Spare a thought for Terry Wickham, the AD of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and his staff. A little over two weeks before the festival, his Sunday night headliner — the estimable John Prine — dropped out to get heart surgery.
With the program already printed, he had no time to find a replacement — not that there is such a thing as a replacement for John Prine. Instead, he juggled the final night’s mainstage lineup, adding Dan Mangan to a bill that already included The Waifs from Australia and The War and The Treaty, who delivered a storming set of r&b prior to the finale.
The final strains of the festival saw Irish Mythen (a huge hit at the festival) singing “The Old Triangle” and — of course — “Four Strong Winds,” along with a cast of other performers and Leonard Podolak (of the late lamented long-gone Duhks) playing banjo.
But there was much, much more to experience at Western Canada’s biggest folk festival. The main thing to remember, of course, is that there are six stages here — and however mobile you are, however seriously you try to catch everything, you’re going to miss five-sixths of what’s going on. If ever Sly & The Family Stone’s maxim “diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks” was true, it’s here at Edmonton.
Your correspondent — given a long background as a blues enthusiast — tended to follow artists who work in, about and around that idiom, and there was much to hear. The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, with the astonishing Dawn Pemberton, played four shows (and a tweener) and earned huge applause. And they certainly pushed the standard blues envelope in different directions.
Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, resplendent in a yellow suit, helped spark the House Band, along with the rhythm section of Kit Johnson on bass and Michelle Josef on drums. Don Bryant and the Bo-Keys were pure Memphis soul — and their version of “Can’t Stand the Rain” held a potential downpour in check.
The best of the blues-based artists at the festival was The Hamiltones, a three-man vocal group who alternated old and new styles of rhythm and blues. And then they added a powerful and seemingly non-stop gospel number reminiscent of the great groups of the 1950s such as the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds. Oh, and did I mention that the ubiquitous Irish Mythen is a more than credible blues singer and proved it with a powerful solo when she joined the group, along with an ad hoc horn section formed by members of other bands.
The afternoon mainstage show was delivered by a sensational band from the Ivory Coast fronted by Dobet Gnahore — the most exotic figure of the entire festival. Hypnotic, dynamic, and other-worldly beautiful, she snaked around the stage like a lioness in heat. Vocally, she was completely riveting and had both power and range to make her music. The audience on the hill — and this writer — had never seen or heard anything like this before.
As the strains of “Four Strong Winds” (surely the provincial anthem of Alberta) faded away at the end of the night, and the audience packed up tarps and portable chairs, it was obvious that this 40th Edmonton Folk Music Festival had been a huge success— artistically and financially.
And, just so you know now, John Prine has confirmed he’ll be there next year. And if the creek doesn’t overflow, I’ll be there as well, and I hope you will too.