Calgary. From the ground up, this resembled a multilayered cake. Masses of crowds, then the trees, then the skyscrapers, then the clouds.
Even without the folk festival, Prince’s Island Park was a destination filled with trails, interactive educational experiences, bicycle paths, a multicolored children’s playground and even a restaurant onsite. I was in the city, but not in the city.
One accessed the park via a series of pedestrian bridges that also tolerated cyclists trying to outmaneuver the pedestrians. A huge area near the main entrance held about 1000 bicycles, locked up to endless banks of racks, on the grass, surrounded by chain-link fencing. The bicycles had their own entrance, after which people locked them up and headed into the festival.
The Bow River was part of the Calgary area’s identity, going back a few thousand years, and seemed to encircle the festival, just to let everyone know it was still there. At any moment, I could saunter out from the mass of crowds and pick a spot on banks of jagged rock or on various benches, just to observe the river flowing. And there was a decent flow. One almost needed hiking boots to manage the terrain, but the Bow River was always there. It wasn’t going anywhere. The festival would come and go every year, with 1800 volunteers setting up, directing the crowds, staffing the onsite kitchen, driving their carts, or manning their posts, but the river would always be there, keeping a watchful eye on everything.
After iskwe came the Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer from Vancouver. The greasy blues duo started during the daylight, but the sun descended behind them as their set barreled on with foot-stomping panache. By the time they concluded, a nighttime prairie sky presided over the scene, as hues of stage lighting projected into the warmth of the evergreens, the pines, and a few other deciduous trees I couldn’t identify.
Folk festivals have evolved all over the prairies of Canada for decades. As was explained to me backstage in Calgary, a “young hippie Trotskyite” named Mitch Podolak launched the first festival, the Winnipeg Folk Fest, in 1974 by forging documents to prove that funding was already in place in order to procure matching provincial and/or city support. But it went deeper than that. After transplanting from Toronto in the early ’70s, Podolak had became a member of the Winnipeg branch of the Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG), and wanted to create a temporary autonomous zone of folk music and socialist political activism, remnants of which still emerged to this day at various festivals in Alberta and Manitoba. The massive community kitchen at Calgary Folk Fest in 2019, for example, fed the 1800 volunteers, plus the musicians and anyone else with the right pass. The term “folk music festival” didn’t mean the weekend was limited to folk music, but instead seemed to include the various communal elements that made everything happen. If you fed people, they would work better. And if each volunteer told a few people on the street about the festival, the word spread. I met several volunteers with decades-long tenures at Calgary Folk Fest. Even though the festival had long since evolved into a more capitalistic endeavor, the folk element remained in place. Remnants of Mitch Podolak’s revolutionary ideas, I was told, seemed to linger in the dark shadows of the evergreens, if I just knew where to look.
However, this was not my first Calgary Folk Fest. I’d previously showed up in 2011, which turned out to be a memorable affair. KD Lang swayed the crowd with a haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Buffy Sainte-Marie, who’d just turned 70, also played that year. Amy Winehouse died during that same weekend, so everybody backstage was discussing her amazing talents. I’ll never forget that weekend.
As I continued to navigate the 2019 Calgary crowds, the food trucks, the artisan markets, the baby strollers, the hammered cowboys backstage, or the geese alongside the Bow River, previous folk festival memories came spiraling back to the forefront. The memories haunted me. In a good way.
In 2010, for example, Van Morrison played at the Edmonton Folk Festival, which occurred over a few days in the natural-grass amphitheater of Gallagher Park with more than 2,000 volunteers helping to make it happen. Two people had even volunteered for 30 of the 31 years of the festival’s existence, I was told.
Like its equivalent in Calgary, Gallagher Park was a natural setting with a half-urban, half-natural pastiche. From the top of the hill, I saw nothing but greenery across the entire horizon, since the park was part of Edmonton’s “ribbon of green,” a.k.a. Capital City Recreation Park. The skyline of downtown Edmonton sprouted up in the background, right above it all, along with the setting sun. I stood there, looking down on 12,000 people, all relaxed on the grass of the amphitheater while Van Morrison made his way through a transcendental 90-minute set.
Clad entirely in black, Van appeared to be a good mood. He wasn’t doing interviews but he wasn’t yelling at anybody either. He began at the piano for “Northern Muse” and moved to guitar, sax and harmonica for the rest. He played a few of the classics beaten to death by cover bands, i.e., “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Gloria,” which were never, ever his best songs, but they captivated the crowd nevertheless. The show flowered more at other moments, in particular the instrumental “Celtic Excavation” segueing into Van’s opus, “Into the Mystic.” Naturally, Van tended to reinvent his songs altogether when playing them live. He wasn’t one of those insipid bores who presented them exactly as they appeared on the studio recordings.
As such, “Into the Mystic” became a profound overarching noir pointillist jazzy island-like séance featuring vocals somewhere between soul and Sufi. Naturally, he followed it with a haunting version of “The Healing Has Begun.” I came away both healed and haunted.
Levon Helm of The Band also played that year. After having suffered through throat cancer, he still pulled it off and sang a few tunes from behind the trap set. Both of those legends haunted me for years after seeing them.
The 2012 Canmore Folk Fest was a much smaller gig with only 600 volunteers instead of 1800, but a humble festival that unfolded in a gorgeous and peaceful Rocky Mountain setting, in a neighborhood park, surrounded by jagged peaks. The town of Canmore offered just a few blocks of retail shops and restaurants, with not much else, but I got to see Ian Tyson of Ian and Sylvia fame perform their classic, “Four Strong Winds.” It doesn’t get any more Canadian folk than that. After singing the opening line, he paused and said, “Kinda rings a bell, doesn’t it?” I became a closet Canadian after that one.
One year later I infiltrated the 2013 Winnipeg Folk Fest, by sheer coincidence the 40th anniversary of the scene Mitch Podolak originally started. Leon Redbone even drove all the way from Pennsylvania, by himself, to perform. Sadly, though, just like Levon Helm, Redbone is no longer with us.
Now it was 2019 and thousands upon thousands occupied Prince’s Island Park to see Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats tear up the main stage, starting at 10:15pm Saturday night. He opened with “You Worry Me,” a twangy piece of dark poetry about trying to overcome the demons of addiction. Depending on the condition of the listener, the tune either depicted two people struggling together or the narrator addressing himself. I’ve been in that position, so the track haunted me all weekend. What’s more, for Rateliff’s gig, the two large screens at the sides of the stage projected crystal clear black-and-white video, adding serious noir atmospherics to the experience. Everything seemed to haunt me at these festivals. In a good way.
In the end, I grew to understand the Bow River as that which helped harmonize the goings-on. The next morning, I spent almost as much time exploring parts of the river while listening to the music in the background. As I wandered along the rocks, sounds from various stages came in and out of my hearing range, creating a wondrous collage of music, sort of like spinning the dial down the radio. John Cage would have been proud. No matter who played on the main stage, or any of the stages, the Bow River would always be there, watching over the crowds. And the bicycles. And the squirrels. And the geese.