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Edmonton Folk Festival, 8-11 August 2013

So, here we are again. My fifth visit to the Edmonton Folk Fest in some 20 years.

The city's Gallagher Park provides an ideal setting, with a natural amphitheatre for the main stage and tree-screens separating off some of the six smaller stages. The setting also keeps it fairly intimate, with a limit of about 13,000 tickets a day. And it's all within half an hour's walk of downtown hotels.

There's a special atmosphere, with what seems like a peculiarly Canadian combination of rules and relaxation which can occasionally rankle but - overall - does the trick. Alcohol is confined to a single beer garden, with long queues at busy times both to get in and then get served. The territory of the hill is geometrically staked out with blue tarps (or groundsheets, for UK readers). Dancing is confined to areas at the sides of stages. And yet, particularly around the side stages, there's a real sense of relaxed, appreciation of the music and of a shared experience between performers and audience. You often see musicians wandering between stages, available to chat, but not being unreasonably hassled.

We weren't particularly interested in the headliners this year - Feist, Bruce Cockburn, Loreena McKennit - so tended to leave early, but didn't feel at all short-changed, having seen a host of magical concerts and workshop combinations on the small stages. That approach also meant we missed the torrential thunderstorms which closed proceedings early on Sunday evening, after four dry days with lots of sun...

A hard call, but I think my star performer was Lisa Hannigan, whose music I already knew, playing alongside John Smith, a new discovery for me.

Lisa's pictured here recording a live session in local radio station CKUA's tent - and it's typical of this festival that I and maybe 20 others could sit and watch that the morning after she'd drawn a standing ovation on the main stage. I don't think most of the audience had heard her before and at the start her sometimes delicate and understated songs, in sparse arrangements, were competing with the chatter of the settling crowd. But she, John Smith and Ross Turner won them over, with some excellent dynamics, powerful singing and beguiling chat.

By the time of 'Safe Travels (Don't Die)', which Lisa nicely dedicated to herself, given the travails of a travelling musician, the audience were hanging on every word. And, of course, her words are well worth hanging on:

Don't swallow bleach

Out on Sandymount Beach

I'm not sure I'd reach

You in time...

Then, grouped around a single microphone to close the set, the trio topped that with a beautifully sung cover of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', having just met Amy Helm backstage. Lisa told CKUA next day that she had wanted to be an opera singer, spending her youth listening to Maria Callas, before finding that her voice was 'too small'. When you hear the power she can unleash when she chooses to it's difficult to imagine what a 'big' version might have sounded like...

As well, as backing Hannigan, John Smith gave an excellent account of himself in a solo concert on Sunday and on a range of workshop stages. He's a lovely guitarist with a strong clear voice, reminiscent of a young John Martyn. He also showed both taste and confidence by covering Richard Thompson's 'Beeswing' in one session.

It's funny how fashions in cover versions seem to go. I was surprised and pleased to hear Del Barber tackle Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning' in Canmore, then up pops the redoubtable Dick Gaughan in Edmonton to do the same song a week later. Dick was just the same as I've seen him before, both in Edmonton and back in the UK - and that is a compliment. His distinctive Scots voice is matched by a strong percussive guitar style and the fire in his belly is clearly burning just as strongly as ever. Introducing 'Lemmings', a song about Tony Blair and other politicians of that ilk, he explained it was

'an attempt to express in music the sound of sheep following headless chickens'

before recounting with relish a friend's description of him as someone who'd

'stopped being an angry young man and become a bad-tempered old bastard'.

Well, old bastardhood suits him. He's a compelling solo performer and a warm and engaged workshop participant.

The other fashion to note in covers is the rise of Jackson Browne. Lisa Hannigan and John Smith have been supporting him (or 'Jackson Bro', as Smith joked - 'he's everybody's brother') and turned in a lovely version of 'These Days' to set beside the rather different one I'd heard from Braden Gates at Canmore a week before.

Sara Watkins has been touring with The Man too and has become

attached to his songs and his Jacksonness...

She and her brother Sean played 'Your Bright Baby Blues' beautifully, bringing out all the strengths of one of Browne's finest sets of lyrics. It's amazing to think that Sara, now just 32, played with Sean in Nickel Creek for all of 18 years. She continues to play the fiddle extraordinarily well and there is a real assurance in her solo performances, with a rasp coming into her her voice for angry songs like 'When It Pleases You', as she shakes her bow for emphasis.

Sara was also a participant in one of my three contenders for session of the festival. She turned up at one on Saturday afternoon somewhat oddly titled 'Great Expectations' by the festival organisers ('Anyone got a rhyme for Pip?' guitarist Steve Briggs enquired), along with Country swing specialist Russell deCarle, bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers, and a young harmony-singing duo The Milk Carton Kids. It all blended beautifully, with a very strong set of musicians able quickly to join in on each others' songs and playing up a storm.

The second on my list was the School of Song stage at Sunday lunchtime. I'd headed there primarily to catch some more of fiddler/guitarist/singer/songwriter prodigy Braden Gates, who I've already written about in my review of the Canmore Festival. He was just as good in Edmonton as the week before, and his 'Gator's Gym Girl' is definitely the song of this year's trip to Canada:

The stage is too big for one

The stage is too small for three

The stage is too big for one, for one

There's room for just you and me

The other School folks - including Cayley Thomas-Haug, Alex Vissia and Jordan Norman - all go for it strongly and there's a real warmth and sense of mutual support as they back each others' songs. They closed a fine session with Neil Young's 'Helpless' and managed to get School organiser Rhea March up to join in with them. A well-deserved standing ovation followed: this seems to be an admirable project, helping some talented young Albertans develop.

My third session to note is the Ron Hynes, Fatoumata Diawara, Cold Specks, Lisa Hannigan, John Smith collaboration late on Sunday afternoon. I'm not sure that gnarled Newfoundlander Ron was an ideal fit for this, but he had to leave early to catch a plane after a couple of songs. There were then some great groove-based jams led by the Malian Diawara, with Hannigan and Cold Specks' Al Spx coaxed into improvising vocal lines over some lovely textures featuring sax and bass clarinet and three percussionists.

Immediately, before that I'd caught a concert by Galician piper Carlos Nuñez. I'd gone with a slight sense that it was the worthy thing to do and that I would be ethnomusicologically educated by the experience... Well, I might have been but I was also blasted and entertained by a high-energy set featuring Canadian fiddler and step dancer Jon Pilatzke, Carlos's brother Xurxo on percussion (anything from a couple of shells to a bodhran)... and a guest appearance from the Edmonton and District Pipe Band. Amazing.

Two more acts to commend to you.

I hadn't seen Dave Alvin before and didn't know his music. I was conscious that he'd co-written the beautiful 'California Snow' with Tom Russell and was vaguely expecting something in similar style.

Then three unsmiling Fender-slinging cowboys strode onto the stage, behind heavy shades and in front of a similarly sun-glassed drummer Lisa Pankratz, unleashing the solid groove and stinging licks of some sort of Platonic ideal of a roadhouse band, while daring you to find anything even faintly ridiculous about second guitarist Chris Miller's neat grey pigtails...

They soon lightened up and broad smiles broke out as Dave struck guitar-slinger poses, while the power and attack of the music continued. Great songs like 'Harlan County Line', '4th of July', 'Long White Cadillac' - all failed romance, bruised hearts and the dust of the road

...she gives me her cheek

But I want her lips.

Great stuff: there's clearly a back catalogue I need to catch up with and I feel a record-buying binge coming on.

I have belatedly realised that I failed to write about strong performances from Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac  at Canmore. They also brought the Gaelic songs and airs of Cape Breton Island to the Edmonton Festival to similar effect. Ably supported by guitarist Seph Peters and percussionist/accordionist Kath Porter they made some beautiful music. It's always good to have some more traditional sounds in amongst the modern stylings and they do it with both assurance and warmth.

I should also squeeze in one of the best jokes of the festival, from a session they played at. Host Tony McManus announced there were just two minutes left and mused about what to play. He got an initial laugh by launching into a Led Zeppelin epic but then asked if we knew the Scottish version and shifted into a folkified rendition of the chord progression - 'Strathspey to Heaven'. Boom boom.

I'll leave Edmonton at that point, recognising that there was a lot more fine music that I haven't mentioned.

For those of you who have not been to the Folk Fest, it's well worth a trip - though getting tickets is not a straightforward process.

For those who have attended and are contemplating returning, rest assured that, amongst other familiar certainties, the green onion cakes are just as good as they were 20 years ago, and the queues to get them just as long.

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