You hear a lot lately about the “good old days”. Maybe we’ve always heard about them. I love the good old days. I had a blast there. I love telling stories about them. What I hate is any thought that the old good old days are any better than today’s good old days. They aren’t, unless you think they are. To me, anyone who thinks the old days are better are cheats themselves. The past is for reliving with your friends and family while having a good time right now! (While this is completely my sentiment, I have to confess to paraphrasing from Danny Michel at this years EFMF)
A few weeks ago I went to my 20th or so Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Each one has been better than the last. I anticipate my time with my friends, wife, and kids more every year. Because I go there expecting to have the best time ever, I do. I apologize for the cliche, but these really are the good old days. Expect them! If you demand them, they will come, and not just if you are in an Iowa cornfield.
What follows is the story of a typical folk fest.
A disclaimer: If anyone from the EFMF reads this, you put on one hell of a show. It is the highlight weekend of my year. The organizers, volunteers, and especially the artist are all amazing. But I am going to make fun of you, probably a lot. Hope ya got a sense of humor.
In 1991, my wife made me go to a the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. And I do mean made me. Once she decides I’m doing something, no amount of whining, foot stomping, reasoning (not that I do much of that), begging or bribing will change the outcome. If she decides I’m doing it, then I’m doing it. If I were smarter, I would just skip the amount of time I spend fighting it and just go with it. But past history has shown that I’m not really that smart. Anyway, I went. Big surprise.
I fully expected to hate it. I actively tried to hate it. Who wanted to hang out with a bunch of older hippies and their broods listening to a bunch of second rate Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary wannabes in Edmonton of all places? I mean, check the forecast people. Lows of 8C and rain all day? Thats crazy talk. And I’m a rock and roll guy. Not just any rock and roll, but loud, in your face Rock. None of that sappy pop garbage for me. (The first of what is sure to be very many asides in this: when I first moved to Calgary and got into sales, one of my clients asked me to take him to an Elton John concert. I might have outwardly groaned. I’m a rock and roll guy, remember? Elton John? My crowd growing up treated Elton John with indifference at best and outright disdain at worst. Halfway through the concert I realized with a mixture of shock, horror, and mirth that I pretty much knew every word to every Elton John song “And you can tell everybody, this is your song…..” So much for RockGuy). I was, and still am to some extent, all about the guitar. I identified with bands by who their lead guitar player was. Led Zepplin was Jimmy Page’s band. Deep Purple was Richie Blackmore. Queen was Brian May (Brian May: most underrated guitar player ever. Just happened to have the most outrageous singer and personality in his band overshadowing him-but I still thought of Queen as his band, not Freddy’s). What was I going to do with a bunch of sophisticated musical arrangements played by seasoned musicians using music as a platform to raise social and political awareness when all I wanted was Eddy Van Halen or Pete Townshend screaming some guitar in my ears at F-15 decibels? Well, it turned out, again much to my surprise and horror, that good guitar playing was good guitar playing no matter the format. As was dobro, steel, pedal steel, mandolin, banjo (electric banjo can be BAD ASS, no foolin’) and really shocker of shockers, fiddle* (see note on bottom). If it had strings and was played fast, chances are I’d like it. And the music was as varied as you wanted it to be. From ex-punk band guys (like every single English folk singer used to be in a punk band, I swear), rock band guys, Alt-Country, Indy, Americana, and even Celtic, Bluegrass and now Grunge-Grass (yes, its a thing-look up old school Avett Brother) to the traditional protest singer songwriter there was a little of everything. To say I got hooked would be a bit of an understatement. Been going pretty much every year ever since. So I’m going to try to condense about 40 hours of music, laughter, beer and folkie craziness into the next couple of thousand words. Consider it a folk fest primer, hopefully with some laughs along the way.
The Edmonton Folk Fest is always the second weekend in August, but it really starts in June when the lineup gets announced a couple of days before tickets go on sale. The lineup announcement is immediately followed by the same praise/complaints every year on social media. “Greatest lineup up ever!” “Lamest lineup ever!” “Blue Rodeo, I’m super pumped!” “Blue Rodeo again?” “OH MY GOD THIS IS AN AAMMMAAZZIIINNNGGGGG LINE UP!” “Why can’t you guys get Munmford and Sons?” (In case the reader didn’t know, Folk Music was invented by Mumford and Sons in 2010-I stole that line from “The Milk Carton Kids.) Truth is, I’ve learned the lineup doesn’t really matter that much, other than more ticket demand if they have a more mainstream act. There are always new bands to discover, and if The Edmonton Folk Music Festival does one thing really well, it is book talent. From listening to artists over the years, they truly seem to enjoy playing there, and filling a hill with around 100,000 over the 4 days gives the organizers and talent bookers some serious stroke. This is likely true of any large festival. I’ve only really been to Edmonton and Calgary (which isn’t nearly as big), but in both cases the amount of talent can be pretty staggering. So if the reader hasn’t been and decides they want to give it a shot, don’t sweat the lineup. You are almost sure to find lots to like.
When I first started going to this, it was my wife and I and a few old friends, none of which still go. But we’ve met people there that we made friends with, then friends with their friends, then some cousins, then our kids and our friends kids. Now the “group” is somewhere between 20-30 people we get together with. It is like a reunion every August. I only see many of this group once per year, but can’t imagine a year without them. Like my second family that I get to hang out with in a 4 day and night concentrated outing of music, sun, rain, heat, cold, food, and beer.
The EFMF is 4 nights long with 20ish thousand per night and it sells out, sometimes in a couple of hours. So getting tickets is an ordeal. You can go to the ticket lottery at a baseball stadium (I shit you not) or try your luck on line with a “modern” ticket system that can likely handle a max 4 or 5 hits per minute. With only a few thousand people waiting for the second they can start clicking “purchase”, constant crashing is 100% guaranteed. I think it was designed for a dialup, or they employ starving liberal arts students to design and maintain the site. To call it frustrating would do it no justice. It sets the user up for a couple of hours of banging your head against the wall and calling whoever designed the sites ancestry into serious question.
To maintain “fairness” (this is a folk fest after all) they limit the number of tickets you can buy to 4 per order. So in this climate of abject terror of not being able to get tickets, our buying involves 5 or 6 of our group of folk fest aficionados on line the second they go on sale trying to buy tickets while furiously texting each other if we are in or not. This invariably leads to our group having more tickets than we can use, which we are always able to sell (at face value in true folk fest egalitarian fashion), or horror of horrors, not enough. We have had a year where one of us missed an entire festival due to not getting tickets. She still hasn’t recovered fully.
This year, the folk fest finally went with evil empire, Ticketmaster, for there on line sales. They may be evil, but their system actually works and ticket buying this year was a breeze. Anyway, ticket buying day is a day of stress, generally followed by soul soaring joy. Or soul crushing defeat.
This is a view of Telus Field in Edmonton-the “ticket lottery” from this year. Basically you show up, get a colored ticket on arrival, and hoped that you get called to buy tickets. In some years, people go home empty, though most do get tickets. I went to this last year. Spent a day in Olds fishing with my buddy at a fish pond on a family farm the evening before followed by significant beer drinking, woke up at 5:30 am and drove to Edmonton, got tickets(!) and drove back to Calgary. About 6 hours of driving for the privilege of buying tickets. I could be a touch obsessive?
So now we have tickets in hand and are ready for the festival. Like any outing in Canada in the summer, you have to pack like you are going to be faced with winter. Because you probably are. The hot days will be 30C (86F) and the cold nights as low as 8C (45F). You will be in everything from shorts and a t-shirt to wishing you had your thermals. Makes for a very big load of extra clothes, jackets, rain gear, and shoes. And tarps (much more on that later) and chairs (and NOT!!!! high backed chairs. High back chairs mark you as an asshole who doesn’t care who’s view they block. A heathen. Maybe even a capitalist. A proper chair has low legs, and does not go over your head). I basically become a sherpa for 4 days. You would be amazed at how much crap I can cram into an over-sized Simms fishing bag!
I did forget to mention booze. The bag tends to have lots of booze. But, you say, do they allow outside booze to be brought into a festival? Well, technically no. But we play a little game at the bag check every year. It goes like this: “May I check you bag sir?” “Of course you may.” They open the bag and halfheartedly poke around asking “Do you have any liquids?” “Yes”. True. “Any glass?” “No.” Also true. “Any alcohol?” Now, they know full well about 90% of the bags have booze in them somewhere. But the rules of the game dictate that your answer is “no.” They look up at you and say “thank you for your cooperation.” All very civilized. Until this year, where out of nowhere some of the security did not have the rules explained to them. They did some sniff testing on my friend Janet’s “water bottle” and upon discovering that she had turned water into wine, poured it on the ground. Consternation from all around ensued. I mean, we have unwritten freakin rules here people. So now we have to resort to diversionary tactics to sneak our booze in. I’d explain them, but I’m afraid some over zealous security person might read this and figure out our secrets. But I do have to ask this of security person: have you ever confiscated any pot? Cuz there sure seems to be a bit of that around! Security people are suppose to be sneaking in booze themselves like all the experienced security people (I know two of them reading this now!), not pouring it on the damn ground. What is the world coming to?
So now we are packed and ready to go listen to some music. You would think that we just have to go to the site and go find a place to sit. That’s funny. We’s gots way more shit to do. Getting a spot involves yet another lottery. You see, back in the old days, they would open the gates and people would run in to get a spot. The festival main stage is at the bottom of a pretty steep hill. How steep? Well, it used to be a ski hill. So people would run DOWN A SKI HILL from the top while another intrepid group raced them from a gate on the bottom of the hill in a mad rush to lay the tarp (more on this in part 2) on main stage. It was chaos, and it was a BLAST.
It took serious balls to run down the hill. I did it one year, and discovered that my balls were not as big as I thought. I decided that sprinting from the bottom was more my style, even though I smoked like a chimney in those days. But even then, the wheezing and possible puking from the sprint seemed a better plan than the death defying run down the hill. Well, after some trampling and broken bone incidents from mad dashes down the hill (really), the folk fest decided to institute some rules to lower the danger quotient. Weenies.
Now a quick bit about rules. Folk fest people don’t like rules.Many of them have spent a lifetime rebelling against, avoiding, evading, circumventing, skirting, ignoring, disdaining, or trying to change rules. Until they get themselves some rules. Then they loves them some rules! Not government rules or societal rules so much, but their rules are the awesomest! We will discuss some (read: make fun of) some of these rules in part 2. You know, the part where we actually go to a folk festival. Who would have thought it would take me longer to write about a folk festival than actually go to the folk festival? Stay tuned, more to come…..
- If you have some time, check out what a steel guitar and fiddle band sound like these days: New Country Rehab “Lost Highway” and New Country Rehab “State Trooper” a Bruce Springsteen cover. Music starts at 0:45 and really gets going at 2:25 if you don’t have patience. I’ve seen these guys live twice now. Not to be missed if they are in your area!