A quintessential close to Vancouver Folk Fest

Photo by Jennifer McInnis
Photo by Jennifer McInnis

“The workshops are what Folk Fest is all about.” I’ve heard this for as long as I’ve known about the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, yet I only saw my first two workshops on the final afternoon of this year’s event.

True, a workshop like “A Better World’s in Birth”, which featured Canadian folk legend Bruce Cockburn, the Oysterband, Martin & Eliza Carthy, and Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo, felt lively as they jammed on a mix of each other’s songs. But a workshop like “Sisters and Brothers”, which featured the Wainwright Sisters, the Crooked Brothers, and I Draw Slow, was not unique in any way: each act merely took turns performing their own songs. Anyone who saw any of these three acts’ later individual sets heard the same stories, with the same punchlines, and the same songs.

I was one of those people, but I did so gladly. Of course, a full set meant the same stories but with more depth and more stories overall. Martha Wainwright and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche told the workshop audience why the duo wore matching dresses: growing up with different mothers, they never had a chance to match clothes as children. But they didn’t mention earlier that they were inspired to do so after Martha’s brother (Lucy’s half-brother) Rufus sent them a pair of ugly dresses as a joke; Martha and Lucy wore them to show him up.

Martha and Lucy did not grow up together, but they showed that their musical bond is no weaker because of it. They followed two rules in making their covers album Songs in the Dark, a collection of lullabies their parents sang them and country classics their parents played around their homes: the songs had to have themes related to children, and they had to be dark or depressing. Songs in the Dark is “not a kids’ album,” the sisters warned; instead it was catharsis for parents, something for tuning out the noise of children. The sisters gradually realized that several of their parents’ songs fit the criteria, so Louden Wainwright III, Kate McGarrigle, and Terre Roche’s songs appear alongside selections written by Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, and many more.

Unearthing these songs was no doubt a powerful bonding experience between Martha and Lucy, and Folk Fest fans were lucky to have been able to share in that bonding. Even more special: the Vancouver Folk Fest was their final show together for the foreseeable future.

Festival-goers were lucky enough to have avoided the rain all weekend – until San Fermin’s early Sunday evening set. Although the rain never came down hard, it and the quickly greying sky came just in time for the Brooklyn group’s dramatic compositions.

Classically trained composer and multi-instrumentalist Ellis Ludwig-Leone conducted the chamber-sized band with baroque flare. Using violin, trumpet, sax, and more, San Fermin moved from uplifting pop to heaps of melancholic drama.

Around 8 pm, Bruce Cockburn returned for a solo set at the main stage. With only an acoustic guitar, political commentary between and within songs, and the crowd singing along to classics like “Wondering Where the Lions Are”, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, and “Bone in My Ear”, the Canadian legend put on the quintessential folk fest performance.

Once he finished, the crowd packed in as tightly as they could for Lord Huron. All of the energy they reserved during Cockburn found its release the moment the Los Angeles group hit the stage. They popped for every song but perhaps hardest for “Hurricane (Johnnie’s Theme)”. And that was amongst golden anthems including “Ends of the Earth”, “Way Out There”, and “Fool For Love”. My only wish was that the sun came down as Lord Huron played, matching the sepia tone of their music; I’ll never forget when Phosphorescent performed in a similar scene at last year’s fest.

Regardless, Lord Huron were a supreme choice to close the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Despite themes like being on the run for committing an unspecified crime (hey, it was out of love), their set was high-energy and celebratory in tone, a feel-good ending to the 39th edition of this feel-good weekend.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu