Session acts upstage main stage at folk fest

Jason Isbell GigCity EdmontonDay Two of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival kicked off just in time for the after-work crowd to hustle down to Gallagher Hill and take in a slew of “Session” performances before the main stage acts got underway. The shorter schedule during the first two days of folk fest always feel like a primer for the full-day hauls on Saturday and Sunday, and this year’s crowd doesn’t appear to lack any of the enthusiasm needed to make it through.

The main stage roster is what tends to be the draw of the festival, but that shouldn’t be the make-or-break factor when deciding whether or not to head down to the folk fest. It can be fun to play a little game of festival roulette and take a chance on one of the side stages. The acts that performed on Friday evening made it clear there’s a wealth of talent to be discovered this year.

The lineup on Stage 3 quickly proved to be a smart choice. The “World Spinning” series featuring the Amadou Fall Trio, Fatoumata Diawara, and The Barr Brothers got the night started with bombastic energy. The crowd was up and dancing before many had likely even wandered over to imbibe at the beer gardens. Each musician on stage proved equally adept at their instrument, paving the way for a tight, polished set that blended elements of various cultural music with blues-driven melodies for a juxtaposing yet cohesive performance.

Mary Chapin Carpenter GigCity EdmontonNext up on the same stage was “Northern Exposure” featuring The Barr Brothers (again), Kaleo, and Digging Roots. These Thursday headliners drew an impressive crowd, and despite a delay getting started – which meant the set time had to be cut short – Iceland’s Kaleo was just as strong in a stripped-down setting as they were rocking out on the main stage the previous evening. The Barr Brothers led the session, and the lineup proved to be a complementary arrangement. Husband and wife duo Digging Roots (likely unknown to many in attendance) offered a pleasant surprise with their gritty harmonies and plenty of crowd participation, but the volume of their vocals seemed unbalanced, with one coming through much louder than the other.

The energy exuded by the Session performers was a stark contrast to the mellow main stage acts. First up was Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner. Hannigan, an Irish folk singer, has a hauntingly beautiful voice, but the sombre tone of the performance felt out of place for a Friday night. The same could be said about Mary Chapin Carpenter (above), who followed. She certainly has the folk cred behind her name, skillfully winding her way through her extensive oeuvre for the candlelit crowd – a good deal of which I remember from my childhood, thanks to my mother having her albums in regular rotation.

Country-rocker Jason Isbell (top picture) closed out the evening with some much-needed energy and humour.

“This is a folk festival, so I need to tune my guitar. That’s the only difference between folk music and rock ‘n’ roll,” he quipped, as well as telling the lighting tech not to “scare the shit out of him” when he happened to illuminate the entire crowd at one point in the set, revealing just how large it was.

All in all, Friday wasn’t the raucous rock show that Thursday turned out to be, but it appeared to resonate with most fans just the same.

Photos by Meaghan Baxter