“From the sands of the Sahara to the sands of Jericho,” emcee Grant Lawrence said introducing Algerian/Italian-born guitarist Faris Amine. Amine opened the first night of the 39th annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival with a main stage set that blended traditional Malian rock with roots blues in the vein of Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, and Mississippi Fred McDowell and later electric blues like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. These classic influences found their way around repetitive percussive patterns. The resulting musical movements were entrancing.
Over at stage three immediately following Amine were England’s Moulettes. The comparisons to Björk and Frank Zappa presented in the festival’s program guide were stretches, but Moulettes were unique for sure. They were ferocious and lively with rich three-part harmonies, amplified cello, electric bassoon, autoharp, and standard rock instrumentation including guitar, bass, drums, and synthesizer. Amongst the genre tags commonly attached to Moulettes are pop and folk, but Moulettes rocked more than they did anything else: time signatures changed like turning sharp corners; their dynamic songs were filled with steep valleys, dramatic cello soundtracking plummets into low ends created by the bassoon.
Moulettes were menacing in sound and dire in message: their latest album, 2016’s Preternatural, draws attention to the tragedy of entire species becoming extinct. But they were lighthearted in banter. They sweetly introduced songs about various animals including octopuses and presented faunal facts about such topics as the sexual maturation cycle of jellyfish.
Back at the main stage, Lee Fields and his extraordinary ensemble the Expressions set Folk Fest ablaze with heated soul and R&B. “Little JB,” as he is known – a reference to James Brown – is a nearly 50-year veteran who’s played through the heyday of funk. His six bandmates were at most half his age, but they too played like vets.
In a shiny cream-coloured suit, Fields danced and wailed all across the stage. He challenged every section of the crowd – left, right, center, standing, on the grass, in the back – to show him that they too had soul. And they did just that by singing and clapping and moving along with Fields at all the right times. As Grant Lawrence said gleefully following the set, Lee Fields and the Expressions was surely one of the greatest Vancouver Folk Fest performances in “many years. “
Unfortunately, Irish balladeer Lisa O’Neill was tasked with playing after Fields. She opened with an a cappella number which, like most of her beautiful, poetic acoustic songs, did not play well considering the situation: the crowd was just coming down and cooling off from a fiery performance, filing out for drinks, food, and the washrooms. “Lee Fields is a hard act to follow!” O’Neill exclaimed after her second song. She probably didn’t have to follow him to know that.
With the help of Portland musician Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus Five, and once upon a long time REM, M. Ward hit the main stage during the sweet sundowning period of any outdoor show. The blazing heat had settled. Half of the sky, nearest to the stage, had begun darkening into pitch blackness. The sun was no longer blinding, reduced instead to an eye-catching mix of red-orange and peach-pink still breaking through the other half.
With a full band in tow, Ward rocked through “Time Won’t Wait”, “I Get Ideas”, “Helicopter”, “Poison Cup”, “Confession”, and “Magic Trick”. But the real magic was during his too few solo moments. His band departed, leaving him alone for “Lullaby + Exile”, save for McCaughey on acoustic guitar. But even McCaughey left afterwards giving Ward the exclusive spotlight for “Chinese Translation”.
Ward’s solo acoustic work is what many fans, including me, grew to love him for. Unfortunately, I think it’ll be a very long time before Vancouver sees him play an entire solo show again. But few fans seemed to mind as most of the crowd danced and sang along through most of his set. M. Ward finished with an jumpy cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and then “Never Had Nobody Like You”, after which the band was abruptly given the boot. (The main stage sets had run late since at least prior to Lee Fields.)
Without much more delay as of this writing, it’ll be time for day two of Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Pack your bags.