Stories and songs from the 38th annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Vancouver Folk Music Festival live at Jericho Beach Park, July 17-19, 2015

Melbourne Ska Orchestra
Melbourne Ska Orchestra

The 38th annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival delivered yet another year of diverse music this past weekend at Jericho Beach Park. From Irish piping to Australian ska to West African rock and beyond, the festival was full of choices. That’s not to mention the plentiful food options, market tents, and other festivities, all located next to the cool beach or tucked further inland under ample natural shade.

Folk Fest boasted two types of shows. The first was “concerts” – exactly what the name sounds like. The second was “workshops” which featured multiple artists onstage at the same time (usually two to four musicians). The players would take turns performing their own songs and sometimes jam together on each other’s tunes. All the workshops featured themes such as “Alive & Pickin'”, “Pocket Full of Stories”, and so on. The following is Vancouver Weekly‘s recap of the weekend, as seen by Leslie Ken Chu and Anna Bouey.


Anna Bouey: Frazey Ford may be best known as the most vocally distinct member of the Be Good Tanyas. She’s gone in a more soulful direction, and it seems to be working quite well for her. She appeared to be lost in her own music Friday evening at the main stage, gold dress shimmering in the sun, purple gauzy wrap flowing in the gentle wind. A particular highlight was a breezy song called “Bird of Paradise” which she explained as having been inspired by a “non-drug induced psychedelic high.”

Once she finished her set, it was time to wander from soulful and emotionally stirring to the raucous, eclectic fun of Matuto! The New York-based band was just one of the many happy discoveries I made at this year’s festival. What drew me over to stage three to see them was the description of their music as “Brazillian blugrasss.” (What does that sound like?) What kept me there, however, was the high energy, infectious fun they were having onstage, and how eclectic their music actually turned out to have been, not to mention the dance party that no one even remotely close to the stage was able to resist participating in! Dancing under the willow trees at Jericho Park: these are the kinds of moments music lovers come to this festival for.

Watching Pokey LaFarge and his band at stage three was truly a step back in time – a rip-roarin’, good ol’, stomp-happy dance party step back in time! I can’t speak to what the crowd was like over at the main stage with Hawksley Workman, but I want to say, judging by not only my own impression but the sheer size and excitement of the crowd, that LaFarge was the unanimous hit of the evening.

Leslie Ken Chu: While LaFarge tripped through time, Workman, one of the biggest Canadian names at this year’s festival, tripped through something else. He punctuated his songs by rambling about the laziness of cats and other eyebrow-raising topics including the evolution of Earth. But his performance was fine enough – for the most part. “Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off” garnered rousing opening applause, and he guitar-soloed proficiently on songs like “Don’t Take Yourself Away (Instant Nostalgia)”. His “East Van mates” Ryan Dahle (of Age of Electric and Limblifter) and Steve Bays (of Hot Hot Heat) made surprise cameos, joining Workman on a few tunes. The trio forms the indie band Mounties, but together that night, they made Workman’s songs shine. He hit some rocky patches during his set though: early single “Jealous of Your Cigarette” was choppy with feedback bleeding out during its pounding piano intro, and other moments that would have benefited from lengthier builds climaxed abruptly, feeling rushed.

Even at a distance, near the back of the park, British guitar legend Richard Thompson was splendid. He set the tone for his acoustic performance right away with opener “The Ghost of You Walks”. His intricate melodies and soulful strums cascaded across the sky, adding an ineffable poignancy to the already sublime pink and orange dusk; the lyrics to “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” were too perfect.

The enormous Melbourne Ska Orchestra capped off day one in grandiose fashion. Member after member played their way onstage, marching out while blowing into all manner of brass. More impressive than the sight of the stageful of uniformed players was the sight of an entire parkful of people dancing to bombastic tunes that were as indebted to ska and reggae as they were to funk, swing, jazz, and soul. The crowd hung onto impossibly charismatic band leader Nicky Bomba’s every verbal and physical cue, clapping and cheering on command, at his desired rhythms. But Bomba didn’t take all the attention: he dedicated “He’s a Tripper” to soul legends James Brown and Lee “Scratch” Perry and drew some greatly deserved praise for their Trinidadian steel pan player, Lennox “Madman” Jordan. In a unique twist, Bomba even encouraged the sight of cell phones in the air: “We don’t have an official photographer, so chuck that shit on our Facebook!” Luckily for anyone who missed this uninhibited dance party, word likely spread quickly, and festival-goers had at least two more chances to catch the Melbourne Ska Orchestra over the weekend.