I was late to Regina Folk Fest, which meant I missed Mavis Staples perform.
Most prominently, this meant I missed her tribute to Levon Helm and The Band, a heartbreaking rendition of “The Weight.”
The set was, by all accounts but mine, one to remember. I wish I could have been there to see it.
“There are those moments, like Mavis Staples playing last night, and they are beautiful, inspiring and they remind you a bit of what you love about music. And I think that’s the best part of festivals,” Ontario rapper Shad said.
Shad’s set on the main stage Aug. 10 was another audience favourite. One fan stood out for his excessive cheering. Shad gracefully and gratefully thanked the fan for giving him “a bunch of energy.”
Folk music festivals have moved away from traditional sounds to encompass a wide scope of performing artists, making a pairing like jazz crooner Staples and indie rap darling Shad seem perfectly natural.
The diversity of a folk music festival gets its full power on the small, multi-artist daytime stages, known as workshops. The stages encourage the artists, most of whom have never met, to collaborate on songs on the fly, leading to some of the most magical moments of folk festivals.
At Regina’s festival, which ran from Aug. 10-12, the workshop stages were enhanced by the overall open atmosphere of the event. During the day, entrance to the park is free, giving anyone the opportunity to listen in. A children’s stage in the park made it clear that families were more than welcome, and kids and parents stuck around the whole night through.
I caught up with Shad outside his afternoon workshop Aug. 11. He’d shared the stage with fellow London, Ont. native Cold Specks, Austra (accompanied by the lovely and terrifying Tasseomancy twins) as well as Stars. An all-star Canadian line up.
As so many workshops do, it began with a fairly straightforward round of pass-the-mic, play-a-song. Each group performed something well-known from their catalogue as the others listened or played along politely.
Stars frontman Torquil Campbell tried out a brand-new live song, just to “put everyone on even ground.”
The song went over well and Campbell congratulated his fellow artists on “learning a new song in 30 seconds.”
Cold Specks went further, inviting all the bands to collaborate on a rendition of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme. She passed the rapping duties to Shad, naturally, who then forgot a verse.
It was something of a disaster. A delightful, messy, thoroughly un-rehearsed collision of talented artists unfamiliar with one another and their material. They followed this with Austra’s suggestion, a Backstreet Boys track. This was an unmitigated disaster.
It is a rare and wonderful thing to watch an artistic collaboration fail. It is a glimpse into backstage, but more: it offers an intersection of the Canadian arts scene with a visceral reality not available in more polished back and forths. After all, every artist on stage knew Backstreet and Will Smith. They just couldn’t quite play them.
“You find the little spaces where you intersect, and you grow from there,” Shad said. “But I forgot the lyrics to Fresh Prince! Everyone knows those!”
Shad’s own music is built on the same philosophy of sharing identity. For him, the strength of a musician’s art comes from their individual experience and how they express that.
“If you want to make something worthwhile you have to share it in a way that is unique to you, find the tidbit that is neat to you. That is something that is worthwhile for the audience.”