Sunday, August 14, 2016

Folking Around- EFMF 2016

As someone who is generally pretty proud of the city he lives in, I am a bit embarrassed that I have never attended the Edmonton Folk Music Festival before this past weekend. As a first time attendee and volunteer, I was overwhelmed, astonished and impressed; I will be back, and am now even more ashamed that I didn’t come earlier.

In my defense, the festival has many qualities that I personally find objectionable, frankly. For one thing, it is outdoors, forcing me to contend with the sun, mortal enemy of basement dwelling bookworms the world over. If not the sun, it’s the rain, and if not the rain, it’s the mosquitoes, so there is that.

Also, the genre of music encompassed by the term ‘folk music’ has become increasingly diffuse over the years. This year’s lineup included performers more accurately labelled as blues, country, gospel, and even (gasp!) rock and/or roll music, and that’s just covering the North American contingent. Now, I’m not saying everything needs to be pigeonholed to an excessive degree (I’m looking at you, Scandinavian-melodic-death-metal fans!), but maybe they should just call it the Edmonton Music Festival, and (ahem) get the Folk out of there. Just sayin’.

A co-worker of mine approached me a few months back to see if I was interested in volunteering. Myrna’s team supervises the Greetings Team (otherwise known as the tarp lottery) for preferential seating. This incredibly civilized process not only prevents people lining up days in advance to the detriment of the neighbourhood they end up camping in, but also greatly reduces the impact on the first aid tent, as people have been known to wrench ankles and even break extremities careening down the ski hill in Gallagher park in order to stake out a prime location for viewing the main stage.

In addition to having an experienced and hand-picked crew that I was flattered to be nominated to, Myrna assured me that the EFMF kitchens prepared excellent food for their volunteers, and that our duties would be concluded before the first acts even hit the stage! The counterpoint was that the 0630 start time on Saturday and Sunday meant staying for the closing act would be a challenge, but I was intrigued enough to make a go of it.


In brief, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival gets it. They have been doing this for a while now, and their level of preparation and organization ensures that the event runs like the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace as performed by a combination of Bolshoi ballerinas and Shaolin monks.

A handful of paid staff oversee a veritable army of volunteers and volunteer coordinators, over 2400 of them, all of whom receive good orientation, clear instructions, enviable support, a color-coded t-shirt for a uniform, free admission to the festival and the best mass-prepared meals I have ever had.

I approached my new volunteer orientation session with some trepidation, being not only a festival neophyte, but also middle-aged and insurmountably uncool. From the time I stepped in the door though, I was made to feel welcome, told where to go, what to do, and even why I was doing it. The information session itself was straightforward, clear, and mercifully brief.

Two weeks before the festival I met my team at a crew meeting, where we not only received our turquoise volunteer shirts, but Myrna and another coordinator  gave us customized sling bags to commemorate the 15th year of the Greetings Team. I was one of only three blokes on a team of eleven volunteers, only two of whom were older than me, but I was within a decade or so of three or four others, so I didn’t feel wholly out of place. Most importantly though, they were all easy going, friendly and immensely helpful as I sought to understand the whole process.


This is the way of it: about a kilometer away from the concessions gate, at the top of a reasonably steep hill, a perimeter of snow fence stands in a park next to Strathearn Drive. This is The Corral.  At 2:00 Thursday, about two and a half hours before the regular gates open, festival goers show their tickets to the Greeting Crew so they can enter The Corral. As they do so, they are given a coloured ticket with the name of a performer written on it.

Those attending the festival together try to get as many different colours as they can, so there is a period of trading which is somehow both intense and laid back. At 2:30, once everyone has filed in, we close the Corral and re-secure the snow fencing with zip-ties. The Crew Coordinator (Myrna) climbs on top of the picnic table that the Site Crew has provided for us (in past years she has brought along her own stepladder), unlimbers her megaphone, and the crowd, between 800 and 1350 people, all hush so they can hear which performer’s name is being called.

The corraled crowd eagerly awaits the name of the next group
Rather than draw the names live, they are done beforehand by festival organizers, with the 50 names all typed out on a list and provided to Myrna in a sealed envelope. When she reads the first name off the list, the people holding the tickets with the matching name all cheer, because they will be amongst the first 60 people (30 from the south gate and another 30 from the north) to be piped onto the field half an hour before the public gates even open. Since festival attendance can be upwards of 20,000 people a day, this is a fairly big deal, as you might imagine.

Once the lucky ones have all filed out and formed up in a line behind another volunteer, the next name is drawn, until all the ticket holders are lined up in a parade along Strathearn drive. Those in a party who have a representative further up the line usually leave and meet up with them at the tarp later on, but some stayed on so they can give away their mid-line tickets to others who might otherwise have to wait until the bitter end, which was extraordinarily nice of them.

Eventually the corral is emptied and massive line is then marched down the hill towards the concession gate, while another crew leads their contingent to the main gate. On a couple of occasions I stayed at the back of the line up to ensure no one joined the line by mistake, or ‘mistake’, as the case may be.

One gentleman somehow made it all the way to the gate before being told he was in the wrong lineup, and became quite upset. One of the longtime crew verified with me that he had not entered the end of the line, expressed sympathy, but told him he would need to line up with everyone else at the public gate. The latecomer tried to make his case that because no one had told him he was in the wrong place, he should be allowed on ahead of the other lineup, but our gatekeeper was having none of it.

"Look, I'm sorry you ended up in the wrong place," he said, "but you need to take some personal responsibility here. It's no different than if you got in a line on the grounds without asking, 'hey, is this the lineup for the food or the bathrooms?' All you had to do was ask anyone."

Eventually he stomped away in a storm of Eastern European invectives, while around 1,350 festival goers were led onto the field in a (largely) orderly fashion in less than 20 minutes, and that's just from one gate.

When pre-lottery madness was at its peak, some inventive types would attach bottles of water to their tarp corners, and then fling it downhill with a snap, the centrifugal force of the weighted corners opening the tarp like a Roman retiarius gladiator's fighting net. All in all, the tarp lottery feels like a far more civilized way to do things, and the attendees really seem to appreciate it.


There were no massive draws or enormously popular names in this year's festival lineup compared to previous editions, but that didn't stop the festival organizers from getting a lineup that was legendary in its own right. I expect to be hearing quite a bit more from some of these artists in the future. With my 6:30 am starts on the weekend and the airshow on Saturday, I didn't get to see quite as much as I might have liked, despite the fact that my volunteer obligations were over and done with an hour before the first performer took the stage. The ones I saw were all pretty excellent though.

The Barr Brothers - Two Boston area guitarists,with a dominant rock/blues feel, joined by a harpist from Montreal for a sound that is both ethereal and energetic. I waited too long to buy their album and it sold out, but I subsequently ordered it from Amazon.

Kaleo - A band from Iceland by way of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, these blues/folk/rockers closed out the show on Thursday with an amazing set. If you are curious, this video shows them playing "Way Down We Go" in a live volcano.

World Spinning - A 'workshop' set, which was essentially a jam session between the Barr Brothers, Franco-Malian guitarist/vocalist Fatoumata Diawara and Senegalese kora player Amadou Falls and his trio. When one of the Barrs pulled out his bottleneck slide, accompanied by talented African musicians and his regular harpist, I should have been bored when one song ran to 17 minutes. But instead, I was completely entranced. The small stages have a lot to offer!

Black Umfolosi on Stage 3 Sunday morning

Black Umfolosi - An acapella group from Zimbabwe, who share the same Zulu roots as Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who most of us will remember from Paul Simon's Graceland album in the '80s). Black Umfolosi not only sound brilliant and bring awesome amounts of spirit and gratitude to their singing, but are also talented dancers and engaged well with the Sunday morning crowd. Their lead singer won us over by relating how, after arriving at Pearson airport, gained significant credibility with their newest member by telling him, "Welcome to T'ronno" just like a native Canadian.

The Spirit Sings - Myrna said she loves to include this spiritual session in her Festival Sunday. Linda Tillery and her Cultural Heritage Choir sang classic African-American gospel, including a number of reclaimed spirituals. Guitarist and singer Mike Farris talked about how these songs in particular resonated with him as the honest and uplifting songs of a people in bondage, particularly when he felt he was in bondage to himself through alcohol and drugs. When he played Wade In The Water while backed up by Tillery's choir and The Sojourners, it truly sounded like the Gospel according to John...Lee Hooker. Afterwards we all agreed with Linda when she emphatically stated, "Mm hmmm, that is the TRUTH. That is the real shit right there," the earthy honesty of which got a great response from the crowd,

Calexico - I had heard of this band and their country-blues blend of Tex-Mex sounds, but was only familiar with their track "Guero Canelo" from the Collateral soundtrack (a great movie with a soundtrack that is just as good). I was tickled pink when they not only played that song, but closed out their set with it for over ten minutes.

LP on the main stage Sunday night

LP - Laura Pergolizza is already a respected songwriter, having her works performed by Rihanna and Christina Aguillera, but is also a dynamic performer in her own right. A tiny lady whose ukelele looks almost like a full-sized guitar in her arms, she has an intense and powerful voice, and was grateful for the receptive and energetic main stage crowd.

It was a tremendous experience over all, and makes me regret even more that I waited so long to attend such an enormous and internationally respected event in my own backyard. And yes, the food was amazing, considering the temporary kitchen in an enormous tent was feeding upwards of 2000 people per meal. Between the meals, admission to the festival, shuttle service to and from the site and the legendary appreciation parties I was too fatigued to attend, it is fair to say that in the past, at conferences or even on vacations, I have paid good money to be treated far, far worse as a paying customer than I was as a Folk Fest volunteer.

I am tremendously grateful to Myrna for having suggested I get on board, and have every reason to believe I will be back next year as well. Next time though, I will have the sense to book off the following Monday from work; it was a pretty exhausting weekend, but in the best possible way!

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