The Garifuna Collective plays on stage at the 2019 Calgary Folk Music Festival Saturday, July 27, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia
Apparently Nathaniel Rateliff’s record company told him he did not have to worry about finding another S.O.B.That would be the 2015 smash hit that helped propel Denver-based Rateliff and his Night Sweats to headliner status and provided the inevitable climax to Saturday night’s mainstage fun at Prince’s Island Park on the third night of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.It would be nice to assume that record company brass were taking a long-view approach to developing a relatively new act and didn’t want their 40-year-old star to fret about a sophomore slump. But the likelier story was that they were simply being realistic: Few artists have one song as explosive and immediately satisfying as the jubilant gospel stomper S.O.B., much less two.Rateliff and his seven-piece backing band closed out an evening that was dominated by a variety of potent grooves, whether it be the Night Sweats retro soul, the chill groove that backs the glorious harmonies of L.A.’s Lucius, or playful western swing of Texas veterans Asleep at the Wheel. But it was Rateliff that had the sold-out crowd on its feet in anticipation of his set. It’s true, there is nothing as striking as S.O.B. on the band’s 2018 sophomore release, Tearing at the Seams. But that doesn’t mean Rateliff doesn’t have a stellar voice for soul and solid songbook, particularly since he has only had records. (At least in this configuration. Rateliff actually has a past life as a brooding singer-songwriter.)His unassuming personality is far more modest than the outsized exuberance of his biggest hit. So he let the music do the talking, offering a set that showcased his stunning vocals, perceptive back-up band and assured prowess in the language of R&B and soul.It made for a slow-burn build to that S.O.B. of a climax, starting with Van Morrison-esque mid-tempo numbers such as You Worry Me, Look It Here and Be There before offering knock-out vocal performance on Baby I Lost My Way (But I’m Going Home) worthy of Otis Redding. By the time the band hit the charging I Need Never Get Old the audience was nicely primed for S.O.B.On Coolin’ Out, Rateliff brought out Lucius singers Jess Wolf an Holly Laessig, who also sang on that cut for Tearing at the Seams. As backup singers, the two offer a much more subdued and subtle meshing of voice than they do on their own songs. To say Wolf and Laessig possess impressive harmonies is like saying Banff possesses impressive mountains. It’s true, but hardly does justice to the explosive and ear-shattering heights they can reach. The two singers — who share a vintage microphone, hair style and, on this particular evening, sparkling silver dresses — are astonishing live performers who seem to hit several fevered peaks within the same song. With their android-like symmetry, they often look like they belong in the Twin Peaks roadhouse. But the look is secondary to the sheer beauty of those voices, which are often offset by some chilly synth and guitar grooves. The hand-clapping girl-group vibe of Turn it Around and soul-pop shimmer of Almost Makes Me Wish for Rain were highlights.Speaking of rain, the festival suffered a bummer blast of it in the mid-afternoon as thunderstorm warnings hovered over the region for a few hours.Luckily, the storm never arrived in full force. Perhaps it was due to the sunny sounds of exceptional Charleston quintet Ranky Tanky, who kicked off the main-stage lineup Saturday. The jazzy soul band — reportedly inspired by the Gullah music of slave descendants in the coastal region of North Carolina — came out with guns blazing on a defiant battle cry called Freedom before breaking into the cautionary, finger-wagging gospel classic You Better Mind. Originals such as Let Me Be and the appropriately titled Good Times were equally rousing, as was the bright, fiery trumpet lines of Charlton Singleton and buoyant vocals of Quaina Parler. On the rhythmic Sometimes, all four musicians offered evidence of their jazz chops.Festival favourites the Garifuna Collective kept the party going. In fact it was a common sentiment during the Belize outfit’s breezy set. “More music, less talk” was mentioned more than once as the band fed the dance floor with funky guitar rhythms and propulsive percussion. There was even a manic dance-off between band members and an elaborately outfitted, masked (and presumably) Belizean dancer, which upped the celebratory vibe to surreal levels.Sprawling Austin, Texas act Asleep at the Wheel came swinging out the gate with its own party music. “I always wear a big old smile, I never do look sour” sang Ray Benson on Bob Wills’ Take Me Back to Tulsa. The jolly giant, who has overseen the band for 49 years, led his tight-knit crew through a number of Bob Will’s western swing numbers and like-minded originals. Granted, if that’s not your thing, there wasn’t a lot of variety. But it’s hard to imagine anyone not smiling through the band’s rollicking take on Johnny Cash’s Big River, or Benson’s salty duet with fiddlier Katie Shore on I Hear Ya Talkin,’ or the roadhouse boogie of opener Route 66. Benson also showcased his poignant side, perfectly applying his plaintive baritone to Guy Clark’s I Wish I was in Austin.If your keeping track, that means the main stage featured retro-soul, sparkling harmonized folk-pop, country swing, jazzy Gullah and Belizean rhythms.So for the purists who think programmers has veered too far from the traditional folkie sounds (and there is always at least one), it would be hard to find a more perfect saviour than Kentucky’s Joan Shelley. After the near-storm passed Saturday afternoon, she lent her dulcet tones to a quiet and pretty side-stage set of acoustic folk that conjured up images of the Ohio River, mountains, birds, strong women and nature. Adding to her bonafides is the fact that her collaborator Nathan Salsburg, who joined her on guitar, is the curator of the Alan Lomax Archives. Her songs are not numbingly earnest in a John Denver way, though. They are smart and melodic, particularly the haunting Cost of the Cold and The Sway, a beautiful “wedding song” that speaks of both devotion and doubt.
Celeigh Cardinal plays on stage at the 2019 Calgary Folk Music Festival Saturday, July 27, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia
Earlier in the day, Edmonton-based singer-songwriter Celeigh Cardinal managed to beat the burst of unexpected and unwelcome afternoon wind and rain with a set of blues, folk and soul that showcased her smooth but powerful pipes. The sly The Devil is a Blue-Eyed Man, growling When All is Said and Done and rollicking Will You Be my Dog were assured enough that a soulful run through Etta James Tell Mama didn’t sound out of place. But Cardinal may have shone brightest on the subtle mournful soul ballad There Ain’t No Way.She finished just in time for those wandering back towards the main throughway to catch Manitoba’s iskwe, who was part of a workshop on the neighbouring stage, urge the sleepy afternoon audience to participate in a traditional Ojibwe round dance and singalong as she sang the powerful drum-and-voice tune The Unforgotten. It was one of the more poignant and memorable moments of the weekend and, like many acts on Saturday, possessed a groove all its own.The Calgary Folk Music Festival runs until Sunday, July 28 at Prince’s Island Park.