Five tracks from The Calgary Folk Music Festival's new album, Cover Art

Macy Gray gets the crowd to sing along at the Folk Fest on Prince's Island Park. Brett Beadle / Calgary Herald

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With 21 stellar tracks to choose from, sorting through the treasures to determine highlights on Cover Art is no easy task.

Released to celebrate the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 40th anniversary, the double album features a bumper crop of Calgary and Alberta artists (Lindi Ortega, the Polyjesters, Lynn Olagundaye, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald) covering songs from high-profile guests of past folk festivals (Kris Kristofferson, Joe Jackson, Cadence Weapon, Elvis Costello, respectively).

Here are a few of the highlights.

Copperhead, Heaven (originally performed by the Talking Heads)

OK, the Talking Heads have never officially performed at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. But head Head David Byrne did in 2001. Whether or not he played this sly classic, which he co-wrote with Jerry Harrison, is unclear. But anyone who witnessed kd lang’s show-stopping version of the song in 2011 knows it safely belongs in the festival’s memory banks. Calgary’s Copperhead makes the song their own, eschewing lang’s admittedly showy version for something that probably better captures the world-weary beauty of Byrne’s original vision. Which is not to say vocalist Liz Stevens’ understated, yearning vocals aren’t gorgeous in their own right.

The Dudes, I Try (originally performed by Macy Gray)

Who would have guessed that Dudes frontman Danny Vacon’s voice would be so well-suited to this soulful pop gem by Macy Gray? Gray was considered a bit of a left-field choice for the 2006 main stage, although she undeniably added to the star power already generated by fellow headliners Kris Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco. Calgary’s favourite party band offers a breezy, melodic version that builds to a beautiful, horn-sweetened finale.

From left: Marek Tyler, Matthew Cardinal and Kris Harper from the band nêhiyawak. Photo submitted. Calgary

nêhiyawak, The Uranium War (originally performed by Buffy Sainte-Marie)

Buffy Sainte-Marie has played the Calgary Folk Festival a number of times. That includes a stellar set in 2015, when she was touring her brilliant, Polaris Prize-winning album Power in the Blood. A soaring epic from that album, The Uranium War is given a synth-rock makeover by Edmonton’s nêhiyawak, a trio of Cree musicians who also incorporate some of the traditional Indigenous singing found on the original. Kudos to the band for having the nerve to tackle anything by Sainte-Marie, particularly this uncompromising protest song that slow burns from sweet piano ballad to Cree-language stomper. Remarkably, it loses none of its power in their capable hands.

Vic Chesnutt SunMedia

Lorrie Matheson, Gravity of the Situation (originally performed by Vic Chesnutt)

While it’s an overused and pretentious term, American singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt has always been an acquired taste. The singer always defied easy characterization with his oddball, unsettling southern Gothic tales sung in that distinctive croak. Chesnutt performed at the Calgary Folk Music Festival in 1997 and didn’t return to the city until November of 2009. He passed away on Christmas Day later that year. Despite his seemingly singular nature, many artists have attempted his songs. Those that fare best find the classic melodies and structures sparkling beneath Chesnutt’s vocal tics and fractured arrangements. This is exactly what singer-songwriter Lorrie Matheson does, finding the sad and weird heart of Gravity of the Situation with the help of harpsichords, pedal steel and a burst of “gang vocals.” It all helps turn it into a rumbling country ballad that is just as haunting as the original.

Calgary singer-songwriter Tom Phillips. Photo by Claire Bourgeois. Calgary

Tom Phillips & The D. T.s, Goin’ Back to Harlan (originally performed by Kate and Anna McGarrigle)

Veteran singer-songwriter Tom Phillips gets some harmonious help from Calgary’s own elite sister vocalists, Shaye and Sydney Zadravec, on this goosebumps-inducing run through Anna McGarrigle’s wistful Goin’ Back to Harlan, which was also memorably covered by fellow Calgary folk fest alumni Emmylou Harris. Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s own history with the festival dates back to 1983. Phillips brings his usual craft and grace to this stunning cut, with the three vocalists producing a warm sea of shimmering, heart-melting harmonies. Immerse yourself.

Cover Art will be available at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, which will be at Prince’s Island Park from July 25-28.

 

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