Are Folk Fests Made With Me In Mind?

by Aaron Vanimere on May 12, 2012

Oh Twitter debates, how I love thee! Thursday afternoon many of us “discussed” the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and how we view it in relation to other festivals. Some of us love it, and some of us feel like our particular music tastes are better represented elsewhere. As is often the case with these kind of things, there is a lot of subjectivity and the back-and-forth can turn into a battle of anecdotal evidence that leaves everyone more convinced of the position they came in with. Unfortunately, in 140 characters (and much less when the space for everyone’s handle is factored in) these opinions can be more blunt and curt than one intends them to be. I readily admit that I came across as more of a dick on Thursday than I intended to be, and I apologize for that. I am grateful for the hard work that goes into the EFMF every year, and as a perennially successful institution they’re clearly doing something right.

In order to resolve these issues, I set out to do a cold, hard analysis to accurately show what kind of acts are represented by the various Western Canadian festivals. I quickly realized that an undertaking like that would require far more time and energy than I would be willing to put into it. Instead, I sought to answer a much simpler question: how well do the major Western Canadian folk festivals represent my personal music taste? I went through each of the lineups from 2007 until 2011, as well as what was announced thus far for 2012, and picked out all of the acts that I would be interested in seeing. I then put those into three categories: A, B, and C. “A” are acts that I absolutely love; the ones that I would be really excited about and may make the entire festival worth it for me to attend. “B” are generally good, solid acts that I enjoy but am likely not passionate about; a handful of these approach “A” level status but don’t quite make it there. “C” are acts that I haven’t listened to often enough to make a call on one way or the other but am relatively familiar with and interested in, or would consider myself an extremely casual fan of.

Some qualifiers:
- any time I use descriptors like “best” I mean “I enjoy the most”. This analysis is viewed through the lens of my personal taste and not much more
- whenever I say things like “first” or “only” time an artist played a festival/region, it’s to the best of my knowledge. It wasn’t worthwhile to do look back at all of the touring records of these four cities for the last five years, or determine whether or not, say, Wanda Jackson played the EFMF in 1988 or anything like that.
- I’m at the mercy of Google searches of online records for the lineups; it’s entirely possible that some of the resources may have been incomplete
- I didn’t factor in cancellations because, again, I only had a few resources for lineups and wasn’t going to do that exhaustive of research. As well, I don’t think it’s fair to fault a festival for an artist cancellation after the final lineup has been announced.
- I used the last 5 years (plus an incomplete 2012) because it’s enough time to be a fair sample size. Edmonton would probably fare better if I went back further, thanks to acts like David Byrne in 2004 and Ryan Adams in 2005, while Low is probably enough to seal it for Winnipeg in 2006. But again, I think the sample size is fair, and hoping that annual things will be good in 2012 solely because they were good in 2006 is the kind of logic one uses when trading a promising young defenceman for Scott Gomez & his $7.357M cap hit.
- Any act that isn’t on this list is either one that I don’t like or don’t know (or, admittedly, I may have simply missed when I was researching this). Feel free to recommend stuff in the comments section/twitter/meetings/etc.

Without further ado, here are the results:

2007

Edmonton
A) none
B) Buck 65
C) Justin Rutledge, Blue Rodeo, City & Colour, Crooked Still, Guy Clark

Calgary
A) Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Rufus Wainwright
B) Agent Orange, Neko Case, William Elliott Whitmore, Final Fantasy
C) Hawksley Workman, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, City & Colour, Crooked Still, Sarah Slean, The Sadies

Winnipeg
A) none
B) Elliott Brood, Final Fantasy, Corb Lund & The Hurtin’ Albertans, Amy Milan, Randy Newman, Joel Plaskett
C) The Cat Empire, Meligrove Band

Vancouver
A) none
B) none
C) Hawksley Workman

Analysis: Calgary comes first by a fair margin. Winnipeg is slightly better than Edmonton, but both are underwhelming. Vancouver is just terrible.

2008

Edmonton
A) Aimee Man
B) Cat Power [Covers], Jacob Dylan, Chris Isaak, Martha Wainwright
C) Hawksley Workman, Luke Doucet, Serena Ryder, The Sadies, Ron Sexsmith

Calgary
A) Aimee Mann, Bill Callahan, Connor Oberst, Josh Ritter
B) Bedouin Soundclash, Basia Bulat, Andrew Bird, Julie Dorion, Great Lake Swimmers, The Weakerthans
C) Woodpigeon, A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Blue Rodeo, Calexico, Sam Roberts Band

Winnipeg
A) Ray Davies
B) Justin Townes Earle, Basia Bulat, The Acorn, Hayden, The Weakerthans
C) Calexico, A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Danny Michel, Kathleen Edwards, Apostle Of Hustle

Vancouver
A) Aimee Mann
B) none
C) Delhi 2 Dublin, Jason Collett

Analysis: Calgary comes first again with an impressive top-heavy lineup. It’s worth noting that this is the only time Connor Oberst and Bill Callahan appear on this list, making it Oberst’s only non-Bright Eyes show in Alberta, and to my knowledge the only time I would have had a chance to see Bill Callahan. Winnipeg narrowly beats out Edmonton second, and get props for booking Justin Townes Earle relatively early in his career. The Edmonton lineup is decent, and had Cat Power not been touring her Covers 2 album at the time, may have overtaken Winnipeg for second place. Vancouver is better this year than the one before, but still remains well behind its peers.

2009

Edmonton
A) Patty Griffin, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
B) Neko Case, Tracy Chapman, Sarah McLachlan, Steve Earle, Great Lake Swimmers, Iron & Wine, Joel Plaskett
C) Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, Kathleen Edwards, Loudon Wainwright III, Wooden Sky, Danny Michel

Calgary
A) The Decemberists, Glen Campbell, Mavis Staples
B) The Acorn, Akron/Family, Hayes Carll, The Deep Dark Woods, Alejandro Escovedo, Iron & Wine, Kid Koala, Chad VanGaalen
C) Justin Rutledge, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald, Apostle Of Hustle, Belle Orchestre, Gomez, Sarah Harmer

Winnipeg
A) Elvis Costello, Josh Ritter, Okkervil River
B) Neko Case, Hayes Carll, The Deep Dark Woods, Great Lake Swimmers, Iron & Wine, Hey Rosetta!, Martha Wainwright
C) Patrick Watson, Bahamas, Bell Orchestre, Gentlemen Reg, Arlo Guthrie, Serena Ryder, Loudon Wainwright III, Mirah

Vancouver
A) Mavis Staples
B) Basia Bulat, Great Lake Swimmers, Iron & Wine, The Weakerthans, Dan Mangan
C) none

Analysis: The top artists for both the Calgary and Winnipeg festivals are ridiculous. It was painful to type this out knowing what I missed out on. It’s a tough call as to which one I’d be more excited about, though Calgary probably gets the edge simply because in the last five years Costello and Ritter have toured Western Canada outside of folk festivals and Okkervil River had a Sled Island appearance. This is the best Edmonton lineup so far (I still regret missing Patty Griffin because a friend’s wedding was the same night), and probably deserves a fate better than third place. Vancouver is steadily getting more respectable, but still comes in fourth.

2010

Edmonton
A) None
B) Basia Bulait, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Alejandro Escovedo, The Levon Helm Band, Van Morrison, John Prine
C) Jacob Dylan, Sarah Harmer, Ben Harper, Vieux Farka Toure, Patrick Watson

Calgary
A) St. Vincent, Frank Turner
B) The Avett Brothers, Roberta Flack, Library Voices, Corb Lund & The Hurtin’ Albertans, Man Man, Dan Mangan, Laura Marling, Stars, The Swell Season, Timber Timbre
C) The Buring Hell, The Cat Empier, Delhi 2 Dublin, Ghostkeeper, Ohbijou, Samantha Savage Smith, United Steel Workers Of Montreal, Ian Tyson

Winnipeg
A) Emmylou Harris
B) The Avett Brothers, Andrew Bird, Jim Bryson & The Weakerthans, Gord Downie, The Levon Helm Band, The Rural Alberta Advantage, John K. Samson, The Swell Season
C) The Cat Empire, Delhi 2 Dublin, Ghostkeeper, Sarah Harmer

Vancouver
A) None
B) The Avett Brothers, The Deep Dark Woods, Timber Timbre
C) Bahamas, Calexico, Crooked Still, Sarah Harmer, Said The Whale, Hannah Georgas, United Steelworkers Of Montreal

Analysis: Once again, Calgary-Winnipeg-Edmonton finish in that order. I realize the major coup that getting Van Morrison is, and it was a good show, but the reality is I wouldn’t take him over Emmylou Harris. This is also probably the clearest example of Edmonton skewing towards an older demographic than the other festivals. It also leads to a good litmus test of where my fellow yegmusiccluber’s festival allegiances lie: do you view 2010 as “the year that Edmonton got Van Morrison” or “the year that everyone else got The Avett Brothers”?

2011

Edmonton
A) Wanda Jackson
B) Andrew Bird, The Deep Dark Woods, Deer Tick, Imelda May, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
C) Delhi 2 Dublin, Noah And The Whale, The Once

Calgary
A) Yo La Tengo
B) Bonnie “Prince” Billy, BRAIDS, Cadence Weapon, Coeur de Pirate, Lightning Dust, Joel Plaskett
C) Patrick Watson, Blue Rodeo, City & Colour, The Head & The Heart, Imaginary Cities, The Herbaliser, The Once

Winnipeg
A) Jeff Tweedy
B) Blind Pilot, Dawes, Dan Mangan, M. Ward, Lucinda Williams, Dan Mangan, The Jayhawks
C) Blue Rodeo, Imaginary Cities, The Once, Tegan & Sara

Vancouver
A) Gillian Welch, Josh Ritter
B) Jim Bryson & The Weakerthans, Buck 65, Justin Townes Earle, Elliott Brood, Rosanne Cash, The Jayhawks, Joel Plaskett Emergency
C) The Burning Hell, Kathryn Calder, Imaginary Cities, Danny Michel

Analysis: In a shocking move, perpetual also-ran Vancouver comes through with a first place finish. Across the board, this is definitely the strongest year of the five I analyzed. Each festival has a solid roster, and each festival features an act that I love playing a Western Canadian folk fest for the first time. I’ll give Edmonton a 2nd place finish over Winnipeg here, simply because it’s probably more difficult for me to see Wanda Jackson than it is to see most of the other acts. Calgary finishes 4th, partially because they’ve had better lineups, but as far as “indie-cred” goes, this is a solid lineup. Yo La Tengo are such a music-snob institution that there is an Onion article about it (http://www.theonion.com/articles/37-recordstore-clerks-feared-dead-in-yo-la-tengo-c,116/), BRAIDS were seemingly every blog’s favorite band of the first half of 2011, and I’m not the first one to use “why have other folk fests booked Cadence Weapon while Edmonton hasn’t” as an example of the kind of oversights that EFMF is often accused of. All in all though, 2011 was a banner year for Western Canadian Folk Music Festivals. The quality and diversity represented is commendable and encouraging.

2012

Edmonton
TBA

Calgary
A) Jeff Mangum, Sinead O’Connor Gillian Welch
B) The Barr Brothers, Beirut, Cold Specks, John Doe [from X], Iron & Wine, Chris Isaak, Dan Mangan, Randy Newman, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Justin Townes Earle, Whitehorse
C) Little Scream, Sam Baker, Serena Ryder, Shad, Jim White

Winnipeg
A) None
B) Billy Bragg, DeVotchKa, Blitzen Trapper, Elliott Brood, Feist, James Vincent McMorrow, The Barr Brothers, Iron & Wine
C) The Head And The Heart, Bahamas, Beth Orton, Justin Rutledge, K’NAAN

Vancouver
A) None
B) The Barr Brothers, The Cave Singers, Hey Rosetta!, Dan Mangan, Lucinda Williams
C) The Head And The Heart, K’NAAN, The Once, Serena Ryder, Royal Wood

Regina
A) Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples
B) Stars, Timber Timbre, Austra, Great Lake Swimmers, Cold Specks
C) Jim Cuddy Band, Arlo Guthrie, Shad, Serena Ryder, Wooden Sky, Rich Aucoin

Analysis: Vancouver takes an unfortunate step back, and Calgary returns to being really, really, great. As much as I love Sinead, adding Gillian Welch may just be the difference between me making the trip to Calgary or not. Of all of the years of Folk Fests I looked at, this year’s Calgary Folk Fest looks to be the strongest. Hopefully I can scrounge the funds together and go; after all, it has been an expensive year of concerts for me so far…

I’ve included the Regina Folk Festival for a few reasons: 1) it looks like it has grown to a point where it can hold its own next to the other major cities. The data was spotty and the lineups were small from 2007-2010 so I didn’t include it in the full analysis. 2) it’s important to note that all of the other acts I’ve listed represent a chunk of their respective full festival lineups, while these acts are all among the first 12 names on the Regina poster. That’s an unprecedented percentage of a folk fest’s top end that skews towards my taste. It’s not an amazing lineup by any means, but it’s good, and that’s commendable. 3) The Regina folk fest is the same weekend as Edmonton’s, so there’s a good chance that there will be a fair amount of crossover. Because of this, I’ll be very disappointed if Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples aren’t both on the EFMF 2012 lineup (though, hopefully, on a different date than the Brand New concert I’ll be attending).

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I think it’s fair to say that the Calgary Folk Festival caters to my personal music tastes much more than the other festivals do. The lineup has been significantly more favorable than Edmonton’s in 4 of the last 5 years, and the difference in the only other year was basically one artist, and even that was close. When I say that I don’t expect to like Edmonton’s 2012 lineup nearly as much as Calgary’s 2012 lineup, it’s with good reason. I regret missing some of those Calgary and Winnipeg festivals; it simply wasn’t feasible for me to attend. The EFMF has its moments, but the reality is, it’s not trying to cater to me as much as others are. I’ll likely remain a casual attendee, only going when the lineup is one that I can’t miss. My speculation is that the Edmonton audience is a little older and more traditional than the ones in other cities. I can’t really fault the organizers for catering to these demographics, after all, the festival does sell out within hours. Maybe this is just my personal bias, though: my first EFMF experience was Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ 2005 set, which featured drug-fueled stage banter, playful jabs at Bob Dylan (folk music’s sacred cow), and a cover of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Yr Skull”. I loved it, but it went over horribly with the audience. Seeing thousands of “old” people scorn this artist that I love probably tainted my view of the festival. I’d like to think that Calgary’s approach of everyone leaves loving at least a good chunk of the acts is doable in Edmonton, but again, the numbers don’t lie, and I can see the reluctance to mess with a successful formula. To those of you that love the EFMF, I’m happy for you, I really am. It’s the diversity of tastes and healthy respect for one another that makes this group great.

All of this to say, if this year’s lineup comes out and features, say, Tom Waits, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, mewithoutYou, and Sharon Van Etten, I’ll gladly eat crow….

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