Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian, on stage Thursday night at the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
“How about a folk song?”This was the presumably tongue-in-cheek suggestion from Belle & Sebastian guitarist Steve Jackson before the Glasgow band broke into Family Tree, the leisurely-paced acoustic-pop ballad sung by multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin.Granted, it certainly wasn’t the least-folkie song heard Thursday evening at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, where the Scottish band ended a beautiful day at Prince’s Island Park with an energetic, playful and crowd-pleasing set. There were other nods to straight-ahead folk. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s verbose and slyly romantic Piazza, New York Catcher, which came complete with a harmonica solo, wouldn’t sound out of place in a coffee shop and the band offered a fairly reverent snippet of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man to finish off a soaring version of A Summer Wasting. There was even not one but two references to Ian & Sylvia.
Belle & Sebastian perform on the ATB Main Stage during the 40th Annual Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince’s Island Park Thursday, July 25, 2019. Brendan Miller/Postmedia
But anyone thinking that the Calgary Folk Music Festival was going to sink into folkie nostalgia to celebrate its 40th Anniversary has very little understanding of the festival’s programming. Thursday’s lineup was typically adventurous and occasionally challenging, veering from the deceptively sweet-sounding, disco-fuelled art-pop of Belle & Sebastian (“We pour all our poison and pessimism into out songs,” Murdoch suggested at one point), to the intense grungy singer-songwriter fare of Sharon Van Etten, unhinged rhythmic post-punk of Tune-Yards and exuberant world music of Tal National.Still, no matter what wonderful musical mayhem was happening on stage, the festival grounds seemed to maintain their trademark peaceful, easy feelings. It was only interrupted once. Alberta’s culture minister Leela Aheer had the unenviable task of bringing greetings to the festival from the government and was met with a round of boos when she mentioned Premier Jason Kenney’s name.But that was really the only sour note.In their closing set, Belle & Sebastian dabbled in nostalgia right upfront by opening with the acoustic-punk track Expectation, taken from the band’s 1996 debut Tigermilk. It was followed by the endearingly goofy I’m a Cuckoo and gorgeous Sister Buddha. There were other highlights. Listening to the band dive into the jangling guitar-pop of Another Sunny Day as the sun went down, for instance, was nothing short of sublime. Murdoch invited a gang of children and their parents to populate the main stage during a killer run through The Boy with the Arab Strap and bouncy The Party Line, wrapping the evening in a nice celebratory glow.Celebratory is not the first word that springs to mind when it comes to Brooklyn’s Sharon Van Etten. “I am so relaxed so I hope that’s OK,” the singer announced early on. But there is really nothing relaxed about the visceral nature of her songs, which she often howls above storms of distorted guitar. Van Etten drew heavily from her fifth album, this year’s excellent Remind Me Tomorrow. In a live setting, new songs such as Jupiter 4, Comeback Kid and No One’s Easy to Love seemed to unfold over a chugging, quasi-industrial groove. The harrowing Memorial Day sounds like the least likely song to feature the wind-chimes Van Etten brought to it Thursday night. Equally striking was the anguished, unrelenting Hands and set-closing fractured pop ballad Stay. Still, despite the darkness, there were still moments of sheer beauty shining through, particularly on the show-stopping Seventeen that had Van Etten magnifying both the defiance and despair of the song.Earlier in the night, Niger’s Tal National got things off to a suitably sunny start, offering an jubilant set of danceable afro-beat and surging Touareg blues that showcased oddly-metered, fleet-fingered guitar lines and muscular rhythms. Perpetually grinning, colourfully robed and exceedingly polite — they may hold the record for the most between-song “pleases” and “thank-you” — this was the five-piece band’s first time in Canada. They made the most of it, whether it be the enthusiastic if cryptic lost-in-translation dance instructions (“like a frog in the river!” “A camel in the desert!”) or the frantic instrumental outros that hit frenzied climaxes. While not a lot of people had wandered onto the grounds at this point, Tal National was able to fill dance area to modest levels just the same.
Merrill Garbus of the Tune-Yards performs on the ATB Main Stage during the 40th Annual Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince’s Island Park on Thursday.
If that wasn’t an adventurous enough start, things burrowed even deeper into acquired-taste territory with the followup act: Oakland’s brilliantly inventive Tune-Yards. Led by Merrill Garbus, a multi-instrumentalist who leads the trio with a mad-scientist’s enthusiasm for concocting a rippling ocean of layered sounds, loops and voices while stomping bare-foot around the stage.The band charged through the spiky pop of ABC 123, jubilant sing-along Water Fountain and the explosive and mildly unsettling Colonizer, which built to a horror-movie-soundtrack crescendo of clashing voices.“We’re folk mixed with a a lot of different things and we love open ears,” Garbus said at one point, nicely summing up the general artistic vibe that was found on opening night of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.Sounds good to me. Anyone expecting bearded dudes singing about railroads clearly hasn’t been paying attention the last 40 years.The Calgary Folk Music Festival runs until Sunday at Prince’s Island Park.