Article and Photo Credit: Mariko Margetson
There are many different ways in which to experience the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which celebrated its 40th Anniversary this year. If you are one of the many people who attend every year, you probably have a blanket set up in the designated seating area at the main stage. It is likely you are with a group of three or more folk music enthusiasts and you have a general idea of which of the 65 musical acts you like to see and at which of the seven stages you’ll need to be at during the three-day event to take it all in. If you are under the age of ten you’ll be near the main entrance having the time of your life at the nylon zoo, stilt walking, getting your face painted, or playing instruments made from recycled objects. And if you’re like me and it’s your first time at the festival, you will probably be walking around in awe, wondering where to start.
Most people that go to this festival have been before; it’s an event that appeals to people who are really into folk music and it brings together other things that folk music fans tend to appreciate such as yoga, beautiful settings, good food, spreading kindness, and music that stirs the soul. It’s probably one of the main reasons that this event is still thriving in a year when two larger festivals with some big names on the bill have had to throw in the towel.
The official Folk Festival started mid afternoon on Friday, when I arrived after work around 4:30 PM I was greeted by a trio of Duets on stage 1 that included the contemporary country-folk singing pair of Tomato Tomato, the lonely and often tortured prairie cowboy lamentations of Clinton St. John, and the easy, breezy twang of Katie Moore and Andrew Horton. One of them was contemplating being called evil by someone they loved as I made my way onto the grounds. A raucous dance party lead by Melisande, Ellika Solo Rafael, and Korrontzi was in full swing on Stage 3 and I busted a mellow move for a song or two before getting acquainted with the 30 or so food trucks dishing up dinner.
I made it to the main stage just a little after five, lured into the open field by the haunting, gospel call of pint-sized diva Cold Specks.
I put my hands over my chest,
sons and daughters
so that the fire would rage
With Jericho Beach on the right and a nearly cloudless sky above, I followed the sound of her sultry chant in time with the rhythm of a kick drum. There are people in this world who experience life with a depth of understanding the rest of us cannot even fathom. I have a feeling the young woman from Etobicoke, Ontario who calls herself Cold Specks is one of those people. The rest of her set was equally as moving as she deftly moved between solo performances and band backed tunes.
There is almost no reason to leave the main stage once you are there. Between sets, the audience is treated to a twenty-minute sampling of up and coming singer-song writers. There are other treats on the first night as Blick Blassy’s blend of funky folk and a number of tunes sung in his native tongue remind us that you don’t have to understand all the words to understand what someone is saying. After crowd pleasers John K. Sampson and the Winter Wheat and a moving performance by Rhiannon Giddens, the legendary Billy Bragg and Joe Henry took the stage to close out the day.
By day two this unseasoned attendee started to catch on to the way things operate at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. There are seven stages in all – one main stage next to the beach and six smaller stages strategically dispersed throughout the venue. Stage 1 is closest to the main gate and the family friendly “Little Folks Village” so it features a friendly disbursement of artists that you might find yourself singing and clapping along to. Stage 2 is also close to the main entrance, but it’s tucked away beneath rows of giant London plane trees, a welcome shady respite from the heat of the day. Stage 3 is small but mighty, nestled beside the wetland and within close proximity to the food court. The majority of the performances I enjoyed most were on Stage 3. Stage 4 is wide and faces the beer tent. Stage 5 was tucked away somewhere and to be honest I never did find it. Stage 6 was a world unto itself.
Vancouverites that are too cheap to pay to get into Folk Fest hang out on the beach near Stage 6 and are treated to a variety of acts that usually feature world beats, dance grooves, and heavy bass. The stage itself is located in a small sink hole, so it was kind of like a mini amphitheater with no shade. Always an energetic crowd and a vibe that felt a bit more like a desert rave as opposed to a woodsy jam.
During the day, stages 1 through 6 contain anywhere from 1 to 5 acts brought together by a common theme. Just another layer that adds to the reasons behind this productions 40 year history of success. Great for the artists to share ideas, music and a fan base and great for the audience to get introduced to music there is a high probability they will like. Genius, really.
Here, the vibe is definitely one of inclusiveness. The organizers recognize that there are essentially two types of folk music fans: the ones that want to sit and watch a performance and those that want to dance. When the gates open each morning, attendees make a mad dash to stake out a spot in front of the main stage where space is limited and the maximum plot of real estate you can reserve is 8′ X 8′. The seating area is flanked on either side by areas specifically set aside for dancing and each stage has a front row section designated for those with disabilities.
This afternoon, the soft, clear vocals of Jonah Blacksmith front man Simon Alstrup and the uplifting song they were singing lured me back to Stage 3. The smoky sound of Blind Pilot’s Israel Nebeker coaxing us all into introspections and the meaning of life, and the meaning of now kept me there for the rest of the set which included performances by John K. Samson and Christine Fellows.
Stage 2 also had a winning combination of artists later in the day that included the affable Jim Bryson, the charismatic Will Varley, the witty Lief Vollebekk and the moxie ladies from down under who call themselves the Mae Trio. Definitely a musical treat, with all artists vocally and musically adept, sharing experiences about being a musician and life on the road.
Day 2 also saw what was probably the most anticipated performance of the evening for true folk fans, the set at sundown, featuring singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. In 2014 Edwards announced via Facebook that she no longer wanted to play music. Two years later, the critically acclaimed and now successful coffee shop owner is back on stage and more energetic than ever; affectionate and articulate with a voice that reminds you of the first rays of sun in the morning.
Barenaked Ladies were the big draw for Saturday night and the nearly 30-year folky pop-rock veterans did not disappoint. With a surprise guest appearance by local resident Eric McCormack who sang the vocals for Life in a Nutshell, and some signature BNL choreographed break dancing along and a melody of pop hits, it was a crowd pleasing performance and a great way to close Day 2
I arrived at Stage 3 early on Sunday morning just in time to hear a courageous declaration about feeling low from Afie Jurvanen, who performs under the stage name Bahamas. This morning Afie is wearing a jean jacket, comfy pants and the brightest colored socks the world has ever seen. He chats with the crowd in a distinctly Canadian drawl and a wry sense of humor; his long legs stretched out before him.
Seated to his left are Jim Bryson and Kathleen Edwards respectively, and from 10 until 11 AM the trio entertains the crowd with playful exchanges and songs about rocky relationships. The affectionate banter between Kathleen Edwards and band mate Jim Bryson with Afie’s signature offbeat audience requests of “shire level reverb” could have had the audience fooled into thinking they were watching friends catch up over coffee in Stittsville Ontario.
By day three there are some things that are familiar. The smell of good food, the sight of children twirling nylon coated hula hoops, the sound of music wafting over a sea of blanket and tarps, and the spectacle of seagulls arguing with crows over scraps of salad. The magnetic pull of Will Varley reclining in a chair with his legs crossed and his right arm hanging loosely to the side, waiting to charm the crowd with lilting guitar, and raw, poignant ballads that are just as sure to make you chuckle as they are to break your heart.
There are some surprises on Day 3, too. Like the lively performance by Scotland’s best-kept secret, the traditional ensemble of five known as RURA. When a group of musicians come together with the depth of talent as this quintet and manage to bring passion and enthusiasm to the stage, it is truly a thing of magic. How they did not have a spot on the main stage is beyond me, but dancing among a devoted crowd in the late afternoon was a festival highlight for me so I’ll have to just consider that as one of the many lucky and surreal things I got to experience over the weekend.
Late in the afternoon, I found myself taking refuge on the beach at Jericho, just outside the fairgrounds, trying to bury my tired feet beneath the sand while Shawn Colvin’s endearing and subtly told tales of love drifted above. There is just enough time to catch the final performance of Jonah Blacksmith on Stage 3 before the highly anticipated Bahamas take the main stage as the sun begins to set.
The enigmatic Afie Jurvanen is in fine form, charming the crowd with stabbing tales of youth disguised in a honeyed tongue inside a set that included hit singles Stronger than That and Caught Me Thinkin. Yet the highlight of the performance was the introduction of a song yet to be released that features vocalist Felicity Williams singing the phrase “Bad boys need love too” in her signature ethereal style. For this tune we hear a seductive vibe we’ve not yet seen from her in the context of Bahamas that works in perfect tandem with the low, earthy growl in which Jurvanen delivers the lyrically enticing new song. Bad boys and good girls… its timeless subject if you know what I’m talkin’ bout.
On an evening that saw more than one big name strut their stuff in Vancouver, fans who chose to watch the Revivalists perform on the Main stage were treated to an unforgettable performance by the sultry, seven piece rock band out of New Orleans. The Revivalists are led by tall, languid, swaggering front man David Shaw whose velvet howl glides in and out of an ensemble of sexy southern grooves complete with drums, bass, pedal steel guitar, brass, keys, and lead guitarist Zack Feinburg’s deft, kaleidoscope of riffs.
I can say with as much certainty and honesty as one can muster that it was a performance I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. I suppose one can’t expect anything less from a group of musicians whose lead singer can suffer a two-inch gash on his scalp and still finish a set, which is exactly what happened when the troupe played Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival earlier this year. I think we were all pretty lucky that night to have a band poised on the brink of stardom drop in on us for the evening.
In true Vancouver Folk Music Fest fashion, the festival closed much the way it began, by honoring the roots and traditions of the event with a performance by Roy Forbes and Ferron, who have both been involved with the festival for the majority of it’s 40-year tenure. The perfect reminder that none of the magic any of us were privy to this weekend would have been possible without the pioneer spirit that still shines through both of them.