A Beginner’s Guide to Calgary Folk Fest


Never attended? Here’s what to expect from Calgary’s pre-eminent music event.

Getting There
The venue is right in the city centre so it’s easy to get to, however, it’s also a big island park so there’s no parking anywhere around the festival. The closest area with parking spots is Eau Claire, where availability and rates suck. The CTrain doesn’t have any stops nearby. Your best bet is cycling, as the bike paths along the Bow are as handy as they are beautiful.

Hot tip: the festival site has a free valet bicycle parking system that works well.

Essentially everyone you see working as festival staff is a volunteer. They are super nice and just want to have a good time.  Don’t be a dick.

Hot tip: the security people at the gate are also volunteers, not actual trained security guards. They’re not running the tightest ship, so if you’re not an idiot you can bring in basically anything you want.

Hotter tip: if you can’t afford tickets, consider being a volunteer at the festival. Most volunteers do about 16 hours of work over the weekend, but after that you’re free to roam the grounds and enjoy the shows. Some volunteer teams work before or after the festival and don’t have to work during the actual weekend at all. Volunteers get (amazing) free food all weekend, and have private parties with exclusive performances by bands in the festival. It’s a pretty good gig.

It’s a festival chiefly for people that don’t go to many festivals, so toilets and water stations are plentiful and immaculate. Expect greatness in this regard. There is plenty of delicious and creative food trucks, but the lines get long around dinnertime and you can bring in your own food. Why not pack your own groceries and spend the difference on beer? Speaking of which, the beer garden (usually hosted by Big Rock) is a beautiful little oasis under the trees. On the East side you can even get a great view of Stage 4.

Hot tip: there is a marked point in each day—around 5:30 p.m., when the side stages finish and the main stages start—when everyone heads to the beer garden. At this time there is a huge lineup to get in, a huge lineup to buy tickets, and a huge lineup for drinks. Get there ahead of this rush, or make another plan so you’re not waiting in an annoying series of lines like you’re the third Butabi Brother. When you’re in there, buy enough tickets for the weekend, or buy them on the official festival app. `

Hotter tip: a pitcher (of cider, sangria, or beer) costs four drink tickets but the volume of a pitcher is less than four individual drinks, which cost one ticket each. Go figure.

IMG_5608 edit2

Side Stage Workshops
The afternoons are based around the five side stages, which are always named after shitty corporate sponsors like law firms and oil companies. Like some other folk fests (ie. Vancouver, Winnipeg) these side stage performances are curiously called “workshops”, which means it’s about four different artists on the bill sharing the same stage. The lamer workshops are a stilted round table where the people on stage take turns playing their singles. The best ones are when the artists collaborate and interact, playing on each other’s songs and improvising on-the-spot covers. If you can assemble a good enough ensemble, workshops can crackle with creative energy and be weekend highlights; the problem is that you can never tell which ones will be good, so you have to roll the dice.

The festival organizers usually try to organize workshop artists around a loose theme, like Ontario artists, hip hop influenced artists, or artists that had Thai for lunch. They like to try to name the workshops with ostensibly witty or punny titles, but inevitably they’re just unnecessarily confusing and/or dad joke groaners. For example, here is smattering of this year’s workshop titles:  “Millenial Falcons”, “Meta-fours”, “Celtic (k)Nots”, “Bold Country for No Men”, and “Tango’d Up and Blue”. Sheesh.

The Mainstage schedule kicks off at 5:30 p.m. each day and primarily features the marquee acts of the weekend. That said, the festival organizers often mix in some adult contemporary and world music here, and by evening you’ve probably nestled in near the back and can’t even see them anyway. The only way to get a decent spot at this stage is to compete with keeners wearing tilly hats to lay down a blanket or set up lawn chairs that mark your territory as soon as you enter the grounds (long before main stage acts start playing). This practice isn’t atypical of festivals like this. It’s sort of the same protocol people use with towels on pool chairs. Some people go to preposterous lengths to stake a claim to a spot, and have a pretty serious setup when they do. Especially hardcore people are called “Tarpies”, an official term espoused by festival organizers through signage. Even if you can’t ever get as close to the stage as you want, it’s still lovely to sit around with friends on a summer night and soak it in. An alternative is the Mainstage “dancing areas” that are a bit absurd, even for a folk fest. However, they are rarely packed, which makes them totally valid option on most nights. The Mainstage usually has a host, who is invariably a cheeseball. In between headliners there are “tweener” acts that play while the next band sets up, and they’re usually great.

Hot tip: there are some notable Mainstage traditions that have developed over the years, like the lantern parade that floats around the venue each night and the huge group singalong to close out the festival on Sunday night.

National Stage
This stage, which changes names every few years, is where all the alternative acts appear. This is where you want to camp out if you want to see hip hop, indie rock, or electronic music. This stage is intentionally situated far away from the Mainstage, and there’s a totally different feel—closer to a typical music festival experience. If you’ve ever seen pictures of CFMF where someone is wearing a rowdy outfit or crowd surfing, it was 100% taken at this stage. Tarpie rules don’t apply.

IMG_5700 EDIT.jpg
The festival lineup follows a tried and true formula for success with a given ratio of certain types of music. Here’s an overview of the typical genre breakdown, and who’s booked for this year’s edition:

Singer-songwriter – Damien Jurado, Beyries, Leeroy Stagger

Indie rock – Stars, Alvvays, Land of Talk

Big name headliner – Neko Case, Bahamas, Barr Brothers

World music – Roberto Lopez, Doctor Nativo, Wise Atangana

Local musicians – Reuben & The Dark, Chad VanGaalen, Copperhead

Americana – Shovels and Rope, Amy Helm, Deep Dark Woods

Hip hop and electronic – Saul Williams, Blackalicious, A Tribe Called Red

Blues and gospel – Rev Sekou, The War & Treaty, Shakura S’Aida

There’s usually about 40% Canadian acts, 40% American acts, and 20% from other international countries of origin.

Hot tip: If you’re looking to discover some new, unique sounds, check out Destroyer, Ben Caplan, Rhye, and Hannah Epperson.

Other stuff
There isn’t much in the way of auxiliary stuff festivals often have, like art installations. Still, the kid-friendly programming is decent and the market can be fun.

Hot tip: the most underutilized aspect of the festival site is access to the Bow River on the North side of the venue, where you can dip your feet in the water and have a peaceful moment to yourself.

Now you’re caught up! Have a great weekend, Calgary.


1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. A Beginner’s Guide to Calgary Folk Fest – Victoria's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: