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When Calgary Folk Music Festival artistic director Kerry Clarke first booked Oakland, Calif., artist Fantastic Negrito this year, he was originally going to come as a solo acoustic act.
Clarke, who has been trying to book the lively blues-soul-rock performer for five or more years and figures Negrito — born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz — may have been thrown off by the term “folk.” Luckily, he changed his mind and on Saturday night and brought his top-notch band to provide one of the weekend’s most electrifying sets on the main stage.
Even after 40-plus years, the antiquated idea that the annual festival on Prince’s Island Park is solely dedicated to folk music rather than the eclectic smorgasbord of hip-hop, world music, rock, punk, quasi-classical and all shades of roots music can sometimes stick. Of course, acoustic music remains a big part of the festival. Some of the bigger highlights offered scaled-back stage presentations, including Hurray for the Riff Raff on Friday afternoon and Kenya’s Ondara on Saturday. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy was also scheduled to play the main stage by himself on Sunday evening.
But the world “folk” has a deeper meaning than genre.
“I hope more people keep realizing that it’s a folk festival which means that it’s a vibe, it’s egalitarian,” Clarke says. “You can discover music, but it’s not strictly a hippie, folk-fest, birkenstock, guitar-playing … It’s for everybody.”
Diverse musical acts headline festival
Whatever the case, as of press time the folk fest had been a success. Clarke estimates that by the time Sunday wrapped, there would have been 55,000 people on the island over the four days. Saturday was the only day that was sold out, but the other days were at roughly 85 per cent capacity, Clarke said. That means ticket sales would earn more than $100,000 beyond what had been budgeted for in 2023.
Part of that was no doubt due to the variety of performers. Unlike last year when two of the bigger acts — Australia’s Courtney Barnett and Texas band Black Pumas — cancelled, as of Sunday there had been no cancellations.
Headliners included everyone from hip-hop veterans Digable Planets and folk-country icon Emmylou Harris on Thursday, country superstar Tanya Tucker and Chicago singer-songwriter Andrew Bird on Friday, Fantastic Negrito and east-coast rocker Matt Mays on Saturday and Tweedy and Nova Scotia’s Bahamas on Sunday. On Saturday and Sunday, the festival had its usual blend of interesting, far-flung artists sharing riffs and space on workshop stages.
Saturday tends to do well, regardless of the programming, Clarke says. Audiences have just come to expect a high-octane evening.
“I think (Fantastic Negrito) really surprised people,” she says. “I don’t think many of the audience knew him before. I’ve been trying to get him for five years.”
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The balance of course is to bring back favourites while offering a lineup that includes new discoveries. The only repeat from last year was Nashville’s The Wood Brothers. Montreal singer Dominique Fils-Aime played the scaled-back “Summer Serenades” festival in 2021 when the world was still emerging from the pandemic but offered such a stunning set that Clarke invited her back this year.
“We try not to repeat ourselves too much,” Clarke says. “To have a repeat person after five or seven years is even a lot. Sometimes people will say. ‘I haven’t played for seven years!’ ”
‘Ready’ local acts play at folk fest
As always, this year’s lineup offered some of Calgary and area’s top bands. Viewers could take in Carter Felker, Ghostkeeper, The Lovebullies, Florida BC, Kyle McKearney, Lucky Sonne, Lethbridge’s Ryland Moranz and hip-hop act Tea Fannie. The local spots are highly coveted, of course, but Clarke says they only book those that are ready for the big stage.
“Some people just aren’t ready to play in the big pond with people and collaborate,” Clarke says. “Some local artists are good but in my estimation are not ready. We’re also looking for people who are really trying to move their careers forward and tour. I’m also looking for artists who have put out recent albums that are really trying to get out of Dodge and we can really give them that extra push.”