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Folk fest: Day 1 & 2 megamix

 Let’s make this quick because St. Vincent and Timber Timbre are playing a workshop in a few minutes and I think I would regret missing that.

Thursday:

Too much dashing around meant not enough time for band-watching. I got to catch a bit of Library Voices’ opening set just enough to catch a few glimpses of the band’s all-white outfits and get a taste of the exhuberant pop that they seem to channel so easily. But I needed to duck out for Natacha Atlas and Stars so the only other band I catch is the Avett Brothers. I’d been a little worried that a good chunk of the crowd would be there strictly for Stars but it looks like the Avett Bros have gotten a lot bigger than I realized in the last year or so. Maybe it’s because of the uber-catchiness of “Kick Drum” or maybe crisp songwriting is just back in vogue. Either way parents and kids are on their feet and it’s an effortless way to end the first night.

Friday

This is the first year that Folk Fest has had workshops on the Friday and I whole-heartedly support the addition. Especially when it’s as enjoyable as the Stars/Library Voices/Honeybear set that opened the day. And not just because Library Voices make for a natural fit with Stars (here a two-piece) with the earworm tendencies and heart-on-sleeve philosophy of both groups. Watching the other musicians discover Honeybear who certainly must qualify as one of Calgary’s best-kept secrets was almost as much fun as the music itself. I’m not sure why Honeybear decided to end his set with some squelching feedback-drenched noise but other than that the whole set was lovely. I even heard the sound-guy say “I could keep mixing this all day.”

Side note: When the singer from Library Voices joked about Stars having to leave the fest via helicopter do you think he knew he was making a S.T.A.R.S. joke?

I stuck around for a bit of Cat Empire Coolooloosh and Etran Finatawa but only enough to realize that I wanted to catch the latter two’s twilight stage shows (I can see why people can dig on Cat Empire’s pan-cultural party sound but its never really been my thing). So more on those two in a minute. But in the interest in catching as much music as possible I headed to see Swell Season Joe Henry and Robin Holcomb in the meantime. The vibe was considerably more relaxed but the songwriting on display was pretty astounding. Henry’s jazzy roots were the highlight cementing his reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter but I was also impressed by the conviction of The Swell Season who showed exactly how they managed to carry a movie on the strength of two voices and a busted up acoustic guitar. Holcomb’s a bit more of a mystery to me — live I felt like the vibratto was overdone but I have a suspicion that it would play a lot better on CD. It doesn’t feel like daytime stage music so much as something to put on at a dinner party in a haunted mansion. Maybe another time.

But back to Niger’s Etran Finatawa. For its full set on the twilight stage I finally pieced together the band’s line-up and it’s pretty astoundingly simple — just a singer three percussionists a stratocaster and occassionally an acoustic guitar. In the hands of the band’s guitarist though that strat was more than enough to keep the crowd enthralled. Each of Finatawa’s songs easily stretched at least seven minutes but they weren’t so much repetetive as mesmerizing. There’s a reason so many indie acts have been borrowing from African rhythms in the last few years and it’s not just because of Paul Simon. Just a stunning set.

And it was followed by an impressive (and more crowd-pleasing) set from Israel’s Coolooloosh who actually reminded me a bit of The Roots on the strength of their live band-backed hip hop. A lot of multi-culti party bands end up lacking in the emcee department but Coolooloosh’s frontman was a definite exception bringing plenty of charisma and an impressive flow.

DJ Dolores didn’t do quite as much for me. The set started strong with an Orson Welles sample and the guitar lick from “Ghost Riders in the Sky” but the setup (Dolores plus a suave-looking guitar player laying down surf-influenced riffs) felt a little empty. Solid sure but not as strong as the last two acts.

Then it was over to the mainstage for The Swell Season who’d impressed me earlier but left a sour taste with the main set. Frontman Glen Hansard started things on an odd note by saying that he say a lot of “lazy people” in the crowd asking those who’d actually come to see the band to stand up so he could see who he should be playing to. Considering the band’s focus on powerful but relatively quiet acoustic ballads I’m not really sure why he was expecting the crowd to be on its feet from the start but by the time he berated the crowd again (even if it was somewhat justified by the amount of noise in the crowd) and then encouraged fans to rush the security barricade it was clear that no attempt would be made to win over the rest of the audience. The set was clearly for the faithful alone and the attitude was enough to turn me off.

But when you’re in a down mood leave it to Ontario’s The Burning Hell to set things right. For their tweener set Matthias Korn and his ukelele were joined by a banjo and saxophone and the clever little ditties were enough to put a bit of bounce back in my step as I took off just before Franti’s set started.

But that St. Vincent set’s rapidly approaching. On to day three.

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