Review: Vancouver Folk Festival

I was lucky enough to cover the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this year for the Vancouver Sun and The Province. Here are the results all in one place, at last:

Saturday:

Flawless blue skies marked the opening of the 36th annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival this weekend at Jericho Beach. But despite the bright weather, it was the occasional moment of darkness that brought the weekend to life.

After Hannah Georgas’ swaggering guitar, Kathleen Edwards’ feisty stage presence was a highlight of Friday evening. She declared an “f-ing namaste Folk Fest moment” in honour of all the terrible things happening in the world and later opined about Georgas’ absence from the Polaris Prize shortlist. Edwards, who will be hosting the Polaris ceremony in September, declared she was in a Twitter fight with the CBC’s Grant Lawrence over it.

Her set was generally solid. It drew some criticism down front for excess bass but the sound was clear further back.

Daytime at the folk fest often yields pleasant surprises, but Saturday’s Voix Montréal workshop with Laetitia Zonzambé and Nomadic Massive exploded expectations. With a wall of artists on stage, infectious rhythms and peals of trumpet had members of the crowd on their feet.

Danny Michel opened the Main Stage Saturday with the Garifuna Collective, a supergroup he discovered in Belize and decided to introduce to Canada. The songs Michel wrote with the collective have a peppy Graceland-like quality, though they lack the narrative and lyric complexity of those on Paul Simon’s groundbreaking album.

Polaris Prize-nominated duo Whitehorse started their set with a guitarpounding Killing Time is Murder from their self-titled debut. The married team of Winnipeg’s Luke Doucet and Toronto’s Melissa McClelland proved the perfect counterpoint to Michel and company’s relentless cheer, with guitar growling out of a hillbilly horror movie and a lyric book chock-full of heartache, disappointment and suppressed rage.

Lawrence, once again doing announcer duty, called them the Bonnie and Clyde of rock music. “I bet you’re looking at your husband or wife and saying, ‘why can’t we be that cool,’ ” he quipped.

While India’s Raghu Dixit charmed the overheated masses at the Main Stage, Cold Specks started on a contemplative note over at Stage 5. It was clear that the Toronto singer-songwriter has a beautiful voice. Unfortunately, the sound tended to be quiet

and muddy, drowned out by the raucous act across the pond. It’s a problem that often plagues smaller stages – earlier in the afternoon, jubilant zydeco invaded one of Kinnie Starr’s few ballads to bizarre effect.

Steve Earle and the Dukes came on just as the sun was setting, when the air was hazy with humidity. In a white cowboy hat, a plaid shirt and his trademark chest-length beard, Earle started out with the mournful Low Highway, the title track from his 2013 album. On a brief moment between songs, he attributed the birth of his 14th album to the quality of his band, which includes his wife Allison Moorer, Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Kelley Looney and Will Rigby.

The Texan treated audiences to a song drawn from the second season of Treme (plot spoiler not included) and even made a valiant attempt at playing piano.

To the surprise and delight of the crowd, he dug deep into his songbook for a rendition of Copperhead Road, his biggest hit. The vocals fell a bit behind the mix, a little more country than rock, but the guitar was ferocious.

He then closed the set on a rousing note with Revolution Starts Now.

Throughout, Earle’s lyrics condemn the cruelties of modern America with a hard-earned dose of gallows humour. But that doesn’t mean they’re at any point dour or oppressive. Rather, the sense that he knows how bad things are makes it easier to believe in the glimpses of hope when they show up, as in the final lines of 21st Century Blues (We stand on the verge of history/The world can be anything we want it to be), it feels uplifting rather than naive.

Read it in the Vancouver Sun

Sunday:

Vancouver’s 36th annual Folk Music Festival ended Sunday with a lineup fit for the end of the world.

The day began with yet another preternaturally clear sky that saw festival-goers dragging themselves out of bed early after Melbourne’s Cat Empire closed out Saturday night with a ska-infused dance party.

Sunday evening’s lineup proved a curious mix of hope and sweet desolation.

Loudon Wainwright III opened up the main stage with mercurial charm, joking his way through technical difficulties.

“I hope you don’t have an oil spill back there,” he said, looking out toward the Strait of Georgia. “That would be distracting.”

His recent obsession with death and dying lead to a collection of humorous musings on the subject. One song proposed that in heaven ice cream would come in vats and smoking would be encouraged (that’s where the clouds come from). A boogie-inspired number announced a new dance craze where you wake up in the morning and put on your shoes.

After forgetting the end of a song he dedicated to his grandchildren, he treated the audience to a tear-jerker column written by his father, writer Loudon Wainwright Jr, about the death of their family dog.

Montreal’s Nomadic Massive had an instant dance crowd when they returned to Stage 3. The seven-piece represents a possible future for roots music. The effortless hybrid of seven different cultures and languages, they draw on that anti-establishment urge (and the liveliness that comes with it) that gave birth to folk fests like this one in the first place. While Wainwright remains an extraordinary musician, it’s hard to shake your hips to songs about walking your dog on New York’s Upper Westside.

The main stage took a wild turn with Edinburgh’s The Waterboys. Celebrating their 30th anniversary, they started out a little Celtic but worked their way into something a lot darker for the end of their set. As their most recent album is entitled An Appointment with Mr Yeats, it was fitting that lead and original member Mike Scott recited the poet’s most famous verse about the end of the world.

“Surely the second coming is at hand,” Scott growled, slouching toward the microphone in a terrifying Janus masque, flanked by pointy-nosed comedia del’arts devils on guitar and fiddle.

It was the first time the main stage audience asked for, and received, an encore this early in the evening. They were obliged with a spirited reel on Steven Wickham’s fiddle that led into a pounding feedback-laced guitar explosion.

“We’re not really a folk band,” Scott said. “So we’ll leave you with some Blues.”

Devotchka brought some Roma madness to the end of their set as they led the way to the final performance by Natalie Maines.

Following a lineup that wandered all over the musical landscape, Maines fit right in. Walking a wire between country and rock, Americana and protest music, the rogue Dixie Chick has never been easy to pigeonhole.

CBC’s Grant Lawrence introduced the Grammy-winning singer by recapping the Dixie Chicks’ massive act of defiance in 2003 and extraordinary road back. The crowd, well acquainted with the drama, broke into cheers.

Taking the stage in black shorts as short as her new hair cut (that is, moderately short), Maines broke into an unapologetically rock rendition of Silver Bell from her solo album, Mother.

Her voice was hidden somewhat in the mix but it seemed to correct itself as the song went on.

When addressing the audience, Maines was soft-spoken, possibly because of the rigours of singing to such a large audience in an open space. Earlier in the day her manager had expressed her wishes to avoid talking to the press so she could save her voice.

But when she took the stage, she held little back, her voice echoing across the beach.

Once again, the most popular feature of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival was the picturesque surroundings. And the city was in particularly good form this year. Barely an act passed the main stage without remarking upon the spectacular view, Maines included.

So, though sticky with frozen mango (a new addition to the folk fest menu that, though tasty, requires a fair amount of commitment) and scorched by endless sun, it will be with great reluctance that Folk Festival crowds say goodbye to Jericho Beach for another year.

Read it in the Vancouver Sun

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