Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Run for the border

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Generally speaking, I find Canadians to be wholly pleasant to interact with. I know they sometimes get the side-eye around these parts for their alleged milk-hoarding tendencies and all-around persistence with regard to infusing our economy with their dollars, but those seem like petty American concerns to me.

It’s a shame, then, that nearly all of my contact with Canadians comes in the form of doling out directions, giving restaurant recommendations and providing whatever other information our neighbors from the north might require. It is a rarity for me to actually make the trek across the border.

Given the many charms of Canada in general, and Vancouver in particular—such as all those tasty restaurants, all that natural beauty and all their progressive social programs—the fact that I spend so little time there seems like a personal oversight.

Maybe it’s time for me to make a run for the border.

While the lure of exploring a nearby foreign land is strong on its own, it’s always good to have an excuse to brave the border and set my sights on the north. And if reasons are what I’m after, few are better than the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

Having been around nearly as long as I’ve been alive, it would seem the Vancouver Folk Music Festival—which takes place from July 19-21 at Jericho Beach Park in the city for which it is named—is a venerated music tradition. And it is certainly that. But for all its longevity and the accolades it has earned, this is a festival that remains true to its folk music roots. This means the event—which is a giant endeavor that draws tens of thousands of people every year—is staffed primarily by volunteers, has a stated environmental mandate that encompasses everything from how people get to the festival to how what they leave behind is disposed of, has a pricing structure that stresses access for everyone over making oodles of cash, and more.

It also means you’ll find a lineup of carefully chosen, eclectic musicians from all manner of folk traditions and persuasions from nearly every corner of the Earth. And, in my opinion, this year’s roster of talent is the best it has been during all the years the Vancouver Folk Music Festival has been on my radar.

Given the wide-ranging variety and sheer number of artists who will play on the festival’s seven(!) stages during its three days, it is impossible for me to adequately cover the extensive lineup. I can, however, tell you about the bands and musicians that I would make it a point not to miss.

First and foremost, I would plant myself front and center to see one of the event’s headliners, Steve Earle and the Dukes. Having seen Earle perform several times, I can speak to the fact that he’s worth the price of the festival ticket on his own. Earle learned how to write songs under the tutelage of the not-always-warm-and-fuzzy and seldom-sober Townes Van Zandt (who could write a better song while drunk and down and out than most musicians can at the height of their powers), and the student took the lessons taught by the master seriously. Earle has gone on to craft a songwriting legacy of his own—and a none-too-shabby one at that—populating his music with flawed characters and colorful stories drawn from his considerable life experience. But the entertainment isn’t limited to the songs themselves, as Earle is a storyteller and all-around rabble-rouser, making his between-song commentary well worth a listen.

Earle is far from the only person on the Vancouver Folk Music Festival that has earned a reputation for not being afraid to speak out. And like him, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines has the documentary footage to prove her outspokenness. When Shut Up and Sing debuted in 2006, it told the story of the heavy price paid by the Dixie Chicks after Maines criticized President Bush at a UK concert in 2003. We all know how the Dixie Chicks found redemption in the form of a chart-topping, Grammy-winning album, but fewer people know that Maines has broken out as a solo artist in her own right. Released just a few months ago, Mother is Maines’ first album without the rest of her Dixie Chicks, and marks her long-awaited return to making music after a seven-year hiatus.

I’d also take some time out of my busy festival schedule (have I mentioned those seven stages?) to see Kathleen Edwards, a Canadian artist who released an excellent debut album called Failer 10 years ago, and has been steadily making inroads into the music industry and the hearts and minds of discerning fans ever since. Of late, she’s toured with Bryan Adams and collaborated with John Roderick of Seattle’s Long Winters.

Of course, I’d also work Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars into the mix, who, with their inspiring story and monumental talent never fail to entertain, amaze and touch my hardened heart. The gypsy stylings of DeVotchKa would also make my very long short list of must-see acts. While it’s been a few years since they’ve played on a Bellingham stage, the memory of their shows still loom large in my mind.

After that, my musical explorations could take me all over the world and back by the time the final sounds of the festival fade into the summer night. The musical dynasty that is the Guthrie family will be represented in the form of Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, who, with their Jeff Tweedy-produced album, have a sound that is intriguing and familiar. But if that’s not the musical dynasty I desire, I can always hunker down and hang out with a Wainwright, in the form of Louden Wainwright III. I could experience the steppes of Mongolia through the rocking sounds of China’s Hanggai. Puerto Rico by way of the Bronx will be the focus when Hurray for the Riff Raff takes one of the festival stages. It’s pretty likely Decemberist side project Black Prairie would claim my attention, while the indefinable Kaki King would draw my interest as well. And then there’s the Gaelic gypsy hip-hop or “gyp-hop” of the Latchikos, the fleet fiddling of former Nickel Creek member Sara Watkins, the dreamy duo that is Whitehorse, the Australian folk-pop of Tinpan Orange, the multilingual hip-hop of Nomadic Massive, the legendary Waterboys, who have been making music and wowing fans for 30 years—the list goes on. And on. And on.

So, to recap: If I’m looking for an excuse to pay a visit to our neighbors from the north and search out a good time, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival has seven stages worth of excellent reasons to make the trip.

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