Folk music is paradoxically local and universal, and young and old. As the Folk Festival demonstrated with its emphasis on African music, more important than defining folk as anything ‘sounding like Bob Dylan,’ is folk’s being about community; being from somewhere. It is music that speaks; it is music that is hopeful; it is music for change; it is political. Like most festivals, this one surprised, disappointed, and most importantly introduced novel musical experiences.
The Vancouver Folk Festival celebrated its thirty-fifth year this past weekend in its home, Jericho Park. This three part series will follow the path of concerts this reviewer chose over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Beginning in the late afternoon on Friday, the Vancouver Folk Festival brought in longstanding legends, new, original acts, and hometown heroes, with the occasional bump and misguided programming. With the history of festival soaked into the soil and minds of many of the artists, much of the festival was incredible.
Geoff Berner, at stage three was the first act I saw. His sound is self-described as screwy kelzmer, Jewish traditional folk music. It is kooky stuff, as Berner plays the accordion and sings; accompanied by Diona Davies on the violin and Wayne Adams on the drums. Berner, is quintessentially liberal, and uses music and satirical lyrics to comment on issues such as the Israel-republican alliance (“Thank-you, No Thank you”), police brutality (“Dalloy Polizei”), economic and social inequality (The Rich Are Going to Go to the High Ground), and orthodoxy and Jewish-German history (“Half-German Girlfriend”); all which were played during his late afternoon show. While his lyrics barely matched the gorgeous weather, sunny and drifting mood of the crowd, they also don’t seem to fit the upbeat instrumentalism on which they are played. It is deliberate. Berner seeks to create a sense of unease and disjuncture, where the audience feels mixed up by his music, which is lyrically harsh, but robustly and cheerfully sung. Best however, is when he is less serious; such as when he imitates a donkey in “When Deedee Get’s Her Donkey (everything will be alright).” Perhaps it is because this song is easier to listen to, and comforting at that. A longtime political activist and sometimes candidate, Berner testifies to music’s ability to cause political change. As a teenager, he came to the Vancouver Folk Festival for the first time as a conservative. The Vancouver Folk Festival altered and opened his mind. He protested the Olympics, wants a cap on condo development so as to make room for low-income housing, stop the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and he wants to do it in part though music. This faith in music was diffused throughout the festival, which hosted booths from the likes of Green Peace and Amnesty International, and hosted a variety of political musical commentators.
River City Extension, on the main-stage, was the next on my schedule. Poetic in their description of music as being the one thing that can be trusted, and as a mirror of the world, with their lead singer stating, “Music allows us to see ourselves for who we are; it cuts into our souls, and react violently; it softens our hearts, and we cry vigorously; it holds our hands, and we trust it reluctantly.” Based on their main-stage performance on Friday night, this band is dead wrong; their music has not let them see themselves, because if it did, it would have prevented them from getting on stage. Their performance faltered between ramshackle, chaotic wannabe dance numbers, and bland, soft ballads. The lead singer’s drone like voice was best during the stripped down acoustic numbers, but could not be heard or understood save for the one acoustic song. The trumpet player lacked confidence in hitting the high notes, and the bass played only corner notes. In part, the poor quality of sound was the result of the sound production, which left the female vocalists microphone off for most of the set. In addition to boring the audience with their unoriginal music, the band also attempted to philosophize on the importance of tolerance. Perhaps, it was a plea for tolerance of poor music and performance.
Serena Williams played next, and I heard she gave credit to her great reputation as a vocalist and performance artist. Not being a fan, I hopped over to stage three to hear the Hungarian gypsy-folk of Besh o DroM. The blend of folk and contemporary with crazy energy was refreshing, and by the end of the set most of the crowd was dancing despite the heat. Gergo Barcza on the alto saxophone, and kaval, Ádám Pettik on vocals, and derbuka, László Békési on the tenor saxophone and clarinet, and guest vocalist Monika Miczura Juhasz amazed the audience with their improvisation, and the sheer wildness of their music. Truly unlike anything else played during the festival, there is an expectation of much more to come from this incredibly talented band. This blend of ethnic tradition, dance club energy, jazz improvisation, Balkan brass section, and funk grooves was a definite highlight.
It was then back to the main-stage for the legend Lucinda Williams. Having released her first critically acclaimed album, Blessed since the late 1990s, Williams has demonstrated once again her incredible lyrical and musical power. Approaching 60, and with 35 years onstage, Lucinda delivered a performance worthy of her history and status as one of the giants of rock-folk. From the onset, where she stopped her band and requested the bass to be lowered she demonstrated her commitment to great music. Her unique growly voice is girl-crush-on-a-woman-older-than-my mother inducing, as is her honest, and no bullshit attitude. She opened with “Out of Touch,” from Essence and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Guitar Strings,” both which played on two themes of the festival. “Out of Touch,” about modern society’s disconnection is ironic at a music festival, where in part the purpose to connect with like-minded people. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Guitar Strings” very much reads like a love song to her guitar, and to music. Next, she played the tragic “Drunken Angel,” a tribute to her great friend Blaze Foley. Throughout the performance of “Born to be Loved,” “Righteously,” “Changed the Locks,” “Born to Be Loved,” “Protection,” “Essence,” and “Joy” her voice took centre-stage, but her band provided that perfect atmosphere for her voice. David Sutton on bass, Butch Norton on drums, and on the guitar and harmonica: Doug Pettibone were tight and in control. Finishing with “Honeybee” and “Get Right with God,” Lucinda Williams received a standing ovation. Her performance demonstrated humbleness, strength and a real sense of being in the moment and delivering.
Dan Mangan, or ‘Dan the Man’ delivered wonderfully as expected. His band, which is now self-named, he says will be changing its name shortly to better reflect the band’s contributions. This can only be expected as his latest record, Oh Fortune, is a band effort and includes some of Vancouver’s best talent. From the beginning of the set to the end, jazz experimental guitarist Gord Grdina, drummer Kenton Loewen, and John Walsh on bass, and the rest of the 8-piece orchestra did much more than support Dan Mangan’s soaring vocals. Gord lead the band, and it the combination of sounds and composing that truly sets the latest album apart from Mangan’s previous work. Mangan’s songwriting, and gorgeous voice take on darker matters in the new album, but this tone’s success is set and achieved by the instrumentalism of his collaborators. Dan Mangan is clearly set on evolving as an artist, and focused on achieving great music. He is well on his way. His desire to be around inspiration and great artists will only lead him more quickly down his path to becoming one. His tendency to draw out notes, growl, and pause for effect during his live shows reflects his confidence and ability as a performer. Playing mostly from his new album, his set included “About As Helpful As You Can Be,” “Sleeping with the Light On,” and the now classic “Robots.” Nearing the end of the day’s festivities, handcrafted lanterns lit the night sky up with images of owls, books, and penguins, and led us out of the festival gates, home for a goodnight’s sleep, readying us for the next day.
One of the greatest parts of the Vancouver Folk Festival, and a part, which you do not experience at slightly crazier venues such as The Gorge, is workshops. These are improvisation sessions put on at the smaller stages during the morning and afternoon on the Saturdays and Sundays of Vancouver Folk Festivals. We awoke to make it to the Dan Mangan, Wake Owl, The Once, and Mark Berube workshop. While Wake Owl achieved popularity at the festival, every song sounded the exact same to my friend, who grew increasingly frustrated with their sets. When called upon to improvise into Berube’s song, the violinist simply could not do it, something he recognized with embarrassed laughter. Dan Mangan played “Rows of Houses,” a new song he had wanted to play the night before, and accompanied on the wonderful Mark Berube song “Yesterday’s Halo,” a song he also helped write. “The Once,” a traditional Maritime folk band were great in their own right, but, like Wake Owl did not blend well with Berube and Mangan, a fault in the programming more than anything else.
Hopping over to stage five after the workshop, and an interview with the cool crab of Geoff Berner, to be impressed with Murray McLaughlin, a winner of ten Juno awards, and 23 nominations. Traditional folk at his best, Murray was charismatic with the crowd, and told the stories of his songs. Disappointing was the production, which prevented Murray from using the piano set up on stage, and forced him to make repeated requests onstage to the production crew in order to get his guitar to sound right. For such a performer, and with thirty-five years in the festival business, Folk Fest should have had it figured out. Following Murray was “The Wedding Party,” which fused Jason Freeman Fox & the Opposite of Everything, Besh o DroM, and Geoff Merner. They began by each playing their own works, and ended with some incredible improvisation. Jason Freeman is, in the words of Mary Murphy, ‘a hot tamale.’ The bands got along well, and seemed to be equally impressed with each other. I recommend every single one, and if you can get them together: even better.
Regrets of the day were not seeing Myringa, and the Head and the Heart, both which I heard were amazing. The Head and the Heart, I have seen twice before, and they always kill it. The voice of the Tunisian revolution Emel Mathlouthi played on the main-stage as we walked by on our way to feed ourselves with the overpriced but delicious food offered at the Folk Festival, and all I could think of is how great her voice would be remixed to dub step (please, someone do this). The Barr Brothers played next on the main-stage, and like River City Extension should have been on a smaller stage, as they were boring and their voices could not carry across the crowd. They felt almost like filler or background music, but likely would have put on a decent show at any other stage. Blitz the Ambassador, self-described as the best in the rap and hip hop industry (no that was not a typo for Kanye West), finished off my night. He interacted with the audience, playing from all the genres he has been influenced by: jazz, hip—hop, and his hometown African beats. He at one point, with his saxophonist, trumpet player, bassist, and trombone player, lead the young audience in a one-step two-step. He is a great performer and great artist. His rapping in multiple languages, his own label, and inclusion of jazz instruments sets him apart from anyone else on the scene today. He is a recommended download, and a must see concert.
Sunday began with high hopes for the e.s.l, Cave Singers, The Head and The Heart, and Dan Mangan at the “5 meets 99” workshop. Unfortunately, each band seemed too focused on playing their songs, rather than on improvised collaboration. They also, seemed a little hung-over. E.s.l play as though they are not really serious, as emphasized by their crazy rendition of “Super-Baked,” the highlight of the workshop. The crowd was laughing, everyone was into it, but if someone came to the stage in the middle of that song, they would have had no idea what was going on. Mangan played from his new album, “Jeopardy,” which the Head and the Heart’s violinist hesitatingly improvised upon, but was largely outshined by Mangan’s violinist, who played wonderfully. In an attempt to try something different, The Head and The Heart played a bizarre song with backup vocalists singing ‘oohs’ and their lead vocalist singing really high, and then really low. It was awkward. While that band has a ton of potential, it will be interesting to see if their next album repeats the same style and themes to generate more success, or if they will try to expand and grow their sound. The Cave Singers did not participate in any songs that were not their own, but performed them decently. Mangan led the final song, and the trumpet player from e.s.l soloed throughout its entirety.
Following the “5 meets 99” disappointment, was the Cailles, Bette and White with Cedric Watson workshop. This was 29 minutes behind schedule, and when they begun they were a bore. Redeeming the entire day was Mark Berube and his orchestra. The weather shifted back to the sun that had lit up Friday and Saturday, and he put on a great show. His new album has been well received, and was a shift from large-scale arrangements with strings and horns, to a more organic sound with a focus on each individual instrument and player. Berube himself is genuinely kind and humble, thanking the production crew “for putting up with the demands of twenty artists onstage this morning,” and “doing a great job.” From June in Siberia Berube played “Side of the Road,” alongside Mangan, and “Tailored to Fit,” “Hurricane / Little Quiet Scream,” “Let Me Go,” “When We Are Old,” and “Yesterday’s Halo.” All of the songs were lyrically exquisite, and beautifully accompanied by Kristina Korpecki on the cello, Patrick Dugas on the drums, and Amélie Mandeville on the bass. “Let Me Go” is notable for its inclusion of spoken word, a song that is a stand out on the album. They left us all wanting more.
Ani DiFranco was next, on the main stage. Legendary for political and feminist activism, and apparently for her “alliteration, metaphor, and word play,” a phrase so often written about her it feels wrong not to include it, despite the blunt force of most of her recent work. In the words of a fellow listener, “she just doesn’t seem like she’s playing music to me.” Her percussive acoustic style, to some, may be odd and a little out of touch. She began her set with “Life Boat,” a song about a homeless mother. Next was “Splinter,” off her latest album; a song which is borderline hopeless cliché liberal feminist, with references to women as being of nature, and to self defining characteristics tied to horoscopes. However, the song fit well with the setting, as birds flitted around and the sun shone down. “Promiscuity” came next, in which she preached about the benefits of ‘traveling’ and ‘riding the neighbor bike.’ In “J” she sang about the disastrous oil spill, while demonizing and blaming oil tycoons without mentioning the fact that everything we eat, do, and buy at some point in its production involves oil. We are all drowning in it, and a song that addressed this would better suit her reputation as a poet. When she seemed her most honest it was when she was singing “Hearse,” with the lines, “I don’t want to strive for nothing anymore / I just want to lie here with you / Keep the wolves outside there door / There is nothing in this world you could ever show me that could ever matter more,” it is a contradiction to much of her current work. Yet, this song is one of the best on the album, as it honestly reflects Ani DiFranco: an aging liberal and activist settling, and accepting life for what good it brings. She finished her set with the revamped “Which Side Are You On,” a song originally penned by a Florence Reece, a union organizer’s wife. Reece wrote the song, which was popularized by Billy Bragg, after police terrorized her home in search for her husband because of his connection to union activities in 1931. Her version, in short, is terrible. It ignores the labour history of the song and contemporary labour issues, while re-writing to support the Democratic Party of the United States. While she still has enormous talent and lyrical skill, Ani DiFranco should invest some time in research for more insight into the political issues of our time, or stick to themes she knows better.
Hey Rosetta! played as the sun came down, and was a perfect ending to my final day at the Folk Fest. From Newfoundland, this band has massive potential. While they have been criticized to sticking too closely to the same formula of slow beginnings + builds + explosive ending, their newest album Seeds moves away from this formula, and creates new narratives. Baker, the lead songwriter is talented, and his lyrics merit a closer listen. The move from “New Goodbye,” from Into Your Lungs at the beginning of the set to “Young Glass,” from Seeds reflected the narrative and sound production growth of the band. “Young Glass” is a story based on the character Franny Glass from Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, and is about feeling alone and finding authenticity. The time and editing put into the lyrics is telling, and thus it is a shame that you could not hear Baker singing at moments throughout the show. “Yer Fall” with its piano pops was especially nice, as was the song dedicated to his friend’s newborn, “Welcome.” Ending with their title track “Seeds,” Hey Rosetta! proved they are a band to watch. With the sunset leaving the sky all kinds of purple and pink, we left, happy and satisfied with the diversity and magic that the Folk Fest gave us.
The author would like to thank Alli Daniels, of the Vancouver Jazz Festival for her critical comments on the production, sounds, and history of the Folk Festival and participating bands, during and after the festival. Her comments have greatly helped the writing of this article.