Guitar Night at the Folk Fest

Kaleo GigCity Edmonton

Jökull Júlíusson from Kaleo

The first four acts of the 37th annual Edmonton Folk Music Festival have set the tone – for rocking out.

Opening night contained at least twice the recommended daily dosage of electric guitar, and the folk fans didn’t mind a bit. After all, the folks know this weekend will be filled with fiddles, bouzoukis, dobros and assorted pipes, not to mention a surfeit of sensitive singer-songwriters. All in good time.

Thursday night on Gallagher Hill opened with bang: a guitar-slinging female Malian singer named Fatoumata Diawara who has both voice and attitude, whose band built slowly to a furious finale of Afro-rock that brought the crowd to its feet. With original songs in her native language, their sound borrows heavily from Cuban rumbas and good old American electric guitar rock, fused with highlife and chilling vocal ululations you might hear from Middle Eastern music. Quite an exotic stew. Diawara would pause to offer inspirations, “We all have the red blood inside …” or noting that it’s “so beautiful to be different, so powerful to be different.” Songs ranged from bluesy to more rhythmic, always infused with the African flavour and a distinctive voice. By the end it was full-out rock ‘n’ roll.

The Barr Brothers, up next, was a formidable force on a variety of stringed instruments: Acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel (Joe Grass, at one point he played with a violin bow) and even harp (Sarah Page, and she sometimes used a distortion pedal). The effect was mesmerizing. They brought in a bagpiper for one tune and for a bagpipe blues solo, (yes, it can be done); and in the staggering blast of guitarmanship to end the set, the drummer (Andrew Barr) whanged on what appeared to be a bicycle wheel. It wasn’t as chaotic as it sounds. Too good to be pegged by genre, call it alternative Montreal country-rock if you must, The Barr Brothers put all their unusual instrumentation to the service of swampy, hard-driving songs led by the multi-talented frontman Brad Barr, who sings like Tom Petty in an alternate universe. He’s a mean machine on guitar.

The Barr Brothers GigCity Edmonton

Joe Grass from The Barr Brothers

The weak link of the night might’ve been Bobby Bazini. He’s a pretty fine soul singer and has a great band, but his original songs sound so much like old-time rhythm and blues standards that he might be getting a call from the litigious Marvin Gaye Estate. One sounded like Stand By Me. Another could’ve broken into My Girl with little difficulty. It didn’t help that they did the Bee Gees’ hit To Love Somebody and obfuscated the whole original-cover thing, ruining the game of “Guess what tune they’re playing.” Every folk fest has a designated show band, the recommended daily allowance of schmaltz, and Bazini fit the bill.

The first night ended as it usually does: With candles on the hill and a big draw for the young crowd. On Thursday it was Icelandic rock quartet Kaleo, which sound like they’re from Mississippi with a singer, Jökull Júlíusson, who stretches his high falsetto as effectively as he can growl in the lower registers. He was spellbinding. And where does this Nordic City and Colour get the angst to pull off devastating songs like Way Down We Go? Volcanos? That’s the band’s huge radio hit, and most of their other material from two albums followed the harmonic line if not the downtempo mood. This was a rock show. Guitars were turned up accordingly.

More traditional folk will come. All in good time.

Top photo by Meaghan Baxter