Review: Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 2021 Block Heater raises temp during final night with Valerie June, 100 Mile House and others

The fifth and final evening of the Block Heater Festival started with competing blasts of energy on two stages, causing a lot of toggling between the ATB stage on Zoom and the free Festival Hall stage on the Calgary Folk Fest’s YouTube site, and/or its livestreamed Facebook page. It was sort of like if you’d been at the fest’s usual downtown sites moving relentlessly between the National Music Centre’s many stages, the King Eddy, and the downtown library while trying to soak up every last drop of an event created with the purpose of taking some of the sting out of winter’s final weeks. And this year’s Block Heater didn’t just take the sting out of winter; it brought out a flame gun and melted that fucker.

Tendavillage’s Kate Melvina and her keyboards ruled her basement stage (hey, there was even a lava lamp!) while accompanied by three masked musicians as she channeled her inner Stevie Wonder, creating delicious jazzy, funky and poppy moments. This high-energy set threatened to take that party upstairs and out on the street – well, not on those streets, that would break health orders – but into the streets of YouTube and Facebook, where no doubt there were a more than a few dozen booties shaking along to the high-powered songs. If you are feeling low energy and need to dance to break up your winter blues, you can enjoy the set again on the fest’s YouTube site at, along with sets by other artists from this year’s Block Heater fest.

Speaking of dancing, a few hundred people were doing just that as they joined Guadalajara’s María Mezcal on the ATB stage via Zoom, where the two primary singers traded off magic, mariachi-tinged moments that evoked every emotion, from joy to longing to regret, all within an hour-long set. If you like it hot, this was the place to be, as the band ramped up exuberant bursts of musical colour and then brought it back down with the precision of an elevator operator.

Sure, death’s been stalking us all year, but this is music that invokes, palliates and drives away the night as it romps along without apprehension, even when stripped down to just an acoustic guitar, handclaps and voice. It was one-hell-of-a way to start the evening, and, yes, a tough act to follow.

But follow is just what Ireland’s Paul Noonan did, switching gears hard by playing an unvarnished set spotlighting guitar, vocals and a whole lot of introspection, all made more poignant by the vacant surroundings of West Cork’s Levis Cornerhouse. Songs like Glacier and As Demons Have Their Say hit universal nerves, especially after the songwriter introduced the latter by talking about the work of a suicide prevention organization with the statement “(It’s) not leading people to the light, but sitting with them in the darkness.”

Switching over to the free Festival Hall Stage, Edmonton husband-and-wife team 100 Mile House played from their interestingly appointed (a great horned owl flew into singer Denise Stone’s dad’s Greyhound bus decades ago; the owl reigns over the place, unnerving their three-year-old son London to this day) “garage-bar” and opened their set with songwriter Peter Stone mentioning they weren’t really a Saturday-night type of band, “as you’ll soon find out.” 

Nonetheless, the 100 or so people present on two platforms disagreed, with folks from several continents requesting specific songs and cheering along in online solidarity. It’s obvious that 100 Mile House’s artwork, which capture life’s big moments, but more touchingly the small, fleeting ones that get lost in the tumble of sunrises, resonate across oceans and ages.

Meanwhile, back on the ATB stage, Tennessee’s Valerie June also played from humble digs, sitting on the floor in front of a cozy little fireplace and down-home curtains in contrast to her colourful, night-on-the-town-ready outfit and hairstyle. It was the perfect set, just her, her banjo and guitar, from which to spin musical yarns about possible pasts and futures. But which past? The one that brought her to bluegrass and country, or the one over the fence that includes blues, gospel and a little wink at Motown? Ah, no need to choose – June tore down that fence with her barefoot vocals and captivating lyrics as the contradictions in her style augmented every note.

And while the festival brought musicians from around the world into our living rooms over its five nights, Calgary’s Tarik Robinson (Dragon Fli Empire) and colleague Luis Tovar, originally from Venezuela but playing percussion from Calgary, took us out into the world via images from Robinson’s South-American journeys and music from his 2019 album Unión Latinoamericano. Split screens, stories, sample, and beats came together to create an upbeat experience that overcame social distancing to unite listeners in music and heart, a fitting festival finale.

(Photo courtesy Renata Raksha.)

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.