Successful 2018 Calgary Folk Music Festival leaves organizers, attendees with smiles on their faces

The smile on Sara Leishman’s face says it all.

We’re in the green room of the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Sunday, the last day of the event, her first at the helm of the annual aural summer orgy on Prince’s Island Park.

And, again, Leishman’s beaming says exactly how year No. 1 into her tenure as executive director went.

“It’s been so fantastic. Obviously the weather has been working in our favour, which always helps,” she says of the four days, which featured a couple of minor showers that were mere inconveniences on an otherwise sunny local forecast.

“It makes everything from the setup to just operations of the festival that much easier.”

It also ensured that the island was almost full on most days, with, at the point of the afternoon we chat, there having been only 3,000 unsold tickets for the entire event. (Twelve to 13,000 bodies on the island, including fans, staff, musicians, entourages and volunteers is, Leishman says, is “a very full island.”)

“We’re very much in throwing distance of a full sell-out,” she says. “And it’s on track with last year as well. We did fully sell-out on Saturday, so we’re pretty pleased with that.”

The lineup, too, played a huge role in 2018’s success. Longtime artistic director Kerry Clarke assembled one of the top-to-bottom best fests, arguably, in the past decade of its 39-year run.

From highlights such as Friday closer Joe Jackson — who put on an all-time great set of classics — to others such as A Tribe Called Red, Bahamas, The War and Treaty, Stars, Blackalicious, it was a wonderfully eclectic and well-rounded group of artists assembled in one amazing place.

“We had such a strong lineup,” says Leishman, who came onboard at the fest as development director in eight years ago, in charge of sponsorships and donations, before making the leap to her current position 10 months ago. “Kerry is an absolute miracle worker. She’s got a pretty modest budget, all things considered, and what she was able to do with it this year was amazing.”

And the local contingent was just as impressive, with Calgary boy-made-good Reuben Bullock and his backing band the Dark, completing their graduation from side-stage entities to bonafide and deserved headliners on Saturday, introduced proudly by Premier Rachel Notley and preceded by rising yyc tweeners Mariel Buckley, and Liz Stevens of Copperhead.

“Talk about hometown heroes,” Leishman says. “I just stood there with a couple of little tears in my eyes thinking about how much their careers are going to grow.”

Aside from the sprinkles (from the sky, not her eyes) there were only a few minor hiccups over the weekend, including a moose wandering onto the island early Sunday morning (he was, according to reports, tranquillized and relocated by Calgary Police Service and not being served up kabab style for the rest of the day on vendor alley), and some long lineups in the beer garden — Thursday saw them break the record in sales.


What I’m hearing is next year they’ll license the entire site with booze venders all around the island?

“Nice try,” Leishman says with a laugh. “That’s not what you’re hearing.”

Off the table entirely?

“It’s not off the table, but it’s not necessarily on the table either. And I know that’s kind of weird way to answer that question.

“There are bigger considerations at play when it comes to licensing the island. Through studies a lot of other festivals have seen when they license their entire site their revenues go down. And with us because of our current model … a big part of our success, our financial success at the festival is beer sales, playing around with that too much just gives me reason to pause and take it into account and just have a really thorough explanation of that.”

She also points to their green initiative and wanting to keep the fest’s footprint as low as it is with respect for the beautiful site they inhabit as part of her hesitancy.

Speaking of green. Yes, they’re already working at trying to figure out how life in the age of legal weed will look at the folk fest next year.

Hell, they were already selling passes at the gate over the weekend for next year’s 40th anniversary celebration of the fest at a discounted price, with limited quantities still available until Tuesday, Aug. 1.

That’s actually a pretty heartening thing considering the current rather dire climate for annual arts and culture happenings in this city, with the Calgary International Children’s Festival shutting things down completely last week after more than three decades in operation, and Afrikadey! and Reggaefest taking a break this year to reevaluate. (Add onto that the closure of several venues, including Mikey’s Juke Joint, Nite Owl and Distortion, and the picture seems particularly grim for music fans.)

Leishman and the rest of the board have seen it and share the concerns of arts lovers, but are doing what they can to ensure they’re still here for many more years and many more smiles to come.

“From the global Calgary arts scene perspective, yeah, we’re very concerned because we play a piece in the greater ecosystem of what’s happening culturally in Calgary, so we are definitely thinking about what’s happening to our friends and colleagues.

“We’ve always run really lean, we’ll continue to do that, that has worked to our advantage. We rely heavily on our volunteer culture to help fill in the gaps in a lot of ways, and that’s part of who we are anyway, and we’ll continue to do that.

“For us, though, we’ll wait and see the numbers come in, but the biggest thing for us is that we have and continue to diversify our revenue streams,” she says, pointing to year-round programming and the rentals of Festival Hall, as well as their winter event Block Heater.

“Those things have really helped diversity our revenue streams and made us a more stabile organization.”

She continues. “We’re going to be in the office on Monday and our first meeting to talk about Block Heater is on Wednesday. So, it’s on.”

(Photo of A Tribe Called Red courtesy Joe Miles.)

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at mike@theyyscene.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.