Blitz the Ambassador, photo by James Wilt
On Friday, the Folk Fest continued its tradition of creeping the start time earlier and earlier into the afternoon and expanding the schedule. Whitehorse , the husband and wife team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland kicked it off at 3:00 pm. With a kick drum, a looping station and about 17 guitars between the two of them, they were well equipped to rock. There may not be a more pristine sounding band in Canada — McClelland’s voice is striking, and Doucet’s spaghetti western guitar noodling is just as distinctive. They tore through songs from their Whitehorse collaboration, as well as each of their solo works. It was a heck of a start to the day.
Later, Blitz the Ambassador woke up the crowd at stage four, telling them, “Where I’m from, we don’t sit down for folk music — especially in the front row!” And so the usual Folk Fest arrhythmic dancing ensued, inspired by Blitz’s afrobeat-informed hip-hop. For the most part, it sounded like the band was stringing together song intros rather than playing actual songs, but a horn section that incorporates synchronized dance moves is always welcome.
As the main stage rolled on into the evening, Dan Mangan appeared to mostly adoring fans. This might have pushed the number of times I’ve seen Mangan into double digits, and the wide open area of the main stage didn’t necessarily help with his usually intimate show. Part of Mangan’s charm is always seeming too big for the room he’s in, which isn’t the case on Prince’s Island. That said, when he jumped into the sing-along on “Robots,” there was much swooning to be seen.
Before closing his set, Mangan expressed genuine awe for what was to come next. Last time Mangan played at Mac Hall, he covered “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and now he was giving way to Jeff Mangum , the genius behind it. Mangum ordered the screens turned off, much as he did at Coachella, and sat centre stage with an acoustic guitar. Unfamiliar festival goers exchanged confused looks as Mangum sounded somewhere between a petulant brat and a pretty good Dylan impersonator, but for those aware of Neutral Milk Hotel from their glory days, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And the aforementioned title track from NMH’s second and final album hasn’t aged a bit.
Give credit where credit is due — Folk Fest organizers brought Mangum here likely knowing that the average person wouldn’t love him. But an adoring crowd pushed to the front of the stage, and Mangum didn’t disappoint.
— NATHAN ATNIKOV
A few things are becoming clear after two energetic evenings of Folk Fest: a massively diverse line-up has been lined up for this year, sound-people are generally unreliable, the line to the beer garden never seems to get shorter and some musicians just don't jive with the ethos of the festival.
I arrived a little late to the party — work and the second season of The Wire is to blame for that. Blitz the Ambassador , a group bringing together musicians from New York City and Ghana, kicked off their set at Stage 4 a tad late making for my first show of the night. They swiftly made up for the delay with an astoundingly professional set combining Afrobeat, hip-hop, funk and jazz in one of the most energy-filled performance I've ever seen at the Folk Fest: Glen Hansard would be stoked.
Within minutes of the first blasts from the incredible horn section, Samuel Bazawule summoned most of the crowd to their feet, reminding them that in his home country of Ghana people dance to music (unlike the tarp-oriented festival). That concept — that the crowd was being temporarily transported to Ghana — was a clear objective from the start. The show opened with a recording of a pilot announcing a landing in the country, and Bazawule later narrated a coup d'état, a common-place occurrence in Ghana, reflecting a lyrical tone reminiscent of Chuck D or Zach de la Rocha. The distinguishable red, yellow and green flag also proudly hung from the mic stand throughout the amazingly well-rehearsed show. The last-minute collaboration with Shad just made it even more memorable.
Some 20 minutes later, the Canadian rap sensation absolutely dominated the same stage. That was no surprise — I've had the honour of seeing the talented emcee perform three times prior to this set, witnessing extraordinary lyricism and a refined ear for beats every time. He was introduced to this stage as "one of Canada's top rappers," but let's be serious — Shad's at the top of the list, possibly tied in talent with Edmonton's Cadence Weapon (the two really need to get around to recording a song together). He performed a dozen songs from his three full-length albums, as well as handful from various mixtapes, conveying an exuberant vibe complete with an always-present grin.
Tracks such as "At the Same Time" and "Keep Shining" showed Shad at his finest — witty, political, humble and engaging. Having a keyboardist, DJ and bassist present on stage only furthered the encompassing feel of the set, setting yet another bar for himself (he seems to add an extra musician on each tour). Shad's a rare find of a musician, and it seemed that the audience at the Folk Fest realized that, and showed him plenty of love.
I'm not even sure that I want to enter the debate about Jeff Mangum , which seemed to set Twitter afire during his reserved set, but I probably should for those that weren't privy to the experience. The legendary status of the man is undeniable: his work with Neutral Milk Hotel in the late '90s set the stage for the explosion of indie rock in the following decade. Anyone that pretends to know anything about the genre needs to know his name.
But, with all of that said, the pick was a strange one for Folk Fest. He specifically requested that no photos or video be taken of him, meaning that anyone that wasn't in the first few dozen rows were forced to imagine what the almost mythical musician looks like. Truth be told, his stage presence was almost non-existent — his set consisted of him sitting with his guitar. His voice was perfect, despite the hiatus, and much of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was sung to the joy of those that knew the influential album.
For those that didn't, it was a different story — and Folk Fest acknowledged that with the tweet "We knew Jeff Mangum would be a divisive programming choice. That's why he's on last." I don't totally understand that logic — most wait around to experience the hyped-up closer, and Mangum was certainly a niche musician. As mentioned, there were many different opinions about the show circulating. For me, a person that grew up on more bebop than indie rock, it was certainly impressive, yet ultimately unstimulating and unsatisfying because I'm not intimately familiar with his work. After all, if I could replicate the experience with a record player, why bother shelling out the extra money and time? But to each their own.
On that note, it seems that this is an appropriate point to question the role of the musician in an outdoor festival. To be fair, Beirut also raised this question, but to a slightly lesser extent: is it fair of a professional entertainer to request that photos and video not be taken of them in an outdoor setting where most can't see them? The likes of Charles Bradley and Blitz the Ambassador prove that a set is just as much about the memorable performance as it is the music, but that thought appears to be lost on others. Where's the line? I suppose we'll be able to establish a more concise answer to that question in the next couple of days. But both Beirut and Mangum leave a strange feeling with me — that their indie image is more important to them that the enjoyment of the audience, and that's unfortunate.
— JAMES WILT