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Gary: Calgary Folk Fest

the Tryst 'n Shout workshop with Buffy Saint-Marie and the Punch Brothers onstage at the Calgary Folk Fest
The workshops are the heart of the Calgary Folk Fest

The Calgary Folk Fest:
A Distribution of Heterogeneity in Free Spaces

Story and Photographs by Gary Singh

t the Calgary Folk Fest, the observer/participant becomes half-starved and half-filled up. Split almost right down the middle. The starved half must move and interpret new territories, areas and stages. The filled-up half seems more satisfied with the stable condition, the sedentary condition, the lawn chairs.

This is the mind-topic of the Fest, emerging before the observer even departs from the hotel. A concrete bust of a dude’s head confronts him in the lobby of the Hotel Arts. Art and abstraction versus sedentary and concrete--a polar opposition from the start. The Folk Fest being a mechanism for harmonizing the two, of course.

concrete bust at the lobby of the Hotel Arts, Calgary
Concrete bust at Hotel Arts

Down the street, the festival awaits. One can arrive by either by land or water, from the streets or the river, as a pedestrian or on a raft. Once inside Prince’s Island Park, the traveler can either set up shop at one gig or migrate, like a nomad, from stage to stage, as aimlessly as he desires. The choices oscillate between static gigs on a timed schedule and collaborative improvised workshops where any number of performers may come together and create something more than the sum of the parts.

Wandering in the general direction of the Fest through downtown Calgary--a pseudo-Cartesian grid of streets with numerical names--becomes utterly hysterical. Every “street” is a number, not to be confused with every “avenue,” which is also a number. For example, Hotel Arts sits just to one side of 1st Street SW, close to where 12 Ave SE begins, as opposed to 12 Ave SW, which begins on the other side of Centre St. South. On the other side of the tracks, the Calgary Tower sits at the intersection of Center St SW and 9 Ave SW, which becomes 9 Ave SE. Occasionally, a street will cross an avenue with the same number, adding to the insanity. One can travel for a block, turn right, and then turn left, with all three of the streets being named “southwest.”

For a more fluid, non-grid-like feel, the Bow River flows eastward through the city and around Prince’s Island Park. An integral defining component of the landscape, the river means everything to Calgarians, their history, their identity and their culture. It is one of the great rivers of Canada.

boaters navigating the Bow River, Calgary
Floating towards the Folk Fest

As one approaches the Fest from the river--an activity easy to arrange--the skyline comes into view ever so gradually. The Bow River becomes a smooth, graceful happening, a natural antithesis to the linear grid-layout of downtown Calgary.

downtown Calgary skyline viewed from the Bow River
The skyline of downtown Calgary when approaching from the Bow River.

At the Fest, the nomad must move. Always. He can’t sit still, unlike the thousands that set up their lounge chairs, blankets and tarps for the weekend.

audience area before the main stage at the Calgary Folk Fest
Folk Fest fanatics getting ready for the weekend’s events on the main stage.

For the nomad, the workshops become the juiciest component of the festival, allowing for constant motion. He just trips in, around, and, especially, between. There’s always a sonic between-ness about the event, as one roams around the park. One stage fades away as the next one draws near. Bluegrass fades into Quebecois folk music, which fades into Arabic hiphop jazz, which fades into Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Buffy Saint-Marie performing onstage at the Calgary Folk Fest
Buffy Saint-Marie on stage at the Folk Fest

All the regulars provide the same response regarding the workshops: They are the real deal, the heart of the Fest, where one sees raw improvisation, ad-hoc accompaniments and thrown-together jams, often among artists who wouldn’t normally share the same stage.

The word, ‘workshop,’ though, barely suffices. One act is usually the host, but the collective assemblage of musicians organizes the set amongst themselves, right on the spot, deciding what to play as they go. Sometimes it merely rotates, with each group performing in succession while the others improvise an accompaniment. A songwriter might perform a tune by herself or she might call out the chords or the key signature, just so the others know what’s in store. In other scenarios, the whole affair explodes into a multi-instrumental ensemble jamming for twenty minutes. Whatever happens, happens. No expectations allowed.

the Nomad's Kitchen presents a wide variety of dishes at the Calgary Folk Fest
Migrating between workshops requires food

Each workshop bears a creative title. “Avant Bards,” for example, elicits attention right off the bat. Elvis Bossa Nova, BRAIDS, Kris Ellestad and Cadence Weapon provide something on stage at the same moment. A female vocalist. A male vocalist. A spacey electronic soundscape, then smoky, folky vocals, then garage exotica ala Martin Denny with percussion, woodwinds and strings. Another workshop, “Tryst ‘n’ Shout,” brings the Punch Brothers to the same stage as Buffy Saint-Marie. She even did the song from those episodes of Sesame Street moons ago. A more ethnically middle-eastern workshop, “Mazel Tov!” features Yemen Blues pitted against accordionist Geoff Berner.

Goeff Berner on stage with Yemen Blues for the Mazel Tov workshop, Calgary Folk Fest
Goeff Berner on stage with Yemen Blues

But the workshop ripest for stalking becomes the one titled, “Vex Us.” The a cappella feminine pastels of Chic Gamine captivate a jam-packed tent. The audience overflows onto the grassy hills outside. Members of David Wax Museum, The Head and the Heart, and the Felice Brothers all take part in the session, trading songs, a few after the other. The mesmerizing Francophone singer, Beatrice Martin, aka Coeur de Pirate, performs ethereal piano-and-vocal numbers. Bonnie Prince Billy later jumps in with the entire group.

At this point, the observer feels like a participant, but cannot sit still. He must migrate to the next stage. No desire to park his caboose in just one place. Movement is key at the Fest. Back at Hotel Arts, the concrete bust awaits.

the concrete bust the Hotel Arts lobby, Calgary
The concrete bust overlooks the lobby at Hotel Arts

Related Articles:
Edmonton; Richmond, B.C.; Toronto; Vancouver; Prince Rupert/Digby Island, B.C.; Victoria; The Blues and Lives Well-Lived


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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA


Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Eugene Chaplin Introduces Chaplin's World Museum in Vevey, Switzerland

Charlie Chaplin and the Chaplin Museum
Lake Geneva/ Matterhorn Region and Switzerland Tourism recently blew into Los Angeles with the most esteemed guest, Eugene Chaplin. A man of remarkable lineage, he is the fifth child of Oona O'Neill and Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, the grandson of playwright Eugene O'Neill, the brother of Geraldine Chaplin and father of actress/model Kiera Chaplin.

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Tom Weber's travel blog/review
Treasures of Ireland: The Burren (Dispatch #14)

a dolmen at The Burren

The Palladian Traveler ventures back to the days of fearless Celtic warriors to search for some "stones to take you home" as he files his latest dispatch from the monochromatic moonscape known as The Burren.

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John Clayton's travel blog/review
Buckingham Palace – It's THE Most Popular Tour in Great Britain (Part 2 of a 2-Part Series)

Buckingham Palace exit
Is it more momentous for a Brit to do the Buckingham Palace tour than say an American or indeed any other nationality? Yes, I know that's an odd question, but if you grow up – as I did – in London back in the 1950s, getting inside Buckingham Palace was the stuff of dreams. Hence my surprise at touring BP in 2005.

Ringo Boitano's travel blog/review
Paradise on Earth: The Romance of Tahiti and Her Islands

aurora borealis lights up the night sky near Fairbanks
The first thing you notice is the fragrance. The intoxicating perfume of the tiare flower announces to your senses that you are in a magical place, overflowing with tropical vegetation and soothing trade winds. It is the same fragrance that the English seamen on the HMS Bounty also first encountered; but they came, not for flowers, but for breadfruit, intended as a new food staple for their slaves in the West Indies.

Eric Anderson's travel blog/review
Provence: As Much a Mood, a Spirit as a Destination

Christmas card
"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" goes the song. Robert Goulet sang it and Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis, too, and it surely comes to mind when you stand on a bluff in the Luberon of Provence and stare across at the little hill village of Gordes. The view is the best part; the village's interior itself is not dramatic and stands as a warning of what contemporary popularity can do to the simple homes of 12th century working people.

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Fyllis Hockman's travel blog/review
Exploring Venice: Lost and Found. And Special Finds. Repeat.

Venice street musicians
Walking home to our apartment in Venice, we share a wave through the window with the owner of Baba, our local osteria. Leaving for a day of sightseeing, a cup of my favorite pistachio gelato awaits me despite the early hour. At the Bar Dugole, we relax after a day of sightseeing and order the regular: vodka for my husband and Amaretto for me.

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Greg Aragon's travel blog/review
Traveling with Beautiful Boots and a Bison Backpack

Bison Redwood Backpack

People often asked about my favorite travel apparel and gear. This happened to me at the airport recently. One question came as I was putting back on my clothes after going through the TSA checkpoint striptease. Before leaving the area, I heard a soft voice say, "hey, I really like your boots. Where did you get them?" Looking up, I found a uniformed employee staring at my feet.

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Bev Cohn's travel blog
Film Review: "My Hero Brother" – A Tribute to the Human Spirit

a scene from the documentary 'My Hero Brother'

I just spent five days attending the Santa Barbara Film Festival and for the most part, the features, animated shorts, and documentaries were quite professional and compelling. That said, "My Hero Brother," a documentary that was particularly outstanding, told the remarkable and inspiring story about a group of Down syndrome young men and women who go on a two-week trek through the Himalayas with their non-Down syndrome siblings.

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