Geoff Berner, when quizzed about the Calgary Folk Music Festival's workshops earlier this week, said it best: "There's a creative risk," he said. "It could be really good or really bad." Braids' Austin Tufts and Katie Lee, in an interview yesterday, reiterated the sentiment — they, unlike those predisposed to free-form jamming, felt they were a band whose music was calculated. For them, jamming with complete strangers was a question mark — as it always is for audiences.
So, there have been hits. There have been misses. And if there's a common narrative to 2011's workshops, it's that klezmer-oddball MC Socalled has been a part of this year's best. Here, according to myself at Fast Forward Weekly's James Wilt, are our top collaborations. In no particular order.
1. Globish: Herbaliser, Patrick Watson and Socalled
Mark Teo: Concerns over how a honeysuckle singer-songwriter in Patrick Watson would fare with Herbaliser were vastly overexaggerated. While Watson chainsmoked and careened around the stage in a Cinema L'Amour shirt, Herbaliser's horn section carried this set. Socalled even bungled up one of his own songs, surprised at how well the Herbaliser trio supported his set. All while smoking like their names were Patrick Watson.
James Wilt: Mark wasn't kidding about the number of smokes Watson went through. I was trying to keep track, but I lost count after four (no wonder I became a journalist).
The musical quality of the collaboration also provided a reasonable excuse, with the three bands playing off of each other's strengths remarkably. Watson started things off majestically with "Big Bird in a Small Cage," which was followed by some serious horn action from the aforementioned Herbaliser. Josh of Socalled kept the crowd happy with his eccentric antics and Jewish hip hop; I didn't stay for the whole thing, but relations between artists apparently began to get ugly near the end of the set when Josh began to direct solos. As usual, Watson stayed cool. Great combination.
2. Fables of Reconstruction: Daniel Romano (Attack in Black), Dallas Green (City and Colour), Kris Ellestad, Raleigh
Mark Teo: That Daniel Romano, one of the top emerging country singers in Canada, was an afterthought for this set speaks to the immense collection of talent on display. He and Green — the ex-Attack in Black frontman is touring as part of City and Colour's backing band — displayed obvious chemistry, but the real surprise was Kris Ellestad. "Hour of the Rat" sounded even more immense with the backing of City and Colour and Raleigh, while "In the Meantime's" infectious snippets — see, the call and response "fuck yous" — provided the workshops' first legit goosebump-inducing moment. Worth every second, even if it was the wettest set of the festival.
James Wilt: The fact that we were all drenched only added to the beauty of this combination. After all, Dallas Green and Raleigh are two of the more melancholy acts of the festival, and played wonderfully off of each other. Romano's always surprising voice added some twangy feel to the combo, and Ellestad kept things hopping with his guitar work and heavy percussion. All in all, and in retrospect, the collaboration was perfect considering the circumstances. But, I didn't hesitate to head to Phil & Sebastian right after to warm up.
3. Mazel Tov!: Geoff Berner, Yemen Blues, Socalled
Mark Teo: I am a lazy man, so I missed this — though I'd predicted it being one of the fest's best. Socalled produced Berner's Victory Party, while both use klezmer elements; the real wildcard, here, would be Yemen Blues. How'd they do, James?
James Wilt: This workshop was absolutely off the wall. I expected greatness, but the magnitude of the collaboration blew me away. Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues provided some hugely diverse vocals, and thoroughly engaged the audience by hopping off of the amp onto the grass. Within seconds, he had the front half of the crowd dancing. Considering that the Folk Fest is typically a sit-down event, Kahalani's infective energy was a nice change. I guess i haven't even mentioned the other acts (but the percussion of Yemen Blues is worthy of its own blog post).
Socalled played their best set yet (I've seen them four times this fest). Josh Dolgin kept true to the mazel tov promise, and delivered some incredible hip hop in Yiddish. His band maintained the groove perfectly. Geoff Berner stayed behind the scenes, but impressed me regardless. His ability to place accordian lines in exactly where they need to be will always astound me.
Honourable mentions: While Bonnie "Prince Billy," Lightning Dust and Dark Dark Dark's workshop provided marquee power, little collaboration was on display; it's best moment came during Lightning Dust's "Days Go By," which swelled into a dark, gothic country tune, with Billy providing gorgeous backups.