Last night’s Swell Season set was a bit of a bummer but allow me to express my complete satisfaction with today’s festivities. No “wtf” moments no prima donna nonsense just perfect weather good music and an incredibly fun art installation.

I am by nature a lazy man so starting off a Saturday folk fest by 10:30 a.m. seemed ambitious. So it was that I didn’t get there until 11:30 just in time for the start of the “Insider Trading” workshop with Timber Timbre St. Vincent Sunparlour Players and Library Voices. The exceedingly poppy Voices were a bit of an odd duck in this lineup which mostly focused on mournful acoustic numbers and general sadness but they were aware enough to turn that fact into a joke. They also knew not to ad too much energy to St. Vincent’s thoroughly lovely take on Nico’s “These Days” (which she says is actually a Jackson Browne song… And wikipedia says he wrote it when he was 16! I guess I’ll have to dig out that copy of Running on Empty and give him another chance). Timber Timbre actually performed sans the hood he’s been hiding behind during his solo sets and the Sunparlour Players seemed to be game to join in on pretty much anything. The set ended with two jams one where Timber Timbre encouraged the others to play “all the wrong notes” and one with St. Vincent aiming for “all the right notes.” Thankfully the first was brief and the second was actually pretty decent.

From there it was a transition to straight-up class with Steve Pineo Annie Lou Del Rey and the Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Project. Usually the “themes” of these workshops are puns that are more for the amusement of the organizers than for any real musical guidance but the lineup took the “To the Victrolas Go the Spoils” header to heart choosing songs that at least sounded like they could’ve come from “scratchy old records.” Pineo’s always been one of my favourite locals — he’s incredibly cheesy but in a very endearing way — and his contributions have that blend of country and jazz that he makes seem so effortless. As for the others well this is one of those sets that essentially defines professionalism and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. Every one of the musicians is obscenely talented and when you combine that kind of skill with traditional song structures the possibilities for extended solos and effortless collaboration are endless. It was probably the closest Calgary gets to a typical folk fest but still well worth experiencing.

“A-choiring Riches” came next (see what I mean about the puns?) which was basically an excuse to get an early glance at Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Sure there were three other acts on stage but while Madison Violet Asani and Linda Tillery are all mighty good at what they do the Gospel Queens’ superiority was evident as soon as they started up “Wade in the Water.” All it took was 20 seconds and the crowd was won over.

Checking out that set did mean missing Corb Lund and Ian Tyson’s workshop together but that one’s probably best left to the born-and-bred Albertans. Maybe Pat’ll have something to say about that on his blog later on.

This is already getting a bit long so I’ll just hit up the highlights for the rest:

  • The Burning Hell was entertaining as always and as Matthias commented the folk fest crowd is easily the biggest they’ve had in Calgary. Hopefully it just keeps growing.
  • I’d been meaning to check out Timber Timbre live ever since they toured with Owen Pallett but it never quite worked out. Their solo set proved that the singer’s a weirdo (what’s with his omnipresent mask?) but it was gorgeous nonetheless. And with that haunted baritone I’d love to hear the band try a Nick Cave cover some day.
  • On the mainstage Ian Tyson was sounding raspier than ever (am I alone in thinking he’s started sounding a lot like Leonard Cohen?) but still absolutely nailed his set. Too bad the rumour about a Neil Young guest spot didn’t pan out.
  • Naomi Shelton nailed it too. Daptone Records guys. They can do no wrong.
  • Man Man was more enjoyable than anything has a right to be. The new material sounds fantastic the old stuff is still a blast and the whole thing is just perfectly theatrical. I’ve been trying to come up with a better comparison than the Beefheart/Waits that the band usually gets saddled with but there really is no easy identifier. They just sound like fun.
  • And speaking of fun there’s an exhibit at the fest that’s basically an igloo made of speakers with microphones inside that are hooked up to delay pedals. Oh man is it ever a blast. It’s full of kids throughout the day but if you’re nearby in the evening give it a shot. I probably will.

So is this on track for best folk fest yet? Well its been pretty darn fun but the lack of Akron/Family means it’s gonna be tough to top last year. But I guess I’ll have to wait and see what day four has in store.