Tuesday, August 10, 2010

First-time Folk Fest-ers

The Fest and the Tarps

This past weekend was Edmonton's annual Folk Music Festival, or more commonly known as: "Folk Fest." I had heard of Folk Fest before, but I'd never been. It is as one might expect, a festival featuring folk music, lasting from Thursday evening until Sunday evening--there's also a Wednesday night show, but it's a fundraiser and not considered (at least by some) a part of the "true" Folk Fest. There's a whole culture around the festival, which I still don't fully understand. From what I've been told, there's a magnificent "tarp run," which takes place at the beginning of each festival day where attendees run for a spot on the main hill. I understand that it's a whole complex affair where you have to line up (at the crack of dawn) for draw/lotto tickets, which gives you a place in the tarp run line. Then you're put into a corral in the order in which your ticket was drawn where you have to wait for the official release to the hill. Apparently if you're at the front of the line you get to escorted by a piper. On the whole there's a lot of waiting in between everything before the music finally starts. Andrew and I only attended the Friday night concerts and didn't arrive until after work, so we missed out on this experience.

The Folk Fest site is much larger than I had initially expected, with something like 7 performance stages in total. It takes place on a small ski/large toboggan hill in Edmonton, just off the river valley. We entered at the bottom of the hill and I must say, the first site of the main hill is impressive. Tarps are pegged down within centimetres of each other all the way from the bottom of the hill (where the stage is) to the top. From what I'm told these tarps can only be a certain size (8 by 10 feet, I think) and there are "tarp police" who will measure your tarp if they think it's too big. People leave their extra clothing, food, bags etc., at their tarp while they go around to the smaller stages to listen to music, but it's important to have a good spot for the main stage performances, which happens at the end of the day.
A view of the main hill from our spot only a few rows up from the stage.
The Chairs

Before I can get to the music I still have to talk about the chairs--yes, the chairs. You can't just bring any old lawn chair with you to sit on at Folk Fest, you have to have special, low-lying chairs (the legs are maybe only 6 inches tall) so that people behind you can see. Again, there are "chair police" who will measure the height of your chair if someone complains. We had several discussions ahead of time as to what kind of chair we should bring--there are lots of different ones: little folding beach chair-types and less luxurious camp chair-types. There seemed to be quite the mix as to what people used. We opted for a Therm-a-Rest contraption that converts your sleeping pad into a chair since we figured we would use them on future camping trips. Andrew recently purchased a large air inflated therm-a-rest and made quite a comfortable chair, whereas I used a smaller foam-like mattress, which sufficed for one night. I'd definitely need to upgrade if I attended for an entire weekend.

The Music

I like music (if you hadn't all ready figured that out from reading this blog). I usually say I like just about anything for the exception of really hardcore rap and really loud "crash and boom" heavy metal (I'm okay with stuff like Metallica, though). So, I figured that Folk Fest would be right up my alley and was quite happy to purchase a ticket--although there was some question at first as to whether or not we should get a pass for the entire festival, or just one night. Since Andrew and I were first timers, we thought getting a single ticket would be a safer bet, just in case (in case of what, I have no idea). A friend of mine, who was instrumental in coaxing us into go this year, suggested Friday night might be best. (A considerable amount of ribbing between my friend and Andrew about how she was trying to indoctrinate us into the Folk Fest cult took place.) That way we would be able to see a mix of both session performances and main stage acts.

We arrived at the Folk Fest site around 5:30 pm, which gave us enough time to eat dinner (brought from home; however, there were plenty of places to buy food) and chat a little before heading off to the sessions, which started at 6:00 pm. I didn't have any particular musicians I wanted to see, but Basia Bulat (frequently played on the CBC) was on Stage 3, so we decided to start there. We picked a spot about half of the way up the hill and settled in for the performances. At the sessions, there are 4 different artists lined up along the stage and one after the other they play a song, with maybe a little witty banter in between. This session happened to be all female vocalists. Aside from the aforementioned Basia, there was Cindy Church, Kate Rusby (Scottish, by her accent), and Dala (2 young women who played and sang together). I enjoyed the music from all the groups, especially Kate who made me want to get up and ceili dance...except we were sitting on a pretty good incline, which would have made things rather difficult.

Shortly before 7:00 pm, a Folk Fest worker interrupted the performances to announce that a potential storm was on it's way, bringing with it expected high winds and strong rain. With this alert I pulled out my rain pants (and put them on) and my jacket, determine not to miss out on the music if it did rain. The sky definitely clouded over, and the winds were quite blustery, but no precipitation fell. After a while I took my rain pants off and put my jacket away, rather relieved no storm took place.

The second session we listened to was also at Stage 3 (we decided we were happy where we were and felt no inclination to move) and was the reverse of the first session in that it was all men. Ray Bonneville (I would guess Irish, by his accent), Calum Graham (a wee youngin' of 18 years) and Tony McManus played guitars, while a pair of brothers from India (the lead/main brother was Debashish Bhattacharya) played a couple of traditional instruments from their country. Again, all of the musicians were quite good. I think Andrew and I were especially impressed by Calum who was quite accomplished for his young age and produced some interesting accompaniment to his playing by taping on his guitar.
A view of Stage 3 from our position on the hill.
Me, on the hill, watching/listening to the first session on Stage 3.
Main Stage

A little before 9:00 pm Andrew and I made our way back to the main stage for the first show, which featured the Levon Helm Band. I'm fairly certain I recognized the name of this band, but I don't think I knew any of their songs. It also took me sometime to figure out who Levon Helm was, as there were a number of different leads throughout the performance. As it turned out, Levon Helm was the little guy at the drums (from our vantage point he seemed quite hunched, although he's also 70 years old, so it might just be an age effect). Despite not really knowing any of their songs (and it being very loud--I could feel the base reverberating in my chest), I still enjoyed their big band/country/blue grass sound, or however you might describe it.
The first main stage act, the Levon Helm Band.
As the sun went down attendees lit candles (those little tapper candles with plastic cups to catch the wax drippings were being sold for $2). The sight was quite spectacular and as we drove home a later we could still see candle flames from the other side of the river. Once the Levon Helm Band finished, Basia Bulat entertained while the stage was re-set for the next band, Calexico. Calexico is from Arizona, and definitely had Spanish/Mexican/Western feel to them. We only stayed for a couple of their songs as it was almost 10:30 pm by the time they started, and we had to get up early the next day to run.
The hill in the evening, after the sun had gone down.
All-in-all, Andrew and I had a good time. I'm definitely interested in going back next year, although for how many days is still up in the air. We may have another commitment at roughly the same same time next year in Vegreville (to be discussed in the next blog post) which may prevent us from going to the entire event.




Lisa said...

Come for the whole thing next year! The weekends are excellent as the sessions are always rockin'. This year my favourite sessions were Sunday morning - you'll have to come experience that next year. And yes, we will make you line up at the crack of dawn and experience that insanity firsthand! If you had to go to Veg, you could always just skip out of an evening?

S. Andrea Milne said...

We'll see, we'll see. Remind me when the line up for next year comes out. If we went to Vegreville we'd have to miss one evening, and definitely wouldn't be able to be in the tarp line up the next day (we didn't get home until 1:30 am on Sunday).