The line-up was skimpier than past years, Sunday clashed with the final of a riveting, month-long World Cup and the sun was hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum, but once again, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival cast its magic over me and thousands of other attendees with its annual mix of good vibes, a setting to die for and outstanding music. Even at my increasingly creaky and cranky advanced age, I found myself dancing, most notably at a wonderful, spirited workshop jam session involving Little Miss Higgins, Les Poules à Collin and Petunia & the Vipers. Thankfully, there were no cameras in sight, and the young people politely refrained from giggling. There were a few other highlights.
Ry Cooder. The 71-year old guitar and world music legend closed the Festival with an exhilarating set that, for the first time in memory, was allowed to go past the traditional 11 p.m. deadline. In addition to his slow, entrancing slide guitar and langorous vocals that leave you lingering on every word, Cooder’s set reflected his growing anger at what is happening in the United States. After drawing laughs with a derisive mention of their bully president in a song, Cooder told us: “You may laugh at Trump up here, but it’s not funny anymore.” Well known for drawing attention to those dealt a raw deal in life, his songs are developing a harder edge, as he gets older and more enraged. He’s re-worked Woody Guthrie’s classic Vigilante Man to include the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a security guard in Florida. He’s also uncovered a terrific, finger-wagging song from 90 years ago by Blind Albert Reed, You Must Unload. It reminds “fashion-loving Christians….money-loving Christians….[and] power-loving Christians” that they must “unload” if they want to get to heaven. Called back to the stage for an encore, he did three more songs, including his joyful, rollicking, long-time favourite, Little Sister. Bliss from beginning to end.
Rodney Crowell. The consummate American songwriter, who was married to Rosanne Cash for 13 years, is not as well known as he should be, preferring to write songs that others turn into hits and releasing albums that are beautifully under-stated, rather than showy. But his long set on Saturday night was a treasure. It’s been a while since an acoustic artist was able to hold a late night Festival crowd as Crowell did. But with his straight-ahead, honest lyricism about busted relationships, dusty roads, the beauty of an empty landscape and the never-ending search for meaning, he cast a spell. Adding to the mix were two marvelous young musicians accompanying the master, Irishman Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle and Joe Robinson from Australia on guitar. As the sun set spectacularly over Burrard Inlet, it was all rather magical.
At the Sunday morning gospel hour, my perennially favourite workshop, Vancouver’s formidable soul mistress Dawn Pemberton tore the proverbial (open air) roof off the joint, with her exuberant, soaring version of Testify. She had us all standing and shouting out the chorus, while her own voice might have been heard within the Pearly Gates, themselves. Hallelujah, sister. You’re a true force of nature.
Dhakabrakha had to be seen to be believed. At times, the Ukrainian quartet appeared and sounded more like performers beamed in from outer space than anyone with a regular presence on Planet Earth. In defiance of the early evening heat, the three women in the group wore tall, conical fur hats, along with their flowery “peasant” dresses. As one would expect when suddenly confronted by space aliens, there was initial puzzlement among the masses. No worries. The crowd was quickly captivated by their high-pitched voices, odd sounds, traditional songs from rural Ukraine and a pounding rhythm. At the end, we rose as one to salute them. Wild.
(Lucie McNeill Photo)
Three Women and The Truth. TWATT, as they laughingly decided not to call themselves, were folk festival favourites, Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gulkyson, plus Gretchen Peters, whom I hadn’t heard before. If you feel like having your heart broken (in a good way), give Gauthier’s Mercy Now a listen. All three are accomplished feminist and progressive song-writers. But they also produced one of the best laughs at the festival, besides my “dancing”. Looking out over the large crowd, and the darkening North Shore mountains beyond, silhouetted by the setting sun, Gulkyson mused: “I feel like I’m in an alternate universe.” Responded Peters: “You’re in Canada.”
Why isn’t Alex Cuba more of a star? I mentioned his name to a few of my folkie friends, who gravitated towards the edgy likes of Wallis Bird and Carol Pope (both great, by the way….), and received blank stares in return. Cuba and his musician brother emigrated from Fidel-andia in 1999. Since going solo, the pride of Smithers, where he lives with his wife and three children, has got better and better. His fast-paced mixture of jazz, funk, pop and Latin rhythms has won him a Juno, two Grammy nominations and four Latin Grammys. He seems to enjoy every moment on stage, while maintaining a resolute cool. His hour-long set had us rocking. Late Sunday afternoon, in one of those inspired workshops, he and his band were paired with a lively, traditional Mexican band from Veracruz. With his electric guitar, groovy Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, Cuba seemed light years in hipsterdom from the rural, white-shirted Mexicans. But of course they meshed with obvious delight, highlighted by Cuba trading electric guitar licks with the cool cat playing the upright bass (!) for Son de Madera. An impromptu festival moment. Olé!
(Folk Music Festival photo)
Vancouver underground legend Art Bergmann was there. Now old enough to qualify for concession bus fares, Bergmann showed he still had bite. At shady Stage 2, expertly managed by the venerable Les Hatfield, he did We’re All Whores At the Company Store, a savage rewriting of Merle Travis’s famous Sixteen Tons. We joined in on the catchy chorus. Nothing like warbling “criminals of capitalism” on a hot Sunday afternoon. When Just Duets concluded the “Change is Gonna Come” workship with a lovely cover of Steve Earle’s Christmas in Washington, Bergmann yelled out “Winnipeg General Strike 1919!”. Yo, bro.
There I was, sitting in the sun when a large shadow suddenly loomed over me. Turned out that my space was being intruded upon by an actual expert on space, the redoubtable president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Yes, it was my longtime friend Chris Gainor, making his annual Folk Festival appearance. No longer wearing his “Beer Not Bombs” button or T-shirt reading “As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist”, his outer space eminence was his usual jolly self, regaling me with tales of early Soviet cosmonaut Konstantin Petrovich Feoktistov…
Neko Case! ‘nuff said. Oh yeah, and a guy dancing with an IPad on his head. Perfectly normal.
And now a word from our sponsor. I’ve attended most of Vancouver’s 41 Folk Music Festivals, and never failed to have a wonderful time. Those who pooh-pooh or scorn the Festival don’t know what they’re missing. But, like most attendees, I’ve been a bit of a free rider. I haven’t always been a member and rarely made a donation. To be blunt,, I have not been paying my Folk Festival dues. But the Festival doesn’t appear each year by magic, and this year, with matters a bit more tenuous, I made a special offering to the Folk Festival gods. Because the board has lined up a number of people pledging to match all donations, my donation was then doubled. I invite everyone to do the same. It’s the least we can do, lest our beloved Festival fade off into the sunset.