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Canmore Folk Music Festival, 3-5 August 2013

Nobody wants a blow-by-blow account of three days packed with music. The two questions about a festival are 'should I go there?' and 'who was good?'.

The first is easily answered: hell, yes - you definitely should go.

Canmore has a a beautiful, almost ridiculously spectacular, setting. Just one of the Rocky peaks which surround it could be the basis for a pretty decent tourist industry but they've got dozens, coming at you from all angles. Centennial Park, the festival site, is gorgeous, with lots of trees to shelter you from the (frequently) hot sun and (equally frequently) sharp storms. Plus it's in the middle of town, with easy parking and bars and restaurants 5 minutes walk away should you tire of festival food...

It's intimate: a crowd of about 5000, who seem open and appreciative of different styles. You can always find a decent view and the sound is generally excellent - with a standard quibble about bleed between the small stages and a particular one for the main stage that the first few rows are in front of the PA speakers and so you're subject to the vagaries of the on-stage mix if you get too close. 

I went to Canmore already expecting good things from Del Barber, having heard a couple of things from him at Brighton's Great Escape and then catching up with his excellent Headwaters album. He did not disappoint: three fine sessions in different combinations, before an hour on the main stage on Monday which drew a standing ovation. 'By their covers shall ye know them...' and Del ranged from John Prine to a lovely, slow take on Neil Young's 'Harvest Moon' and a brave but utterly convincing version of Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning'.

He has a clear strong voice, good finger-picking chops and his songs have both strong melodies and some striking lines: try his sympathetic portrait of 'The Waitress' who

...traded her twenties for a job that never promised more
Her dreams fell asleep on the top bunk and woke up on the floor.

He also has an engaging stage manner and tells a good story - some several times, between workshops and main stage. But when they're as funny as his intro to the sweet (and as yet unrecorded) 'Peter and Jenny Lee', you'll forgive that. And have some confidence that, three albums in, this is a musical career with plenty more to come.

There's less evidence as yet, but I'd say exactly the same about Braden Gates. Just 21, he's a fine fiddler and guitarist from Fort Saskatchewan, emerging from Alberta's School of Song educational outreach programme. There's a slight look of the New York Dolls' David Johansen about him - and a similar insouciance. We came upon him by chance when he played a confident and entertaining set at the festival pub and then sought him out at various workshops.

His covers test provided reference points ranging from Bruce ('I'm On Fire'), through Jackson Browne (a beautiful, reflective 'These Days') all the way to a folkified Beastie Boys' 'Fight For Your Right (To Party)' (and, yes, it worked). Then there's a track on his debut album, Break It To Me Gently, called 'We Sing The Beatles' about passing a guitar around which also name checks Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. He's successfully building his own strong songwriting on some good foundations. Add in a beautifully fluid-wristed fiddle technique and the confidence to tackle testing tunes like 'Hangman's Reel', and you're on to something very special.

I was reminded several times of a young Loudon Wainwright: by some similar gurning and grimacing as he hits the notes, but also for the sharpness of his observation and sly humour - he's another born raconteur, in both his songwriting and his on-stage introductions. I can still see - and almost smell - Chicago Bob, the retired bank-robber Braden encountered in the Commercial Hotel in Old Strathcona and who inspired 'Life's A Picture'...

So, a very strong Eden On The Line recommendation that you check out young Braden at your earliest opportunity, live, on record, or indeed here on YouTube.

I'm not sure that I'd want to sit at home and listen to their recordings, but on stage Denmark's rambunctious Habadekuk are an irresistible force. A 9-piece featuring fiddle, accordion and a glorious brass section they churn jazz and folk and all sorts into a tidal wave of sound - and seem, infectiously, to be having the time of their lives. If you get the opportunity to see them, do take it.

I would give the same advice about fiddler Jaron Freeman-Fox - and am also looking forward to listening to him on record. His main gig at the festival was as a guest member of Oliver Swain's Big Machine, but he cropped up all over the place in workshops and guest slots, adding real magic wherever he went.

He plays a 5-string fiddle and deploys its extra range to great effect, at home in a wide range of styles: his own compositions use looping to set up atmospheric soundscapes; he seems equally at home rocking out or blending in to more traditional tunes.

Band leader Oliver Swain seems to have a real knack for gathering excellent musicians around him and bringing out the best from them.

My award for the very best session from a fine set of musical encounters in Canmore has to go to a Big Machine/Ben Sollee/Del Barber jam on Monday afternoon. The combination of Freeman-Fox's fiddle with Sollee's cello and Swain's double bass - with added percussion, Emily Braden's beautiful jazz-inflected vocals and Adam Dobres' fine guitar - set up a rolling beast of a sound which seemed to surprise and delight its creators just as much as their audience. Everything from straight country to 'Kentucky calypso' to chaingang hollers was grist to a very fine mill...

Thank you, Canmore. Next stop, Edmonton.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for this, we certainly did enjoy that workshop and all the other adventures and artists at the canmore folk festival.

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteroliver swain

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