2017 Vancouver Folk Music Festival Recap

Photo by Ryan Johnson
Photo by Ryan Johnson

Once again the organizers of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival have been able to draw upon a familiar recipe to make for a very successful festival weekend. The recipe seems to include a diverse set of acts from across the globe representing numerous genres, many of which can be classified as ‘far away from Folk’, and three days of sunny weather that any festival organizer could only dream of receiving.  Patrons poured through the gates to get a taste on all three days. Here’s a look at some of what those lucky thousands might have witnessed.

Friday

Afternoon workshops kicked off with Joe Henry (USA), Jake Morley (UK) and BC’s own Roy Forbes regaling the beer tent audience adjacent to Stage 4 with some of their more amusing festival anecdotes and trading ‘manly’ numbers.

Over on Stage 5, as the day dripped into the evening, the eclectic but powerful Elika Solo Rafael brought the crowd to its feet with its percussion, fiddle, and traditional Kora. They were deliberate but these artists from Mexico, Sweden, and Senegal won the crowd over quickly with chants of Vive Le Canada; Vive le Vancouver. 

Cameroon’s Blick Bassy welcomed the weekend crowd to the Main Stage with his lovely songs of protest. He asked some pretty powerful questions of the audience who responded to his questions in drank in his folky blues numbers that really got going once he brought out the trombone.

Winnipeg’s John K. Samson was next to the main stage. Samson, the leader of the Weakerthans, is becoming universally hailed as one of Canada’s outstanding songwriting talents and a true poet. His set commenced quietly with the new Select All Delete, before the band broke into the poppy chords of Weakerthan’s Sun in an Empty Room. Greg Smith and Jason Tair provided the rhythm with Samson and partner Christine Fellows providing the melodies on guitar, keyboards, and melodica. He introduced the band as a ‘Socialist, easy listening group from Winnipeg.’ The powerful new Vampire Alberta Blues led into a solo rendition of Weakerthan’s now iconic One Great City. Samson alternated between tracks from his two outstanding solo records (Provincial and Winter Wheat). The standout Plea from a Cat Named Virtue preceded the closers Pamphlateer and Winter Wheat.

Billy Bragg (UK) and Joe Henry (US) closed out the evening trading songs from their train themed record, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American RailroadEventually, Bragg told some tales of his interactions with folk legend Pete Seeger and of course paid homage to Woody Guthrie. His ‘There is Power in the Union’ a highlight for the multiple generations in the audience.

Saturday

Saturday kicked off on Stage 3 with North Carolina’s Tift Merrit who seemed thankful to be through customs and drinking a beer in front of a sunny afternoon crowd. Next, Blind Pilot (USA) lead an excellent workshop entitled ‘Songs About Where I’m From’. These workshops are frequently missed by the evening crowds or by those stuck in the beer tent, where thirsty crowds faced pretty long line-ups. They often provide some of the most improvised, experimental and rewarding moments of the weekend.

Later on, East LA’s La Santa Celia continued the fine tradition of Los Lobos and others and provided some driving Mexican rhythms to a dancing crowd. Mbobgwanga Star from the Democratic Republic of Congo ushered in the evening crowd to the Main stage. The African beats really got going at Stage 3 at Sundown, as Guinean-born, BC based guitar virtuoso Alpha Yaya Diallo had the grass shaking as large evening crowds gathered to dance for what was clearly one of the musical highlights of the weekend.

Sunday

Shawn Colvin (USA) took the Main Stage and shared amusing stories of how she finds inspiration as well as her unique relationship with audiences. Alone with her guitar, she introduced her 1996 Grammy Award winning tune, Sonny Came Home, by claiming that Steve Earle called it the best love song ever. ’Why? ‘Because it’s a Fucking murder ballad!’ She also dipped deep into her catalogue for 1989’s Shotgun down the Avalanche.

Denmark’s Jonah Blacksmith got Stage 3 rocking with its double percussion driven sound in full force. The audience responded and was on their feet dancing for most of the septet’s sunset set Its Scando-folk with seven part harmonies surely left a lasting impression on all in the audience.

Bahamas (ON) took the Main Stage in the evening and led the crowd in some pop harmony sing-a-longs. Lead man Afie Jurvanen reminisced about previous early morning folk fest workshop audiences reading magazines while they played their set. Tonight was different, as he marveled at the setting sun against the mountains and claimed, ‘we got the Honey-Hole slot tonight.

Saskatchewan’s Andy Shauf overcame some last minute sound check challenges, that for one reason or another, seem to befall Stage 5 on a perennial basis. This year was no exception. Once cleared, he tattooed smiles on the faces of a large Sunday crowd with songs from The Party. His soft spoken introductions were provocative, including ‘this is a song about a guy,’ for Jenny Called Home and ‘this is a song about dying and getting trapped in your body,’ before the Party’s Alexander All Alone. His normal 4-piece was augmented by 2 clarinets, which added texture to his unique, but angelic arrangements. As the audiences sang along to the Magician, I am sure many felt the next time he appears here, it will be on the Main Stage.  

And that magic concluded another great festival. See you next year!