Folk fest plays second fiddle to elements

Let’s just get all of our “Four Strong Winds” jokes out of the way in the sopping wet aftermath of the 38th annual Edmonton Folk Music Festival. A Mighty Wind, too.

The 38th annual fest started on Thursday with an evacuation due to dangerous gusts of wind causing alarming flopping TV screens, and ended Sunday with a thunderstorm that soaked everyone and everything during the closing act St. Paul and the Broken Bones. No evacuation this time. They played right through the torrential downpour, the singer coming out in a seaman’s slicker, and hardy fans who couldn’t get any wetter dancing the night away.

You can play a game of Build Your Own Festival, there are so many acts here. Pick a theme and stick to it. The smart choice on Sunday was soul music. St. Paul capped it off with energetic and eccentric tunes that combined the modern with the retro, evoking Otis Redding and the like with a horn section and deep grooves. Tints of alternative rock crept in there, too. People danced in the mud.

From too wet and too cold, the rest of the day was too damned hot – and there were several outstanding artists who know a thing or two about soul music. Like, how about the guy who wrote Born Under a Bad Sign?

Yes, it was William Bell (above) his own bad self, the unsung (so to speak) hero of the Stax era giving a concert on Stage 1 with a large band – and sounding like a pretty good cabaret lounge act in the process. It was sort of weird, sort of fitting. Perfect for the newly expanded beer tent affording a good view of the stage. Bell and his band turned Born Under a Bad Sign into a set-ending blues epic, and he still sounds good. He does not look 78.

The McCrary Sisters, over on Stage 3, upped the ante and set the bar even higher, to mix poker and sports metaphors. This quartet of soul sistas, for real raised by a preacherman, sang with tight, bright, powerful four-part harmonies that blasted the hair off the back of your neck. Their band were masters of groove, and perfectly tasty with their musicianship. So good.

Later back on Stage 1, Cécile Doo-Kingué (right) was a different sort of soul sista. Real international background here: Parents are from Central Africa, she lived in New York, Paris and currently Montreal. Her sound reflects an eclectic stew of influences: Slick, cosmopolitan blues-soul music with a voice more like Sade than Aretha Franklin. The music was given grit with her muscular work on electric guitar. Triple threat, at least.

The weather started to turn bad before Sunday evening’s first mainstage act. After a short delay, Shovels and Rope – a married couple power duo from South Carolina – killed on their furious fusion of alt-country and old-time rockabilly. Like the McCrary Sisters, these two sang their guts out. It’s always a good sign when the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

Could you call Dallas Green a soul singer? Once you get hooked on a theme it’s hard to give it up. City and Colour was the big draw of the day – a very mellow, syrupy, romantic band which would never find it necessary to say, “We’re going to slow it down now.” He got a big reaction during one of the quietest moments of the show after a deafening thunderclap that obliterated everything else, and a few seconds later happened to sing the word “thunder” in a song lyric. Eerie.

We’re all playing second fiddle to the elements.