There’s always a bit of a risk in having one of the most anticipated acts of folk fest weekend play the first set on Thursday evening. There’s the reality that the majority of people will still be pouring in the gates while they play (and the probability that a large number of people are heading straight for the beer gardens). This year The Barr Brothers battled a third factor – sound. After starting half an hour late the band powered through persistent sound problems but leader Brad Barr did his best to keep things moving and the band eventually finished a strong set before giving way to Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires .

The Extraordinaires came out first horns blazing and building to Mr. Bradley’s grand entrance. Then when he finally stepped to the microphone the drama screeched to a halt. His mic wasn’t on. Strike two against the soundman on this day. It was solved quickly enough though and the band churned through their powerful mix of soul and blues with easy professionalism. Bradley is a wonderful performer and a hell of a dancer still going strong at almost 65 years of age.

Beirut was next and they were Beirut. They sounded solid as Zach Condon and company perfectly translated the world-infused jazz-rock of their albums to the stage. It’s the second time I’ve had the chance to catch Beirut this summer and while they don’t bring a lot in the way of energy their musicianship is enough to marvel at.

Opening night though belonged to Chris Isaak . There’s something about the Calgary Folk Fest and old school country performers that’s a perfect fit. It took me back to the semi-ridiculous but perfectly entertaining Glen Campbell set of a few years back. For whatever reason country singers just know how to work a crowd. Isaak ripped through songs that you suddenly realized you’d heard a million times before without realizing that they all came from the same guy. And familiar covers like “Ring of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire” didn’t hurt.

And now it’s time to switch gears completely. On to Friday’s tongue-twisting combination of Dan Mangan and Jeff Mangum.


Well that’s that. The first day of Folk Fest is over. We witnessed prolonged soundchecks a possible hologram of James Brown hour-long waits for entry and a horrendously overhyped hipster band that didn’t want to have pictures taken of them. But more on Beirut later.

From what Twitter tells me The Barr Brothers took the stage a half-hour late due to some sort of technical problem but I was too busy failing a linguistics exam to concern myself with the details.

Showing up during Charles Bradley ‘s set certainly wasn’t a bad beginning to my festival experience: the personable soul singer brought a slightly subdued gritty combination of Otis Redding and James Brown to the stage forcing the hips of the audience to move thanks to a jawdroppingly talented band and a glittery jacket. It was pretty damn cool. He wandered through the crowd after his set hugging fans and just being a down-to-earth dude. His performance set the tempo for the weekend which will look to the energetic likes of Shad and Besh o droM to keep rolling. Local folk act Reuben and the Dark killed it in between sets as usual while keeping a Canadian humility to their “tweener” show.

That emotive invigorating vibe was swiftly forgotten with the arrival of the almighty Beirut . The band was a perfect fit for the festival — there’s no reason to deny that — with fans justifiably swooning at dual trumpeting and crisp vocals from Zach Condon. But despite what Mark Teo wrote this week the sonic encounter was one of the most boring in recent memory. Which was unfortunate. I was looking forward to them. Maybe I’m bitter about the photo thing as even k.d. Lang gave us photographers a song to shoot when she played last year.

It just wasn’t an engaging set. The band hardly broke stride from their excessively refined set which ultimately gave the impression that they didn’t give a shit about being in Calgary. The music bordered on painfully repetitive and seemed more like an unashamed “borrowing” of Yann Tiersen’s sound than anything remotely innovative. But there’s brass! And ukeleles! I suppose that was enough for some and good for them.

The beer gardens called giving me an ambient and delicious backdrop to watch the first few tracks of the charismatic Chris Isaak who seemed to be enlivening the crowd by actually talking to them (take the cue Beirut). But after an exam-filled day this guy needed sleep. Much more to come tomorrow with hundreds of words likely to be spent on the debate between seeing Shad or Dan Mangan. What a chore.