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The 2007 Calgary Folk Music Festival, a four-day foray into the world’s best music, took place during the last week of July 2007 at Prince’s Island Park, and the resulting noises and sounds made me wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my ears my whole life. For posterity and for your perusal, I present to you, The 10 Most Amazing Performances of the 2007 Calgary Folk Music Festival.

(All photos taken by Kevan Gilbert, unless otherwise noted)

10. Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallet
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gunn]

Owen Pallet (who performs as Final Fantasy) is not a solo violinist, he’s a one-man orchestra with shirt-tails and foot-pedals. I don’t know how long he’s been playing the violin, but it’s as if he reached the limit of training and theory and started thinking, “In what other ways can I use this violin? Can I pluck its strings? Can I play it lying flat, like I’m sawing a two-by-four? Can I yell at it? Can I sing while I play it? Can I use guitar looping pedals to make a symphony?”

The answer to all these questions was yes, and Pallet’s innovation was transcendent. He used dissonance as a foil, employing noise as a means of making the beautiful passages even prettier. His lush loops let him accompany himself, sometimes stepping up to his keyboard to introduce new layers, and regularly offering his voice as an additional instrument, his unassuming tenor giving way to a heavenly falsetto. Owen Pallet’s performances this weekend were groundbreaking tutorials on how to subvert the cold rules of reality to instead fulfill a fantasy.

9. Nathan

Nathan

“Trans Am, take me away,” she sings, a careful, child’s voice from a mouth on a face that belongs on a living room figurine. Her name is Keri Latimer, and her two pom-poms of hair atop her head only add to the precocious music that sounds much, much too mature to belong to her. Evoking Eisley and the Innocence Mission from verse to bridge to chorus, the dark folk songs of Nathan disarm, unhand and enchant with startling force.

Harmonizing from stage-right with line-for-line precision is Shelley Marshall, whose black Johnny Greenwood locks obscure her face as she pumps a purple accordion in time to a shuffling beat. The beatkeeping is done by an aggressively talented percussionist who somehow manages to balance and play his guitar atop his drums while keeping rhythm with his feet, occasionally switching it up to blow breezy solos into a mounted harmonica. Meanwhile, the ironclad bassist keeps the band rocksteady with his grounded fretwork. This band, hailing from Winnipeg, is a lighthouse on the plains; they’re a unique prairie beacon that gave us some beautifully unified performances, and managed to upend all our best guesses as to who this mysterious “Nathan” really is.

8. Six String Nation

Six String Nation jam session

The arbitrarily chosen assortment of musicians that filled the side stage on Saturday morning were not what you’d call a natural fit. The ensemble was made up of four members from Lubo Alexendrov’s Bulgarian gypsy group, two Americana country-styled bluesmen on lap and pedal steels, an unseen bass player, very Canadian songster Hawksley Workman and his everpresent sidekick, Mr. Lonely (aka, Todd Lumley).

While many of the mixed-musician sessions that took place this weekend found the performers taking turns to perform their own songs, Six String Nation was an hour-long jam session. Each musician would get the chance to set the pace with a rhythm, a chord or a riff, and the other players would weave in and out with surprising dexterity. You’d be amazed, as we were, how well the pedal steel can get along with gypsy folk, or how a disco beat set by Hawksley on the drums can accompany a country dirge. This was beautiful improvisation, on-the-fly inspiration that came to define what it means to be folk.

7. Bettye Lavette

Bettye Lavette
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jenniedo]

Since when do legendary soul divas from Detroit stop by to pander to placid white audiences on the Canadian prairies? The Calgary crowd was preoccupied with emitting friendly vibes and folksy expectations, and suddenly Bettye Lavette brought the funk. Her very serious, very incredible backing band set up an infectious groove, and with a Jackson-esque yelp into a wireless mic from backstage, Lavette strutted out in an all-white outfit to begin breaking our hearts en masse.

Out here in the Canadian west, the closest we come to funk and soul is odor and theology. I’d wager that after her show concluded and Lavette swaggered backstage again, at least half the audience pulled out their “to do” lists and wrote down, “Get some funk.” The Bettye Lavette concert was an astonishing explosion of Motown energy that made all of us wish we had even 10% of the rhythm, soul and sexuality that was bring broadcast from the stage. But in true soul form, the sensation was not called inadequacy, it was empowerment. Soul powah.

6. Sarah Slean

Sarah Slean

“I wore pink for you, Calgary,” teased Ms. Slean, striking a pose at the lone grand piano at the centre of the mainstage. Slean is both cute enough to get away with that, and talented enough to still be taken seriously playing the piano in a pink dress with pink heels. She’s got arms and legs as thin as two pairs of chopsticks, which is half sexy and half hellish, her shrunken frame making us all think about metabolism, anorexia, drugs and other things that make people skinny. Whatever experiences Slean has struggled through, they inform a dark, deep and soaring collection of melodies and words which must be some of the must beautiful songs ever written.

Sarah Slean’s rich, angelic alto never once missed her intended note. Her classically-trained fingers seemed to know the piano’s needs and wants, with five microphones dipped into the open grand’s torso to pick up and transmit every key played. Slean’s performance was transcendent and charming, intimate and explosive. With no accompanying band and no backup vocalists, Sarah Slean sat alone at the piano and provided one of the most pitch-perfect solo performances of the festival.

5. Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright

Surrounded by nine talented men in stripes, and himself decked out in an absurd costume of brown lederhosen, Rufus Wainwright was clearly in his element. Bursts of cinematic jazz from a brass section of three, caterwauling piano rhythms from Rufus himself when he wasn’t busy gesturing grandly at the mic, and surround-sound choir backup from all nine of his band members made for a lush, well-orchestrated sound. There was nothing but bliss and revelry from Rufus, whose little boy smile never left his face during the whole performance.

Rufus had the privilege of being Thursday’s closing act, and his Broadway-style performance sent people home to bed with a pleasant buzz of satisfaction. His decision to conclude the concert with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was brilliant; he had the whole crowd in a swaying singalong. While the Folk Fest was just another tour stop for Rufus, his presence was meaningful, and gave attendees a hopeful pride in the future of Canadian music, as well as for the rest of the Fest.

4. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Funk is hard work. Demonstration: the Dap Kings, possibly the hardest working band at the Festival. Their extremely tight dress code supplied an extremely tight sound, but their formal suits didn’t stop them from sweating the night away. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings poured their hearts into their soul — they did it with brass, they did it with class, and they did it with pure, unstoppable funk.

Sharon Jones herself is from the hometown of James Brown, and it seems like soul runs freely in that city. “Lock up your sons!” the guitarist (moonlighting as MC) declared, before Jones overtook the stage like freshly freed prisoner, wild eyes ready to woo you, voice ready to vindicate you for the sin of being a boring-ass white person. During the performance, she taught the crowd how to dance (instructions, demo AND danceable music included), and her capable MC/guitarist did a phenomenally classy job making us all feel good. Besides Bettye Lavette and the New Orleans Social Club, no other show came close to showing off the sheer muscle and discipline of the fabulous Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings.

3. New Orleans Social Club

New Orleans Social Club
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Digg Doug]

The very existence of the New Orleans Social Club makes me want to permanently disown irony. While many bands (let’s say, Tokyo Police Club, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and other similarly-named groups) choose names that “ironically” have nothing to do with their group affiliation or place of origin, the New Orleans Social Club is overwhelmingly, breathtakingly, unapologetically legitimate.

Consisting of some of New Orlean’s most accomplished, elite instrumentalists, these five black musicians got together after Hurricane Katrina claimed their equipment, their homes, and some of the city’s best music venues. The NOSC play a devastatingly cool blend of funk, jazz and blues that is so gritty, it exfoliates your heels. Check it: piano man Henry Butler is blind, and lead guitarist Leo Nocentelli unleashes blistering solos upon your head while staring you down from behind his foreboding shades. The performance by the New Orleans Social Club was probably the most unexpectedly awesome showdown of the whole weekend.

2. Hawksley Workman

Hawksley Workman and the Wolves

Mr. Workman dispensed three eclectic performances this weekend, and none of them ended with the audience still sitting down. From Hawksley’s warbling “Oooo”s to the listeners’ adoring “ahhh”s and the eventual standing Os, these performances featured Hawksley’s expert manipulation of vowels and consonants into blistering, poetic rock and roll.

On Friday night’s mainstage, Hawklsey’s brisk performance mingled with purple stage lights, blue twilight and his delicious backing band The Wolves, and steadily coerced the frightened crowd into believing that his brazen songs really were as colourful and tasty as they claimed to be. Tracks from his latest album (a sedate, folksy affair called “Treeful of Starling”) blossomed from bleak saplings into living, breathing, walking forests, and songs from his older albums found themselves injected with unexpected interludes, alternate words and surprise endings that demonstrated Hawksley’s restless, experimental spirit.

1. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Digg Doug]

Let me set the scene for you: On the far right, we have a black man with natty dreads in a pirate hat, holding a beastly-looking guitar with yellow and red buttons, held together with electrical tape. His name is Futureman, and the device he is clutching is an electronic drum kit that he invented himself. He plays it with one hand while holding a drumstick in the other to play the kit, standing up.

To his left is the saxophonist, a bald man with a pointed goatee who managed to play two saxophones at the same time, different notes harmonizing with each other, his glowing red head about to explode.

On the far left, we have a man named Victor Wooten, who has been called the world’s bass player. The concert ended with a solo from Wooten that spanned over five minutes, involved his hands warping into impossibly twisted configurations, moving so rapidly over the fretboard they were virtually invisible (all the while expelling notes in a sequence that was still completely awesome to listen to), and then concluded with Wooten spinning his guitar in a circle around his neck while continuing to play.

And in the centre, holding it all together, alternating between a regular banjo and a purple MIDI banjo with horns, was Bela Fleck himself, the most normal looking man onstage. Dressed in jeans and a red New York t-shirt, Fleck defines “unassuming,” and yet was likely the most prodigious player of the performance. His lightning-quick picking joined with the over-the-top eccentricity exuded by his bandmates, creating a show so terrifyingly wonderful that the standing ovation would not go silent for a full five minutes after the lights went out.

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Kevan Gilbert

Kevan Gilbert is a writer, speaker and content strategy on the West Coast of BC, Canada.

4 Comments

  1. I saw Bettye Levette a few years ago at Red Rocks with Lyle Lovett. She opened the whole concert by appearing out of tunnel in the middle of the audience without anyone knowing, and then belting into her mic and slowly making it all the way back to the stage. It was basically awesome.

  2. Don’t you think that defining Bela Fleck as “the most normal looking” has offensive undertones? Not saying that you were trying to be but that is a poor choice of words. Nice reviews otherwise, especially liked th part about funk soul odor and religion.

  3. Wow, you’re right, DRev. Perhaps saying “the most unassuming” would have been a better choice of words. Each performer featured a unique physical style of dress and grooming (from dreads to a pointed goatie), except for Fleck, who was as casual as Friday. But I agree with you that calling him the “most normal looking” in a multi-racial ensemble definitely points to my own ignorance. Nice catch, and my humblest apologies.

  4. ….I’ve only heard Nathan on CD but agree totally with your review…..a fantastic sound.

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