by Derek Neumeier
Every summer in Calgary something amazing happens at Prince’s Island Park. For one weekend each year the serene park, nestled just north of the city’s bustling downtown metropolis, transforms into a vibrant community of musicians, artists, food vendors, volunteers and thousands of eager fans under the collective entity of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
Nurtured from humble beginnings exactly 30 years ago, the festival has grown steadily since then into a crowning achievement of Calgary’s artistic side. In a city known for it’s conservative ideals, Western heritage and booming oil and gas industry, the Folkfest shows another side to the deeply diverse city; one of creativity, culture, expression and fellowship.
When I stepped onto the festival’s grounds, the feelings of community, individuality and human nature were adamant. People were dressed expressively, dancing wildly, and engaged in activities like hacky-sack and hula-hooping. Perhaps the most beautiful part was that this was encouraged. The atmosphere fostered feelings of freedom, and a letting loose from the stresses and confinements of the work day. Deadlines and dress codes were checked at the front gate, with a laid-back environment of love and friendship filling its space instead.
Though you may assume the park would be filled with feel-good hippies sporting tie-dyed shirts, long hair and hemp bags (which, there are a few), I also saw many families. Funnily enough, the event is an ideal family getaway. There are playgrounds, ponds, plenty of open run-around space and specific festival programs for kids.
To amuse both the young and the old, the musical lineup offers top notch and varied musicians, presenting some of the best folk, indie, rock, country, blues and other unique acts from all corners of the globe. Notable acts from the past include Rita MacNeil, Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello and Youssou N’Dour, while this year’s iteration features Roberta Flack, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Corb Lund, and many more performers spread across the festival’s four days and six stages.
During the afternoon, attendees hop from one area to another, sampling tunes from each stage, before congregating at the main stage for the evening headliners. The grassy area in front of the main stage is vast, but as the headliners take the stage the area becomes a colourful sea of thousands of people and their accompanying blankets and chairs as they either bunker down to watch the festivities (although spontaneous dancing happens anywhere). Those needing to stretch their legs wander through the on-site food vendors, who display an international selection of tastes, such as Jamaican and East Indian, and the marketplace full of enough art, jewellery, clothing and other assorted wares.
Keeping the show running is a core group of volunteers, who can be easily recognized throughout the park. True to the festival’s essence, each year over 1300 volunteers dedicate their free time to making the festival work, wanting only to see it keep succeeding and reach out to new people. It’s safe to say that the Calgary Folkfest wouldn’t exist were it not for their help.
On Thursday night I caught Canadian indie darlings Stars and The Avett Brothers performing on the main stage. Stars’ mix of, melodic synthesized pop both lightened up and mellowed out the enormous crowd, setting the stage for the Avett Brothers, whose funky banjo-powered tunes and energetic live performance had the crowd buzzing and moving along to the music.
So far this year, one half-day of the festival has already transpired, with three more full days to go. I’m already anticipating grabbing a Frisbee, a good book, and some close friends to forget about work and spend the next few days relaxing in the sun (weather permitting!). If you’re looking for the perfect in-city vacation, a great way to unwind, or a full family adventure, the Folkfest is a one-of-a-kind experience for Calgary that none should miss out on.