The Calgary Folk Music Festival promises magic, mashups and must-sees

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Two people dance at the Calgary Folk Music Festival in 2021.Mike Tan/CFMF

The Calgary Folk Music Festival is back – really back – after three years of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Musical artists from around the world will take to the stage in the city’s Prince’s Island Park for four days of concerts, including collaborative sessions that bring together unpredictable performers to jam. The music festival, which offers entertainment beyond live performances, runs Thursday through Sunday.

Artistic director Kerry Clarke tells The Globe and Mail what to expect at the 43rd annual festival.

Folk Fest is making a strong comeback after three years. What does it do?

It’s surreal. It’s as if the last three years have evaporated and it’s completely normal but, at the same time, everyone finds the sea legs, the artists, the agents and us. Flights are literally in the air. We have had a few cancellations but we hope the weekend goes very well and we ask people to be patient with us and other performing arts organizations as it is not easy to make a event still in the midst of a pandemic and the world in disorder. So it’s still new and different. It’s exhilarating. This is annoying. It’s all the emotions at once.

What can people expect from this year’s festival?

We have 70 artists from around the world performing on two evening stages and five daytime stages. For the first time we have a license for all sites, so we will have our beer garden and service area. We have a chat tent with comedians and signs and vaudeville performers, in addition to the craft marker and food and family area. It’s basically a small town for the whole weekend like a lot of festivals. And it’s magic because of the site, the programming, the atmosphere is really cool. We are right downtown, so it’s an oasis in the middle of the city.

A Tribe Called Red performs at the Calgary Folk Music Festival in 2018.Mike Tan/CFMF

Compared to other festivals, what makes Folk Fest so unique?

I think Canadian folk music festivals are unique in that we are very community driven, volunteer run, not for profit and we also tend to bring in artists from a variety of genres. We use the word folk, but real folk is about the vibe and the way people are with each other, and the collaborative sessions are unique to many western folk festivals. There is no other festival that I know of that has collaborative sessions and a diversity of programming that really ranges from roots and traditional music from around the world to funk, hip hop and indie and a lot of avant-garde, different sounds. I don’t know of any other festival in town like this.

Which crowd favorites are returning this year that are exciting newbies?

We usually have about 20%. 100 of artists returning from previous years, and then a combination of artists who have never been to Alberta, or even to Canada. A favorite I’d like to highlight is Allison Russell because she performed in so many different formats at the festival. She was with a band called Po’ Girl and she’s also in Birds of Chicago but she came out as a solo artist this year and her album got a ton of attention. She is just phenomenal. DJ Shub was elevated to the main stage this year, after a cancellation, and will have a full band, dancers and singers. Basia Bulat also returns but this time with a rather special string section.

The Wood Brothers have never been here before. They come from the United States and are phenomenal players, so it’s exciting. Then there’s Watchhouse, formerly called Mandolin Orange, which is also phenomenal. There are so many, like Bette Smith who is a funk artist from the United States. Devon Gilfillian, very funky.

Mdou Moctar performs at the festival in 2018.Mike Tan/CFMF

What kind of interesting collaborations can people expect to see on stage?

Some mashups are fun. We like to use puns, so there’s one called Tinnitus the Night, which is more rock artists who 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, then a Brazilian artist based in Canada called JER and Quintet and all the way from Brazil we have Xênia França. It’s the kind of example of the kind of people you’ll see performing together on stage. It’s an amazing way for artists to meet and collaborate.

It’s not just music at Folk Fest. What else can participants do in the field?

People can just relax under a tree or play frisbee or sit in the beer garden and walk around with their drink and hang out with friends and family. The “chat tent” is cool and not all festivals have this option. In the afternoon, we have a panel by an industry professional who is an octogenarian, Richard Flohil, a very well-known man, very iconic in the music industry and a long-time journalist. He runs a panel called War Stories, where different musicians sit on the panel on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and tell crazy touring stories. Then, of course, we have the craft market and the food, so plenty to see and do. The days go by really quickly.

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