At Winnipeg Folk Festival, Friday is a full day, with workshops all day, and then a main stage at night. In Edmonton, being a city festival as opposed to a camping affair, they let everybody go to work on Friday and then cram all of the above into the evening. There are workshops from 6-9 pm, and then a main stage concert starting at 9. This led to the inevitable beginning of those difficult choices between conflicting, interesting side-stage shows.
Starting things off right away, I could have found something to enjoy at just about any of the 5 stages open on Friday (there are two more on Saturday/Sunday.) The two leading contenders were a concert set by Australia’s The Waifs, whom I hadn’t seen since I last visited Edmonton in ’06, and a packed workshop called “Big Old Goofy World,” featuring Tom Russell, Calexico, Natacha Atlas, and Tanya Tagaq & Celina Kalluk.
In the past, for me, there wouldn’t have been much conflict between a concert set and a workshop, as workshops always seemed like a better value for your time, and a more likely spot for those one-of-a-kind collaborations that these sessions are supposed to foster. But lately, I’ve become a bit too jaded by too many sessions featuring songwriter after songwriter, all doing a very straight up version of his/her favourite song, over and over. So many of these sessions feature little to no collaboration, and no real connection to any kind of theme. So this year, in Winnipeg, especially, I took advantage of the many side-stage concerts, and I really learned to love them. In those instances, the artists are more in charge, and able to present the performance the way they envision it, and often, that leads to a much better performance, besides the obviously longer, more in-depth presentation.
That having been said, the workshops won out for me on this day, as I was eager to see how Calexico and Tom Russell worked together on stage, after having recently done an album together. I knew that if I stayed at stage 6, watching workshops, I’d see The Waifs later on, anyway.
This turned out to be an interesting choice for a workshop (although I did slightly regret not seeing The Waifs concert, but more on that in a minute.) Calexico is one of those dream bands (The Sadies being another great example) that is always willing to collaborate and back up other artists, as well as to choose material that others can join in on. Calexico provided a lot of collaborative magic, with Russell, obviously, but also with the other two acts on the bill.
Those two acts were interesting, if admittedly not for me. Natacha Atlas is a truly
international singer, and a very colourful individual, for certain. Tanya Tagaq is from a little closer to home, Nunavut, but I had moments where I wondered if maybe she was from another world. She’s a throat singer, which, to this suburban kid raised on a heavy diet of pop music, is enough to alienate me. Add the strange sounds (which really do sound like some hot & heavy breathing) to the fact that Tanya was performing with Celina Kalluk, and they perform in rather close proximity, to put it mildly. The thought of two women cuddling up making heavy breathing noises doesn’t offend me (although it is a little bit awkward when it’s on a festival workshop stage… a little out of place), but when said women remind you repeatedly that they’re COUSINS, things get a little extra creepy. I like my cousins just fine and all, but you won’t catch me cuddling up to them, holding hands, and making sex noises in front of a crowd. It wasn’t hard to see that I wasn’t the only one finding it a bit odd, as performers and spectators alike had a bit of a stunned expression during the duo’s performances. To each her own, I suppose…
We stayed at the same stage for another lengthy session, “Talkin’ about my Generation,” featuring The Waifs, Patrick Watson, Kate Reid, and young, local performer Lucas Chaisson. My primary motivation for staying was to see The Waifs, whose concert I missed earlier. This turned out to be a disappointment, as they did kind of strange/boring stuff that I was not at all familiar with. The “fun” Waifs that I remembered
from years gone by must have stayed at the concert stage and sent the “silly” Waifs. They were interesting enough, but not the fun, rockin’ band I remembered and told Jaine about.
Something interesting that I noticed in Edmonton, more so than in Winnipeg, is that the workshops usually feature some established artists, mixed in with some relative unknowns. I’ve heard the complaint about Edmonton Folk Fest (and Winnipeg, and Regina, and every other festival…), mostly from musicians, who feel that there isn’t enough local talent featured. I think that complaint is a bit ridiculous, especially in Edmonton, where it seemed like just about every workshop featured at least one local artist. The locals that are featured in Winnipeg seem to usually get stuck together in one workshop, or put in with other artists that just don’t fit into most of the artists featuring the “stars.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to both. Often, when a token local gets thrown into a workshop, it can be a bit of a dud, with a big difference in experience and ability, and an audience that often doesn’t care about its own.
Luckily, this wasn’t often the case in Edmonton (with one notable exception, to be discussed later), as the locals rose to the challenge admirably. This is especially commendable in the case of the “U22” (under 22) crew that was featured at this festival. This group of young performers was clearly taught well, and most always held their own on stage with the veterans. Sure, it was always clear that they were just kids and the other performers were coddling them somewhat, but I found this to be a much more interesting way of exposing young performers to a festival stage than our own Young Performers’ Program, which has the kids all shuffled off to a stage where NOBODY but other young performers (and their families) go.
The U22 performer in this workshop was Lucas Chaisson, and he did a pretty good job of holding his own. He’s very young and was quite nervous, but had solid vocals and very strong guitar playing. He should probably get over his Martin Sexton phase and move on to something more original, but he’s off to a good start.
Kate Reid is a charming, funny performer, and the crowd seemed to love her. Me, I get a little tired of the cheeky novelty songs, and that seemed to be all she played whenever I saw her.
Patrick Watson, once again, was very interesting and engaging to watch, if a little boring to listen to. He certainly puts on a show wherever he goes, and he has a drummer who is fascinating to watch, which certainly helps. He actually provided the funniest moments of the workshop, when he tried to lead the stage in an improvised singalong for the last number. Nobody on stage wanted to play along, but
eventually, they all took a turn, and it turned out pretty well.
All in all, a decent workshop, but I question whether I should have attended the Tom Russell concert, instead.
Something else I notice in Edmonton which is definitely not the case in Winnipeg – there are NO scheduled breaks between performances. One workshop ends and the clock is already ticking on the next. This can make for a quicker changeover, with little down time for the audience, but it can also lead to cranky performers, and it makes it really hard to get from one stage to another without missing anything.
This is why I missed the first bit of Levon Helm’s mainstage set, which followed. Now, Levon is one of the legends that I was most looking forward to seeing this year. His work with The Band is some of the most important music in the world to me. I’ve also been a fan of his recent solo work. I knew about his cancer scare and its effect on his voice, so I wasn’t expecting it to be in top form, but I was expecting something close to what he’s put on record as of late. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
When the band played in Winnipeg, Levon was clearly under the weather, frequently blowing his nose and shivering under a coat wrapped around him. For that reason, I kind of cut him some slack when his voice was rather weak and hoarse. I figured he would have time to recuperate a bit before the Edmonton festival, and hoped that he would sound stronger. Quite the opposite, actually. He sounded really weak in Edmonton, although he appeared to be having a lot more fun than he had in Winnipeg.
His show is a bit of an old-style revue, where his top-notch band runs through many old classics (including a bunch of Band material). They were polished and strong, but almost too much so. It kind of seemed a little too rehearsed and a little too clean. There was no real live energy to their set, and they carried so much of the show that Levon was basically just a backing musician. Sadly, for me, Levon kind of fell into the same category as Bobby Blue Bland did on Thursday – legends it’s good to see, but even better to listen to at home.
Luckily, there was something to really look forward to after Levon’s set, the concert by Calexico. I’ve seen these guys a bunch of times in concert and have never, ever been disappointed. I don’t think I’ve seen anything close to the same show twice, as they’re always improvising and mixing things up and clearly having fun on stage. I can’t imagine how you could be disappointed by their show, and I was not, in the least.
Their show was followed by a World Music act, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (say that 5 times fast), and as mentioned before, suburban white-boy don’t really go for the exotic. Instead, he tends to go to bed early, and I was more than ready to do so on this night, and get a decent rest before the longest, busiest day of the festival, Saturday. So, we headed off into the night to face that long, slow climb up that massive hill to the hotel.