I’ve never been to a 4-day music festival before – not the kind that is situated on one site, and is an all day event. I am an experienced Saskatchewan Jazz Festival attendee, but that festival produces concerts throughout the city, with one or two simultaneously staged, throughout 10 days. The closest comparison of the Jazz Festival to the Edmonton Folk Festival are those concerts in the Bessborough Gardens where 2, 000 fans jockey for position of their lawn chairs to see two or three performances of great talent, moseying up the beer booth and barbecue to purchase libations, and then wander back down, said libations in hand to listen to fantastic music in a stellar venue.
The Edmonton Folk Music Festival is different. It happens on one large site, with seven stages, food booths galore, an enormous beer garden (coolers and wine too) where 2,000 can indulge their thirst (drinks can’t be taken back to your seating). The site has a children’s playground, face-painting, and a first aid-tent. There are tents that house crafts, camping equipment, folk festival goodies, performers’ CDs and yes, vinyls too. The site is so large that 22,000 people attend the main stage performances. And did I mention that it’s on a ski hill?
Music was played Thursday and Friday evenings, and all day (late morning to midnight) on Saturday and Sunday. And fine music it was too from genres that ran the gamut from traditional folk (Tim Robbins – yup Shawshank Tim – whose father it so happens was a member of the Highwaymen – a folk group from the 60s who sang in coffee houses) to blues (Taj Mahall, John Mayall, Amos Garrett, Colin Linden, ) to jazz ( well sort of jazz – Imelda May, Lyle Lovett and the Large Band) to mixed-bags (KT Tunstall, Brandi Carlile, k.d. Lang).
I became acquainted with the lovely sounds of Andrew Bird who sampled his own music live as he was playing with it. Angelique Kidjo from Benin, a country neighbouring Nigeria where Cosanna lives, provided a sagacity to the evening. Other world music came from Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Honduras and Niger. The McDades, a local group of large expanse and ability, were transforming. And the Gypsy Kings, with those soothing tenor voices, and the raucous beats, that made me wiggle my hips – and dance, dance, dance.
It’s difficult to relay in words how sublime such an experience is. If the reader has heard the music before, the familiarity provides a touchstone for the conversation. But when you’re unfamiliar with Brandi Carlile, for example, it remains an enormous challenge for me to translate how soaking wet Saturday night audience members – it poured for about an hour earlier in the evening – could last until 11 pm, shivering under wet blankets and tarps because you just knew she was something special. And I didn’t. I didn’t hear her the previous year when her acoustic set blew away the audience. I only heard the testimony during the day, felt the anticipation, and realized that maybe this would be worth waiting for. And it was not to disappoint. She followed a 77 year old John Mayall who blew us away, even as we dripped. When Brandi entered the stage with her full band, and looked up that ski hill, saw the thousands of candles lighting its surface (we could buy a candle in a cup for $2 – many, many did), it took her breath away. She said that last year at this festival was the most special music experience she had had – and by the time this year’s performance was completed, it had eclipsed even that first time. One of the highlights was an invitation to KT Tunstall, who had done an earlier set, to join her on the stage. They sang one of the sweetest renditions of Landslide, and all us girls joined in.
It is wondrous to turn one’s head back towards the top of the hill, and see bits of light dotting the dark landscape.
I had many fine moments, throughout the event. Thursday’s was navigating the hill up and down, as we arrived not too early and spent the evening on the top of the hill. Jamie, my five-year old nephew, armed with his multi-actioned glow stick, danced his heart, soul and feet off to the strains of The Gypsy Kings. In the darkness we could see him scaling the hill around us as his hat held a halo of a glow stick and his hand’s wand broke the ebony sky with colour and patterns. With a glow stick mounted on his mother, Michelle’s head, he had his own beacon back to our spot. An intense night of movement for the little one. And then we trudged up the hill, Emmy Kate with her young brother mounted on her back, to the street where yet another steep incline greeted us. Parking is definitely a challenge. Not a single close spot exists – a bow to the bordering neighbourhoods who welcome or at least abide the strains of the music for four days and the thousands of passersby on foot past their homes. Our vehicle was 15 minutes away – not far – except that each of us, Sofia too, had a lawn chair strapped to our back, plus bags, and EK had Jamie strapped to hers.
Friday night we arrived a little earlier. I arrived first so that I could scope out a better spot. I got one – still on the hill – a rather steep portion – but close to two giant monitors, and infinitely better sound than the previous night. One quickly becomes an “old-timer”, having been the night previous, and so I staked our claim with our 10 x 8 tarp (maximize permittable size). There is a volunteer – probably more than one – who with tape measure in hand doublechecks offending tarps and removes their pegs if they exceed the limit tossing back the illegal portion so that others might claim some of the spot. The music this night featured one of my all-time favourites – Taj Mahal. Hearing his incredible voice and watching his sheer enjoyment in the music was a thrill for me. At one moment I yelled “Queen Bee”, only to suddenly hear the strains of it – the synchronicity for me was enthralling. I jumped to my feet and began to “Carmen” dance, savouring his voice and loving the movement. Bliss, I tell you – it was magical. The evening set was led by a young blues singer, Lissie is her name. Full-voiced and fearless, i enjoyed her set. If I was disappointed at all throughout the four days it was by Noah and the Whale, a group from London. At first I found them energizing and their lyrics inspiring, but after two or three songs, they became ho-hum, yada yada, more of the same.
There are “games” at the folk festival too. The most significant being the tarp lottery. It involves getting up at 6am so that you can be at the festival site at 6:30am on Saturday morning to get a chance to lay your tarp in the most beneficial of places. Michelle is a seasoned tarp lottery player. I wanted to be part of the action, and so joined her on that first day. We had to park at the top of the hill, numerous blocks away, and although there was a gate at the top of the hill, we clambered down the sidewalk, outside the park, to be more strategically placed at the bottom gate. More than a thousand of us at the bottom – more than a thousand at the top, waiting for a chance to get the best spot. There are three stages to this lottery. The first is to get to participate. We positioned ourselves well, close to the front of the line, and when 7:30 rolled around, we were each given a strip of coloured paper, denoting which group you were assigned to. I was Lyle Lovett, Michelle, Guy Clark. It’s important that when in the holding pen (yes – fenced in) with a partner that each of you has a different group because only one of you can go in with the tarp and the object is to get into the best group. At 8am the lottery begins. The first group is called. Neither of us. 40 lucky people line up (their slips of paper are numbered 1-40) and are taken a couple of blocks to line up outside the gate. Companions to those 40 no longer need their paper, so they hand them to others to help us increase our odds. After two or three groups, we had about 4 slips between us – some had as many as 20. There are 25 groups in total. Michelle finally gets in about Group 7, and so we part ways and she lines up. When the gates open at 9:30 the first group is escorted in and the tarp laying begins. After a few minutes, group 2 makes its mark. And so it continues at both the top and bottom gates. It’s so complicated, yet makes so much sense. They used to let people line up outside the gate and then rush it when it opened. Broken legs and bruises were commonplace as people tumbled around the hill. The current system takes a lot of endurance and patience but results in far less injury. People have the strategy down to an art form; some even hire tarp-layers so that they don’t have to do the deed themselves. Michelle got us a spot near the stage, on flat ground, off to the side. It was so much easier to take advantage of the other venues (music is played at the other stages during the day as the main stage is full), the beer tent (it was really hot) and the great food, and not have to face the arduous climb. The really amazing thing about this sea of tarps is the unspoken agreement among the throng, not to interfere with each other’s tarp. Belongings and chairs are left untouched, once the tarp is laid, And in the few instances when there may be encroachment, a volunteer Security Liaison helps to solve the dispute.
While Saturday was hot during the day, and stormy and rainy in the early evening, Sunday was cloudy, cool and windy in the afternoon, but beautiful and calm when the evening performances kicked off on the main stage. Michelle did her magical tarp-laying, and even though she was in the 10th or 11th group on this morning, happened to find a spot even better situated than the day before. A crowning luxury for the last day. The day was spent listening to all kinds of music, and wandering aimlessly throughout the site. Just before the night performance I chose my supper from the All World booth and selected the African plate – delicious! The festival uses reusable plates that are actually washed. When you purchase something to eat you pay a $2 deposit fee. When you return your plate to the plate depot, you receive your $2 back. Or, and I really like this, you give your plate to one of many children who take it back to the depot for you, scrape it, hand it in and keep the fee for themselves. Many little entrepreneurs earning good money throughout the weekend.
As a first-timer – I attended only one other EFMF, one evening many years ago when Joni Mitchell graced its stage – I can tell you that this is a fantastic event, made even more special because we went with Michelle, a true folkfester, and her children who ranged from ages 5 to 17, each loving it passionately for their own reasons. It was old home week for Michelle – every path we took someone stopped to hug her , to say they’ve missed her, and so happy to see her. Her kids wandered through the stages, danced, met their friends, and through the wonder of text-messaging, we stayed in contact throughout the entire event. Each evening, near the end of the night, we gathered on our tarp, dancing, singing and whooping it up.
As a cultural event, the weekend was incredible, staffed by an army (2,100) volunteers who look forward to the annual event so that they can contribute to its success (and get a weekend pass). The Festival is about details, and the volunteer corps exemplified how this minutiae-laden event was achieved. There were many categories of volunteers, each with its own t-shirt, immediately identifying the type and function of the job. They were gracious, helpful, friendly, knew their jobs, cared deeply about the success of the event, and a well-managed resource. Kudos aren’t enough.
I could tell you more about the music, but go to the website http://www.edmontonfolkfest.org and find the list and then explore and listen to tunes. I haven’t even touched on the myriads of other performers who played at the other stages. They were, as the French would have it, incroiable. Musicians like Serena Ryder, Deer Tick, The Deep Dark Woods who hail from Saskatoon, Jeremy Fisher who made me laugh but sang a touching rendition of The Boxer, that beautiful Canadian songwriter, Ron Hynes, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes (love that name) and so many more – if I didn’t mention them it’s only because – nothing more.
There was an ending to the Festival. It began with Lyle Lovett and the Large Band, a coterie of musicians including guitar, bass, pianist, percussion, violin, and more. A quartet of back-up singers – 3 men and the incredible Miss Francine stood to one side. Lyle with his charming humour, his sultry voice made his way on stage. They were dressed to the nines in evening attire, and they lit up the air with old and new tunes.
Hello I’m the guy who sits next to you
And reads the newspaper over your shoulder
Wait, don’t turn the page
I’m not finished
Life is so uncertain
Here I am. Yes it’s me
Take my hand; And you’ll see
Here I am. Yes it’s true
All I want; Girl is you
That’s one of the first Lyle Lovett songs I heard way back when. It’s still great.
The performance was so fine. I have to admit that I was worried for kd – worried that she couldn’t surpass it. I’d forgotten. How remarkable her voice is. How funny she is. How she moves. How fantastic her voice is. She chucked and she jibed with us. She sang from the bottom of her soul and it soared through the air. In the middle – not the end where I expected it – the introduction to Hallelujah began. The crowd exploded in reverence – yes a reverential explosion – even before she uttered the first sound. I’ve heard that remarkable piece of music countless times, sung by the great and often the not-so-great, and I’ve heard kd sing it, even once for Leonard Cohen himself. But I’ve never heard it like I did on that Sunday night. It was 10:30. The lower sky was inky black, but high above it midnight blue burned through. The stars were flickering and when I turned toward the hill, candle in my hand, the lighted hill was ablaze with candlelight. She took her time singing it. The legato was stretched; the ritardandos held ever so slightly. Her voice – that voice – rang through the night, but hushed all the while. And we all joined in, softly on the refrain. Twenty-two thousand voices singing in unison. As quietly as we sang lullabies to our babies. She went on to sing many more songs, and like each and every musician before her, thanked the audience and the Folk Festival for the magic of this night. There are no encores at the Folk Festival -each performance is scripted tightly in its time slot. There were three encores this night. We couldn’t believe it. It was as if the neighbourhood sensed greatness and said, what’s a little late night music when it is such great music.
When she left the stage one last time, Serena Ryder and a cohort of musicians began the traditional parting song. We all stood still on our tarps and joined to sing Four Strong Winds. And those of us who couldn’t sing in the key which a male singer chose, were able to sing our harmony line. And from the throngs, a beautiful sound was heard.