Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Run for the border

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

When people ask me about my summer plans, usually inquiring whether I’ll be taking a vacation of some kind, I will say I’ve been known to scoff. I live here during the nine or months of gray in no small part because Bellingham summers are so glorious.

I’m staying put. Only a fool would leave this place right now.

However, I’ve heard tell that Canada, specifically British Columbia, also has pretty epic summers. And if you need more than a weather forecast to make you run for the border, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is an excellent reason to pay a visit to our neighbors to the north.

Incentives and inducements to attend VFMF—which takes place July 13-16—are myriad and go far beyond mere climate. This year marks the event’s 40th anniversary, and with four decades of festivals to their credit, there can be little doubt at this point that those responsible for organizing the annual folk fete are deeply knowledgeable when it comes to captivating returning audiences and luring newcomers alike. Their dual emphasis on established and emerging artists, along with their expansive and inclusive definition of what folk music is and where it comes from is also part of VFMF’s winning formula. During any given festival, you’re pretty well guaranteed to see musicians from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo and as close as the event’s proverbial provincial backyard—and everything all around and in between.

The musical styles encompass just about anything harboring a loose association to the folk tradition, meaning that during the single weekend of the festival, you’ll bear witness to Ganga Giri’s “global didgeridoo” (into every folk fest a little didgeridoo must fall), the Basque music of Korrontzi, the “trans-global, barrier-busting sound machine” that is Mbongwana Star, “Intuit indie” music courtesy of Nive Nielsen & the Deer Children, the “new voice of Cameroonian soul” Blick Bassey, the “ultimate sing-along experience” that is Choir! Choir! Choir!, “Cairo’s rebel rock poet” Ramy Essam, and so much more.

As tends to be the case with this event, VFMF organizers have also been hard at work lining up a roster of heavy-hitting mainstage headliners. Friday brings Cold Specks and the raw, gothic soulfulness that has caught the attention of both Moby and Swans. Joining her will be the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, as well as Rhiannon Giddens, a cofounder of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Friday’s mainstage entertainment rounds out with a duo who are a musical must-see for me, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.

Saturday’s mainstage entertainment is equally formidable, with Blind Pilot—as famous for their bike tours as they are their engaging Portland-based indie folk—leading a lineup that also includes Aoife O’Donovan & Noam Pikelny, African experimentalists Mbongwana Star, Canadian national treasure and VFMF mainstage alum Kathleen Edwards, and the Barenaked Ladies, who will help you make your dreams—if indeed that’s what they are—of singing “One Week” at the top of your lungs in the song’s native land come true. See if you can get someone to tell you who Chickity China, the Chinese chicken is while you’re at it.

Sunday is the final day of VFMF, and Latin electronic dance music pioneers Sidestepper will make certain it is not a day of rest. Aiding them in that endeavor will be two-time Grammy winner for “Sunny Came Home” and standout songwriter Shawn Colvin, as well as the Finnish-Canadian neo-folkster who hails from Ontario and performs under the name Bahamas. The Revivalists will take you to church with their New Orleans roots rock, and the whole VFMF 2017 kit and kaboodle comes to a close with a festival finale led by Ferron and Roy Forbes.

The mainstage acts get a lot of hype—and rightfully so—but with music happening on seven stages from morning until long after dark each day of the festival, taking a musical world tour is as simple as wandering from one stage to the next and back again. And VFMF’s setting in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park makes strolling between stages both a sonic and a scenic endeavor.

Arguably the coolest part of this year’s folk fest is its newest element: Canada Far & Wide: Grands Esprits, a free concert in which more than a dozen artists will come together to celebrate Canada’s musical traditions, both past and present. According to the VFMF, “You’ll hear the much-loved songs of renowned composers with surnames like: Bolduc, Cockburn, Cohen, Lightfoot, McGarrigle, Mitchell, Sainte-Marie, Snow, Tyson and Young—along with songs penned by the Hip, Arcade Fire,” and others. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival is just one of five Canadian festivals that will host a Canada Far & Wide Concert, in what is a truly groundbreaking creative collaboration.

I guess when it comes down to the making of summer plans and the plotting of vacations, it is only permissible to skip town in order to make a run for the border to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

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