Concert review

The Hill: the Edmonton Folk Music Festival concert film

On paper, The Hill shouldn’t have worked.

The concert film about the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, released online this past weekend for a one-weekend-only free, online screening – a stand-in for the festival itself – has no discernible narrative arc and no interviews with its formidable stars, and it never really “goes anywhere.”

It is comprised almost exclusively of concert footage cut together with audience shots and short interviews with long-time volunteers – and of course producer Terry Wickham.

And yet, as bone tired and desperate for bed as I was on Sunday night, I could not bring myself to turn it off and retire for the night, knowing this was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Come to think of it, it was kind of like that feeling you get at a folk festival when you just can’t leave no matter how tired you are because you don’t want to miss what might come next.

And really, that’s the magic of The Hill:  it genuinely manages to create something of the folk festival feel on video – more so, I would say, than any of the other attempts I’ve seen to create the festival experience online.

On some level, this should come as no surprise; we’ve all watched concert films, and we know how much they draw us into the music and the energy of the live show.  But could this be done with a festival?  It turns out, yes.

At its core, The Hill is a collection of performances. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jason Isbell, Bill Bourne, Basia Bulat, KD Lang, Compadres, Michael Franti, Blue Rodeo, KALEO, Warren Zevon, Oysterband, Jane Siberry, Super Rail Band, Frazey Ford, and Ian Tyson all appear, and there’s a touching post-credit sequence of John Prine performing “Lake Marie.”

But we’re not simply watching the performers perform. Filmmakers Dave Morgan and Andrew Scholotiuk cleverly let the songs establish themselves then cut away to audience footage, interview clips, and other images of the grounds, the food, the set-up process – whatever really.  In a sense, it probably duplicates how many of us take in festivals for real: one eye on the stage and the other on our surroundings.

The end result is not so much a film about the festival, so much as it is simply the sensory experience of it.  And at a time when that sensory experience of crowds and food smells and camaraderie is missing from our real lives, the ability to experience it on the screen is a real gift.

As the pandemic era has marched on, I, like many people, have been watching artists and concert promoters experiment with different ways to get music to fans.  There are lots of things that have worked for me – technically proficient live streams with lots of audience interaction, festivals featuring tastefully pre-recorded performances.  But projects that allow me as a fan to feel connected to other fans really make me want to go back for more.  Sultans of String’s “I’m Free” video did it for me a month ago – with its montage of creative friends from across the country holding up signs describing what they miss from the pre-COVID era.  And now, The Hill has done it again – simply by showing me the festival experience on screen.

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