Calgary Folk Music Festival celebrates 40 years of history and all of the city’s amazing musicians with Cover Art compilation album

What: A free performance at Festival Hall celebrating Cover Art, a jaw-dropping collection of 21 Alberta artists covering 21 artists who’ve played the Calgary Folk Music Festival, recorded in celebration of the fest’s 40th birthday. 

When: 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13.

Where: Festival Hall.

Who: Tom Phillips and the DTs, Danny Vacon, Ig Bo Lyn, Lorrie Matheson, Samantha Savage Smith and Sargeant & Comrade.

Why: To celebrate the release of Cover Art, a remarkable two-disc or -record set featuring Alberta artists who have played at the Calgary Folk Music Festival covering artists who have also played the fest. The album features songs like 100 Mile House nailing Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning, Lindi Ortega making love to Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down, Rembetika Hipsters caressing Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and a sweet version of Ian Tyson’s Road to Los Cruces covered by, of course, Corb Lund, among many other lovely tracks.

How: For an answer to this, theYYSCENE spoke to executive producer Kerry Clarke, the fest’s artistic director, who jumped on the idea of doing an album that came out of a marketing committee meeting as suggested by a longtime fest volunteer. 

“And then Matt Olah, our marketing manager, came in and I didn’t realize where it came from I thought it come from his head. And he said, ‘What do you think about doing a compilation for our 40th?’ and I said, ‘It would be great only it would only be good if it was special, if it was something different. For instance, if it was local artists covering the songs of artists who played over our history.’ I wouldn’t have thought of it on my own, but I furthered the suggestion, so it was really a team effort.

“I think it kind of came from Doppelsingers, when we used to do Doppelsingers, where you challenged local artists to do something. In that case it was Alberta artists covering Alberta artists.”

She says that there have been no complaints, not even about the absence of a cover of beloved fest staples Blue Rodeo. “People have been really kind. They haven’t given us a hard time on what we chose. People have been really complimentary. Some people commented that they like the covers more than the originals.” 

Upon hearing the album, this is not hard to believe. What is hard to believe is that the entire project was conceived in February and was completed as an album that could be held in people’s hands by the time the fest rolled around in July. 

She credits a lot of this to producer Graham Lessard. “I thought of him as the artist wrangler but he did not just do that, he did tons. He spent a lot of time at National Music Centre so he knows the equipment and he’s just a dream to work with. He’s got this gentle way of encouraging people to do things. One of the things he likes to say is, ‘Can we punch it up a bit here?’ You know how you hear about those producers who are like, ‘Bark bark bark!’ He’s like, ‘Can we punch this up, how about this?’ He went to their rehearsals, he listened to the demos. A lot of the artists recorded in the four hours allotted to them so they had to be really, really ready.

“I expected it would be good. I thought it might sound a bit like, I hate to say this, local artists covering other people’s songs, but I think it stands up internationally. It’s everything we wanted it to be – a celebration of our amazing local artists and a reflection of our history.”

Clarke assembled a master list of possible artists and songs, and then the “horse trading” began. It worked for most, but not, of course, for local iconoclast and producer Lorrie Matheson. Clarke had suggested he cover Joe Henry’s The Man I Used to Be. “It’s a killer song but it’s blues. I’m not a blues guy; I can’t put blues across. Existentially, maybe, but not musically,” Matheson says.

“I said to Kerry, ‘What about a Joe Jackson?’ but someone’s (already) doing Joe Jackson (The Polyjesters’ remarkable version of Is She Really Going Out with Him?). Then I realized nobody’s even talking about Vic Chesnutt.”

Matheson chose to cover Gravity of the Situation. “I thought, what can I do at the National Music Centre that I can’t already do at my place (Arch Audio, his own studio)? And the thing I can’t do at my place is record a really big band live. There’s not room. If I try to record a big band with drums and everything, it’s like 18 by 18.”

Matheson was watching the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary series where a song from the era plays at the end of each episode. Hearing Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale, Matheson figured it sounded like it was recorded on one microphone. Thus, after assembling a band, that’s what happened.

“It needs to be like this large anthem. So everybody that’s in that band (hastily assembled as Matheson had no band at the time) can sing, they can all play guitar. We recorded the band with one microphone, so basically there’s no way to fix it. We didn’t practice. I made a demo — I changed the arrangement quite a bit — I made a demo and sent it to everybody; there was no practice. We did about five takes, went into another room again with one microphone, then recorded everyone singing and playing guitar, then we did it again, because it was mono. When the end comes, it’s stereo.”

Matheson started an e-mail chain with people who had been involved in the recording, including Chris Byrne (The Road Hammers, George Canyon.) He got a reply along these lines: “This punk rock thing is not lost on me that you walk into this huge facility with every piece of gear known to man and you go, ‘Yeah, just give me one mic.’ ”

Clarke had suggested Anna McGarrigle to Calgary music royalty Tom Phillips and the DTs and of course Phillips said yes. Of the experience he says, “Going Back to Harlan! What a great song. We only had four hours to record it so we had it completely arranged in advance. Tim Leacock came up with the idea of mirroring the McGarrigle’s by having Shaye and Sydney do the verses in sister harmony. All of us had our parts down and we had met with Graham Lessard and made a little demo.

“When we got there the beautiful big studio was completely set up for us to play it almost live! We all got to sing together at the same time where we could see each other and listen to each other; the headphone mixes were all controllable individually. It all felt effortless. 

“We did very little overdubbing and I don’t think anybody did more than two takes of their parts, a lot of it was once through. (It was an) unbelievable, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, crazily flexible and comfortable studio. And there were all these crazy cool instruments and mics and gear from the NMC. It was the smoothest session I’ve ever been in. Though Harlan is sort of an out of the box pick for us we all fell in love with it. I think that love was captured on the recording and when that happens it’s magic.”

Cover Art Release is a free event happening Sept. 13 at Festival Hall at 7:00 p.m. For more information, go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.