Day 954: Edmonton Summers Exist For The Folk Fest

originally published August 11, 2014

As my fingers bluntly stab my keyboard, weighted down by a hangover from sun and loud music, I wonder how I’ll get through today’s chosen topic on Chinese science education without passing out. It wouldn’t be my first afternoon spent with the lopsided grid of a keyboard’s footprint etched into my forehead.

This morning has found me in the blissful yet listless afterglow of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, an annual celebration of everything that brings light into the universe: music, family, friends, sunshine, beer, and deep-fried foodstuffs. It has also found me ready to scrap my topic in favor of a drowsy reflection on what I feel is Edmonton’s most profound and spiritually elevating annual event.

For those who have never attended this magical collective, I hope you have found a similar event – an yearly renewal of your inner chi and a simultaneous escape from the humdrummery of life. Here’s how the dusty reset button of my inner balance was pushed this weekend, and why I recommend a hearty dose of Folk Fest to everyone I know:

One can make it through Folk Fest with very little actual folk music. I hardly ever listen to “hardcore” folk. From Joan Baez’s warbly vibrato to the up-tempo thump of modern Celtic music, I’d just as soon hide under my blanket with an old Muddy Waters record. But more often than not, that lyrical fruit-filling that gives folk its flavor can be found within the pastry shell of a myriad of styles. We watched Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite give folk music the blues; Cody Chesnutt threw folk into funk; the Blind Boys of Alabama raised folk into that holy and delicious confection of gospel.

People are happy on the hill. Folk Fest is held at Gallagher Park: in the winter, the most exquisite toboggan hill in town; in the summer, a natural amphitheater with unbelievable sight-lines. The environment lends an electric tranquility to festival-goers. People tend to be more courteous and celebratory than their daily selves would recognize. I twisted my ankle in the middle of our city’s busiest street last year and watched a dozen people walk past my crumpled self with nary a glance in my direction. At Folk Fest, you drop your comb and a half-dozen people will reach to pick it up for you.

Costco makes the greatest festival chair ever. For $25 apiece we picked up chairs similar to the one above. A Folk Fest chair must be low to the ground, and at full recline, these glorious governors of the posterior not only meet the guidelines, but they offer a hammock-esque level of unadulterated comfort, while the tilt of the hill provides a perfect view of the stage.

The beer and sun are nothing short of glorious. The only beer available at Folk Fest is supplied by Big Rock – Alberta’s finest concoctors of consumable transcendence, and the unofficial sponsors of this site. More beer is sold at the Folk Fest than at any other single event in Canada, yet I have never seen a drunken brawl on the grounds. Maybe that has something to do with the weed.

Yes, people smoke pot there. As we were passing through the security checkpoint Sunday morning, a lady in front of us was scolding a security volunteer about the presence of “marihuana” (I’m positive she spelled it with an ‘h’ in her mind) on the grounds. “You have to search everyone. It’s adults bringing it in – men around 55 years old…” at this point she paused and glared at me. Fortunately I was feeling too blissful to mutter, “I’m still in my thirties, bitch.”

It seems cliché, but the volunteers truly define the experience. Over 2300 people volunteered for this year’s Fest, and everyone – from the garbage-pickers to the sound guys – appeared to be in a good mood. The notion of a festival driven by a sense of community and higher purpose sounds as trite and contrived as any hindsight view of a music-centric gathering might (watch for this weekend’s tribute to Woodstock on this site!), but it’s true. There are very few paid staff on-site. Those who want to build the community for no greater reward than the community itself actually run the show.

You’re going to have to deal with the poo sauna eventually. It just doesn’t feel like Folk Fest until you use a foul-smelling porta-potty at the top of the hill in the thick darkness of night, tilted ever so slightly toward the incline. Gravity will almost certainly not tip you into your worst nightmare, but after a few pints of Grasshopper Wheat Ale, you might not feel so certain about that. And in the daytime, when the smiling sun heats these things up to a comfortable 700 degrees, it’ll pull the toxins out of your system before you can even sit down.

You never know which acts will kick-start your mojo. Los Lobos fell short of perfection, and Michael Franti’s vocals were flatter than ten-day-old Pepsi. But some of the groups that looked fine (yet unfamiliar) on paper stole the show: Imelda May’s rib-thumping rockabilly outshone every other Friday night act. Parker Millsap’s thunderous voice carved a chasm of Wow into everyone’s eardrums on Saturday. Tony Joe White (who wrote the dreamy ballad “Rainy Night In Georgia”) introduced a spirit-stew of bayou blues that added a wondrous snarl to our Sunday afternoon. And Cody Chesnutt – he deserves another mention. How that guy isn’t selling out concert halls around the world is a baffling condemnation of the state of popular music today. Soul music ain’t dead, people.

The view from everywhere is fantastic. Whether you win the entry-gate lottery and plant your tarp within sweat-splash distance from the stage or find yourself perched near Gallagher’s summit, you’ll be dining on a feast for the eyes and ears. The mid-hill screens carry the performers up to the nosebleeds, and the sound system delivers the goods beyond the upper gates.

The douchebag count is remarkably low. Yes, there were a few mouth-breathers inventing their own lyrics to accompany Charlie Musselwhite’s unearthly harmonica, but they were rare. Actual music fans tend to dominate the crowd, sporting a delightful tapestry of concert shirts from all across the spectrum of splendid tuneage. That said, security should have tossed the kid in the One Direction shirt. There has to be a line in that sand.

Strange things tend to happen. They simply do. My wife and I returned to our tarp on Saturday to find a stranger sleeping away his afternoon beers in one of our chairs. I tapped his shoulder and advised him he was in my daughter’s chair, Goldilocks-style, and he smiled and nodded. But didn’t move. When my daughter showed up, I politely asked him to vacate, and he shook my hand, thanked me for the spot of respite and wished us a happy night. At Folk Fest, weirdness is your world and you either flow with it or you’re missing the point.

Over a thousand words in and I still feel I’ve come up short in bottling the magic of this festival. It has replenished my spirit; I’d forgotten how much undiluted joy can be packed into my cynical heart. It’s even worth the horrors of the poo sauna. I can’t wait for next year.

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