Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Run for the border

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I am in the habit of reading the news every day, usually within minutes of waking up. I have done so for a good portion of my life, and it used to make me feel informed and more prepared to take on the day.

These days, not so much.

Now when I launch my New York Times app, I do it gingerly and with trepidation. Sometimes I fall back on my Catholic upbringing and make the sign of the cross before starting to scan the headlines. Even though I’m now a devoted heathen, I figure it can’t hurt.

Instead of coming away feeling better informed, the news provokes in me emotions ranging from horror to fear to alarm to exasperation to embarrassment. I’m no longer shocked by the depth and breadth of the bad news that comes fast and furious in our current reality, I’m only surprised the NYT has not yet resorted to running a front-page headline of “What Fresh Hell Is This?” every single day.

It’s enough to make a person want to flee the country.

For most folks, that notion is an abstract thought. But not for us. We have a foreign country in our geographic backyard and running for the border is as easy as making a last-minute decision to dig out the passport, pile in the car and point ourselves north. After all, Canada has enough in common with us (housing crisis, resource extraction, men who inexplicably favor cargo shorts) to be familiar, while offering enough differences (politeness, poutine, Justin Trudeau) to seem exotic.

While I certainly respect anyone’s right to hightail it out of here, there’s something to be said for running toward something. Might as well make that something a cultural event that will remind you not only that the world is a big place, but also that music stretches to cover every part of it.

Now four decades deep into its existence, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival has always been dedicated to the idea that folk music is, at its core, a thing that connects communities and cultures across time and distance. It stands as an example that highlighting diversity makes the world smaller and friendlier, not bigger and scarier.

Plus, it’s fun, family-friendly and takes place in a scenic locale in a foreign country—a perfect temporary remedy for all those suffering from headline fatigue.

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival takes place over three days, but do not be fooled by its short duration—it’s a sprawling affair that draws more than 30,000 people annually, while somehow still maintaining its grassroots, community-minded ethos. The diversity it celebrates is reflected not just in its lineup for performers from across the globe, but in its food and craft vendors as well.

But no one goes to a music festival for food and crafts alone.

Having been at this for four decades, the folks behind this folk fest know a thing or 20 about how to balance representing a global folk tradition while still drawing a crowd. The schedule is packed with performers ranging from well-known and well-loved to obscure and more challenging. They’ve mastered the art of luring fans with big headliners while peppering the days with plenty for audiences to discover and delight in as they wander the grounds of Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park.

She’s been referred to as a “former Vancouverite” in reference to the festival, but around these parts, we know mainstage headliner Neko Case as a “former Bellinghamster.” Luckily, there’s enough of Case to go around (she’ll play the Mount Baker Theatre on Wed., Nov. 8), so no need for this cross-border dispute to get ugly. The razor-sharp chanteuse with the otherworldly voice is a festival favorite, having appeared as a headliner with supergroup the New Pornographers a few years ago. She’ll close the mainstage Fri., July 13, and Nashville staple James McMurtry, Three Women and the Truth (comprised of longtime friends Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters, and Eliza Gilkyson), and Boston’s Darlingside will captivate the crowd before Case casts her spell.

Saturday night’s headliner is the Dead South, a bluegrass band with a punk ethos—proof that folk is nothing if not an elastic genre—from Saskatchewan that has been known to label themselves as “Mumford and Sons evil twins.” Interpret that how you will. The Dead South is also known for adhering to a pretty intense touring schedule, and their barnstorming live sets are the natural result of all that experience. They’ll be preceded by bona fide legend and multiple Grammy winner Rodney Crowell, riveting Ukrainian folk quartet DakhaBrakha, and roots duo Kacy & Clayton, who count Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy among their fans.

Sunday might be a day of rest for a lot of people, but not for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival mainstage. The festival will go out with a bang, courtesy of slide guitar magician Ry Cooder, who has been making music for half a century, has won six Grammys, and has collaborated with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Randy Newman, and the Doobie Brothers, to name just a few of what is a very long list of distinguished artists. Cooder needs no reason to take to the road, but he’s presently playing in support of his first solo album in six years, which he released in May. Gullah music—the folk tradition of slave descendants along the Carolina coast—practitioners Ranky Tanky will open, and Wazimbo & Banda Kakana will bring the music of Mozambique to the party, and banjoist and Juno award winner Jayme Stone will lend a hand as well.

But the mainstage acts are only a fraction of what the festival has to offer. A person can travel around the world in a single weekend merely by traversing the event’s five smaller stages. Clues can be found in the groupings artists are collated into, and festival organizers definitely show a flair for creativity in this particular area. Programs feature such inventive titles as “Irishman Walks Into an Italian Bar,” “Dirty Windshields,” “Les Bon Temps Rouler” (ie “Let the Good Times Roll”), “Songs of Unrequited Love,” and my personal favorite, “Songs Not to Sing at Funerals.”

In all reality, a weekend spent at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is at best a temporary respite from reality. But it’s one that will serve as a reminder that the forces connecting us are greater than those driving us apart. And whether we’re reading the morning headlines or dancing in front of Jericho Beach Park, we’re all in this together.

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