1978 was a kaleidoscopic year of firsts, lasts, and moments in between—the Sex Pistols played their final show, Van Halen hit the world with the release of his self-titled album, and Keith Moon left us at the sorry age of 32. In the midst of births, deaths, and endless tours, it was a year of evolution and transition; but above all else, it was a year of music. And so, when the foundation of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival swept sun-loving fans of good vibes and grand jam sessions to their feet in the sublime month of July, it was less than a surprise. It was, however, an occasion fated to be more extraordinary and of more profound influence than any Vancouverite could have guessed 36 years ago. Since this inspired struggle to create something capable of bringing people together in ways as beautiful as this festival manages to do, Jericho Beach has become an annual breeding ground for memories and incomparably inventive musicianship.
From seasoned music-lovers to infants of parents hoping to initiate a family tradition for summers to come, the gamut of festival-goers is nothing short of refreshing. The unison of experience on the event grounds is impossible to escape, as on every side enormous impromptu sing-alongs arise before inspired performers and band-members spend free time bobbing their heads within fanatic swarms of audience members. As a whole, people feel invited to release any individualistic energy that they are inclined to bottle up in the mundanity of day-to-day. Amongst the 30,000 annual attendees and 1200 volunteers are individuals of all walks of life, which is made clear as one simply walks around the grounds—after all, people seldom find the need to be anything but themselves in a temporary home as artistically open and adaptable as Vancouver’s Folk Festival.
The weekend proved grey, as is the tendency of Vancouver skies, but the spirit of those present brought light enough; not to mention the sunlight that started to pour through in lieu of the more anticipated performances and climatic moments of the festival. The park as a whole was the perfect setting. Communal spaces such as lines of vendors and the main stage area united the masses wonderfully, while stage-by-stage division of simultaneous workshops let completely unique scenarios take place side by side without ever overlapping inconveniently. First Nations nature walks were offered alongside spontaneous demonstrations on stilts, and henna artists served customers only some steps away from a CD tent at which bands and festival goers were given the opportunity to converse in the most casual and welcoming of atmospheres. As a whole, the multifaceted event existed in its own perfectly-constructed little world, right in the heart of Jericho.
Music is, of course, what the weekend revolves around. The line overwhelming the Rocky Point Ice Cream cart on the warmer of days verifies the importance of the vendors, however, almost as well as the even grander posse of those hoping for a steaming latte from Salt Spring Coffee when the weather took a more Vancouver-esque turn. Whales Tails Fry Bread was a favourite, as the classic invariably seems to be; while Yo Quiero offered authentic Mexican food in satisfying portions for even more satisfying prices. Not to mention the distinctive creative variety that presented itself both within and outside of the fences of the festival grounds, in the form of such independent businesses as Nautilus Accessories and Kootenay Rocks.
It is, however, about the music. There were headliners—such as the all-American iconic, Joan Baez, who wound up cancelling on her fans after falling ill—but the unique setup created the greatest moments out out of things underspoken on the schedule, and altogether unforeseen circumstances of collaborative magic. Despite the glory in teamwork, however, there were some noteworthy highlights, and some artists were no less than gifts to the festival. To say the smaller acts of the lineup carried the festival would be accurate enough, but would fail to portray the dimensions that these “small” performers adapted on stage, both in sound and in lasting impact. Oregon-based band Typhoon had indeed made a name for themselves in certain circles before gracing the festival with their intense presence. The magnitude of public recognition of these multidimensional genre-fusing indie rockers was by no means comparable, however, to that received by artists like Wintersleep or Andrew Bird. But a fanbase is always evolving, and by the end of Sunday night, they had made some sort of mark on both the eardrums and unsuspecting hearts of any and all who had underestimated the power of the 15-piece squad. Their drumbeats were viciously self-assured, instruments capable of bringing the songs to the highest levels of their potential, and the voice of Kyle Morton sliced through the night with a passion that was nothing short of shocking considering the shy modesty with which he had conversed with the audience during the first minutes of the set.
Andrew Bird has attained an almost iconic standing in the world of indie rockers with violins. With the help of the Suzuki method, scarves that he seldom steps onstage without, and a foot pedal prepared to respond to his every whim, he has collected a cult following that oughta one day get him knighted. Festival ticket holders were expecting great things when he and his newest project, the nimble-fingered Hands of Glory, kicked off their Friday evening main stage set by placing their star violinist alone in the spotlight. Though many were blown away by the show that ensued, it wasn’t until the next morning that he truly demonstrated his worthiness—appearing alone with his instrument and looper, and leaving his trust bandmates behind, he left dazzled those who chose to attend his first—and last—workshop of the weekend. Jamming alongside Brasstronaut and Noura Mint Seymali, he made his mark as the gifted innovator he is, lighting up the morning with intensity, and making his rapid movements look easy. He may not have stayed long, but his presence made for a strong start to the festivities.
Brasstronaut is more than a band with a witty name (though the wordplay is admirable) and in a live scenario of the likes of Vancouver Folk Fest, their musicianship and general brilliance shines an incredible light on them—both alone and in the presence of similarly gifted artists.
The term “folk music” may be used lightly in these days of the festival, but the presence of these two versatile words is undeniable at the heart of every song played there, by violins and electric guitars alike. Why? Because folk music is evolving around the genre overlaps and wonderful pandemonium that characterizes this era of art. Born Ruffians are one of the vibrant manifestations of this ineffable growth. Despite the workshops in which they thrived, it was during their Saturday night one-act show that they were given the chance to truly steal the spotlight of the festival, if only for an hour—and they did. Their audience was keen on singing along, the songs were perfectly true to their recorded versions, and those previously unacquainted with the lively band couldn’t help but jump up and down. They occupied stage three as if it was the main stage, making for a highlight in the precise middle of the festival.
The thing about the folk festival is that, unlike many comparable events, it does not draw attendees by gathering a lineup of acts adored by hundreds of thousands. Instead, dozens of talented individuals who may or may not have any fanbase whatsoever are thrown into each other’s company and in circumstances that encourage magic to materialize in unpredictable forms. Many acts surprised crowds with their transformative performances. Great Lake Swimmers and Wintersleep were loved long before the festival, but adapted to the festival atmosphere with an openness that made their music that much more interesting. Langhorne Slim & the Law harnessed the essence of folk by embracing music’s roots, but did so with an edginess and energy that made friends out of audience members while bringing them to their feet. Fresh out of Australia and full of character, the soulful Wagons turned every song they played into an excuse to rock—hard. Mokoomba made music from halfway across the world not only accessible, but remarkably catchy—infusing their brassy sound with tinges of hip hop and improvising with their instruments on phenomenal levels. Lemon Bucket Orchestra simply thrived on the ridiculous talent of each of their numerous members, creating a sound even bigger than could be expected from a group of their size. Bands like Fish & Bird, the Howling Brothers, and Amos Lee also stood as highlights, in addition to impressive one-man-shows like Foy Vance and Stephen Kellogg. All was tied up with the ribbon of heartwarming traditions, ranging from the annual First Nations welcoming to the “Birkenstock 500” race to claim blanket space before the main stage; from the happy birthday shout-outs hosted by well-loved radio hosts, to the stunning lantern finale that wraps up Sunday night and accompanies a sing-along of massive proportions.
The beauty of the festival is in the fusion of worlds—the event itself is a barricaded universe of united musical inspiration, but within its walls are walls of sound that build almost a surreal atmosphere when transitioning from tree cluster to tree cluster. Bands of electric guitar-sporting twenty-five year olds fresh from renowned indie rock festivals high five 80 year olds invested in the blues. Personal anecdotes entwine with Canadian folklore practically within earshot of a stage that is being pounced off of by an arguably more adventurous performer. The festival kicked off many years ago with intentions of multiculturalism, but it is more than global backgrounds that overlap and mingle. Not only is there something for everyone, but there is every type of person present—and when the variety comes through in the music, expectations are left on the ground alongside the carefully removed shoes of eager dancers. The set-up helps: as bands are scheduled into wittily titled workshops, and hence forced to stand upon each other’s shoulders and use the talent in their immediate vicinity, extraordinary things happen. In sharing spotlights with strange people holding strange instruments, they find out what they can do in unusual circumstances—and unleash the unexpected.