As much as I love the chance to see the big-name acts at a festival, I find it really hard to be engaged by a main stage concert. For me, the magic and beauty of a festival always comes at the side stages. Sure, there are always must-see shows on the main stage, and sometimes they manage to keep my attention, like the Wednesday Van Morrison show, but Thursday night in Edmonton, nothing had that power over me. Actually, that might not have been the case, had I been a better planner.
Thursday’s show started off with a set featuring Patrick Watson & The Wooden Arms. Watson’s music is what I’d lump into the hipster (indie rock) category, which doesn’t always appeal to me. His are the kinds of shows where all the uber cool suburban kids come to be seen, but rarely do they come to actually listen. When I was at the Hillside festival in Guelph some years ago, I created my own ratings system, The HQ (Hipster Quotient), wherein I could decide how annoying a workshop was going to be, based on the likelihood of annoying suburban hipsters getting in the way of a show. At that festival, anything involving a Broken Social Scenester was guaranteed to draw a huge crowd of annoying kids. At this festival, Patrick Watson was the leader of the HQ army.
I tried to listen to a Patrick Watson CD recently. It was an excruciating experience for me, so I turned it off and had to go into detox by listening to Townes Van Zandt for a while. That having been said, I LOVE watching this band. I saw this crew in Winnipeg last year, somewhat reluctantly, because I was avoiding what was on that main stage, and because I was trying to prove to our 12-year-old daughter that not everything at the folk fest was boring old guy music. Watson’s shows are certainly not boring. With a dynamic, interesting band, and some of the strangest show elements (in Winnipeg he rigged up this multi-megaphone contraption so that he could go out and play in the crowd. In Edmonton he did this shtick where he sang into a megaphone and used a plunger like a trumpet mute to vary the sound. Very cool), the guy does put on one hell of a show to watch.
So why, then, would I choose to wander for food & beer during the one act of the night that stood a chance of entertaining me? Because I’m a dumbass, that’s why! Needless to say, we missed almost the entirety of the Watson show, and by the time we made our way back to the tarp, his set was almost done.
Part of the charm of visiting a festival has little to do with the actual music. Wandering around the site, taking in the sights & sounds & smells, watching the people, taking it all in, etc. is very important, especially at a festival that I only visit every 5 years.
I never planned it this way, and can’t really figure out how it worked, but I have been to the Edmonton Folk Festival 4 times in 15 years: 1995, 2000, 2006 (oops, I’m not sure what happened in 2005, but I sure am grateful to the Wailin’ Jennys for inviting me in ‘06), and 2010. That pattern was unintentional, but now that I notice it I wonder whether I should wait to come back until 2015 just to stick with the program. Of course, every one of my previous visits I’d come by myself, and this time I dragged Jaine along, so maybe it’s time to start anew and just come whenever the spirit moves us.
Things have changed a fair bit since 1995, when I took that long, lonely road trip to see Elvis Costello at Gallagher Park, but a lot of what I enjoyed about the festival remains. First off, the site is almost ideal. I love Winnipeg’s site at Birds Hill Park, but there are drawbacks to being a half hour outside of the city. Calgary is sure convenient, being right downtown and all, but it’s kind of too close. I like Hillside in Guelph, but I never really understood what damn hill I was on the side of – it all looks pretty flat to me! The Edmonton site is very close to downtown, but tranquil and scenic enough to make you forget that, even though you get a spectacular view of the lovely city skyline. Unlike Hillside, The Edmonton Folk Music Festival is on the side of a HUGE ski hill.
This concept is a bit inconceivable to someone from Winnipeg. Our city has only ONE hill, it’s made of garbage, and the only time you even know it’s there is when you want to go tobogganing a couple of times in the winter. There’s no road going over it, it’s not really near anything, and it holds absolutely no significance other than being a good place to sled in the winter, a good place to watch stadium concerts when you’re too cheap to pay for tickets, a good place to go make out on a first date (or so I’ve heard…), and the long ago site of the lamented CoreFest music festival.
I always thought those metalheads, punk rockers, and grunge kids were on to something when they held a festival on the side of a hill – it makes for the perfect natural amphitheater. Of course, if the hill is really steep, there are drawbacks. I don’t really know how people who put their tarps up the hill survive. Maybe they’re not old, sore, and lazy like me, but hiking even a short distance up that hill has me gasping for breath and missing Winnipeg, where EVERYTHING is perfectly flat. I hike up that hill once a year to take photos and to say that I did it. The view from up there is sure pretty, and they do have a couple of video screens halfway up the hill, so you can see the action on stage. I just think that you’re too far removed from the show to actually be engaged. I’d be really annoyed with the path that cuts the hill in half horizontally, as well – I can’t imagine having your tarp set up right in front of a busy walking path – you wouldn’t ever see anything but people walking.
The tarp setup ritual is getting a little too organized and civil for me. I miss the good old days of the “tarp rush” where you’d line up a day in advance for the chance to kill yourself falling down this steep hill (or in Winnipeg, for the chance to kill yourself tripping over someone slow.) Now, in Edmonton, you can only line up an hour before gates open, and they only let people in 25 at a time. Of course, you can only move at a slow, leisurely pace. They have bagpipers leading the procession onto the hill (although the sound of those pipes that early fills me with rage, not eager peace.) I was lucky enough to get a pretty good tarp position in Edmonton, although I didn’t really use it much on this day.
I did take the opportunity to wander through the food vendors, but the lineups were ridiculously long, and I’m ridiculously impatient. Instead, we figured we’d go visit the beer tent, but what do you know, another ridiculously long lineup was awaiting. The concept of waiting to get into the beer tent was a bit foreign to me. I’ve never even been in the main beer tent in Winnipeg (I only rub shoulders backstage at the tavern, thank you), but I have been a fixture at the tent in Calgary. They do things differently in Alberta. First of all, you can get your beer by the pitcher, and EVERYBODY does. Heck, even Jaine and I splurged for a pitcher, and we don’t normally drink much at all. Of course, this has much to do with the fact that after you make it through the long lineup to get in, you have to wait in one long lineup for tickets, then one more to get your drinks! For a guy who hates waiting, that’s a lot of damn lineups, so we had to make it worthwhile and buy a whole pitcher.
And that, my friends, is why we missed most of Patrick Watson’s set, and why we ended up watching all of Kate Rusby’s set, even though, musically, she does nothing for me. Not that there’s anything wrong with Rusby, she’s got a wonderful voice and a charming, down-to-earth personality. The truth is that I’m a folk festival addict who quite dislikes most folk music, and Rusby can’t really be called anything other than straight up folk. It was just a little too British and a little too folky for me.
She kind of reminded me of an act I saw the last time I was in Edmonton, Chumbawumba. They had that one huge, mega hit in the 90s, and it doesn’t at all seem like anything that would fit in at a folk fest, so I had no idea what they were doing there. They ended up being this straight up British folk act, and they didn’t do their huge hit, Tubthumping, despite repeated pleas from loogans in the crowd. Their set had me thinking of that movie A Mighty Wind, and wondering whether they were serious or somehow misguidedly ironic or what. Rusby was a little easier to take seriously, but just as hard for me to actually pay attention to.
Up next on main stage was Gord Downie and his band, the Country of Miracles. The band is pretty amazing, featuring Julie Doiron, Dale Morningstar, Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers), and my old pal Dave Clark, who blew my mind as the drummer for Rheostatics back in the day, before moving on to some really tasteful and entertaining drumming backing folks like Michael Johnston and Tannis Slimmon (as well as putting out some very interesting music on his own.) With a band like that and a showman like Downie, you’d think that this would be a great show, and I suppose it was, in some ways, but it didn’t do much for me.
I, personally, do not understand why Downie seems to be booked at every Canadian festival this year. I don’t think they all need his name or his annoying fans attached to their festivals. Much like Chumbawumba, I just don’t see how Downie’s loogan-rock fits in at a folk festival. In Winnipeg he acted pretty un-folky, jumping off stage and milling with the crowd and wearing a clock on his head, but in Edmonton, he seemed a bit more interested in joking about Julie Doiron’s foot cast. He is funny, and the band is great, but musically, about as interesting as a dialtone.
Last up on the mainstage was one of those curiosities you get at festivals, and another guy I wasn’t sure really fit my vision of a “folk festival” (whatever that is), Ben Harper. He’s made some interesting music, and apparently puts on a good show, so he was one to see, although if I had been more tired or it had been raining, I would have gladly headed back to the hotel. Harper’s band, Relentless 7, was a last-minute deletion from the program, as one of the band members apparently became seriously ill or something, so he was billed as doing a stripped-back, acoustic show, although he still seemed to have a full complement of players backing him up. When I heard that he was doing a smaller, more acoustic set, I got rather worried that he would do more slow, boring stuff, and that he might veer off into boring guitar wank, and shortly into his show, he did both. That was our cue to leave, and get back to the hotel, so we packed it in for the day.
Heading back to, or from, the hotel was no easy task. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Edmonton over the years, even bringing my bike to and from the festival the first time (and never again…), but I still don’t really have a good grasp of the lay of the land. It seems a pretty spread out, windy kind of a town that is dictated by the rivers and the land. Winnipeg is about as straightforward as it gets (well, I suppose it would be more so, and even more boring if we had the standard numbered streets instead of our confusing street names), with some streets going north/south, and some avenues going east/west. If you want to go East or West, you just find your way to Portage Avenue. If you want to find your way North or South, you hop on Main Street. In Edmonton, none of that seems true, so I really had no idea how to get to/from.
The first night we decided to risk public transit, which was all fine and good, but the bus was super packed, took a confusing route, and, worst of all, it would only drop us off at the top of the ski hill. This wouldn’t have been bad, but we had to pick up our tickets and enter/exit through the gate at the bottom of the hill. While walking down a hill is always easier than walking up, it’s still not the way you want to start your day.
Eventually, we found our way to a shuttle bus that takes volunteers (and, now, media poseurs) from some baseball stadium to the site. That worked out well, as the volunteers were extremely friendly and helpful, and nobody bothered to point out that we had no business being there. I realized on one of the trips back that the stadium appeared to be relatively close to downtown, where our hotel was. I noticed some landmarks within walking distance (or so I thought), so I figured, being as thrifty (cheap) and ambitious (foolish) as I am, it was worth a walk. One problem. The only thing separating us from downtown was an even BIGGER hill.
It ended up being a fun challenge. The push down the hill at the start of the day was kind of manageable, but that long, slow ascent up that massive hill at night was a bit crazy. I honestly don’t know how people live like that. What do they do when it’s slippery on that hill in the winter? What do you do when you live on that hill and your kid drops a toy (or you drop your kid) down the hill and it rolls for a mile? How do you ride a bike or park a car like mine that has bad brakes? It
Anyway, the hike (and the inevitable complaints and laughs) was kind of good for the soul and it helped to bring on some solid sleep.