After one lovely day in Victoria with my mum visiting some of her favourite places and another having breakfast with staranise
before wandering downtown by myself--with a not quite as lovely day in between where Dad and I went to see the UTTERLY ENRAGING Monty Python reunion show and I stomped out at intermission then cooled down by taking a long solo walk along the ocean and hanging out with a deer--I caught the ferry back to Vancouver, slept on high school friend's couch (wearing borrowed clothes, with all my own stuff out on the balcony, because friend's roommate's MCS is scary severe), left very early in the morning and nearly missed my Greyhound because Translink confuses me, rode bus through mountains! all day long, and was collected by Aunt in Canmore and whisked back to her place.
While in Victoria I'd talked Aunt into accompanying me to the Calgary Folk Music Festival
for a day ("talked into" is maybe the wrong expression; she was on board even before I got to the magic words "Bruce Cockburn"). The festival had already sold out of Saturday day passes, of course, but I managed to scoop a pair for face value on Kijiji, woot.
We didn't hurry into Calgary Saturday
morning, took our time waking up and didn't rush the drive, so we didn't get through the gates until a little after noon (also I hadn't yet noticed that my iPod's clock didn't switch to Mountain! Standard Time when we crossed into Alberta, so I spent chunks of the weekend believing that it was an hour earlier than it was supposed to be, depending on which timekeeping device I happened to check, but this would not become a problem until Monday). Wristbanded and be-programmed, we plonked down at the nearest source of interesting noises, which happened to be Jaron Freeman-Fox
, who is a much weirder person than his program blurb suggests. We planned to stroll around sampling sounds after that but ended up sticking the first place we landed because that place was in front of (well, off to the side of) Nick Sherman
, with his charm and his face and his ink-covered arms and his beautiful husky-soft voice.
Next stop was "Letter to a Young Songwriter", because Aunt wanted to get as much Bruce as possible, and I stayed there for a bit before wandering off to check out some stuff towards the western end of the park, including more Roger Knox & pals
(no, I had not had enough of them yet, thank you for asking). What Knox is doing, with the help of Langford and his multifarious musical connections (see below), is introducing the world to the rich and tragically underknown tradition of Aboriginal country music in Australia via an album of songs, some previously recorded and hard to find, others never recorded at all, all by Aborigine writers, performed by himself and a mob of talented and established artists in northern hemisphere alt-country and adjacent genres. The story, in a nutshell, is that classic country & western music snuck into Australia via white American servicemen after WWII and, like rabbits and cane toads, made itself at home. Unlike rabbits and cane toads, this introduction was embraced, especially by Aboriginal people, because it's music evolved for big skies, dust storms, camp fires, cattle drives, and telling sad, sad stories--of which the Aboriginal songwriters had plenty to tell. Knox, "the Koori King of Country", was a big deal in this tiny vibrant scene in the 80s, and AFAIC deserves to be a big deal all over the place.
Aunt and I were supposed to meet up again at "Hard Truths and Summer Breezes" but by the time I got there the set was over and the crowd dispersing, so I tried "The People's Mic" (full of folks I'd heard in Vancouver and praised in talking up the festival) and found Aunt there only once the audience started thinning towards the end of the session. The reason it took so long to reach Stage 3, and to get from there to Stage 2, is that the site layout was TERRIBLE. ( maps and complaints )
I understand that the organizers are limited by the island's size and permanent features, there are only so many configurations they can actually use, but come on. I cannot be the only person to get bounced from volunteer crew to volunteer crew looking for somebody to complain to. (Also, this isn't the organizers' fault but it really pissed me off: somebody hotboxed one of the portaloos that I tried to use right before I tried to use it and, like, what the fuck?!?!? First of all, I hate you. Second, WHY??? Third, I hope you catch many gruesome parasites, you gross, rude jerk. Yech.)
I'm not entirely certain what happened during the first part of the evening? I know Aunt and I were on our blanket in the wee triangular space we claimed at mainstage for part of The Lone Bellow
, and then we must have gone to Stage 4 because I remember eating curry there and moving closer to the stage during the changeover before Waco Brothers, but I don't remember listening to Typhoon
? I must have been absorbed in my knitting--oh! It was during this block that I went back to Stage 2 to look for the cable needle I'd lost that afternoon. I found it, and a bonus quarter.Waco Brothers
(here joined by or now including Jean Cook and her violin), ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh so good. I danced my legs off and yelled my lungs out and it was awesome
. I am amazed and embarrassed that I didn't know about Jon Langford
before this summer--like, I was distantly aware of Waco Brothers but couldn't have told you anything about them, and Langford himself I'd never heard of, and it's amazing because the guy is everywhere
. He's in I'm-not-even-sure-how-many active bands (Mekons, who've been going since he helped found them in 1977, Waco Brothers, kids' band Wee Hairy Beasties, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts if you consider them a band rather than an event . . .) and plays solo with and without Skull Orchard, is one of the major moving parts in the engine of the
alt-country label, Bloodshot Records
, and a hero in the Chicago music scene, hosts a radio program, has both inspired and been involved in multiple theatre projects, collaborates with anybody who'll hold still enough long enough, and on top of all that he's a visual artist with a stack of exhibitions, books, a comic strip, and a line of beer labels to his name. It's terrifying how productive he is, especially when you see him in person: this shortish, balding, white-haired Welsh guy three months older than my mother leaping around on stage with more fierce energy than I have ever had or will have. I'm not entirely sure he's human. As a band Waco Brothers are a forceful reminder that the thing we now call alt-country didn't come out of popular country at all--it mostly came out of punk. The bands that kicked it all off in the 80s--Mekons, The Blasters, The Knitters, Rank & File, and everybody else in this rabbit hole I am happily falling down--did it by mixing classic country sounds into punk spirit and punk politics (which might have something to do with how people like Langford, Sally Timms, Dave Alvin, and Alejandro Escovedo are still doing the amazing stuff they do, and why they seem like such genuinely good people); at the time people even called it cowpunk. I expected them to bring out Roger Knox for a song at some point, like Langford had done during what was supposed to be his solo show in Vancouver, but they didn't; they brought Frank Yamma, who led the crowd through this down-in-it call-and-answer blues number, screaming "hey crazy mama" until our throats were raw. This show just did not let up--there were protest songs and union songs and love songs and hate songs and covers pulled from half a dozen genres, and at the end of the set Langford jumped off the stage and ran around in the audience and it was fucking glorious
After that came the hotboxed portaloo incident, and rage, and looking for somebody to complain about the layout to, and after that came Bruce Cockburn
, and that made everything so much better. It was magic. I don't even know what else to say about it, really. I knew the words to almost every song he played, all the singles and a couple of the obscure ones, and they're really good
words. That's his biggest strength, from my perspective: good singer, amazing guitarist, bloody devastating poet. Cockburn's another of these folks who doesn't look like a life-changing music god, too--he can turn on that power presence, you see it in some of the photos and hear it sometimes in his voice and then you (I) get the spine-shivers, but most of the time he's just another white-haired white guy, bespectacled subtype. Even on stage, alone, in a leather duster coat with an emerald green guitar, he seems so mild, until you listen. Aunt suggests that the innocuous is a survival tactic, on a career level if not an actual mortality one, like the opposite of a scarlet kingsnake, to persuade TPTB to let him keep performing, which, when you record songs declaring your desire to convert Guatemalan dictators into pulpy splatter . . .
We didn't stay long into Seun Kuti's set, had to get going before things got too sleepy for safe driving on mountain! roads, but yeah. That was my day at the Calgary Folk Festival: excellent musical programming, excellent company (which the festival cannot take credit for), abysmal site layout, and another imaginary stamp on my folk festival passport.