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.







IMG_3241 For the first time in many years, I was without my constant companion at this year’s Vancouver Folk Festival. And my cousin’s young ‘un had the nerve to get hitched on Friday, the Folk Fest’s opening day, so I missed the fabulous Pokey Lafarge, when he still had a voice. Still, I had a blast.

Artistic director Linda Tanaka managed once again to assemble a vintage brew of the known, the barely known and the unknown into an eclectic, heady mix of outstanding music. There were fewer ultra-headliners than unusual this year, and yet the festival was terrific. All these people I’d never heard of. How dare they be both young and great…?

Not everything was perfect.

The legendary Birkenstock 500 dash to earn a good tarp place in front of the main stage wobbled on Days One and Two. But by Sunday, organizers got it right, and the 9 a.m. run was one of the smoothest this panting old codger can remember. (Let’s hope rumours that the “first come, first in line” tradition will be scrapped for a lottery are nothing more than the bureaucratic imaginings of someone who doesn’t get out much….).

And why o why, is the bass so often turned up to an unbearable level? Although it’s not nearly as commonplace as it used to be, for which I am thankful, when it does happen, the pain blasts through my feeble brain like a U-2 rocket. But hey, in spite of an unforgiving, broiling sun that had aging folkies clawing for shade, this was a wonderful few days of music.

Herewith some highlights.

BEST QUOTE. Vancouver’s one-of-a-kind Frazey Ford, at a workshop featuring songs of the human heart: “For songwriters, when you get dumped, it’s money in the bank.” Beside her, the ever-cool Basia Bulat completely lost her sangfroid and split a gut laughing.

BEST WORKSHOP: the aforementioned “Messin’ with the Wrong Heart”, featuring Bulat, Ford, Jenn Grant, pride of Halifax, and two luminous singers from the hot Brooklyn indie band, Lucius, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessing, clad in flowing, airy frocks of vivid yellow. In addition to their standout songwriting (heartaches and all), the performers displayed an appealing sisterhood and mutual admiration that made this a very special workshop. There was also a nice touch at the end, as the Lucius “girls” resurrected that fine old, Ian and Sylvia chestnut: You Were on My Mind. If you’ve never heard of Lucius, by the way, try this out: IMG_3264 BEST ANECDOTE: spun by Adam Cohen, son of Lennie, baby. Finding himself at some sort of odd Hollywood party, he looked around and noticed Tom Waits, there with his young son and wearing, naturally, a fur coat. Eavesdropping, Cohen heard Waits tell his kid to touch the drapes. “That’s silk,” he said. Then, he instructed him to touch the sofa. “That’s velvet,” father Tom affirmed. Finally, Waits asked his son to touch his coat. “And that’s fur,” he rasped. At that point, Waits saw Cohen listening in. Whereupon, he explained to the mystified Canadian, in his famous gravelly voice: “It’s never too early to teach your kids about fabric.”

BEST MAIN STAGE ACT BY A COUNTRY MILE: the legendary African powerhouse from Benin, Angélique Kidjo, who, at 55, showed as much dancing and prancing, fire and desire, charisma and melisma (look it up…), swirling and twirling as a pre-jowly Mick Jagger ever mustered at the peak of his preening. Her performance, complete with a dynamite band and some low-key but right-on political messaging, was mesmerizing. I didn’t even mind all those “young people” crowding in front of us older, sit-down folkies, who had risen at the crack o’ dawn to earn our coveted spots. We all stood and danced. For her final number, the show-stopping Afirika, Kidjo ventured right into the frenzied masses to help us with the song’s rousing chorus. Then, she materialized on stage again with a long line of dancing young people plucked from the crowd, including several tireless 10-year old girls, who couldn’t stop bouncing up and down. As the song went on and on, we grew ever more delirious, hoping it would never end. It did, of course, but I cannot remember a more dynamic closing to the Vancouver Folk Festival in all my 30 or so years of blissful attendance. (The lame, official closing of the festival after that was a complete anti-climax.) This gives you a sense of Afirika


BEST CONCERT FEATURING HEARTFELT COVERS OF CLASSIC CANADIAN SONGS: The charming, brother and sister duo, Matt and near-neighbour Jill Barber. Their version of Ian Tyson’s Summer Wages, one of my all-time favourite songs, was a festival highlight. But they also did lovely covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s Steel Rail Blues, Comes a Time by Winnipegger Neil Young, and, quelle surprise, the haunting French resistance song, The Partisan, which Leonard Cohen made sort of Canadian by including it on one of his early albums. (These comments about the song by Cohen are quite interesting… I really enjoyed the gentle songs of the Barbers, reminding us that not all enjoyable music has to puncture our ear drums. IMG_3247 BEST PERSON I’D NEVER HEARD OF OVER WHOM I KIND OF SWOONED: Eileen Hodgkins, the out-there, tap-dancing, portrait-of-Eileenukelele-playing, bandana-wearing, cowboy-boots-from-Chilliwack devotee and all-round, irrepressible, effervescent spirit of the Perch Creek jug band from Oz. I hope she likes adjectives, too. Others in the band, complete with washboard and jug, were also great, particularly her wise-cracking sister Camilla, who kept referring to you-know-who as “My Sister Eileen”. The first song I heard them do was I’m a Woman, another long-time delight of mine, best sung by the equally irrepressible Maria Muldaur (then Maria D’Amato) of the famous Jim Kweskin Jug Band. So I was won over right there. They were just so much fun, as this shot of Camilla’s “wild sister Eileen” attests. IMG_3266 BEST SONG I NEVER TIRE OF HEARING: Mary Gauthier, as real a person as there is in this crazy world, and her searing, unforgettable, Mercy Now. I last saw her in Trondheim, Norway, a week after the bombs and shootings in 2012 that took the lives of 77 Norwegians, most of them young people. Never was Mercy Now more appropriate.

BEST IDLE THOUGHT BY ME: Listening to a soft, beautiful, Scottish fiddle tune, as I read about the mad, musical mayhem going on simultaneously in Pemberton, I thought there’s still a lot to be said for quiet and tradition in the music world. It has a sweetness all its own, and I wondered if, later in life, the 40,000 raucous, fun-loving fans then camped out at Pemberton would come to appreciate the worth of music that wasn’t blasted out at them through mountain-sized speakers. Oh, and also learn to pick up their garbage, before heading home…

BEST DESCRIPTION OF WHY WORKSHOPS SOMETIMES CREATE A MAGIC ALL THEIR OWN: A fellow from the Gaelic band Breabach suggested to musicians from another band that they merge their next number. “We’ve got a tune you’ve never heard before, and you’ve got a song we’ve never heard before, so it should work.” It did.

BEST TWO COVER SONGS IN A ROW: By Marlon Williams, the rising young Kiwi crooner, who wowed just about everyone who heard him sing. During his solo concert, Williams did a heartfelt song by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, followed by, yep, one of the best country songs ever penned, He’ll Have to Go, which became a massive hit for Jim Reeves. How often have I sung along to this all-time hurtin’ song? “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone/Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone./I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low./And you can tell your friend who’s with you, he’ll have to go.” Oh my aching heart.

BEST NON-EXPOS BASEBALL HAT: By the time I arrived on Saturday, Pokey Lafarge had lost his voice. While his vintage, old-timey band carried on, Pokey sat forlornly mute on stage, strumming his guitar. But what was that St. Louis ball images-1cap he was wearing? I didn’t recognize it. A few hours later, I came across Pokey sitting by himself at the CD signing table, looking glum. I took a chance that he could whisper, at least, and asked him about the hat. “Do you know the Federal League?” he whispered. I said I did know about the short-lived, outlaw league from a hundred years ago. “St. Louis had a team in the Federal League, and this was their hat,” said Pokey. “The Terriers.” Cool, I replied, in that winning, hipster way I have, and ambled on, leaving Pokey blessedly silent, once more. All in all, another great festival. Thanks, folks. See you next year. (picture below by Naomi Moses)IMG_5113