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Folk and Post-Folk Go Head-To-Head at Calgary Folk Music Festival 2023

Celebrating another stacked festival weekend of genre-spanning music. 

by Sebastian Buzzalino and Rebecca Zahn

Photos by Sebastian Buzzalino

As we reported in our pre-festival coverage, the Calgary Folk Music Festival prides itself on stretching the boundaries of what is possible to program during a folk festival. Summer folk festivals have traditionally been slower-paced affairs, made more for kicking back and relaxing in the sun, listening to dulcet tones floating over the grounds, than for dashing back and forth between stages to maximize fun times. But returning for its 44th year, CFMF delivered on all fronts, spanning the wide gamut that folk music entails. From hardline traditionalists to new, imaginative sounds, this year’s lineup was stacked from Thursday to Sunday.

In the spirit of the festival’s earnestness to exist in the liminal space between folk and post-folk, we pitched two artists per night against each other in a cheeky head-to-head encounter exploring some of the available spaces being opened up in folk music traditions. Of course, none of the artists actually competed against each other, but by intersecting artists perhaps out of their usual contexts or even cohorts, it became clear that regardless of which sub-genre is being performed, folk music is for the people, and by the people. Its enduring stories, whether they’re told over a train-beat rhythm or backed by hip-hop samples, remain central to any folk experience.

 

Thursday, July 27:

Digable Planets vs Emmylou Harris

The first matchup of the festival featured two incredible heavyweights that scarcely need an introduction. For anyone that perhaps raised an eyebrow at Digable Planets opening up for Emmylou Harris, a perfectly pointed clash of styles, their concerns were easily put to rest within the first few bars of the jazz rap outfit’s set. Mariana Vieira stood tall and proud at centre stage, a grin plastered on her face. She was clearly enjoying the packed crowd on the main field at Prince’s Island Park, who came out in droves despite the dreary rain that wouldn’t give up. At one point, rapper/producer Ishmael Butler called out, “it’s the rhythm of the people, that’s what folk is,” as if he knew exactly how to operate in the space between them and Emmylou Harris, finding the common thread between two otherwise disparate worlds.

DIGABLE PLANETS

Seeing Emmylou Harris headline Thursday night was an absolute treat, enough said. Harris’ career is as enormous and influential as anyone, and her presence and gravitas on that stage, flanked by an impossibly tight band, was immaculate. She can carry worlds with her words and her guitar, and she does so with an effortless cool. Later, a friend’s dad would comment that he’d seen her upwards of 20 times over the years and this was the best he’d ever seen Harris perform. An absolute highlight to be in the presence of such an icon who, at 76, will live forever.

EMMYLOU HARRIS

Friday, July 28:

Boy Golden vs Tanya Tucker

On Friday it rained again, and we started our day’s matchup under the tent at Community Natural Foods’ stage for Winnipeg’s Boy Golden. The secret is soon to be out on this shit-hot Winnipeg collective, if it isn’t already. Led by Boy Golden himself, a grinning, mulleted, orange-jumpsuit-wearing self-proclaimed pastor of the Church of Better Daze, he delivers a groovy, cool, feel-good riot of a performance that you just can’t wait to see over and over again. Emmylou Harris started out her career alongside Gram Parsons, romanticizing the truckers, kickers, and cowboy angels, and Boy Golden responds with dirtbags, stoners and darling queers.

From more contemporary, hipster-leaning approaches to the country frontier, we head back to the classics: specifically, the juggernaut that is 90s country radio staple Tanya Tucker. There were no surprises in her set. She is adored by a crowd that defies generational lines and clearly has so much fun up there. She’s sassy, she’s dancing around all over the stage, and she’s bringing people into her world one knowing smile at a time. Even for someone who didn’t grow up in Canada in the 90s, there was something so familiar and wonderful about Tanya Tucker unapologetically belting out her long list of hits.

Saturday, July 29:

The Sadies vs Fantastic Negrito

Is there a band in the Canadian scene more enduring and more beloved than The Sadies? Stalwarts of the rock n’ roots scene — part AC/DC, part impeccable harmonies and shuffle — no one does it better, or as often, as the Toronto trio. Even after suffering the sudden death of frontman Dallas Good last year, a devastating blow that would have finished any other band, the remaining trio somehow continues to get better and better with age. As an additional treat, they’ve been playing with Kacy & Clayton whenever their paths intersect and their inclusion in the set elevates everything, whether it’s Clayton’s virtuosity on the guitar or Kacy’s angelic voice that acts as a great foil for Travis Good’s own.

THE SADIES

Over to the main stage for Fantastic Negrito, and what a spectacle that turned out to be. Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz’s story is quickly becoming enshrined into modern blues/soul/funk lore as he continues to push the boundaries of storytelling and musical fusion in his career. Bold, oh-so-aesthetic and with enough confidence to absolutely entrance the entire crowd, Fantastic Negrito put on what’s likely the best set of the weekend, easily overshadowing Matt Mays’ headlining set afterwards. (Also, Matt Mays, you, as a white man, were humbled to “feel safe” in a folk crowd of mostly white people at a festival run by mostly white volunteers? A bit tone deaf, don’t you think?) 

FANTASTIC NEGRITO

On the heels of his latest album, White Jesus Black Problems, which explores seven generations of family history leading back to the 1750s, Fantastic Negrito is a voice we need more than ever.

 

Sunday, July 30:

Sierra Ferrell vs Jeff Tweedy

At some point in time, a coin must have been flipped down South and Sierra Ferrell and Post Malone each took a side. Not knowing much about Sierra Ferrell, I came in blind and deaf with an open mind, and what a moving set she put on. You could be forgiven for mistaking her songs as being from a bygone era without seeing her in the flesh. She carries the traditional music torch high and proud with a talent honed in the vagabond highways between Seattle and West Virginia, where she was born. But she’s no normal Southern Belle. There’s an edge to Sierra Ferrell that hints at her upbringing and her willingness to grind out a career like so many have done before the over-commercialization of music. Her stick-and-poke, scrapbook tattoos complete the package, and there was more than one folk fester that left with a new favourite discovery.

SIERRA FERRELL

The iconic Jeff Tweedy followed, before Bahamas (again) closed out the festival. But it was Sierra Ferrell who won this round in the end, proving that songwriters like her are in fact the future 0f folk music as we know it.

JEFF TWEEDY