photo by James Wilt
There was one workshop on Saturday’s schedule that was no doubt circled in just about every program on the festival grounds. That would be the 1:00pm engagement entitled Tinder Dry, featuring Tom Wilson, Sam Baker, Dan Mangan and Whitehorse. The crowd stretched back into the trees, spilled over into the children’s playground, and even threatened Stage 2. For good reason. Wilson kicked off the proceedings by playing The Replacements’ “I’ll Be You,” followed by Whitehorse doing Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Baker contributing a Johnny Cash cover. Not often that Dan Mangan would be overshadowed in a workshop, but he was almost an afterthought early Saturday afternoon. The best part was each player explaining the song they were about to play to Luke Doucet, hoping he’d contribute one of his signature guitar solos. The guy just doesn’t miss.
From there, it was off to Oh The Place You’ll Go, a workshop collaboration between 100 Mile House, Chatham County Line, Tift Merritt and Rural Alberta Advantage. It was perhaps a bit lower key than expected, but nothing could’ve lived up to what was about to happen.
In my seven or eight years of coming to the Folk Fest every year, I’ve never seen a workshop like Soul Laid Bare. Featuring Tim Williams, Cold Specks, Bettye LaVette and Shakura S’Aida, not even the most hyperbolic language could capture the chemistry between the performers on stage. Williams was the defacto leader, yelling out which players would take the lead as the songs progressed. LaVette remained in hysterics listening to Williams’ lyrics, while her between song banter had the crowd roaring. For a finale, we had each performer trading off verses on vocals while LaVette whispered the lyrics to Cold Specks’ Al Spx, after which LaVette went and planted herself in Williams’ lap. The whole thing was a once in a lifetime collaboration between the four artists.
As for the mainstage, Serena Ryder brought bouncy energy and a killer cover of Band of Horses’ “Funeral” to her set. She gave way to the best set of the evening, courtesy of Gillian Welch. Welch is an old soul in the extreme, a total genius who provided percussion by way of tap-dancing — just one of the many tricks that had the Calgary crowd gushing by the end of her set. And after fully intending to leave before Mary Chapin Carpenter hit the stage, she destroyed my cynicism within about 90 seconds. She played a few tunes that were anything but uplifting, but all told, she played a solid set with more recognizable songs than I expected.
Day 3 of Folk Fest 2012 was among the best I’ve had at the festival—and it involved almost zero time spent in the beer garden. Keep it coming, Folk Fest.
— NATHAN ATNIKOV
And on the third day, it rose — the Folk Fest that is.
It's not as if the first two nights of the festival weren't a funky groovy time, but memorable isn't the best word to describe the experience. It has been simply alright. That all began to change on Saturday. Packed full of workshops — some awkward, others extraordinary — the day truly showcased the incredible array of talent represented in the line-up. I'm not sold on all of the bands, but that's sort of the beauty of the festival — if I didn't enjoy them, it's almost certain the someone else did. And that's a great thing.
I didn't cross the bridge onto the island until midday, largely because an abundance of Muskoka Brewery beer and Lil B's God's Father mixtape were rediscovered the night before. Noting crowd favourite Dan Mangan on a line-up, I wandered over to the Tinder Dry workshop to kick the day off. Tom Wilson hosted, exhibiting a to-be-expected sarcasm, frequently questioning why the hell the collaboration was called "Tinder Dry" and making quips about his struggle with alcoholism. There wasn't really much of the aforementioned collaboration — each played their own tracks (excellently), with the occasional chord strummed by another. The highlight was Mangan's performance of "Leaves, Trees, Forest," delivered with magnificent boldness. The Vancouver folk singer really proved that Oh Fortune should've been shortlisted for the Polaris over, I dunno, Feist. Oh well. He's obviously won the Folk Fest Fan Favourite award, but I don't think that comes with a $30,000 cheque.
After snapping some shots at The Barr Brothers workshop, I found myself taking shelter from the rain at the Soul Laid Bare workshop, featuring Tim Williams, Bettye LaVette, Shakura S'Aida and Cold Specks. The first song I heard exemplified the ingeunity of the workshop concept: accompanied by her incredible guitarist (who rules on solos), S'Aida led a sonic charge, elevating the energy level of the stage to the same range that Blitz the Ambassador had brought the night prior. Unfortunately, that quickly waned, with both Cold Specks and LaVette showing us why acappella songs simply aren't a good idea in a festival environment: percussion from other stages filled the spaces of the down-tempo tracks, leaving a lot of awkwardness. The voices of the two singers from opposite ends of the age spectrum were undeniably excellent, but the situation suggests that perhaps artists should be given a workshop on what the point of a workshop is before being forced to play in one. It's just such a hit-or-miss project, although successful encounters — as proven by the first song — are often worth the inconsistency.
The Little Black Books workshop, bringing together Lorrie Matheson, Lindi Ortega, Reuben & the Dark and Whitehorse (who impressively played in three workshops that day) was ultimately uneventful: the songs were nice, I suppose, with Reuben Bullock and his crew stealing the show. But the event just didn't resonate. It's the same complaint as before. Each band largely stuck to their own, with the point of the workshop often being missed, although drummers from each band contributed to other songs. The astoundingly energetic Shakura S'Aida and Besh o droM, consecutive acts at the mainstage, temporarily reinvigorated me, but that might have also had something to do with the delicious Garden Burger from the Ship. But seriously, both sets were stellar - S'Aida again proved her immense professionalism, while the Hungarian Besh o droM lit the crowd up with a Balkan twist on jazz, funk and rock. Saxophones and accordions were all over the stage, or it at least seemed like that. They weren't exactly my first choice of bands, but they fitted nicely into the schedule.
In the end, the day (and maybe the festival so far) was defined by Little Scream's hour-long set. The Montreal-based artist draws inspiration from art rock, pop, alt-country and grunge, and justifiably packed out the grass in front of stage four. With only herself, a fellow guitarist and singer, and a percussionist, she largely silenced the crowd — which for an outdoor festival is a feat. It was deserved. Her wide array of influences, pitch-perfect harmonies and closest-thing-to-Braids-since-last-Folk-Fest vibe marked a form of innovation not yet seen at this year's festival, which — to be frank — is direly needed. Perhaps if she had been switched into Beirut's mainstage spot on the opening night, I'd be a tad more optimistic about the overall experience. I left soon after Little Scream concluded her excellent set, as Lil B had exhausted me the night before. However, I hear that The Rural Alberta Advantage dominated the stage and even sent some people crowd-surfing, suggesting that maybe I should've stuck around.
There's still one more day of Folk Fest left. Some solid acts are scheduled, and a few workshops — such as the collaboration between Dan Mangan and Little Scream — are almost certain to be astounding. Sunday will ultimately determine the memorability of the 2012 iteration of Folk Fest. Fingers are crossed. Mouths are ready for more beer, burgers and coffee. Let's make this a good one.
— JAMES WILT