Folk festivals aren’t the types of events that need to start each day with a boom. But as I relaxed watching Toronto’s elegantly sparse trio the Weather Station at stage three, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on at the thumping adjacent stage two. I ventured out to find out as the Weather Station finished up.
The Weather Station has grown from the solo efforts of guitarist/vocalist Tamara Lindeman to include bass and drums. The band’s set-up is elemental, but even more elemental was each musician’s playing style. Lindeman mostly kept her voice at a calm volume. The band maintained a pace that was little more than a stroll. So in the brief moments when Lindeman let her voice sore, or the band picked up a little speed, she seemed to fly higher; they seemed to rock harder. The few mild drum kicks rapped like a barrage of fists against a door.
I made it to stage two just in time to catch the final moments of Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado and her El Clavo voice and percussion group La Parranda. Kudos to anyone who can pack a side stage at 12:30 in the afternoon, full of dancing people, no less. Kudos to Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo.
At stage five, Beijing’s Ajinai blew audience’s minds. Although the ancient Mongolian sounds from which they draw influence – including prominent throat singing and horse-head fiddle – long predate electricity, the four-piece masterfully incorporated modern rock elements like bass and enough pedal-fed guitar to create images of vast Mongolian plains. The crowd never quite got the hang of singing along in Ajinai’s native tongue despite the band’s attempts at leading; just as few caught on when the bassist jumped down onto the grass to teach everyone how to dance to the final song. A riveting bridge between the past and present, Ajinai was a whirlwind force to behold.
Upon arriving at stage one at the opposite side of the park, self-deprecating, bilingual PEI trio Ten Strings and a Goatskin were just recounting what a great time they’d had playing a workshop with Mandolin Orange and none other than Ajinai. Respect for history and tradition is a hallmark of folk festivals, and Ten Strings wear their respect proudly. Not only do they play Celtic music, but they also play French and Acadian songs and even an “Appalachian tune” and a “Swedish “ditty.”
At the main stage, Shane Koyczan did what he did best showing new audiences what he was all about. His spoken words, soundtracked by his crucial backing band the Long Story Short, were, as always, gripping and inspiring as he attacked stigma and insecurity. But he delivered his heavy tales and motivational directives with appropriate doses of humour, sneaking in quick, witty play on words to keep the mood from being too sullen.
Koyczan strikes personal chords not only by speaking about universal emotions. He also does so by opening up about his own personal difficulties, either as a young boy who became the object of ridicule by his peers for having had his first dance with a nun or as an adult who’d been on anti-depressants (up until six months ago). This is what Shane Koyczan does: he offers up every bit of himself in hopes of healing others. “Just please be patient with yourself,” he said addressing anyone who struggles with mental health. “It’s never going to be easy.” Koyczan’s set was either a lay-back-and-let-his-words-consume-you or stand-with-your-eyes-glued-to-him kind of performance. Regardless, everyone ended in the same position: putting their hands together for him in a much deserved standing ovation.
I ended my night at stage three starting with Jojo Abot. The Ghanaian singer, actress, and stylist put on another one of the festival’s most unique performances, a concoction of electronic, Afrobeat, and pop. On top of the numerous skills she possesses and genres she plays with, she spends most of her time in New York, Accra, and Copenhagen, each city undoubtedly further informing her worldview and thus her diverse sound.
If you missed the Mexican Institute of Sound, you missed out. I don’t know how popular the electronic trio from Mexico City was in Vancouver prior to this their first show here ever, but the turnout for them was huge for stage three, and everyone was pumped to dance. People who’d been sitting had no choice but to stand as the crowd overwhelmingly pushed into the front of the stage. The seated also had no choice other than to stand as the first words out of DJ Camilo Lara’s mouth were “I need all these people to get up and get down!”
There wasn’t a static moment as the MIS got the crowd jumping as high as the trees and even singing along to Spanish lyrics that no one except a handful of fans from Mexico understood. “You can say, ‘Wawawa,’” Lara allowed to the majority non-Spanish-speakers.
Not only was the MIS insanely catchy, but all of their sonic output – from the live drums, live bass, and of course Lara’s deck – buzzed with a distorted, hard-edged wallop; if the audience never reached the treetops, the reverb certainly did (and transmitted far beyond).
The MIS was the only act I saw all weekend that was allowed to do an encore – a testament to how great this group was. Even the emcee encouraged the crowd to chant “One more song!” Not that anyone needed his prompt.
Will another act earn that distinction on the final day of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival? Only a couple of hours until we find out!